Category Archives: nanotechnology

Spinach could help power fuel cells.

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

I was surprised to see a reference to the cartoon character, Popeye, in the headline (although it’s not carried forward into the text) for this October 5, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily about research into making fuel cells more efficient,

Spinach: Good for Popeye and the planet

“Eat your spinach,” is a common refrain from many people’s childhoods. Spinach, the hearty, green vegetable chock full of nutrients, doesn’t just provide energy in humans. It also has potential to help power fuel cells, according to a new paper by researchers in AU’s Department of Chemistry. Spinach, when converted from its leafy, edible form into carbon nanosheets, acts as a catalyst for an oxygen reduction reaction in fuel cells and metal-air batteries.

An October 5, 2020 American University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Rebecca Basu, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

An oxygen reduction reaction is one of two reactions in fuel cells and metal-air batteries and is usually the slower one that limits the energy output of these devices. Researchers have long known that certain carbon materials can catalyze the reaction. But those carbon-based catalysts don’t always perform as good or better than the traditional platinum-based catalysts. The AU researchers wanted to find an inexpensive and less toxic preparation method for an efficient catalyst by using readily available natural resources. They tackled this challenge by using spinach.

“This work suggests that sustainable catalysts can be made for an oxygen reduction reaction from natural resources,” said Prof. Shouzhong Zou, chemistry professor at AU and the paper’s lead author. “The method we tested can produce highly active, carbon-based catalysts from spinach, which is a renewable biomass. In fact, we believe it outperforms commercial platinum catalysts in both activity and stability. The catalysts are potentially applicable in hydrogen fuel cells and metal-air batteries.” Zou’s former post-doctoral students Xiaojun Liu and Wenyue Li and undergraduate student Casey Culhane are the paper’s co-authors.

Catalysts accelerate an oxygen reduction reaction to produce sufficient current and create energy. Among the practical applications for the research are fuel cells and metal-air batteries, which power electric vehicles and types of military gear. Researchers are making progress in the lab and in prototypes with catalysts derived from plants or plant products such as cattail grass or rice. Zou’s work is the first demonstration using spinach as a material for preparing oxygen reduction reaction-catalysts. Spinach is a good candidate for this work because it survives in low temperatures, is abundant and easy to grow, and is rich in iron and nitrogen that are essential for this type of catalyst.

Zou and his students created and tested the catalysts, which are spinach-derived carbon nanosheets. Carbon nanosheets are like a piece of paper with the thickness on a nanometer scale, a thousand times thinner than a piece of human hair. To create the nanosheets, the researchers put the spinach through a multi-step process that included both low- and high-tech methods, including washing, juicing and freeze-drying the spinach, manually grinding it into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle, and “doping” the resulting carbon nanosheet with extra nitrogen to improve its performance. The measurements showed that the spinach-derived catalysts performed better than platinum-based catalysts that can be expensive and lose their potency over time.

The next step for the researchers is to put the catalysts from the lab simulation into prototype devices, such as hydrogen fuel cells, to see how they perform and to develop catalysts from other plants. Zou would like to also improve sustainability by reducing the energy consumption needed for the process.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Spinach-Derived Porous Carbon Nanosheets as High-Performance Catalysts for Oxygen Reduction Reaction by Xiaojun Liu, Casey Culhane, Wenyue Li, and Shouzhong Zou. ACS Omega 2020, 5, 38, 24367–24378 DOI: Publication Date:September 15, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper appears to be open access.

Boost single-walled carbon nantube (SWCNT) production

I’m fascinated by this image,

Caption: Skoltech researchers have investigated the procedure for catalyst delivery used in the most common method of carbon nanotube production, chemical vapor deposition (CVD), offering what they call a “simple and elegant” way to boost productivity and pave the way for cheaper and more accessible nanotube-based technology. Credit: Pavel Odinev/Skoltech

If I understand it correctly, getting the catalyst particles into a tighter, more uniform formation is what could lead to a boost in the production of single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs).

The work was announced in a Nov. 30, 2020 news item in Nanowerk,

Skoltech [Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology; Russia] researchers have investigated the procedure for catalyst delivery used in the most common method of carbon nanotube production, chemical vapor deposition (CVD), offering what they call a “simple and elegant” way to boost productivity and pave the way for cheaper and more accessible nanotube-based technology.

A Nov. 30, 2020 Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) press release (also on EurekAlert but published on Dec. 1, 2020), which originated the news item, explains in detail,

Single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNT), tiny rolled sheets of graphene with a thickness of just one atom, hold huge promise when it comes to applications in materials science and electronics. That is the reason why so much effort is focused on perfecting the synthesis of SWCNTs; from physical methods, such as using laser beams to ablate a graphite target, all the way to the most common CVD approach, when metal catalyst particles are used to “strip” a carbon-containing gas of its carbon and grow the nanotubes on these particles.

“The road from raw materials to carbon nanotubes requires a fine balance between dozens of reactor parameters. The formation of carbon nanotubes is a tricky and complex process that has been studied for a long time, but still keeps many secrets,” explains Albert Nasibulin, a professor at Skoltech and an adjunct professor at the Department of Chemistry and Materials Science, Aalto University School of Chemical Engineering.

Various ways of enhancing catalyst activation, in order to produce more SWCNTs with the required properties, have already been suggested. Nasibulin and his colleagues focused on the injection procedure, namely on how to distribute ferrocene vapor (a commonly used catalyst precursor) within the reactor.

They grew their carbon nanotubes using the aerosol CVD approach, using carbon monoxide as a source of carbon, and monitored the synthesis productivity and SWCNT characteristics (such as their diameter) depending on the rate of catalyst injection and the concentration of CO2 (carbon dioxide; used as an agent for fine-tuning). Ultimately the researchers concluded that “injector flow rate adjustment could lead to a 9-fold increase in the synthesis productivity while preserving most of the SWCNT characteristics”, such as their diameter, the share of defective nanotubes, and film conductivity.

“Every technology is always about efficiency. When it comes to CVD production of nanotubes, the efficiency of the catalyst is usually out of sight. However, we see a great opportunity there and this work is only a first step towards an efficient technology,” Dmitry Krasnikov, senior research scientist at Skoltech and co-author of the paper, says.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Activation of catalyst particles for single-walled carbon nanotube synthesis by Eldar M.Khabushev, Julia V. Kolodiazhnaia, Dmitry V. Krasnikov, Albert G. Nasibulin. Chemical Engineering Journal DOI: Available online 24 October 2020, 127475

This paper is behind a paywall.

Gene therapy in Canada; a November 2020 report and two events in December 2020

There’s a lot of action, albeit quiet and understated, in the Canadian gene therapy ‘discussion’. One major boost to the discussion was the Nov. 3, 2020 release of a report by the Canadian Council of Academies (CCA), “From Research to Reality; The Expert Panel on the Approval and Use of Somatic Gene Therapies in Canada.”

Dec. 2 – 3, 2020 Breaking Through

Another boost is the the free and virtual, upcoming 2020 Gairdner Ontario International Symposium “Breaking Through: Delivering on the Promise of Gene Therapy“; an international symposium on gene therapy research and practice, which will feature a presentation on the CCA’s report,

Breaking Through brings together Canadian and international leaders to explore the past, present, and future of somatic gene therapy research and practice. This two-day virtual event will examine the successes, challenges and opportunities from the bench to the bedside. It will also feature:

  • Speaker sessions from Canadian and international researchers at the forefront of gene therapy research.
  • A panel discussion exploring the opportunities and challenges facing Canadian scientists, regulators, clinicians, decision-makers, and patients (Presented by NRC).
  • A presentation and Expert Panel discussion on the Council of Canadian Academies’ latest report, From Research to Reality, and a closing panel discussion about the future of gene therapies and gene editing (Presented by Genome Canada).

The title for the CCA report bears an uncanny resemblance to the name for a Canadian initiative highlighting science research, Research2Reality (R2R). (If you’re curious, you can check out my past postings on R2R by using ‘Research2Reality’ as the term for the blog’s search engine.


This name stood out: Michael Hayden (scroll down to his name and click), one of the featured speakers for this Dec. 2 – 3, 2020 event, reminded me of the disturbing Glybera story,

Dr. Hayden identified the first mutations underlying lipoprotein lipase (LPL) deficiency and developed gene therapy approaches to treat this condition, the first approved gene therapy (Glybera) in the western world.

Kelly Crowe’s Nov. 17, 2018 story for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) lays it out,

It is one of this country’s great scientific achievements.

The first drug ever approved that can fix a faulty gene.

It’s called Glybera, and it can treat a painful and potentially deadly genetic disorder with a single dose — a genuine made-in-Canada medical breakthrough.

But most Canadians have never heard of it.

A team of researchers at the University of British Columbia spent decades developing the treatment for people born with a genetic mutation that causes lipoprotein lipase defficiency (LPLD).

If you have the time, do read Crowe’s Nov. 17, 2018 story but as I warned in another post, it’s heartbreaking.

Fora brief summary, the company which eventually emerged with the licensing rights to Glybera, charged $1m per dose and a single dose is good for 10 years. It seems governments are reluctant to approve the cost and for many individuals, it’s an impossible price to meet, every 10 years. So, the drug is dead. Or perhaps not? Take a look at the symposium’s agenda (scroll down) for description,


Michael Hayden, MB, ChB, PhD, FRCP(C), FRSC, C.M., O.B.C University Killam Professor, Senior Scientist, Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics, Department of Medical Genetics,

University of British Columbia (Vancouver, BC)

Money issues

One theme from the agenda jumped out at me: money. The focus seems to be largely on accessibility and costs. The Nov. 3, 2020 CCA news release (also on EurekAlert) about the report also prominently featured costs,

Gene therapies are being approved for use in Canada, but could strain healthcare budgets and exacerbate existing treatment inequities [emphasis mine] across the country. However, there are opportunities to control spending, streamline approvals and support fair access through innovation, coordination and collaboration, according to a new expert panel report from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA).

“Rapid scientific advances mean potentially life-changing treatments are approaching the clinic at an accelerated pace,” said Janet Rossant, PhD, C.C., FRSC, and Chair of the Expert Panel. “These new therapies, however, pose a number of challenges in terms of their introduction into the Canadian healthcare system and ensuring access to those who would most benefit.”

Gene therapies and gene editing

Before moving on, you might find it useful to know (if you don’t already) that gene therapy can be roughly divided into somatic cell gene therapy and germline gene therapy as per the Gene Therapy entry in Wikipedia.

Two other items on the symposium’s agenda (scroll down) drew my attention,

Genome editing and the promise for future therapies

Ronald Cohn, MD, FACMG, FCAHS President and CEO,
The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) (Toronto, ON)


Presented by: Genome Canada

Rob Annan, PhD President and CEO,
Genome Canada (Ottawa, ON)

R. Alta Charo, J.D. Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law & Bioethics,
University of Wisconsin Law School (Madison, USA)

Jay Ingram, C.M. Science broadcaster and writer, Former Co-Host, Discovery Channel’s “Daily Planet” (Calgary, AB)

Vardit Ravitsky, PhD, FCAHS Full Professor, Bioethics Program, Department of Social and Preventative Medicine, School of Public Health, Université de Montréal; President, International Association of Bioethics (Montréal, QC)

Janet Rossant, PhD, C.C., FRSC President,
Gairdner Foundation (Toronto, ON) [also a member of the CCA expert panel for report on somatic cell therapies ‘From research to reality …’)

Genome editing, by the way and if you don’t know, is also known as gene editing. The presence of the word ‘future’ in both the presentations has my antennae quivering. Could they be hinting at germline editing possibilities? At this time, the research is illegal in Canada.

If you don’t happen to know, somatic gene editing, covered in the CCA report, does not affect future generations as opposed to germline gene editing, which does. Should you be curious about the germline gene editing discussion in Canada, I covered as much information as I could uncover in an April 26, 2019 posting on topic.

Jay Ingram’s presence on the panel sponsored by Genome Canada is a bit of a surprise.

I saw him years ago as the moderator for a panel presentation sponsored by Genome British Columbia. The discussion was about genetics and ethics, which was illustrated by clips from the television programme, ReGenesis (from its IMDB entry),

[Fictional] Geneticist David Sandstrom is the chief scientist at the prestigious virology/micro-biology NORBAC laboratory, a joint enterprise between the USA, Canada and Mexico for countering bio-terrorism.

Ingram (BA in microbiology and an MA that’s not identified in his Wikipedia entry) was a television science presenter for a number of years and has continued to work in the field of science communication. He didn’t seem all that knowledgeable about genetics when he moderated the ReGenesis panel but perhaps his focus will be about the communication element?

For anyone interested in attending the free and virtual “Breaking Through” event, you can register here.

CAR-T cell therapies (a type of somatic cell therapy)

One final note, the first week of December seems to be gene therapy week in Canada. There is another free and virtual event, the second session of the Summit for Cancer Immunotherapy: 2020 Speaker Series (Hosted by BioCanRx, Canada’s Immunotherapy Network), Note: I made a few changes to make this excerpt a bit easier to read,

Session Two: Developing better CAR T-Cell Therapies by engaging patients, performing systematic reviews and assessing real-world and economic evidence
Wednesday, December 9, 1:30 pm – 3:15pm EST [emphasis mine]

Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy is a personalized immunotherapy, currently being assessed in a Canadian Phase I/II clinical trial to test safety and feasibility for relapsed/refractory blood cancer (CD19+ Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma).

This virtual seminar will provide an overview of a multidisciplinary team’s collaborative efforts to synthesize evidence for the development of this clinical trial protocol, using a novel approach (the ‘Excelerator’ model). This approach involved the completion of a systematic review (objective review of existing trial data), engagement of patients and clinicians, and drawing from real world and economic evidence.

Dr. Fergusson will provide a brief introduction. Dr. Kednapa Thavorn will discuss the team’s use of economic modelling to select trial factors to maximize economic feasibility of the therapy, and Mackenzie Wilson (HQP) will discuss the current efforts and future directions to engage diverse stakeholders to inform this work. Gisell Castillo (HQP) will speak about the interviews that were conducted with patients and hematologists to identify potential barriers and enablers to participation and recruitment to the trial.

The team will also discuss two ongoing projects which build on this work. Dr. Lalu will provide an overview on the team’s patient engagement program throughout development of the trial protocol and plans to expand this program to other immunotherapy trials. Joshua Montroy (HQP) will also discuss ongoing work building on the initial systematic review, to use individual participant data meta-analysis to identify factors that may impact the efficacy of CAR-T cell therapy.

Dr. Justin Presseau will moderate the question and answer period.

And there’s this,

Who should attend?

Scientific and health care community including researchers, clinicians and HQP along with patients and caregivers. Note: There will be a plain language overview before the session begins and an opportunity to ask questions after the discussion.

If you want to know more about CAR T-cell therapy, sometimes called gene or cell therapy or immune effect cell therapy, prior to the Dec., 9, 2020 event, this page on the website should prove helpful.

Printing wearable circuits onto skin

It seems that this new technique for creating wearable electronics will be more like getting a permanent tattoo where the circuits are applied directly to your skin as opposed to being like a temporary tattoo where the circuits are printed onto a substrate and then applied to then, worn on your skin.

Caption: On-body sensors, such as electrodes and temperature sensors, were directly printed and sintered on the skin surface. Credit: Adapted from ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces 2020, DOI: 10.1021/acsami.0c11479

An Oct. 14, 2020 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert) announced this latest development in wearable electronics,

Wearable electronics are getting smaller, more comfortable and increasingly capable of interfacing with the human body. To achieve a truly seamless integration, electronics could someday be printed directly on people’s skin. As a step toward this goal, researchers reporting in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces have safely placed wearable circuits directly onto the surface of human skin to monitor health indicators, such as temperature, blood oxygen, heart rate and blood pressure.

The latest generation of wearable electronics for health monitoring combines soft on-body sensors with flexible printed circuit boards (FPCBs) for signal readout and wireless transmission to health care workers. However, before the sensor is attached to the body, it must be printed or lithographed onto a carrier material, which can involve sophisticated fabrication approaches. To simplify the process and improve the performance of the devices, Peng He, Weiwei Zhao, Huanyu Cheng and colleagues wanted to develop a room-temperature method to sinter metal nanoparticles onto paper or fabric for FPCBs and directly onto human skin for on-body sensors. Sintering — the process of fusing metal or other particles together — usually requires heat, which wouldn’t be suitable for attaching circuits directly to skin.

The researchers designed an electronic health monitoring system that consisted of sensor circuits printed directly on the back of a human hand, as well as a paper-based FPCB attached to the inside of a shirt sleeve. To make the FPCB part of the system, the researchers coated a piece of paper with a novel sintering aid and used an inkjet printer with silver nanoparticle ink to print circuits onto the coating. As solvent evaporated from the ink, the silver nanoparticles sintered at room temperature to form circuits. A commercially available chip was added to wirelessly transmit the data, and the resulting FPCB was attached to a volunteer’s sleeve. The team used the same process to sinter circuits on the volunteer’s hand, except printing was done with a polymer stamp. As a proof of concept, the researchers made a full electronic health monitoring system that sensed temperature, humidity, blood oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure and electrophysiological signals and analyzed its performance. The signals obtained by these sensors were comparable to or better than those measured by conventional commercial devices. 

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Wearable Circuits Sintered at Room Temperature Directly on the Skin Surface for Health Monitoring by Ling Zhang, Hongjun Ji, Houbing Huang, Ning Yi, Xiaoming Shi, Senpei Xie, Yaoyin Li, Ziheng Ye, Pengdong Feng, Tiesong Lin, Xiangli Liu, Xuesong Leng, Mingyu Li, Jiaheng Zhang, Xing Ma, Peng He, Weiwei Zhao, and Huanyu Cheng. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2020, 12, 40, 45504–45515 Publication Date:September 11, 2020 DOI: Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Could synergistic action of engineered nanoparticles have a health impact?

Synergistic action can be difficult to study especially when you’re looking at nanoparticles which could be naturally occurring and/or engineered. I believe this study is focused on engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) and I think it’s the first one I’ve seen that examines synergistic action of any kind. So, bravo to the scientists for tackling a very ambitious project.

An October 1, 2020 news item on describes this work from Denmark,

Nanoparticles are used in a wide range of products and manufacturing processes because the properties of a material can change dramatically when the material comes in nano-form.

They can be used, for example, to purify wastewater and to transport medicine around the body. They are also added to, for example, socks, pillows, mattresses, phone covers and refrigerators to supply the items with an antibacterial surface.

Much research has been done on how nanoparticles affect humans and the environment and a number of studies have shown that nanoparticles can disrupt or damage our cells.

This is confirmed by a new study that has also looked at how cells react when exposed to more than one kind of nano particle at the same time.

An October 1, 2020 University of Southern Denmark press release (also on EurekAlert) by Birgitte Svennevig, which originated the news item, provides more insight into the research,

The lead author of the study is Barbara Korzeniowska from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at SDU. The head of research is Professor Frank Kjeldsen from the same department.

His research into metal nanoparticles is supported by a European Research Grant of DKK 14 million.

“Throughout a lifetime, we are exposed to many different kinds of nano-particles, and we should investigate how the combination of different nano-particles affects us and also whether an accumulation through life can harm us,” says Barbara Korzeniowska.

She herself became interested in the subject when her little daughter one day was going in the bathtub and got a rubber duck as a toy.

– It turned out that it had been treated with nano-silver, probably to keep it free of bacteria, but small children put their toys in their mouths, and she could thus ingest nano-silver. That is highly worrying when research shows that nano-silver can damage human cells, she says.

In her new study, she looked at nano-silver and nano-platinum. She has investigated their individual effect and whether exposure of both types of nanoparticles results in a synergy effect in two types of brain cells.

– There are almost no studies of the synergy effect of nano particles, so it is important to get started with these studies, she says.

She chose nano-silver because it is already known to be able to damage cells and nano-platinum, because nano-platinum is considered to be so-called bio-inert; i.e. has a minimal interaction with human tissue.

The nanoparticles were tested on two types of brain cells: astrocytes and endothelial cells. Astrocytes are supporter cells in the central nervous system, which i.a. helps to supply the nervous system with nutrients and repair damage to the brain. Endothelial cells sit on the inside of the blood vessels and transport substances from the bloodstream to the brain.

When the endothelial cells were exposed to nano-platinum, nothing happened. When exposed to nano-silver, their ability to divide deteriorated. When exposed to both nano-silver and nano-platinum, the effect was amplified, and they died in large numbers. Furthermore, their defense mechanisms decreased, and they had difficulty communicating with each other.

– So even though nano-platinum alone does not do harm, something drastic happens when they are combined with a different kind of nano-particle, says Frank Kjeldsen.

The astrocytes were more hardy and reacted “only” with impaired ability to divide when exposed to both types of nano-particles.

An earlier study, conducted by Frank Kjeldsen, has shown a dramatic synergy effect of silver nanoparticles and cadmium ions, which are found naturally all around us on Earth.

In that study, 72 % of the cells died (in this study it was intestinal cells) as they were exposed to both nano-silver and cadmium ions. When they were only exposed to nano-silver, 25% died. When exposed to cadmium ions only, 12% died.

We are involuntarily exposed

– Little is known about how large concentrations of nano-particles are used in industrial products. We also do not know what size particles they use – size also has an effect on whether they can enter a cell, says Barbara Korzeniowska and continues:

– But we know that a lot of people are involuntarily exposed to nano-particles, and that there can be lifelong exposure.

There are virtually no restrictions on adding nanoparticles to products. In the EU, however, manufacturers must have an approval if they want to use nanoparticles in products with antibacterial properties. In Denmark, they must also declare nano-content in such products on the label.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

The Cytotoxicity of Metal Nanoparticles Depends on Their Synergistic Interactions by Barbara Korzeniowska, Micaella P. Fonseca, Vladimir Gorshkov, Lilian Skytte, Kaare L. Rasmussen, Henrik D. Schrøder, Frank Kjeldsen. Particle Volume 37, Issue 8, August 2020,. 2000135 DOI: First published: 06 July 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Can tattoos warn you of health dangers?

I think I can safely say that Carson J. Bruns, a Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, is an electronic tattoo enthusiast. His Sept. 24, 2020 essay on electronic tattoos for The Conversation (also found on Fast Company) outlines a very rosy view of a future where health monitoring is constant and visible on your skin (Note: Links have been removed),

In the sci-fi novel “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson, body art has evolved into “constantly shifting mediatronic tattoos” – in-skin displays powered by nanotech robopigments. In the 25 years since the novel was published, nanotechnology has had time to catch up, and the sci-fi vision of dynamic tattoos is starting to become a reality.

The first examples of color-changing nanotech tattoos have been developed over the past few years, and they’re not just for body art. They have a biomedical purpose. Imagine a tattoo that alerts you to a health problem signaled by a change in your biochemistry, or to radiation exposure that could be dangerous to your health.

You can’t walk into a doctor’s office and get a dynamic tattoo yet, but they are on the way. …

In 2017, researchers tattooed pigskin, which had been removed from the pig, with molecular biosensors that use color to indicate sodium, glucose or pH levels in the skin’s fluids.

In 2019, a team of researchers expanded on that study to include protein sensing and developed smartphone readouts for the tattoos. This year, they also showed that electrolyte levels could be detected with fluorescent tattoo sensors.

In 2018, a team of biologists developed a tattoo made of engineered skin cells that darken when they sense an imbalance of calcium caused by certain cancers. They demonstrated the cancer-detecting tattoo in living mice.

My lab is looking at tech tattoos from a different angle. We are interested in sensing external harms, such as ultraviolet radiation. UV exposure in sunlight and tanning beds is the main risk factor for all types of skin cancer. Nonmelanoma skin cancers are the most common malignancies in the U.S., Australia and Europe.

I served as the first human test subject for these tattoos. I created “solar freckles” on my forearm – invisible spots that turned blue under UV exposure and reminded me when to wear sunscreen. My lab is also working on invisible UV-protective tattoos that would absorb UV light penetrating through the skin, like a long-lasting sunscreen just below the surface. We’re also working on “thermometer” tattoos using temperature-sensitive inks. Ultimately, we believe tattoo inks could be used to prevent and diagnose disease.

Temporary transfer tattoos are also undergoing a high-tech revolution. Wearable electronic tattoos that can sense electrophysiological signals like heart rate and brain activity or monitor hydration and glucose levels from sweat are under development. They can even be used for controlling mobile devices, for example shuffling a music playlist at the touch of a tattoo, or for luminescent body art that lights up the skin.

The advantage of these wearable tattoos is that they can use battery-powered electronics. The disadvantage is that they are much less permanent and comfortable than traditional tattoos. Likewise, electronic devices that go underneath the skin are being developed by scientists, designers and biohackers alike, but they require invasive surgical procedures for implantation.

Tattoos injected into the skin offer the best of both worlds: minimally invasive, yet permanent and comfortable. [emphasis mine] New needle-free tattooing methods that fire microscopic ink droplets into the skin are now in development. Once perfected they will make tattooing quicker and less painful.

The color-changing tattoos in development are also going to open the door to a new kind of dynamic body art. Now that tattoo colors can be changed by an electromagnetic signal, you’ll soon be able to “program” your tattoo’s design, or switch it on and off. You can proudly display your neck tattoo at the motorcycle rally and still have clear skin in the courtroom.

As researchers develop dynamic tattoos, they’ll need to study the safety [emphasis mine] of the high-tech inks. As it is, little is known about the safety of the more than 100 different pigments used in normal tattoo inks [emphasis mine]. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not exercised regulatory authority over tattoo pigments, citing other competing public health priorities and a lack of evidence of safety problems with the pigments. So U.S. manufacturers can put whatever they want in tattoo inks [emphasis mine] and sell them without FDA approval.

A wave of high-tech tattoos is slowly upwelling, and it will probably keep rising for the foreseeable future. When it arrives, you can decide to surf or watch from the beach. If you do climb on board, you’ll be able to check your body temperature or UV exposure by simply glancing at one of your tattoos.

There are definitely some interesting possibilities, artistic, health, and medical, offered by electronic tattoos. As you may have guessed, I’m not quite the enthusiast that Dr. Bruns seems to be but I could be persuaded, assuming there’s evidence to support the claims.

How do nanoscale crystals make volcanoes explode?

This research may have the answer as to why a supposedly peaceful volcano will suddenly explode violently. From a September 24, 2020 University of Bayreuth press release (also on EurekAlert),

Tiny crystals, ten thousand times thinner than a human hair, can cause explosive volcanic eruptions. This surprising connection has recently been discovered by a German-British research team led by Dr. Danilo Di Genova from the Bavarian Research Institute of Experimental Geochemistry & Geophysics (BGI) at the University of Bayreuth. The crystals increase the viscosity of the underground magma. As a result, a build-up of rising gases occurs. The continuously rising pressure finally discharges in massive eruptions. The scientists present the results of their nanogeoscientific research in the journal “Science Advances“.

“Exactly what causes the sudden and violent eruption of apparently peaceful volcanoes has always been a mystery in geology research. Nanogeoscience research has now allowed us to find an explanation. Tiny crystal grains containing mostly iron, silicon, and aluminium are the first link in a chain of cause and effect that can end in catastrophe for people living in the vicinity of a volcano. The most powerful volcanic eruption in human history was Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815”, says Dr. Danilo Di Genova. For the recently published study, he worked closely with scientists from the University of Bristol, the Clausthal University of Technology, and two European synchrotron radiation facilities.

Because of their diameter of a few nanometres, the crystals are also known as nanolites. Using spectroscopic and electron microscopy methods, the researchers have detected traces of these particles, invisible to the eye, in the ashes of active volcanoes. In the BGI’s laboratory, they were then able to describe these crystals and finally to demonstrate how they influence the properties of volcanic magma. The investigations focused on magma of low silicon oxide content cooling to form basalt on the earth’s surface after a volcanic eruption. Low silica magma is known for its low viscosity: It forms a thin lava that flows quickly and easily. The situation is different, however, if it contains a large number of nanolites. This makes the magma viscous – and far less permeable to gases rising from the earth’s interior. Instead of continuously escaping from the volcanic cone, the gases in the depths of the volcano become trapped in the hot magma. As a result, the magma is subjected to increasing pressure until it is finally ejected explosively from the volcano.

“Constant light plumes of smoke above a volcanic cone need not necessarily be interpreted as a sign of an imminent dangerous eruption. Conversely, however, the inactivity of apparently peaceful volcanoes can be deceptive. Rock analyses, written and archaeological sources suggest, for example, that people in the vicinity of Vesuvius were surprised by an extremely violent eruption of the volcano in 79 AD. Numerous fatalities and severe damage to buildings were the result”, says Di Genova. In his further research, the Bayreuth scientist hopes to use high-pressure facilites and computer simulation to model the geochemical processes that lead to such unexpected violent eruptions. The aim is to better understand these processes and thus also to reduce the risks for the population in the vicinity of volcanoes.

The researchers have included a nanocrystal image to illustrate their work,

Caption: A transmission electron microscopy image of a nano crystal (ca 25 nm in diameter) in a basaltic magma from Mt. Etna (Italy). The nano crystal is enriched in iron (Fe) and it was produced in a laboratory during at BGI. Credit Image: Nobuyoshi Miyajima.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

In situ observation of nanolite growth in volcanic melt: A driving force for explosive eruptions by Danilo Di Genova, Richard A. Brooker, Heidy M. Mader, James W. E. Drewitt, Alessandro Longo, Joachim Deubener, Daniel R. Neuville, Sara Fanara, Olga Shebanova, Simone Anzellini, Fabio Arzilli, Emily C. Bamber, Louis Hennet, Giuseppe La Spina and Nobuyoshi Miyajima. Science Advances DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abb0413 Vol. 6, no. 39, eabb0413 Published: 23 Sep 2020

This paper appears to be open access.

Skyrmions (nanoscale vortices) with a unique property

A Sept. 23, 2020 news item on Nanowerk describes both skyrmions and the latest in potentially practical ‘skyrmion research’ ,

Nanoscale vortices known as skyrmions can be created in many magnetic materials. For the first time, researchers at PSI [Paul Scherrer Institute] have managed to create and identify antiferromagnetic skyrmions with a unique property: critical elements inside them are arranged in opposing directions. Scientists have succeeded in visualising this phenomenon using neutron scattering. Their discovery is a major step towards developing potential new applications, such as more efficient computers.

Caption: Skyrmions are nanoscale vortices in the magnetic alignment of atoms. For the first time, PSI researchers have now created antiferromagnetic skyrmions in which critical spins are arranged in opposing directions. This state is shown in the artist’s impression above. Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute/Diego Rosales

That image makes me think of ‘op art’. For anyone unfamiliar with the art movement, there’s Bob Lansroth’s October 29, 2015 article (10 Op Art Artists Whose Work You Have to Follow) for,

The nature of perception, optical effects, illusions and visual stimuli have been fascinating artists for many centuries. Optical Art, or Op Art, is relying on optical illusions and is sometimes even referred to as retinal art. Some critics would even call it a mathematically-themed form of Abstract Art, considering the use of repetitive forms and colors in order to create vibrating effects, foreground-background confusion and an exaggerated sense of depth.

Lansroth’s October 29, 2015 article is liberally illustrated with examples.

Getting back to the skyrmions at hand, a Sept. 23, 2020 Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) press release (also on EurekAlert) by Laura Hennemann, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Whether a material is magnetic depends on the spins of its atoms. The best way to think of spins is as minute bar magnets. In a crystal structure where the atoms have fixed positions in a lattice, these spins can be arranged in criss-cross fashion or aligned all in parallel like the spears of a Roman legion, depending on the individual material and its state.

Under certain conditions it is possible to generate tiny vortices within the corps of spins. These are known as skyrmions. Scientists are particularly interested in skyrmions as a key component in future technologies, such as more efficient data storage and transfer. For example, they could be used as memory bits: a skyrmion could represent the digital one, and its absence a digital zero. As skyrmions are significantly smaller than the bits used in conventional storage media, data density is much higher and potentially also more energy efficient, while read and write operations would be faster as well. Skyrmions could therefore be useful both in classical data processing and in cutting-edge quantum computing.

Another interesting aspect for the application is that skyrmions can be created and controlled in many materials by applying an electrical current. “With existing skyrmions, however, it is tricky to move them systematically from A to B, as they tend to deviate from a straight path due to their inherent properties,” explains Oksana Zaharko, research group leader at PSI.

Working with researchers from other institutions, Dr Zaharko and her team have now created a new type of skyrmion and demonstrated a unique characteristic: in their interior, critical spins are arranged in opposite directions to one another. The researchers therefore describe their skyrmions as antiferromagnetic.

In a straight line from A to B

“One of the key advantages of antiferromagnetic skyrmions is that they are much simpler to control: if an electrical current is applied, they move in a simple straight line,” Zaharko comments. This is a major advantage: for skyrmions to be suitable for practical applications, it must be possible to selectively manipulate and position them.

The scientists created their new type of skyrmion by fabricating them in a customised antiferromagnetic crystal. Zaharko explains: “Antiferromagnetic means that adjacent spins are in an antiparallel arrangement, in other words one pointing upwards and the next pointing downwards. So what was initially observed as a property of the material we subsequently identified within the individual skyrmions as well.”

Several steps are still needed before antiferromagnetic skyrmions are mature enough for a technological application: PSI researchers had to cool the crystal down to around minus 272 degrees Celsius and apply an extremely strong magnetic field of three tesla – roughly 100,000 times the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field.

Neutron scattering to visualise the skyrmions

And the researchers have yet to create individual antiferromagnetic skyrmions. To verify the tiny vortices, the scientists are using the Swiss Spallation Neutron Source SINQ at PSI. “Here we can visualise skyrmions using neutron scattering if we have a lot of them in a regular pattern in a particular material”, Zaharko explains.

But the scientist is optimistic: “In my experience, if we manage to create skyrmions in a regular alignment, someone will soon manage to create such skyrmions individually.”

The general consensus in the research community is that once individual antiferromagnetic skyrmions can be created at room temperature, a practical application will not be far off.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Fractional antiferromagnetic skyrmion lattice induced by anisotropic couplings by Shang Gao, H. Diego Rosales, Flavia A. Gómez Albarracín, Vladimir Tsurkan, Guratinder Kaur, Tom Fennell, Paul Steffens, Martin Boehm, Petr Čermák, Astrid Schneidewind, Eric Ressouche, Daniel C. Cabra, Christian Rüegg & Oksana Zaharko. Nature (2020) DOI: Published: 23 September 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Scotland as an Arctic power? Hmmm

This is intriguing. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ (Wilson Center’s) Polar Institute is hosting a conversation about Scotland’s future role in the Arctic that will be livestreamed on Tuesday, November 24, 2020 12:30 pm ET (9:30 am PT).

Here’s more from the Oct. 29, 2020 Wilson Center announcement (received via email),

Scotland’s Offer to the Arctic

Scotland’s Shetland Archipelago is a mere 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Due in part to this proximity, Scotland is seeking to establish itself as a European gateway to the High North. Similar rural and demographic features mean that Scottish and Arctic communities share many present-day priorities, from strengthening rural resilience to improving connectivity and promoting sustainable economic growth.

Scotland’s engagement with the Arctic region has intensified steadily over recent years. Published in September 2019, the Scottish Government’s first Arctic policy framework sets out “Scotland’s offer to the Arctic,” a prospectus for cooperation and knowledge exchange around the issues and ambitions that Scotland has in common with the Arctic.

On November 24th [2020], join us for a conversation on the future of cooperation between Scotland, Europe, and the Arctic. The live webstream will begin at 12:30 PM EST.

You might find this contextual information about Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework, BREXIT, and the European Union (EU) useful (from a Sept. 24, 2020 post by the Polar Research and Policy Initiative on the Polar Connection website,

While the EU, the UK and Scotland are navigating the complex dynamics of Brexit to understand its implications on the three entities and their present and future interrelationships and interactions, one stage where the question of their future interplay rears its head is the Arctic region where the three have cooperated greatly in the past.

… the UK’s updated [in 2018 after the UK voted to leave the EU, i.e., BREXIT] Arctic policy framework clarified that leaving the EU “will not diminish our cooperation with EU nations but will enhance the possibility for forging even closer ties with non-EU nations”. It also observed how Scotland shared especially rich economic, social and cultural links with the Arctic region due to its history and geography, and acknowledged Scotland’s commitment to addressing climate change, promoting climate justice, driving the transition to a global low-carbon economy, developing its own Arctic Strategy on devolved matters, and collaborating, along with Northern Ireland, with Euro-Arctic states through the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme.

In recognition of its shared history, geography, opportunities and challenges with several Arctic states, the Scottish Government itself has taken great interest in the Arctic in recent years. …

As the northernmost near-Arctic non-Arctic state, the UK is currently the northernmost EU state with Arctic interests, apart from Finland, Sweden and the Kingdom of Denmark (though Greenland is not a member of the EU) that are also member states of the Arctic Council. As the northernmost region/country within the UK, it is principally from Scotland that the UK derives that strategic advantage. Furthermore, as Finland and Sweden do not have direct access to the Arctic Ocean, save through Norway or Russia, and Greenland is not a part of the EU, the Scottish ports in Shetland [emphasis mine] and Orkney are currently the northernmost ports in the EU with direct maritime access to the North Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

I highlighted Shetland as there has been a pertinent development since Sept. 2019 according to a Sept. 11, 2020 article by Colby Cosh for the (Canada) National Post,

The council of the Shetland Islands, in which one official SNP [Scottish Nationalist Party] member is outnumbered 21-1 by independents of various stripes, voted 18-2 on Wednesday in favour of a motion to “formally begin exploring options for achieving financial and political self-determination.” [emphasis mine] As the makeup of the council implies, Shetland, about 170 kilometres north of the Scots mainland, has never been comfortable with the SNP’s goal of an independent, sovereign Scotland. In 2014’s Scottish independence referendum, Shetland delivered a 64 per cent vote for No.

Without knowing much about the politics it’s difficult to know if this is a serious attempt at separation or if it’s a gambit designed to get Shetland more autonomy without losing any advantages associated with being part of a larger entity.

Nevertheless, all this ‘arctic action’ is intriguing especially in light of the current loss of arctic ice and the attempts by various jurisdictions (including Canada) to establish or re-establish territorial rights.

Brain cell-like nanodevices

Given R. Stanley Williams’s presence on the author list, it’s a bit surprising that there’s no mention of memristors. If I read the signs rightly the interest is shifting, in some cases, from the memristor to a more comprehensive grouping of circuit elements referred to as ‘neuristors’ or, more likely, ‘nanocirucuit elements’ in the effort to achieve brainlike (neuromorphic) computing (engineering). (Williams was the leader of the HP Labs team that offered proof and more of the memristor’s existence, which I mentioned here in an April 5, 2010 posting. There are many, many postings on this topic here; try ‘memristors’ or ‘brainlike computing’ for your search terms.)

A September 24, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces a recent development in the field of neuromorphic engineering,

In the September [2020] issue of the journal Nature, scientists from Texas A&M University, Hewlett Packard Labs and Stanford University have described a new nanodevice that acts almost identically to a brain cell. Furthermore, they have shown that these synthetic brain cells can be joined together to form intricate networks that can then solve problems in a brain-like manner.

“This is the first study where we have been able to emulate a neuron with just a single nanoscale device, which would otherwise need hundreds of transistors,” said Dr. R. Stanley Williams, senior author on the study and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “We have also been able to successfully use networks of our artificial neurons to solve toy versions of a real-world problem that is computationally intense even for the most sophisticated digital technologies.”

In particular, the researchers have demonstrated proof of concept that their brain-inspired system can identify possible mutations in a virus, which is highly relevant for ensuring the efficacy of vaccines and medications for strains exhibiting genetic diversity.

A September 24, 2020 Texas A&M University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Vandana Suresh, which originated the news item, provides some context for the research,

Over the past decades, digital technologies have become smaller and faster largely because of the advancements in transistor technology. However, these critical circuit components are fast approaching their limit of how small they can be built, initiating a global effort to find a new type of technology that can supplement, if not replace, transistors.

In addition to this “scaling-down” problem, transistor-based digital technologies have other well-known challenges. For example, they struggle at finding optimal solutions when presented with large sets of data.

“Let’s take a familiar example of finding the shortest route from your office to your home. If you have to make a single stop, it’s a fairly easy problem to solve. But if for some reason you need to make 15 stops in between, you have 43 billion routes to choose from,” said Dr. Suhas Kumar, lead author on the study and researcher at Hewlett Packard Labs. “This is now an optimization problem, and current computers are rather inept at solving it.”

Kumar added that another arduous task for digital machines is pattern recognition, such as identifying a face as the same regardless of viewpoint or recognizing a familiar voice buried within a din of sounds.

But tasks that can send digital machines into a computational tizzy are ones at which the brain excels. In fact, brains are not just quick at recognition and optimization problems, but they also consume far less energy than digital systems. Hence, by mimicking how the brain solves these types of tasks, Williams said brain-inspired or neuromorphic systems could potentially overcome some of the computational hurdles faced by current digital technologies.

To build the fundamental building block of the brain or a neuron, the researchers assembled a synthetic nanoscale device consisting of layers of different inorganic materials, each with a unique function. However, they said the real magic happens in the thin layer made of the compound niobium dioxide.

When a small voltage is applied to this region, its temperature begins to increase. But when the temperature reaches a critical value, niobium dioxide undergoes a quick change in personality, turning from an insulator to a conductor. But as it begins to conduct electric currents, its temperature drops and niobium dioxide switches back to being an insulator.

These back-and-forth transitions enable the synthetic devices to generate a pulse of electrical current that closely resembles the profile of electrical spikes, or action potentials, produced by biological neurons. Further, by changing the voltage across their synthetic neurons, the researchers reproduced a rich range of neuronal behaviors observed in the brain, such as sustained, burst and chaotic firing of electrical spikes.

“Capturing the dynamical behavior of neurons is a key goal for brain-inspired computers,” said Kumar. “Altogether, we were able to recreate around 15 types of neuronal firing profiles, all using a single electrical component and at much lower energies compared to transistor-based circuits.”

To evaluate if their synthetic neurons [neuristor?] can solve real-world problems, the researchers first wired 24 such nanoscale devices together in a network inspired by the connections between the brain’s cortex and thalamus, a well-known neural pathway involved in pattern recognition. Next, they used this system to solve a toy version of the viral quasispecies reconstruction problem, where mutant variations of a virus are identified without a reference genome.

By means of data inputs, the researchers introduced the network to short gene fragments. Then, by programming the strength of connections between the artificial neurons within the network, they established basic rules about joining these genetic fragments. The jigsaw puzzle-like task for the network was to list mutations in the virus’ genome based on these short genetic segments.

The researchers found that within a few microseconds, their network of artificial neurons settled down in a state that was indicative of the genome for a mutant strain.

Williams and Kumar noted this result is proof of principle that their neuromorphic systems can quickly perform tasks in an energy-efficient way.

The researchers said the next steps in their research will be to expand the repertoire of the problems that their brain-like networks can solve by incorporating other firing patterns and some hallmark properties of the human brain like learning and memory. They also plan to address hardware challenges for implementing their technology on a commercial scale.

“Calculating the national debt or solving some large-scale simulation is not the type of task the human brain is good at and that’s why we have digital computers. Alternatively, we can leverage our knowledge of neuronal connections for solving problems that the brain is exceptionally good at,” said Williams. “We have demonstrated that depending on the type of problem, there are different and more efficient ways of doing computations other than the conventional methods using digital computers with transistors.”

If you look at the news release on EurekAlert, you’ll see this informative image is titled: NeuristerSchematic [sic],

Caption: Networks of artificial neurons connected together can solve toy versions the viral quasispecies reconstruction problem. Credit: Texas A&M University College of Engineering

(On the university website, the image is credited to Rachel Barton.) You can see one of the first mentions of a ‘neuristor’ here in an August 24, 2017 posting.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Third-order nanocircuit elements for neuromorphic engineering by Suhas Kumar, R. Stanley Williams & Ziwen Wang. Nature volume 585, pages518–523(2020) DOI: Published: 23 September 2020 Issue Date: 24 September 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.