Category Archives: environment

Spray-on coatings for cheaper smart windows

An August 6, 2020 RMIT University (Australia) press release (also on EurekAlert but published August 5, 2020) by Gosia Kaszubska announces a coating that makes windows ‘smart’,

A simple method for making clear coatings that can block heat and conduct electricity could radically cut the cost of energy-saving smart windows and heat-repelling glass [electrochromic windows?].

The spray-on coatings developed by researchers at RMIT are ultra-thin, cost-effective and rival the performance of current industry standards for transparent electrodes.

Combining the best properties of glass and metals in a single component, a transparent electrode is a highly conductive clear coating that allows visible light through.

The coatings – key components of technologies including smart windows, touchscreen displays, LED lighting and solar panels – are currently made through time-consuming processes that rely on expensive raw materials.

The new spray-on method is fast, scalable and based on cheaper materials that are readily available.

The method could simplify the fabrication of smart windows, which can be both energy-saving and dimmable, as well as low-emissivity glass, where a conventional glass panel is coated with a special layer to minimise ultraviolet and infrared light.

Lead investigator Dr Enrico Della Gaspera said the pioneering approach could be used to substantially bring down the cost of energy-saving windows and potentially make them a standard part of new builds and retrofits.

“Smart windows and low-E glass can help regulate temperatures inside a building, delivering major environmental benefits and financial savings, but they remain expensive and challenging to manufacture,” said Della Gaspera, a senior lecturer and Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at RMIT.

“We’re keen to collaborate with industry to further develop this innovative type of coating.

“The ultimate aim is to make smart windows much more widely accessible, cutting energy costs and reducing the carbon footprint of new and retrofitted buildings.”

The new method can also be precisely optimised to produce coatings tailored to the transparency and conductivity requirements of the many different applications of transparent electrodes.

Global demand for smart glazing

The global market size for smart glass and smart windows is expected to reach $6.9 billion by 2022, while the global low-E glass market is set to reach an estimated $39.4 billion by 2024.

New York’s Empire State Building reported energy savings of $US2.4 million and cut carbon emissions by 4,000 metric tonnes after installing smart glass windows.

Eureka Tower in Melbourne features a dramatic use of smart glass in its “Edge” tourist attraction, a glass cube that projects 3m out of the building and suspends visitors 300m over the city. The glass is opaque as the cube moves out over the edge of the building and becomes clear once fully extended.

First author Jaewon Kim, a PhD researcher in Applied Chemistry at RMIT,  said the next steps in the research were developing precursors that will decompose at lower temperatures, allowing the coatings to be deposited on plastics and used in flexible electronics, as well as producing larger prototypes by scaling up the deposition.

“The spray coater we use can be automatically controlled and programmed, so fabricating bigger proof-of-concept panels will be relatively simple,” he said.

Caption: The ultra-thin clear coatings are made with a new spray-on method that is fast, cost-effective and scalable. Credit: RMIT University

That is an impressive level of transparency. As per usual, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper (should you wish to explore further),

Ultrasonic Spray Pyrolysis of Antimony‐Doped Tin Oxide Transparent Conductive Coatings by Jaewon Kim, Billy J. Murdoch, James G. Partridge, Kaijian Xing, Dong‐Chen Qi, Josh Lipton‐Duffin, Christopher F. McConville, Joel van Embden, Enrico Della Gaspera. Advanced Materials Interfaces DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/admi.202000655 First published: 05 August 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Transforming electronics with metal-breathing bacteria

‘Metal-breathing’ bacteria, eh? A July 28, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces the research into new materials for electronics (Note: A link has been removed),

When the Shewanella oneidensis bacterium “breathes” in certain metal and sulfur compounds anaerobically, the way an aerobic organism would process oxygen, it produces materials that could be used to enhance electronics, electrochemical energy storage, and drug-delivery devices.

The ability of this bacterium to produce molybdenum disulfide – a material that is able to transfer electrons easily, like graphene – is the focus of research published in Biointerphases (“Synthesis and characterization of molybdenum disulfide nanoparticles in Shewanella oneidensis MR-1 biofilms”) by a team of engineers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

A July 28, 2020 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Torie Wells, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

“This has some serious potential if we can understand this process and control aspects of how the bacteria are making these and other materials,” said Shayla Sawyer, an associate professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering at Rensselaer.

The research was led by James Rees, who is currently a postdoctoral research associate under the Sawyer group in close partnership and with the support of the Jefferson Project at Lake George — a collaboration between Rensselaer, IBM Research, and The FUND for Lake George that is pioneering a new model for environmental monitoring and prediction. This research is an important step toward developing a new generation of nutrient sensors that can be deployed on lakes and other water bodies.

“We find bacteria that are adapted to specific geochemical or biochemical environments can create, in some cases, very interesting and novel materials,” Rees said. “We are trying to bring that into the electrical engineering world.”

Rees conducted this pioneering work as a graduate student, co-advised by Sawyer and Yuri Gorby, the third author on this paper. Compared with other anaerobic bacteria, one thing that makes Shewanella oneidensis particularly unusual and interesting is that it produces nanowires capable of transferring electrons [emphasis mine].

“That lends itself to connecting to electronic devices that have already been made,” Sawyer said. “So, it’s the interface between the living world and the manmade world that is fascinating.”

Sawyer and Rees also found that, because their electronic signatures can be mapped and monitored, bacterial biofilms could also act as an effective nutrient sensor that could provide Jefferson Project researchers with key information about the health of an aquatic ecosystem like Lake George.

“This groundbreaking work using bacterial biofilms represents the potential for an exciting new generation of ‘living sensors,’ which would completely transform our ability to detect excess nutrients in water bodies in real-time. This is critical to understanding and mitigating harmful algal blooms and other important water quality issues around the world,” said Rick Relyea, director of the Jefferson Project.

Sawyer and Rees plan to continue exploring how to optimally develop this bacterium to harness its wide-ranging potential applications.

“We sometimes get the question with the research: Why bacteria? Or, why bring microbiology into materials science?” Rees said. “Biology has had such a long run of inventing materials through trial and error. The composites and novel structures invented by human scientists are almost a drop in the bucket compared to what biology has been able to do.”

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

Synthesis and characterization of molybdenum disulfide nanoparticles in Shewanella oneidensis MR-1 biofilms by James D. Rees, Yuri A. Gorby, and Shayla M. Sawyer. Biointerphases 15, 041006 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1116/6.0000199 Published Online: 24 July 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanoparticles and the gut health of major living species of animals

A July 27, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces research into gut health described as seminal (Note: A link has been removed),

An international team of scientists has completed the first ever study into the potential impact of naturally occurring and man-made nanoparticles on the health of all types of the major living species of animals.

Conceived by researchers at the University of Plymouth, as part of the EU [European Union] Nanofase project, the study assessed how the guts of species from honey bees to humans could protect against the bioaccumulation and toxicological effects of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) found within the environment.

A July 27, 2020 University of Plymouth press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

It showed that the digestive systems of many species have evolved to act as a barrier guarding against the absorption of potentially damaging particles.

However, invertebrates such as earthworms also have roving cells within their guts, which can take up ENMs and transfer them to the gut wall.

This represents an additional risk for many invertebrate species where the particles can be absorbed via these roving cells, with consequent effects on internal organs having the potential to cause lasting damage.

Fortunately, this process is not replicated in humans and other vertebrate animals, however there is still the potential for nanomaterials to have a negative impact through the food chain.

The study, published in the July [2020] edition of Environmental Science: Nano, involved scientists from the UK, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Portugal and focused on particles measuring up to 100 nanometres (around 1/10 millionth of a metre).

It combined existing and new research into species including insects and other invertebrates, fish, birds, and mammals, as well as identifying knowledge gaps on reptiles and amphibians. The study provides the first comprehensive overview of how differences in gut structure can affect the impact of ENMs across the animal kingdom.

Richard Handy, Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Plymouth and the study’s senior author, said:

“This is a seminal piece work that combines nearly 100 years of zoology research with our current understanding of nanotechnology.

“The threats posed by engineered nanomaterials are becoming better known, but this study provides the first comprehensive and species-level assessment of how they might pose current and future threats. It should set the foundations for understanding the dietary hazard in the animal kingdom.”

Nanomaterials come in three forms – naturally occurring, incidentally occurring from human activities, and deliberately manufactured – and their use has increased exponentially in the last decade.

They have consistently found new applications in a wide variety of industrial sectors, including electrical appliances, medicines, cleaning products and textiles.

Professor Handy, who has advised organisations including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative, added:

“Nanoparticles are far too small for the human eye to see but that doesn’t mean they cannot cause harm to living species. The review element of this study has shown they have actually been written about for many decades, but it is only recently that we have begun to understand the various ways they occur and now the extent to which they can be taken up. Our new EU project, NanoHarmony, looks to build on that knowledge and we are currently working with Public Health England and others to expand our method for detecting nanomaterials in tissues for food safety and other public health matters.”

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

The gut barrier and the fate of engineered nanomaterials: a view from comparative physiology by Meike van der Zande, Anita Jemec Kokalj, David J. Spurgeon, Susana Loureiro, Patrícia V. Silva, Zahra Khodaparast, Damjana Drobne, Nathaniel J. Clark, Nico W. van den Brink, Marta Baccaro, Cornelis A. M. van Gestel, Hans Bouwmeester and Richard D. Handy. Environmental Science: Nano, Issue 7 (July 2020) DOI: 10.1039/D0EN00174K First published 27 Apr 2020

This article is open access.

If you’re curious about Nanofase (Nanomaterial FAte and Speciation in the Environment), there’s more here and there’s more about NanoHarmony here.

Bio and neuro inspiration at Metro Vancouver’s (Canada) 2020 Zero Waste Conference (ZWC)

For anyone not familiar with Metro Vancouver (and before I launch into the 2020 Zero Waste conference [ZWC] news and discuss why this year is particularly interesting [to me, anyway]), here’s a description from the Metro Vancouver About Us webpage,

Metro Vancouver is a federation of 21 municipalities [including Vancouver, Canada], one Electoral Area and one Treaty First Nation that collaboratively plans for and delivers regional-scale services. Its core services are drinking water, wastewater treatment and solid waste management. Metro Vancouver also regulates air quality, plans for urban growth, manages a regional parks system and provides affordable housing. The regional district is governed by a Board of Directors of elected officials from each local authority.

2020 Zero Waste Conference (ZWC) celebrates 10 years?

Apparently, the organizers are planning some limited in-person participation for the 2020 edition of the Zero Waste conference (from the Aug. 7, 2020 ZWC blog posting) Note: Pay special attention to the second sentence in the first paragraph,

For the past 10 years, Metro Vancouver’s annual Zero Waste Conference has been at the forefront of Canada’s journey into the circular economy. This year, we are pleased to keep the engagement going online and with an in-person option for a limited number of participants (more to come).

The 2020 Zero Waste Conference promises the same insightful programming we’ve provided over the past decade, but in a new, virtual format. For the first time, conference participants will be able to hear from and connect with the thought leaders, innovators and change agents working to advance waste prevention and the circular economy in Canada – all from the comfort of their own homes or offices.

The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing public health response may have resulted in some near-term setbacks for the zero waste movement. However, as we work together to ‘Build Back Better,’ it is essential that we critically examine our society’s relationships with products, packaging and waste, and garner the courage to create systems and build infrastructure that will enable a transition to a circular and zero waste economy, creating solutions that combine economic opportunity with benefits to wider society and the environment.

We are living through an era of unprecedented change and transformation. How do we apply our creativity and knowledge to craft a future for Canada that embraces new materials, new ways of doing business and new policies that not only prevent waste and promote circularity, but that help us move toward a more sustainable, healthy and equitable future?

We look forward to highlighting some of the best ideas from the last 10 years and presenting pioneering solutions that take us to a future most of us have only begun to dare dream is possible.

I imagine the option for in-person participation is contingent on the COVID-19 situation in the province of British Columbia and, specifically, the Metro Vancouver region. At the time of this writing, the number of cases in the province are rising steadily, again.

As for the question mark in the head for this subsection, it’s unusual for an organization to not make a big fuss of their 10th annual [anything] leading me to wonder why?

Now, onto the item that sparked my interest in the 2020 ZWC.

Suzanne Lee and growing your clothes

Here’s the August 27, 2020 ZWC notice (received via email) announcing a speaker’s proposed new paradigm for fashion,

Growing a New Paradigm:
Biofabrication Pioneer Suzanne Lee at #ZWC20

The textiles & fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters on earth, accounting for a staggering amount of carbon emissions, water consumption and ocean microplastics.

But what if we could produce durable and beautiful clothes with far less pollution and waste, using the processes at the heart of life itself?

We are pleased to welcome Suzanne Lee, material innovator and founder of Biofabricate, as morning keynote for the “Next Generation Materials” session.

“Biofabrication” uses microscopic organisms to reinvent the way we make everything from clothes to couches to buildings, and holds the promise for radically cutting emissions and eliminating waste.

Join us at the 2020 Zero Waste Conference to hear how Suzanne Lee and her colleagues are using fungi, bacteria, yeast and algae to revolutionize the fashion world from the ground up.

As Suzanne Lee says,

“Once you realize that these materials are better for the planet, animals and us, why would we go back to the toxic, polluting materials of the past?”

Join us on Friday, November 13th for the next phase of Canada’s zero waste journey.

Registration is now open for the 2020 Zero Waste Conference

REGISTER NOW

I haven’t stumbled across Lee’s work in the last few years but between 2010 and 2014, I featured her work here three times:

You can find out more about Suzanne Lee and her work here (Note: This website seems to consist of a single page with links to other sites associated with Lee) and you can find out more about Lee’s latest company, Biofabricate here.

ZWC 2020 opening keynote address from a ‘neuro guy’

I’ve not come across Dr. Beau Lotto before but according to an August 18, 2020 posting on the ZWC blog, he’s giving the opening keynote address,

Embracing Uncertainty to Spark Innovation – ZWC20 Keynote Beau Lotto

We find ourselves amid uncertain times, and for those of us passionate about systems change and innovation, these are also times of great opportunity. But how exactly do we meet goals like advancing waste prevention and expanding the circular economy in the face of all this uncertainty?

To help answer that question, we’re pleased to introduce you to this year’s Zero Waste Conference opening keynote: Dr. Beau Lotto.

Frontiers in Science of Uncertainty

#ZWC20 Keynote Beau Lotto is no stranger to uncertainty – in fact, that is his main focus as a neuroscientist and entrepreneur.

Through his presentations (including three TED Talks), masterclasses and a proprietary form of consultancy build on “experiential experiments,” Dr. Lotto teaches organizations and individuals how to apply scientific truths about perception to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing world.

His work probes how the human mind deals with the unknown and reveals fascinating and actionable implications for creativity, courage, emotional well-being and social connections.

Unlocking Our Creativity

How do we use the upheaval represented by COVID-19 as an opportunity to build back a more equitable and sustainable future?

The key, as Dr. Lotto said in a recent podcast interview, is to embrace uncertainty:

““Uncertainty is the only place you can go if you’re ever going to see differently the only place you can go if you’re going to be creative.”

As a researcher well versed in the circular economy and the challenges associated with global systems change, Beau Lotto brings a deep understanding of the importance of risk-taking and innovation.

We are pleased to welcome Dr. Lotto to #ZWC20 to set the stage and inspire us to embrace uncertainty and to step forward toward the future we want to bring about.  

How we proceed as a region – indeed, as a province, a country and continent – to address issues affecting our economy, environment and social make-up depends on our collective ability to be creative, innovative, and on our willingness to protect and nurture our communities.

We hope you will join us in the next phase of Canada’s zero waste journey.

You can find out more about Dr. Beau Lotto here.

This advertising video is largely comprised of a number of clips from various talks. He’s a dynamic speaker as opposed to being a quiet speaker,

Interesting, eh?

You can find out more about Metro Vancouver’s 2020 Zero Waste Conference here.

Arc’teryx performance apparel and University of British Columbia (Canada) scientists stay green and dry

As rainy season approaches in the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the US, there’s some good news about a sustainable water- and oil-repellent fabric. Sadly, it won’t be available this year but it’s something to look forward to.

An August 10, 2020 news item on phys.org announces the news from the University of British Columbia (UBC) about a greener, water-repellent fabric,

A sustainable, non-toxic and high-performance water-repellent fabric has long been the holy grail of outdoor enthusiasts and clothing companies alike. New research from UBC Okanagan and outdoor apparel giant Arc’teryx is making that goal one step closer to reality with one of the world’s first non-toxic oil and water-repellent performance textile finishes.

An August 10, 2020 UBC Okanagan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Outdoor fabrics are typically treated with perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) to repel oil and water. But according to Sadaf Shabanian, doctoral student at UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering and study lead author, PFCs come with a number of problems.

“PFCs have long been the standard for stain repellents, from clothing to non-stick frying pans, but we know these chemicals have a detrimental impact on human health and the environment,” explains Shabanian. “They pose a persistent, long-term risk to health and the environment because they take hundreds of years to breakdown and linger both in the environment and our bodies.”

According to Mary Glasper, materials developer at Arc’teryx and collaborator on the project, these lasting impacts are one of the major motivations for clothing companies to seek out new methods to achieve the same or better repellent properties in their products.

To solve the problem, Shabanian and the research team added a nanoscopic layer of silicone to each fibre in a woven fabric, creating an oil-repellent jacket fabric that repels water, sweat and oils.

By understanding how the textile weave and fibre roughness affect the liquid interactions, Shabanian says she was able to design a fabric finish that did not use any PFCs.

“The best part of the new design is that the fabric finish can be made from biodegradable materials and can be recyclable,” she says. “It addresses many of the issues related to PFC-based repellent products and remains highly suitable for the kind of technical apparel consumers and manufacturers are looking for.”

Arc’teryx is excited about the potential of this solution.

“An oil- and water-repellent finish that doesn’t rely on PFCs is enormously important in the world of textiles and is something the whole outdoor apparel industry has been working on for years,” says Glasper. “Now that we have a proof-of-concept, we’ll look to expand its application to other DWR-treated textiles used in our products and to improve the durability of the treatment.”

“Working to lessen material impacts on the environment is crucial for Arc’teryx to meet our goal of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 65 per cent in intensity by 2030,” she adds.

Kevin Golovin, principal investigator of the Okanagan Polymer Engineering Research & Applications Lab where the research was done, says the new research is important because it opens up a new area of green textile manufacturing.

He explains that while the new technology has immense potential, there are still several more years of development and testing needed before people will see fabrics with this treatment in stores.

“Demonstrating oil repellency without the use of PFCs is a critical first step towards a truly sustainable fabric finish,” says Golovin. “And it’s something previously thought impossible.”

The research is funded through a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), with support from Arc’teryx Equipment Inc.

Arc’teryx is based in North Vancouver (Canada).

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

Rational design of perfluorocarbon-free oleophobic textiles by Sadaf Shabanian, Behrooz Khatir, Ambreen Nisar & Kevin Golovin. Nature Sustainability (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0591-9 Published: 10 August 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Converting carbon dioxide into fuel with blinking nanocrystals

A July 16, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces some work from Rutgers University (New Jersey, US) where carbon dioxide could one day be converted into fuel or perhaps be used in quantum computers,

Imagine tiny crystals that “blink” like fireflies and can convert carbon dioxide, a key cause of climate change, into fuels.

A Rutgers-led team has created ultra-small titanium dioxide crystals that exhibit unusual “blinking” behavior and may help to produce methane and other fuels, according to a study in the journal Angewandte Chemie (“A Blinking Mesoporous TiO2-x Composed of Nanosized Anatase with Unusually Long-Lived Trapped Charge Carriers”).

The crystals, also known as nanoparticles, stay charged for a long time and could benefit efforts to develop quantum computers.

I don’t think I have the imagination necessary for this image, which illustrates the work according to the researchers,

The arrows point to titanium dioxide nanocrystals lighting up and blinking (left) and then fading (right). Images: Tewodros Asefa and Eliska Mikmekova

A July 16, 2020 Rutgers University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the topic,

“Our findings are quite important and intriguing in a number of ways, and more research is needed to understand how these exotic crystals work and to fulfill their potential,” said senior author Tewodros (Teddy) Asefa, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick [in New Jersey]. He’s also a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering in the School of Engineering.

More than 10 million metric tons of titanium dioxide are produced annually, making it one of the most widely used materials, the study notes. It is used in sunscreens, paints, cosmetics and varnishes, for example. It’s also used in the paper and pulp, plastic, fiber, rubber, food, glass and ceramic industries.

The team of scientists and engineers discovered a new way to make extremely small titanium dioxide crystals. While it’s still unclear why the engineered crystals blink and research is ongoing, the “blinking” is believed to arise from single electrons trapped on titanium dioxide nanoparticles. At room temperature, electrons – surprisingly – stay trapped on nanoparticles for tens of seconds before escaping and then become trapped again and again in a continuous cycle.

The crystals, which blink when exposed to a beam of electrons, could be useful for environmental cleanups, sensors, electronic devices and solar cells, and the research team will further explore their capabilities.

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

A Blinking Mesoporous TiO2−x Composed of Nanosized Anatase with Unusually Long‐Lived Trapped Charge Carriers by Dr. Tao Zhang, Dr. Jingxiang Low, Prof. Jiaguo Yu, Dr. Alexei M. Tyryshkin, Dr. Eliška Mikmeková, Prof. Tewodros Asefa. Angewandte Chemie DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/anie.202005143 First published [online]: 22 May 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Replacing nanotechnology-enabled oil spill solutions with dog fur?

Coincidentally or not, this research from Australia was announced a little more than a month after reports of a major oil spill in the Russian Arctic. A July 10, 2020 news item on phys.org announces a new technology for mopping up oil spills (Note: Links have been removed),

Oil spill disasters on land cause long-term damage for communities and the natural environment, polluting soils and sediments and contaminating groundwater.

Current methods using synthetic sorbent materials can be effective for cleaning up oil spills, but these materials are often expensive and generate large volumes of non-biodegradable plastic wastes. Now the first comparison of natural-origin sorbent materials for land-based oil spills, including peat moss, recycled human hair, and dog fur, shows that sustainable, cheaper and biodegradable options can be developed.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) project found that dog fur and human hair products—recycled from salon wastes and dog groomers—can be just as good as synthetic fabrics at cleaning up crude oil spills on hard land surfaces like highway roads, pavement, and sealed concrete floors. Polypropylene, a plastic, is a widely-used fabric used to clean up oil spills in aquatic environments.

A July 9, 2020 Univesity of Technology Sydney press release on EurekAlert completes the story,

“Dog fur in particular was surprisingly good at oil spill clean-up, and felted mats from human hair and fur were very easy to apply and remove from the spills.” lead author of the study, UTS Environmental Scientist Dr Megan Murray, said. Dr Murray investigates environmentally-friendly solutions for contamination and leads The Phyto Lab research group at UTS School of Life Sciences.

“This is a very exciting finding for land managers who respond to spilled oil from trucks, storage tanks, or leaking oil pipelines. All of these land scenarios can be treated effectively with sustainable-origin sorbents,” she said.

The sorbents tested included two commercially-available products, propylene and loose peat moss, as well as sustainable-origin prototypes including felted mats made of dog fur and human hair. Prototype oil-spill sorbent booms filled with dog fur and human hair were also tested. Crude oil was used to replicate an oil spill. The results of the study are published in Environments.

The research team simulated three types of land surfaces; non-porous hard surfaces, semi-porous surfaces, and sand, to recreate common oil-spill scenarios.

“We found that loose peat moss is not as effective at cleaning up oil spills on land compared to dog fur and hair products, and it is not useful at all for sandy environments.” Dr Murray said.

“Based on this research, we recommend peat moss is no longer used for this purpose. Given that peat moss is a limited resource and harvesting it requires degrading wetland ecosystems, we think this is a very important finding.” she said.

The research concluded that, for now, sandy environments like coastal beaches can still benefit from the use of polypropylene sorbents, but further exploration of sustainable-origin sorbents is planned.

The researchers say that future applications from the research include investigating felted mats of sustainable-origin sorbents for river bank stabilisation, [emphases mine] as well as the removal of pollutants from flowing polluted waters, similar to existing membrane technology.

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

Decontaminating Terrestrial Oil Spills: A Comparative Assessment of Dog Fur, Human Hair, Peat Moss and Polypropylene Sorbents by Megan L. Murray, Soeren M. Poulsen and Brad R. Murray. Environments 2020, 7(7), 52; DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/environments7070052 Published: 8 July 2020 (This article belongs to the Special Issue Pollution Prevention/Environmental Sustainability for Industry)

This paper is open access.

As for the Russian oil spill

A June 4, 2020 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news online article outlines the situation regarding the oil spill and the steps being taken to deal with it,

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has declared a state of emergency after 20,000 tonnes of diesel oil leaked into a river within the Arctic Circle.

The spill happened when a fuel tank at a power plant near the Siberian city of Norilsk collapsed last Friday [May 29, 2020].

The power plant’s director Vyacheslav Starostin has been taken into custody until 31 July, but not yet charged.

The plant is owned by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, which is the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer.

The Russian Investigative Committee (SK) has launched a criminal case over the pollution and alleged negligence, as there was reportedly a two-day delay in informing the Moscow authorities about the spill.

Ground subsidence beneath the fuel storage tanks is believed to have caused the spill. Arctic permafrost has been melting in exceptionally warm weather [more information about the weather towards the end of this posting] for this time of year.

Russian Minister for Emergencies Yevgeny Zinichev told Mr Putin that the Norilsk plant had spent two days trying to contain the spill, before alerting his ministry.

The leaked oil drifted some 12km (7.5 miles) from the accident site, turning long stretches of the Ambarnaya river crimson red.

The leaked diesel oil drifted some 12km (7.5 miles) from the site of the accident [downloaded from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52915807]

Getting back to the June 4, 2020 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news online article,

“Why did government agencies only find out about this two days [May 29, 2020?) after the fact?” he asked the subsidiary’s chief, Sergei Lipin. “Are we going to learn about emergency situations from social media?”

The region’s governor, Alexander Uss, had earlier told President Putin that he became aware of the oil spill on Sunday [May 31, 2020] after “alarming information appeared in social media”.

The spill has contaminated a 350 sq km (135 sq mile) area, state media report.

The state of emergency means extra forces are going to the area to assist with the clean-up operation.

The accident is believed to be the second largest in modern Russian history in terms of volume, an expert from the World Wildlife Fund, Alexei Knizhnikov, told the AFP [Agence France Presse] news agency.

The incident has prompted stark warnings from environmental groups, who say the scale of the spill and geography of the river mean it will be difficult to clean up.

Greenpeace has compared it to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of Russia’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, said there had “never been such an accident in the Arctic zone”.

He said the clean-up could cost 100bn roubles (£1.2bn; $1.5bn) and take between five and 10 years.

Minister of Natural Resources Dmitry Kobylkin warned against trying to burn off such a vast quantity of fuel oil.

He proposed trying to dilute the oil with reagents. Only the emergencies ministry with military support could deal with the pollution, he said.

Barges with booms could not contain the slick because the Ambarnaya river was too shallow, he warned.

He suggested pumping the oil on to the adjacent tundra, although President Putin added: “The soil there is probably saturated [with oil] already.”

An update of the situation can be found in a July 8, 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) article (issued by Thomson Reuters),

Russia’s environmental watchdog has asked a power subsidiary of Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel to pay almost 148 billion rubles, or $2.8 billion Cdn, in damages over an Arctic fuel spill in Siberia.

Rosprirodnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Use of Natural Resources, said in a statement on Monday [July 8, 2020] that it had already sent a request for “voluntary compensation” to the subsidiary, NTEK, after calculating the damage caused by the May 29 [2020] fuel spill.

Norilsk Nickel’s Moscow-listed shares fell by 3 per cent after the watchdog’s statement.

A fuel tank at the power plant lost pressure and released 21,000 tonnes of diesel into rivers and subsoil near the city of Norilsk, 2,900 kilometres northeast of Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin subsequently declared a state of emergency in the region, and investigators detained three staff at the power plant.

Norilsk, a remote city of 180,000 people situated 300 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, is built around Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer, and has a reputation for its pollution.

Rosprirodnadzor said the damages included the cost for nearby water bodies, estimated at 147.05 billion rubles, $2.8 billion Cdn, and for subsoil, estimated at 738.62 million roubles, $14 million Cdn.

I can’t find any August 2020 updates for the oil spill situation in Russia. (Note: There is now an oil spill in a ecologically sensitive region near Mauritius; see August 13, 2020 news item on CBC news online website.)

Exceptionally warm weather

The oil spill isn’t the only problem in the Arctic.Here’s more from a June 23, 2020 article by Matt Simon for Wired magazine (Note: A link has been removed),

On Saturday [June 20, 2020], the residents of Verkhoyansk, Russia, marked the first day of summer with 100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. Not that they could enjoy it, really, as Verkhoyansk is in Siberia, hundreds of miles from the nearest beach. That’s much, much hotter than towns inside the Arctic Circle usually get. That 100 degrees appears to be a record, well above the average June high temperature of 68 degrees. Yet it’s likely the people of Verkhoyansk will see that record broken again in their lifetimes: The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet—if not faster—creating ecological chaos for the plants and animals that populate the north.

“The events over the weekend—in the last few weeks, really—with the heatwave in Siberia, all are unprecedented in terms of the magnitude of the extremes in temperature,” says Sophie Wilkinson, a wildfire scientist at McMaster University who studies northern peat fires, which themselves have grown unusually frequent in recent years as temperatures climb.

The Arctic’s extreme warming, known as Arctic amplification or polar amplification, may be due to three factors. One, the region’s reflectivity, or albedo—how much light it bounces back into space—is changing as the world warms. “What we’ve been seeing over the last 30 years is some relatively dramatic declines in sea ice in the summertime,” says University of Edinburgh global change ecologist Isla Myers-Smith, who studies the Arctic.

Since ice is white, it reflects the sun’s energy, something you’re already probably familiar with when it comes to staying cool in the summer. If you had to pick the color of T-shirt to wear when going hiking on a hot day, she says, “most of us would pick the white T-shirt, because that’s going to reflect the sun’s heat off of our back.” Similarly, Myers-Smith says, “If the sea ice melts in the Arctic, that will remove that white surface off of the ocean, and what will be exposed is this darker ocean surface that will absorb more of the sun’s heat.”

If you’re interested in the environmental consequences of the warming of the Arctic, this is a very good article.

Finishing up, I wish the clean-up crews (in Russia and near Mauritius) all the best as they work in the midst of a pandemic, as well as, an environmental disaster (both the oil spill and the warming of the Arctic).

Keep your building cool with super paint

As temperatures rise and the Arctic melts, scientists are searching for ways to keep us and our buildings cool without adding unduly to our current problems. A July 8, 2020 University of California at Los Angeles news release (also on EurekAlert) announces a new paint,

A research team led by UCLA materials scientists has demonstrated ways to make super white paint that reflects as much as 98% of incoming heat from the sun. The advance shows practical pathways for designing paints that, if used on rooftops and other parts of a building, could significantly reduce cooling costs, beyond what standard white ‘cool-roof’ paints can achieve.

The findings, published online in Joule, are a major and practical step towards keeping buildings cooler by passive daytime radiative cooling — a spontaneous process in which a surface reflects sunlight and radiates heat into space, cooling down to potentially sub-ambient temperatures. This can lower indoor temperatures and help cut down on air conditioner use and associated carbon dioxide emissions.

“When you wear a white T-shirt on a hot sunny day, you feel cooler than if you wore one that’s darker in color — that’s because the white shirt reflects more sunlight and it’s the same concept for buildings,” said Aaswath Raman, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, and the principal investigator on the study. “A roof painted white will be cooler inside than one in a darker shade. But those paints also do something else: they reject heat at infrared wavelengths, which we humans cannot see with our eyes. This could allow buildings to cool down even more by radiative cooling.”

The best performing white paints currently available typically reflect around 85% of incoming solar radiation. The remainder is absorbed by the chemical makeup of the paint. The researchers showed that simple modifications in a paint’s ingredients could offer a significant jump, reflecting as much as 98% of incoming radiation.

Current white paints with high solar reflectance use titanium oxide. While the compound is very reflective of most visible and near-infrared light, it also absorbs ultraviolet and violet light. The compound’s UV absorption qualities make it useful in sunscreen lotions, but they also lead to heating under sunlight – which gets in the way of keeping a building as cool as possible.

The researchers examined replacing titanium oxide with inexpensive and readily available ingredients such as barite, which is an artist’s pigment, and pow[d]ered polytetrafluoroethylene, better known as Teflon. These ingredients help paints reflect UV light. The team also made further refinements to the paint’s formula, including reducing the concentration of polymer binders, which also absorb heat.

“The potential cooling benefits this can yield may be realized in the near future because the modifications we propose are within the capabilities of the paint and coatings industry,” said UCLA postdoctoral scholar Jyotirmoy Mandal, a Schmidt Science Fellow working in Raman’s research group and the co-corresponding author on the research.

Beyond the advance, the authors suggested several long-term implications for further study, including mapping where such paints could make a difference, studying the effect of pollution on radiative cooling technologies, and on a global scale, if they could make a dent on the earth’s own ability to reflect heat from the sun.

The researchers also noted that many municipalities and governments, including the state of California and New York City, have started to encourage cool-roof technologies for new buildings.

“We hope that the work will spur future initiatives in super-white coatings for not only energy savings in buildings, but also mitigating the heat island effects of cities, and perhaps even showing a practical way that, if applied on a massive, global scale could affect climate change,” said Mandal, who has studied cooling paint technologies for several years. “This would require a collaboration among experts in diverse fields like optics, materials science and meteorology, and experts from the industry and policy sectors.”

Here’s a link (also in the news release) to and a citation for the paper,

Paints as a Scalable and Effective Radiative Cooling Technology for Buildings by Jyotirmoy Mandal, Yuan Yang, Nanfang Yu, Aaswath P. Raman. Joule DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2020.04.010 Published: May 29, 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Metallic nanoparticles inside heart tissue mitochondria can cause damage

With all the focus on COVID-19, viruses , and aerosols, it’s easy to forget that there are other kinds of contaminated air too. The last time I featured work on nanoparticles and air pollution was in a May 31, 2017 posting, “Explaining the link between air pollution and heart disease?” where scientists announced they may have discovered how air pollution (nanoparticles) were making their way from lungs to the heart. Answer: the bloodstream.

A July 3, 2020 Lancaster University press release (also on EurekAlert) announces research into how air made toxic by metallic nanoparticles affects the heart in very specific ways (Note: A link has been removed),

Toxic metallic air pollution nanoparticles are getting inside the crucial, energy-producing structures within the hearts of people living in polluted cities, causing cardiac stress – a new study confirms.

The research team, led by Professors Barbara Maher of Lancaster University and Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas of The University of Montana and the Universidad del Valle de Mexico, found the metallic nanoparticles, which included iron-rich nanoparticles and other pollution-derived metals such as titanium, inside the damaged heart cells of a 26-year-old and even a three-year-old toddler.

The hearts had belonged to people who had died in accidents and who had lived in highly-polluted Mexico City.

The findings shed new light on how air pollution can cause the development of heart disease, as the iron-rich particles were associated with damage to the cells, and increased cardiac oxidative stress, even in these very young hearts.

The repeated inhalation of these iron-rich nanoparticles, and their circulation by the bloodstream to the heart, may account for the well-established associations between exposure to particulate air pollution and increased cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks. The study indicates that heart disease can start in very early age, before progressing to full-blown cardiovascular illness later in life. This type of air pollution may thus be responsible for the ‘silent epidemic’ of heart disease, internationally. By causing pre-existing heart conditions, it may also account for some of the increased death rates from Covid-19 seen in areas with high levels of particulate air pollution.

Professor Maher said: “It’s been known for a long time that people with high exposure to particulate air pollution experience increased levels and severity of heart disease. Our new work shows that iron-rich nanoparticles from air pollution can get right inside the millions of mitochondria inside our hearts…the structures which generate the energy needed for our hearts to pump properly.

“That we found these metal particles inside the heart of even a three-year old indicates that we’re setting heart disease in train right from the earliest days, but only seeing its full, clinical effects in later life. It’s really urgent to reduce emissions of ultrafine particles from our vehicles and from industry, before we give heart disease to the next generation too.”

The researchers, using high-resolution transmission electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-ray analysis, found that the mitochondria containing the iron-rich nanoparticles appeared to be damaged, with some cells showing deformities and others with ruptured membranes. Professor Calderón-Garcidueñas stated that increased levels of markers of cardiac oxidative stress are present in the very young cases examined.

The iron-rich nanoparticles found inside the heart cells are identical in size, shape and composition to those emitted from sources such as the exhausts, tyres and brakes of vehicles. These air pollution nanoparticles are also emitted by industrial sources as well as open fires in homes.

Some of the iron-rich nanoparticles are also strongly magnetic. This raises concerns about what might happen when people with millions of these nanoparticles in their hearts are using appliances with associated magnetic fields, such as hair dryers and mobile phones. People who work in industries that mean they are exposed to magnetic fields such as welders and power line engineers may also be at risk. This kind of exposure could potentially lead to heart electrical dysfunction and cell damage.

The findings builds on the researchers’ previous findings that show that the hearts of city dwellers contain billions of these nanoparticles and can be up to ten times more polluted than the hearts of people living in less polluted places.

The researchers say their study underlines the need for governments across the world to tackle ultrafine particulate pollution in their cities.

Professor Calderón-Garcidueñas said: “Exposure to such air pollution is a modifiable risk factor for cardiovascular disease, on a global scale, reinforcing the urgent need for individual and government actions not just to reduce PM2.5 but to monitor, regulate and reduce emissions of these specific, ultrafine components of the urban air pollution ‘cocktail’.”

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

Iron-rich air pollution nanoparticles: An unrecognised environmental risk factor for myocardial mitochondrial dysfunction and cardiac oxidative stress by B.A.Maher, A.González-Maciel, R.Reynoso-Robles, R.Torres-Jardón, L.Calderón-Garcidueñas. Environmental Research Volume 188, September 2020, 109816 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2020.109816 Available online 21 June 2020

This paper appears to be open access (just keep scrolling down).

Shining a light on flurocarbon bonds and robotic ‘soft’ matter research

Both of these news bits are concerned with light for one reason or another.

Rice University (Texas, US) and breaking fluorocarbon bonds

The secret to breaking fluorocarbon bonds is light according to a June 22, 2020 news item on Nanowerk,

Rice University engineers have created a light-powered catalyst that can break the strong chemical bonds in fluorocarbons, a group of synthetic materials that includes persistent environmental pollutants.

A June 22, 2020 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in greater detail,

In a study published this month in Nature Catalysis, Rice nanophotonics pioneer Naomi Halas and collaborators at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Princeton University showed that tiny spheres of aluminum dotted with specks of palladium could break carbon-fluorine (C-F) bonds via a catalytic process known as hydrodefluorination in which a fluorine atom is replaced by an atom of hydrogen.

The strength and stability of C-F bonds are behind some of the 20th century’s most recognizable chemical brands, including Teflon, Freon and Scotchgard. But the strength of those bonds can be problematic when fluorocarbons get into the air, soil and water. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, for example, were banned by international treaty in the 1980s after they were found to be destroying Earth’s protective ozone layer, and other fluorocarbons were on the list of “forever chemicals” targeted by a 2001 treaty.

“The hardest part about remediating any of the fluorine-containing compounds is breaking the C-F bond; it requires a lot of energy,” said Halas, an engineer and chemist whose Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) specializes in creating and studying nanoparticles that interact with light.

Over the past five years, Halas and colleagues have pioneered methods for making “antenna-reactor” catalysts that spur or speed up chemical reactions. While catalysts are widely used in industry, they are typically used in energy-intensive processes that require high temperature, high pressure or both. For example, a mesh of catalytic material is inserted into a high-pressure vessel at a chemical plant, and natural gas or another fossil fuel is burned to heat the gas or liquid that’s flowed through the mesh. LANP’s antenna-reactors dramatically improve energy efficiency by capturing light energy and inserting it directly at the point of the catalytic reaction.

In the Nature Catalysis study, the energy-capturing antenna is an aluminum particle smaller than a living cell, and the reactors are islands of palladium scattered across the aluminum surface. The energy-saving feature of antenna-reactor catalysts is perhaps best illustrated by another of Halas’ previous successes: solar steam. In 2012, her team showed its energy-harvesting particles could instantly vaporize water molecules near their surface, meaning Halas and colleagues could make steam without boiling water. To drive home the point, they showed they could make steam from ice-cold water.

The antenna-reactor catalyst design allows Halas’ team to mix and match metals that are best suited for capturing light and catalyzing reactions in a particular context. The work is part of the green chemistry movement toward cleaner, more efficient chemical processes, and LANP has previously demonstrated catalysts for producing ethylene and syngas and for splitting ammonia to produce hydrogen fuel.

Study lead author Hossein Robatjazi, a Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow at UCSB who earned his Ph.D. from Rice in 2019, conducted the bulk of the research during his graduate studies in Halas’ lab. He said the project also shows the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration.

“I finished the experiments last year, but our experimental results had some interesting features, changes to the reaction kinetics under illumination, that raised an important but interesting question: What role does light play to promote the C-F breaking chemistry?” he said.

The answers came after Robatjazi arrived for his postdoctoral experience at UCSB. He was tasked with developing a microkinetics model, and a combination of insights from the model and from theoretical calculations performed by collaborators at Princeton helped explain the puzzling results.

“With this model, we used the perspective from surface science in traditional catalysis to uniquely link the experimental results to changes to the reaction pathway and reactivity under the light,” he said.

The demonstration experiments on fluoromethane could be just the beginning for the C-F breaking catalyst.

“This general reaction may be useful for remediating many other types of fluorinated molecules,” Halas said.

Caption: An artist’s illustration of the light-activated antenna-reactor catalyst Rice University engineers designed to break carbon-fluorine bonds in fluorocarbons. The aluminum portion of the particle (white and pink) captures energy from light (green), activating islands of palladium catalysts (red). In the inset, fluoromethane molecules (top) comprised of one carbon atom (black), three hydrogen atoms (grey) and one fluorine atom (light blue) react with deuterium (yellow) molecules near the palladium surface (black), cleaving the carbon-fluorine bond to produce deuterium fluoride (right) and monodeuterated methane (bottom). Credit: H. Robatjazi/Rice University

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

Plasmon-driven carbon–fluorine (C(sp3)–F) bond activation with mechanistic insights into hot-carrier-mediated pathways by Hossein Robatjazi, Junwei Lucas Bao, Ming Zhang, Linan Zhou, Phillip Christopher, Emily A. Carter, Peter Nordlander & Naomi J. Halas. Nature Catalysis (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41929-020-0466-5 Published: 08 June 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Northwestern University (Illinois, US) brings soft robots to ‘life’

This June 22, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily reveals how scientists are getting soft robots to mimic living creatures,

Northwestern University researchers have developed a family of soft materials that imitates living creatures.

When hit with light, the film-thin materials come alive — bending, rotating and even crawling on surfaces.

A June 22, 2020 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Amanda Morris, which originated the news item, delves further into the details,

Called “robotic soft matter by the Northwestern team,” the materials move without complex hardware, hydraulics or electricity. The researchers believe the lifelike materials could carry out many tasks, with potential applications in energy, environmental remediation and advanced medicine.

“We live in an era in which increasingly smarter devices are constantly being developed to help us manage our everyday lives,” said Northwestern’s Samuel I. Stupp, who led the experimental studies. “The next frontier is in the development of new science that will bring inert materials to life for our benefit — by designing them to acquire capabilities of living creatures.”

The research will be published on June 22 [2020] in the journal Nature Materials.

Stupp is the Board of Trustees Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemistry, Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern and director of the Simpson Querrey Institute He has appointments in the McCormick School of Engineering, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Feinberg School of Medicine. George Schatz, the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry in Weinberg, led computer simulations of the materials’ lifelike behaviors. Postdoctoral fellow Chuang Li and graduate student Aysenur Iscen, from the Stupp and Schatz laboratories, respectively, are co-first authors of the paper.

Although the moving material seems miraculous, sophisticated science is at play. Its structure comprises nanoscale peptide assemblies that drain water molecules out of the material. An expert in materials chemistry, Stupp linked the peptide arrays to polymer networks designed to be chemically responsive to blue light.

When light hits the material, the network chemically shifts from hydrophilic (attracts water) to hydrophobic (resists water). As the material expels the water through its peptide “pipes,” it contracts — and comes to life. When the light is turned off, water re-enters the material, which expands as it reverts to a hydrophilic structure.

This is reminiscent of the reversible contraction of muscles, which inspired Stupp and his team to design the new materials.

“From biological systems, we learned that the magic of muscles is based on the connection between assemblies of small proteins and giant protein polymers that expand and contract,” Stupp said. “Muscles do this using a chemical fuel rather than light to generate mechanical energy.”

For Northwestern’s bio-inspired material, localized light can trigger directional motion. In other words, bending can occur in different directions, depending on where the light is located. And changing the direction of the light also can force the object to turn as it crawls on a surface.

Stupp and his team believe there are endless possible applications for this new family of materials. With the ability to be designed in different shapes, the materials could play a role in a variety of tasks, ranging from environmental clean-up to brain surgery.

“These materials could augment the function of soft robots needed to pick up fragile objects and then release them in a precise location,” he said. “In medicine, for example, soft materials with ‘living’ characteristics could bend or change shape to retrieve blood clots in the brain after a stroke. They also could swim to clean water supplies and sea water or even undertake healing tasks to repair defects in batteries, membranes and chemical reactors.”

Fascinating, eh? No batteries, no power source, just light to power movement. For the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Supramolecular–covalent hybrid polymers for light-activated mechanical actuation by Chuang Li, Aysenur Iscen, Hiroaki Sai, Kohei Sato, Nicholas A. Sather, Stacey M. Chin, Zaida Álvarez, Liam C. Palmer, George C. Schatz & Samuel I. Stupp. Nature Materials (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-020-0707-7 Published: 22 June 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.