Category Archives: environment

Dial-a-frog?

Frog and phone – Credit: Marta Yebra Alvarez

There is a ‘frogphone’ but you won’t be talking or communicating directly with frogs, instead you will get data about them, according to a December 6, 2019 British Ecological Society press release (also on EurekAlert),

Researchers have developed the ‘FrogPhone’, a novel device which allows scientists to call up a frog survey site and monitor them in the wild. The FrogPhone is the world’s first solar-powered remote survey device that relays environmental data to the observer via text messages, whilst conducting real-time remote acoustic surveys over the phone. These findings are presented in the British Ecological Society Journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution today [December 6, 2019].

The FrogPhone introduces a new concept that allows researchers to “call” a frog habitat, any time, from anywhere, once the device has been installed. The device has been developed at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra and the University of Canberra in collaboration with the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and Region Frogwatch Program and the Australian National University.

The FrogPhone utilises 3G/4G cellular mobile data coverage and capitalises on the characteristic wideband audio of mobile phones, which acts as a carrier for frog calls. Real time frog calls can be transmitted across the 3G/4G network infrastructure, directly to the user’s phone. This supports clear sound quality and minimal background noise, allowing users to identify the calls of different frog species.

“We estimate that the device with its current microphone can detect calling frogs from a 100-150m radius” said lead author Dr. Adrian Garrido Sanchis, Associate Lecturer at UNSW Canberra. “The device allows us to monitor the local frog population with more frequency and ease, which is significant as frog species are widely recognised as indicators of environmental health” said the ACT and Region Frogwatch coordinator and co-author, Anke Maria Hoefer.

The FrogPhone unifies both passive acoustic and active monitoring methods, all in a waterproof casing. The system has a large battery capacity coupled to a powerful solar panel. It also contains digital thermal sensors to automatically collect environmental data such as water and air temperature in real-time. The FrogPhone uses an open-source platform which allows any researcher to adapt it to project-specific needs.

The system simulates the main features of a mobile phone device. The FrogPhone accepts incoming calls independently after three seconds. These three seconds allow time to activate the temperature sensors and measure the battery storage levels. All readings then get automatically texted to the caller’s phone.

Acoustic monitoring of animals generally involves either site visits by a researcher or using battery-powered passive acoustic devices, which record calls and store them locally on the device for later analysis. These often require night-time observation, when frogs are most active. Now, when researchers dial a device remotely, the call to the FrogPhone can be recorded indirectly and analysed later.

Ms. Hoefer remarked that “The FrogPhone will help to drastically reduce the costs and risks involved in remote or high intensity surveys. Its use will also minimize potential negative impacts of human presence at survey sites. These benefits are magnified with increasing distance to and inaccessibility of a field site.”

A successful field trial of the device was performed in Canberra from August 2017 to March 2018. Researchers used spectrograms, graphs which allow the visual comparison of the spectrum of frequencies of frog signals over time, to test the recording capabilities of the FrogPhone.

Ms. Hoefer commented that “The spectrogram comparison between the FrogPhone and the standard direct mobile phone methodology in the lab, for the calls of 9 different frog species, and the field tests have proven that the FrogPhone can be successfully used as a new alternative to conduct frog call surveys.”

The use of the current FrogPhone is limited to areas with adequate 3G/4G phone coverage. Secondly, to listen to frogs in a large area, several survey devices would be needed. In addition, it relies on exposure to sunlight.

Future additions to the FrogPhone could include a satellite communications module for poor signal areas, or the use of multidirectional microphones for large areas. Lead author Garrido Sanchis emphasized that “In densely vegetated areas the waterproof case of the FrogPhone allows the device to be installed as a floating device in the middle of a pond, to maximise solar access to recharge the batteries”.

Dr. Garrido Sanchis said “While initially tested in frogs, the technology used for the FrogPhone could easily be extended to capture other animal vocalisation (e.g. insects and mammals), expanding the applicability to a wide range of biodiversity conservation studies”.

Here’s what the FrogPhone looks like onsite,

The FrogPhone installed at the field site. Credit: Kumudu Munasinghe

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

The FrogPhone: A novel device for real‐time frog call monitoring by Adrian, Garrido Sanchis, Lorenzo Bertolelli, Anke Maria Hoefer, Marta Yebra Alvarez, Kumudu Munasinghe. Methods in Ecology and Evolution https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13332 First published [online]: 04 December 2019

This paper is open access.

Climate change and black gold

A July 3, 2019 news item on Nanowerk describes research coming from India and South Korea where nano gold is turned into black nanogold (Note: A link has been removed),

One of the main cause of global warming is the increase in the atmospheric CO2 level. The main source of this CO2 is from the burning of fossil fuels (electricity, vehicles, industry and many more).

Researchers at TIFR [Tata Institute of Fundamental Research] have developed the solution phase synthesis of Dendritic Plasmonic Colloidosomes (DPCs) with varying interparticle distances between the gold Nanoparticles (AU NPs) using a cycle-by-cycle growth approach by optimizing the nucleation-growth step. These DPCs absorb the entire visible and near-infrared region of solar light, due to interparticle plasmonic coupling as well as the heterogeneity in the Au NP [gold nanoparticle] sizes, which transformed golden gold material to black gold (Chemical Science, “Plasmonic colloidosomes of black gold for solar energy harvesting and hotspots directed catalysis for CO2 to fuel conversion”).

A July 3, 2019 Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,

Black (nano)gold was able to catalyze CO2 to methane (fuel) conversion at atmospheric pressure and temperature, using solar energy. They also observed the significant effect of the plasmonic hotspots on the performance of these DPCs for the purification of seawater to drinkable water via steam generation, temperature jump assisted protein unfolding, oxidation of cinnamyl alcohol using pure oxygen as the oxidant, and hydrosilylation of aldehydes.

This was attributed to varying interparticle distances and particle sizes in these DPCs. The results indicate the synergistic effects of EM and thermal hotspots as well as hot electrons on DPCs performance. Thus, DPCs catalysts can effectively be utilized as Vis-NIR light photo-catalysts, and the design of new plasmonic nanocatalysts for a wide range of other chemical reactions may be possible using the concept of plasmonic coupling.

Raman thermometry and SERS (Surface-enhanced Raman Spectroscopy) provided information about the thermal and electromagnetic hotspots and local temperatures which was found to be dependent on the interparticle plasmonic coupling. The spatial distribution of the localized surface plasmon modes by STEM-EELS plasmon mapping confirmed the role of the interparticle distances in the SPR (Surface Plasmon Resonance) of the material.

Thus, in this work, by using the techniques of nanotechnology, the researchers transformed golden gold to black gold, by changing the size and gaps between gold nanoparticles. Similar to the real trees, which use CO2, sunlight and water to produce food, the developed black gold acts like an artificial tree that uses CO2, sunlight and water to produce fuel, which can be used to run our cars. Notably, black gold can also be used to convert sea water into drinkable water using the heat that black gold generates after it captures sunlight.

This work is a way forward to develop “Artificial Trees” which capture and convert CO2 to fuel and useful chemicals. Although at this stage, the production rate of fuel is low, in coming years, these challenges can be resolved. We may be able to convert CO2 to fuel using sunlight at atmospheric condition, at a commercially viable scale and CO2 may then become our main source of clean energy.

Here’s an image illustrating the work

Caption: Use of black gold can get us one step closer to combat climate change. Credit: Royal Society of Chemistry, Chemical Science

A July 3, 2019 Royal Society of Chemistry Highlight features more information about the research,

A “black” gold material has been developed to harvest sunlight, and then use the energy to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) into useful chemicals and fuel.

In addition to this, the material can also be used for applications including water purification, heating – and could help further research into new, efficient catalysts.

“In this work, by using the techniques of nanotechnology, we transformed golden gold to black gold, by simply changing the size and gaps between gold nanoparticles,” said Professor Vivek Polshettiwar from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in India.

Tuning the size and gaps between gold nanoparticles created thermal and electromagnetic hotspots, which allowed the material to absorb the entire visible and near-infrared region of sunlight’s wavelength – making the gold “black”.

The team of researchers, from TIFR and Seoul National University in South Korea, then demonstrated that this captured energy could be used to combat climate change.

Professor Polshettiwar said: “It not only harvests solar energy but also captures and converts CO2 to methane (fuel). Synthesis and use of black gold for CO2-to-fuel conversion, which is reported for the first time, has the potential to resolve the global CO2 challenge.

“Now, like real trees which use CO2, sunlight and water to produce food, our developed black gold acts like an artificial tree to produce fuel – which we can use to run our cars,” he added.
Although production is low at this stage, Professor Polshettiwar (who was included in the RSC’s 175 Faces of Chemistry) believes that the commercially-viable conversion of CO2 to fuel at atmospheric conditions is possible in the coming years.

He said: “It’s the only goal of my life – to develop technology to capture and convert CO2 and combat climate change, by using the concepts of nanotechnology.”

Other experiments described in the Chemical Science paper demonstrate using black gold to efficiently convert sea water into drinkable water via steam generation.

It was also used for protein unfolding, alcohol oxidation, and aldehyde hydrosilylation: and the team believe their methodology could lead to novel and efficient catalysts for a range of chemical transformations.

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

Plasmonic colloidosomes of black gold for solar energy harvesting and hotspots directed catalysis for CO2 to fuel conversion by Mahak Dhiman, Ayan Maity, Anirban Das, Rajesh Belgamwar, Bhagyashree Chalke, Yeonhee Lee, Kyunjong Sim, Jwa-Min Nam and Vivek Polshettiwar. Chem. Sci., 2019, Advance Article. DOI: 10.1039/C9SC02369K First published on July 3, 2019

This paper is freely available in the open access journal Chemical Science.

Reading (2 of 2): Is zinc-infused underwear healthier for women?

This first part of this Reading ‘series’, Reading (1 of 2): an artificial intelligence story in British Columbia (Canada) was mostly about how one type of story, in this case,based on a survey, is presented and placed in one or more media outlets. The desired outcome is for more funding by government and for more investors (they tucked in an ad for an upcoming artificial intelligence conference in British Columbia).

This story about zinc-infused underwear for women also uses science to prove its case and it, too, is about raising money. In this case, it’s a Kickstarter campaign to raise money.

If Huha’s (that’s the company name) claims for ‘zinc-infused mineral undies’ are to be believed, the answer is an unequivocal yes. The reality as per the current research on the topic is not quite as conclusive.

The semiotics (symbolism)

Huha features fruit alongside the pictures of their underwear. You’ll see an orange, papaya, and melon in the kickstarter campaign images and on the company website. It seems to be one of those attempts at subliminal communication. Fruit is good for you therefore our underwear is good for you. In fact, our underwear (just like the fruit) has health benefits.

For a deeper dive into the world of semiotics, there’s the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ stricture which is found in more than one religious or cultural orientation and is hard to dismiss once considered.

There is no reason to add fruit to the images other than to suggest benefits from nature and fertility (or fruitfulness). They’re not selling fruit and these ones are not particularly high in zinc. If all you’re looking for is colour, why not vegetables or puppies?

The claims

I don’t have time to review all of the claims but I’ll highlight a few. My biggest problem with the claims is that there are no citations or links to studies, i.e., the research. So, something like this becomes hard to assess,

Most women’s underwear are made with chemical-based, synthetic fibers that lead to yeast and UTI [urinary tract infection] infections, odor, and discomfort. They’ve also been proven to disrupt human hormones, have been linked to cancer, pollute the planet aggressively, and stay in landfills far too long.

There’s more than one path to a UTI and/or odor and/or discomfort but I can see where fabrics that don’t breathe can exacerbate or cause problems of that nature. I have a little more difficulty with the list that follows. I’d like to see the research on underpants disrupting human hormones. Is this strictly a problem for women or could men also be affected? (If you should know, please leave a comment.)

As for ‘linked to cancer’, I’m coming to the conclusion that everything is linked to cancer. Offhand, I’ve been told peanuts, charcoal broiled items (I think it’s the char), and my negative thoughts are all linked to cancer.

One of the last claims in the excerpted section, ‘pollute the planet aggressively’ raises this question.When did underpants become aggressive’?

The final claim seems unexceptional. Our detritus is staying too long in our landfills. Of course, the next question is: how much faster do the Huha underpants degrade in a landfill? That question is not addressed in Kickstarter campaign material.

Talking to someone with more expertise

I contacted Dr. Andrew Maynard, Associate Director at Arizona State University (ASU) School for the Future of Innovation in Society, He has a PhD in physics and longstanding experience in research and evaluation of emerging technologies (for many years he specialized in nanoparticle analysis and aerosol exposure in occupational settings),.

Professor Maynard is a widely recognized expert and public commentator on emerging technologies and their safe and responsible development and use, and has testified before [US] congressional committees on a number of occasions. 

None of this makes him infallible but I trust that he always works with integrity and bases his opinions on the best information at hand. I’ve always found him to be a reliable source of information.

Here’s what he had to say (from an October 25, 2019 email),

I suspect that their claims are pushing things too far – from what I can tell, professionals tend to advise against synthetic underwear because of the potential build up of moisture and bacteria and the lack of breathability, and tend to suggest natural materials – which indicating that natural fibers and good practices should be all most people need. I haven’t seen any evidence for an underwear crisis here, and one concern is that the company is manufacturing a problem which they then claim to solve. That said, I can’t see anything totally egregious in what they are doing. And the zinc presence makes sense in that it prevents bacterial growth/activity within the fabric, thus reducing the chances of odor and infection.

Pharmaceutical grade zinc and research into underwear

I was a little curious about ‘pharmaceutical grade’ zinc as my online searches for a description were unsuccessful. Andrew explained that the term likely means ‘high purity’ zinc suitable for use in medications rather than the zinc found in roofing panels.

After the reference to ‘pharmaceutical grade’ zinc there’s a reference to ‘smartcel sensitive Zinc’. Here’s more from the smartcel sensitive webpage,

smartcel™ sensitive is skin friendly thanks to zinc oxide’s soothing and anti-inflammatory capabilities. This is especially useful for people with sensitive skin or skin conditions such as eczema or neurodermitis. Since zinc is a component of skin building enzymes, it operates directly on the skin. An active exchange between the fiber and the skin occurs when the garment is worn.

Zinc oxide also acts as a shield against harmful UVA and UVB radiation [it’s used in sunscreens], which can damage our skin cells. Depending on the percentage of smartcel™ sensitive used in any garment, it can provide up to 50 SPF.

Further to this, zinc oxide possesses strong antibacterial properties, especially against odour causing bacteria, which helps to make garments stay fresh longer. *

I couldn’t see how zinc helps the pH balance in anyone’s vagina as claimed in the Kickstarter campaign and smartcel, on its ‘sensitive’ webpage, doesn’t make that claim but I found an answer in an April 4, 2017 Q&A (question and answer) interview by Jocelyn Cavallo for Medium,

What women need to know about their vaginal p

Q & A with Dr. Joanna Ellington

A woman’s vagina is a pretty amazing body part. Not only can it be a source of pleasure but it also can help create and bring new life into the world. On top of all that, it has the extraordinary ability to keep itself clean by secreting natural fluids and maintaining a healthy pH to encourage the growth of good bacteria and discourage harmful bacteria from moving in. Despite being so important, many women are never taught the vital role that pH plays in their vaginal health or how to keep it in balance.

We recently interviewed renowned Reproductive Physiologist and inventor of IsoFresh Balancing Vaginal Gel, Dr. Joanna Ellington, to give us the low down on what every woman needs to know about their vaginal pH and how to maintain a healthy level.

What is pH?

Dr. Ellington: PH is a scale of acidity and alkalinity. The measurements range from 0 to 14: a pH lower than 7 is acidic and a pH higher than 7 is considered alkaline.

What is the “perfect” pH level for a woman’s vagina?

Dr. E.: For most women of a reproductive age vaginal pH should be 4.5 or less. For post-menopausal women this can go up to about 5. The vagina will naturally be at a high pH right after sex, during your period, after you have a baby or during ovulation (your fertile time).

Are there diet and environmental factors that affect a women’s vaginal pH level?

Dr. E.: Yes, iron zinc and manganese have been found to be critical for lactobacillus (healthy bacteria) to function. Many women don’t eat well and should supplement these, especially if they are vegetarian. Additionally, many vegetarians have low estrogen because they do not eat the animal fats that help make our sex steroids. Without estrogen, vaginal pH and bacterial imbalance can occur. It is important that women on these diets ensure good fat intake from other sources, and have estrogen and testosterone and iron levels checked each year.

Do clothing and underwear affect vaginal pH?

Dr. E.: Yes, tight clothing and thong underwear [emphasis mine] have been shown in studies to decrease populations of healthy vaginal bacteria and cause pH changes in the vagina. Even if you wear these sometimes, it is important for your vaginal ecosystem that loose clothing or skirts be worn some too.

Yes, Dr. Ellington has the IsoFresh Balancing Vaginal Gel and whether that’s a good product should be researched but all of the information in the excerpt accords with what I’ve heard over the years and fits in nicely with what Andrew said, zinc in underwear could be useful for its antimicrobial properties. Also, note the reference to ‘thong underwear’ as a possible source of difficulty and note that Huha is offering thong and very high cut underwear.

Of course, your underwear may already have zinc in it as this research suggests (thank you, Andrew, for the reference),

Exposure of women to trace elements through the skin by direct contact with underwear clothing by Thao Nguyen & Mahmoud A. Saleh. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part A Toxic/Hazardous Substances and Environmental Engineering Volume 52, 2017 – Issue 1 Pages 1-6 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10934529.2016.1221212 Published online: 09 Sep 2016

This paper is behind a paywall but I have access through a membership in the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars. So, here’s the part I found interesting,

… The main chemical pollutants present in textiles are dyes containing carcinogenic amines, metals, pentachlorophenol, chlorine bleaching, halogen carriers, free formaldehyde, biocides, fire retardants and softeners.[1] Metals are also found in textile products and clothing are used for many purposes: Co [cobalt], Cu [copper], Cr [chromium] and Pb [lead] are used as metal complex dyes, Cr as pigments mordant, Sn as catalyst in synthetic fabrics and as synergists of flame retardants,Ag [silver] as antimicrobials and Ti [titanium] and Zn [zinc] as water repellents and odor preventive agents.[2–5] When present in textile materials, the toxic elements mentioned above represent not only a major environmental problem in the textile industry but also they may impose potential danger to human health by absorption through the skin.[6,7] [emphasis mine] Chronic exposure to low levels of toxic elements has been associated with a number of adverse human health effects.[8–11] Also exposure to high concentration of elements which are considered as essential for humans such as Cu, Co, Fe [iron], Mn [manganese] or Zn among others, can also be harmful.[12] [emphasis mine] Co, Cr, Cu and Ni [nitrogen] are skin sensitizers,[13,14] which may lead to contact dermatitis, also Cr can lead to liver damage, pulmonary congestion and cancer.[15] [emphasis mine] The purpose of the present study was to determine the concentrations of a number of elements in various skin-contact clothes. For risk estimations, the determination of the extractable amounts of heavy metals is of importance, since they reflect their possible impact on human health. [p. 2 PDF]

So, there’s the link to cancer. Maybe.

Are zinc-infused undies a good idea?

It could go either way. (For specifics about the conclusions reached in the study, scroll down to the Ooops! subheading.) I like the idea of using sustainable Eucalyptus-based material (TencelL) for the underwear as I have heard that cotton isn’t sustainably cultivated. As for claims regarding the product’s environmental friendliness, it’s based on wood, specifically, cellulose, which Canadian researchers have been experimenting with at the nanoscale* and they certainly have been touting nanocellulose as environmentally friendly. Tencel’s sustainability page lists a number of environmental certifications from the European Union, Belgium, and the US.

*Somewhere in the Kickstarter campaign material, there’s a reference to nanofibrils and I’m guessing those nanofibrils are Tencel’s wood fibers at the nanoscale. As well, I’m guessing that smartcel’s fabric contains zinc oxide nanoparticles.

Whether or not you need more zinc is something you need to determine for yourself. Finding out if the pH balance in your vagina is within a healthy range might be a good way to start. It would also be nice to know how much zinc is in the underwear and whether it’s being used antimicrobial properties and/or as a source for one of minerals necessary for your health.

How the Kickstarter campaign is going

At the time of this posting, they’ve reached a little over $24,000 with six days left. The goal was $10,000. Sadly, there are no questions in the FAQ (frequently asked questions).

Reading tips

It’s exhausting trying to track down authenticity. In this case, there were health and environmental claims but I do have a few suggestions.

  1. Look at the imagery critically and try to ignore the hyperbole.
  2. How specific are the claims? e.g., How much zinc is there in the underpants?
  3. Who are their experts and how trustworthy are the agencies/companies mentioned?
  4. If research is cited, are the publishers reputable and is the journal reputable?
  5. Does it make sense given your own experience?
  6. What are the consequences if you make a mistake?

Overblown claims and vague intimations of disease are not usually good signs. Conversely, someone with great credential may not be trustworthy which is why I usually try to find more than one source for confirmation. The person behind this campaign and the Huha company is Alexa Suter. She’s based in Vancouver, Canada and seems to have spent most of her time as a writer and social media and video producer with a few forays into sales and real estate. I wonder if she’s modeling herself and her current lifestyle entrepreneurial effort on Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle company, Goop.

Huha underwear may fulfill its claims or it may be just another pair of underwear or it may be unhealthy. As for the environmentally friendly claims, let’s hope that the case. On a personal level, I’m more hopeful about that.

Regardless, the underwear is not cheap. The smallest pledge that will get your underwear (a three-pack) is $65 CAD.

Ooops! ETA: November 8, 2019:

I forgot to include the conclusion the researchers arrived at and some details on how they arrived at those conclusions. First, they tested 120 pairs of underpants in all sorts of colours and made in different parts of the world.

Second, some underpants showed excessive levels of metals. Cotton was the most likely material to show excess although nylon and polyester can also be problematic. To put this into proportion and with reference to zinc, “Zn exceeded the limit in 4% of the tested samples
and was found mostly in samples manufactured in China.” [p. 6 PDF] Finally, dark colours tested for higher levels of metals than light colours.

While it doesn’t mention underpants as such, there’s a November 8, 2019 article ‘Five things everyone with a vagina should know‘ by Paula McGrath for BBC news online. McGrath’s health expert is Dr. Jen Gunter, a physician whose specialties are obstetrics, gynaecology, and pain.

Preventing corrosion in oil pipelines at the nanoscale

A June 7, 2019 news item on Azonano announces research into the process of oil pipeline corrosion at the nanoscale (Note: A link has been removed),

Steel pipes tend to rust and sooner or later fail. To anticipate disasters, oil companies and others have developed computer models to foretell when replacement is necessary. However, if the models themselves are incorrect, they can be amended only through experience, an expensive problem if detection happens too late.

Currently, scientists at Sandia National Laboratories, the Department of Energy’s Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies and the Aramco Research Center in Boston, have discovered that a specific form of nanoscale corrosion is responsible for suddenly diminishing the working life of steel pipes, according to a paper recently published in Nature’s Materials Degradation journal.

A June 6, 2019 Sandia National Laboratories news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,

Using transmission electron microscopes, which shoot electrons through targets to take pictures, the researchers were able to pin the root of the problem on a triple junction formed by a grain of cementite — a compound of carbon and iron — and two grains of ferrite, a type of iron. This junction forms frequently during most methods of fashioning steel pipe.

Iron atoms slip-sliding away

The researchers found that disorder in the atomic structure of those triple junctions made it easier for the corrosive solution to remove iron atoms along that interface.
In the experiment, the corrosive process stopped when the triple junction had been consumed by corrosion, but the crevice left behind allowed the corrosive solution to attack the interior of the steel.

“We thought of a possible solution for forming new pipe, based on changing the microstructure of the steel surface during forging, but it still needs to be tested and have a patent filed if it works,” said Sandia’s principle investigator Katherine Jungjohann, a paper author and lead microscopist. “But now we think we know where the major problem is.”

Aramco senior research scientist Steven Hayden added, “This was the world’s first real-time observation of nanoscale corrosion in a real-world material — carbon steel — which is the most prevalent type of steel used in infrastructure worldwide. Through it, we identified the types of interfaces and mechanisms that play a role in the initiation and progression of localized steel corrosion. The work is already being translated into models used to prevent corrosion-related catastrophes like infrastructure collapse and pipeline breaks.”

To mimic the chemical exposure of pipe in the field, where the expensive, delicate microscopes could not be moved, very thin pipe samples were exposed at Sandia to a variety of chemicals known to pass through oil pipelines.

Sandia researcher and paper author Khalid Hattar put a dry sample in a vacuum and used a transmission electron microscope to create maps of the steel grain types and their orientation, much as a pilot in a plane might use a camera to create area maps of farmland and roads, except that Hattar’s maps had approximately 6 nanometers resolution. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.)

“By comparing these maps before and after the liquid corrosion experiments, a direct identification of the first phase that fell out of the samples could be identified, essentially identifying the weakest link in the internal microstructure,” Hattar said.

Sandia researcher and paper author Paul Kotula said, “The sample we analyzed was considered a low-carbon steel, but it has relatively high-carbon inclusions of cementite which are the sites of localized corrosion attacks.

“Our transmission electron microscopes were a key piece of this work, allowing us to image the sample, observe the corrosion process, and do microanalysis before and after the corrosion occurred to identify the part played by the ferrite and cementite grains and the corrosion product.”

When Hayden first started working in corrosion research, he said, “I was daunted at how complex and poorly understood corrosion is. This is largely because realistic experiments would involve observing complex materials like steel in liquid environments and with nanoscale resolution, and the technology to accomplish such a feat had only recently been developed and yet to be applied to corrosion. Now we are optimistic that further work at Sandia and the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies will allow us to rethink manufacturing processes to minimize the expression of the susceptible nanostructures that render the steel vulnerable to accelerated decay mechanisms.”

Invisible path of localized corrosion

Localized corrosion is different from uniform corrosion. The latter occurs in bulk form and is highly predictable. The former is invisible, creating a pathway observable only at its endpoint and increasing bulk corrosion rates by making it easier for corrosion to spread.

“A better understanding of the mechanisms by which corrosion initiates and progresses at these types of interfaces in steel will be key to mitigating corrosion-related losses,” according to the paper.

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

Localized corrosion of low-carbon steel at the nanoscale by Steven C. Hayden, Claire Chisholm, Rachael O. Grudt, Jeffery A. Aguiar, William M. Mook, Paul G. Kotula, Tatiana S. Pilyugina, Daniel C. Bufford, Khalid Hattar, Timothy J. Kucharski, Ihsan M. Taie, Michele L. Ostraat & Katherine L. Jungjohann. npj Materials Degradation volume 3, Article number: 17 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41529-019-0078-1 Published 12 April 2019

This paper is open access.

Creating nanofibres from your old clothing (cotton waste)

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC; Canada) have discovered a way to turn cotton waste into a potentially higher value product. An October 15, 2019 UBC news release makes the announcement (Note: Links have been removed),

In the materials engineering labs at UBC, surrounded by Bunsen burners, microscopes and spinning machines, professor Frank Ko and research scientist Addie Bahi have developed a simple process for converting waste cotton into much higher-value nanofibres.

These fibres are the building blocks of advanced products like surgical implants, antibacterial wound dressings and fuel cell batteries.

“More than 28 million tonnes of cotton are produced worldwide each year, but very little of that is actually recycled after its useful life,” explains Bahi, a materials engineer who previously worked on recycling waste in the United Kingdom. “We wanted to find a viable way to break down waste cotton and convert it into a value-added product. This is one of the first successful attempts to make nanofibres from fabric scraps – previous research has focused on using a ready cellulose base to make nanofibres.”

Compared to conventional fibres, nanofibres are extremely thin (a nanofibre can be 500 times smaller than the width of the human hair) and so have a high surface-to-volume ratio. This makes them ideal for use in applications ranging from sensors and filtration (think gas sensors and water filters) to protective clothing, tissue engineering and energy storage.
Ko and Bahi developed their process in collaboration with ecologyst, a B.C.-based company that manufactures sustainable outdoor apparel, and with the participation of materials engineering student Kosuke Ayama.

They chopped down waste cotton fabric supplied by ecologyst into tiny strips and soaked it in a chemical bath to remove all additives and artificial dyes from the fabric. The resulting gossamer-thin material was then fed to an electrospinning machine to produce very fine, smooth nanofibres. These can be further processed into various finished products.

“The process itself is relatively simple, but what we’re thrilled about is that we’ve proved you can extract a high-value product from something that would normally go to landfill, where it will eventually be incinerated. It’s estimated that only a fraction of cotton clothing is recycled. The more product we can re-process, the better it will be for the environment,” said lead researcher Frank Ko, a Canada Research Chair in advanced fibrous materials in UBC’s faculty of applied science.

The process Bahi and Ko developed is lab-scale, supported by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. In the future, the pair hope to refine and scale up their process and eventually share their methods with industry partners.

“We started with cotton because it’s one of the most popular fabrics for clothing,” said Bahi. “Once we’re able to develop the process further, we can look at converting other textiles into value-added materials. Achieving zero waste [emphasis mine] for the fashion and textile industries is extremely challenging – this is simply one of the many first steps towards that goal.”

The researchers have a 30 sec. video illustrating the need to recycle cotton materials,

You can find the researchers’ industrial partner, ecologyst here.

At the mention of ‘zero waste’, I was reminded of an upcoming conference, Oct. 30 -31, 2019 in Vancouver (Canada) where UBC is located. It’s called the 2019 Zero Waste Conference and, oddly,there’s no mention of Ko or Bahi or Ayama or ecologyst on the speakers’ list. Maybe I was looking at the wrong list or the organizers didn’t have enough lead time to add more speakers.

One final comment, I wish there was a little more science (i.e., more technical details) in the news release.

Graphene from gum trees

Caption: Eucalyptus bark extract has never been used to synthesise graphene sheets before. Courtesy: RMIT University

It’s been quite educational reading a June 24, 2019 news item on Nanowerk about deriving graphene from Eucalyptus bark (Note: Links have been removed),

Graphene is the thinnest and strongest material known to humans. It’s also flexible, transparent and conducts heat and electricity 10 times better than copper, making it ideal for anything from flexible nanoelectronics to better fuel cells.

The new approach by researchers from RMIT University (Australia) and the National Institute of Technology, Warangal (India), uses Eucalyptus bark extract and is cheaper and more sustainable than current synthesis methods (ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, “Novel and Highly Efficient Strategy for the Green Synthesis of Soluble Graphene by Aqueous Polyphenol Extracts of Eucalyptus Bark and Its Applications in High-Performance Supercapacitors”).

A June 24, 2019 RMIT University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides a little more detail,

RMIT lead researcher, Distinguished Professor Suresh Bhargava, said the new method could reduce the cost of production from $USD100 per gram to a staggering $USD0.5 per gram.

“Eucalyptus bark extract has never been used to synthesise graphene sheets before and we are thrilled to find that it not only works, it’s in fact a superior method, both in terms of safety and overall cost,” said Bhargava.

“Our approach could bring down the cost of making graphene from around $USD100 per gram to just 50 cents, increasing it availability to industries globally and enabling the development of an array of vital new technologies.”

Graphene’s distinctive features make it a transformative material that could be used in the development of flexible electronics, more powerful computer chips and better solar panels, water filters and bio-sensors.

Professor Vishnu Shanker from the National Institute of Technology, Warangal, said the ‘green’ chemistry avoided the use of toxic reagents, potentially opening the door to the application of graphene not only for electronic devices but also biocompatible materials.

“Working collaboratively with RMIT’s Centre for Advanced Materials and Industrial Chemistry we’re harnessing the power of collective intelligence to make these discoveries,” he said.

A novel approach to graphene synthesis:

Chemical reduction is the most common method for synthesising graphene oxide as it allows for the production of graphene at a low cost in bulk quantities.

This method however relies on reducing agents that are dangerous to both people and the environment.

When tested in the application of a supercapacitor, the ‘green’ graphene produced using this method matched the quality and performance characteristics of traditionally-produced graphene without the toxic reagents.

Bhargava said the abundance of eucalyptus trees in Australia made it a cheap and accessible resource for producing graphene locally.

“Graphene is a remarkable material with great potential in many applications due to its chemical and physical properties and there’s a growing demand for economical and environmentally friendly large-scale production,” he said.

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

Novel and Highly Efficient Strategy for the Green Synthesis of Soluble Graphene by Aqueous Polyphenol Extracts of Eucalyptus Bark and Its Applications in High-Performance Supercapacitors by Saikumar ManchalaV. S. R. K. Tandava, Deshetti Jampaiah, Suresh K. Bhargava, Vishnu Shanker. ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng.2019XXXXXXXXXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acssuschemeng.9b01506 Publication Date:June 13, 2019

Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Low-cost carbon sequestration and eco-friendly manufacturing for chemicals with nanobio hybrid organisms

Years ago I was asked about carbon sequestration and nanotechnology and could not come up with any examples. At last I have something for the next time the question is asked. From a June 11, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

University of Colorado Boulder researchers have developed nanobio-hybrid organisms capable of using airborne carbon dioxide and nitrogen to produce a variety of plastics and fuels, a promising first step toward low-cost carbon sequestration and eco-friendly manufacturing for chemicals.

By using light-activated quantum dots to fire particular enzymes within microbial cells, the researchers were able to create “living factories” that eat harmful CO2 and convert it into useful products such as biodegradable plastic, gasoline, ammonia and biodiesel.

A June 11, 2019 University of Colorado at Boulder news release (also on EurekAlert) by Trent Knoss, which originated the news item, provides a deeper dive into the research,

“The innovation is a testament to the power of biochemical processes,” said Prashant Nagpal, lead author of the research and an assistant professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “We’re looking at a technique that could improve CO2 capture to combat climate change and one day even potentially replace carbon-intensive manufacturing for plastics and fuels.”

The project began in 2013, when Nagpal and his colleagues began exploring the broad potential of nanoscopic quantum dots, which are tiny semiconductors similar to those used in television sets. Quantum dots can be injected into cells passively and are designed to attach and self-assemble to desired enzymes and then activate these enzymes on command using specific wavelengths of light.

Nagpal wanted to see if quantum dots could act as a spark plug to fire particular enzymes within microbial cells that have the means to convert airborne CO2 and nitrogen, but do not do so naturally due to a lack of photosynthesis.

By diffusing the specially-tailored dots into the cells of common microbial species found in soil, Nagpal and his colleagues bridged the gap. Now, exposure to even small amounts of indirect sunlight would activate the microbes’ CO2 appetite, without a need for any source of energy or food to carry out the energy-intensive biochemical conversions.

“Each cell is making millions of these chemicals and we showed they could exceed their natural yield by close to 200 percent,” Nagpal said.

The microbes, which lie dormant in water, release their resulting product to the surface, where it can be skimmed off and harvested for manufacturing. Different combinations of dots and light produce different products: Green wavelengths cause the bacteria to consume nitrogen and produce ammonia while redder wavelengths make the microbes feast on CO2 to produce plastic instead.

The process also shows promising signs of being able to operate at scale. The study found that even when the microbial factories were activated consistently for hours at a time, they showed few signs of exhaustion or depletion, indicating that the cells can regenerate and thus limit the need for rotation.

“We were very surprised that it worked as elegantly as it did,” Nagpal said. “We’re just getting started with the synthetic applications.”

The ideal futuristic scenario, Nagpal said, would be to have single-family homes and businesses pipe their CO2 emissions directly to a nearby holding pond, where microbes would convert them to a bioplastic. The owners would be able to sell the resulting product for a small profit while essentially offsetting their own carbon footprint.

“Even if the margins are low and it can’t compete with petrochemicals on a pure cost basis, there is still societal benefit to doing this,” Nagpal said. “If we could convert even a small fraction of local ditch ponds, it would have a sizeable impact on the carbon output of towns. It wouldn’t be asking much for people to implement. Many already make beer at home, for example, and this is no more complicated.”

The focus now, he said, will shift to optimizing the conversion process and bringing on new undergraduate students. Nagpal is looking to convert the project into an undergraduate lab experiment in the fall semester, funded by a CU Boulder Engineering Excellence Fund grant. Nagpal credits his current students with sticking with the project over the course of many years.

“It has been a long journey and their work has been invaluable,” he said. “I think these results show that it was worth it.”

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

Nanorg Microbial Factories: Light-Driven Renewable Biochemical Synthesis Using Quantum Dot-Bacteria Nanobiohybrids by Yuchen Ding, John R. Bertram, Carrie Eckert, Rajesh Reddy Bommareddy, Rajan Patel, Alex Conradie, Samantha Bryan, Prashant Nagpal. J. Am. Chem. Soc.2019XXXXXXXXXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/jacs.9b02549 Publication Date:June 7, 2019
Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Safe nanomaterial handling on a tiny budget

A June 3, 2019 news item on Nanowerk describes an inexpensive way to safely handle carbon nanotubes (CNTs), Note: A link has been removed,

With a little practice, it doesn’t take much more than 10 minutes, a couple of bags and a big bucket to keep nanomaterials in their place.

The Rice University lab of chemist Andrew Barron works with bulk carbon nanotubes on a variety of projects. Years ago, members of the lab became concerned that nanotubes could escape into the air, and developed a cheap and clean method to keep them contained as they were transferred from large containers into jars for experimental use.

More recently Barron himself became concerned that too few labs around the world were employing best practices to handle nanomaterials. He decided to share what his Rice team had learned.

“There was a series of studies that said if you’re going to handle nanotubes, you really need to use safety protocols,” Barron said. “Then I saw a study that said many labs didn’t use any form of hood or containment system. In the U.S., it was really bad, and in Asia it was even worse. But there are a significant number of labs scaling up to use these materials at the kilogram scale without taking the proper precautions.”

The lab’s inexpensive method is detailed in an open-access paper in the Springer Nature journal SN Applied Sciences (“The safe handling of bulk low-density nanomaterials”).

Here’s a bag and a bucket,

Caption: A plastic bucket and a plastic bag contain a 5-gallon supply of carbon nanotubes in a lab at Rice University, the beginning of the process to safely transfer the nanotubes for experimental use. The Rice lab published its technique in SN Applied Sciences. Credit: Barron Research Group/Rice University

A June 3, 2019 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert and received separately by email), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

In bulk form, carbon nanotubes are fluffy and disperse easily if disturbed. The Rice lab typically stores the tubes in 5-gallon plastic buckets, and simply opening the lid is enough to send them flying because of their low density.

Varun Shenoy Gangoli, a research scientist in Barron’s lab, and Pavan Raja, a scientist with Rice’s Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment center, developed for their own use a method that involves protecting the worker and sequestering loose tubes when removing smaller amounts of the material for use in experiments.

Full details are available in the paper, but the precautions include making sure workers are properly attired with long pants, long sleeves, lab coats, full goggles and face masks, along with two pairs of gloves duct-taped to the lab coat sleeves. The improvised glove bag involves a 25-gallon trash bin with a plastic bag taped to the rim. The unopened storage container is placed inside, and then the bin is covered with another transparent trash bag, with small holes cut in the top for access.

After transferring the nanotubes, acetone wipes are used to clean the gloves and more acetone is sprayed inside the barrel so settling nanotubes would stick to the surfaces. These can be recovered and returned to the storage container.

Barron said it took lab members time to learn to use the protocol efficiently, “but now they can get their samples in 5 to 10 minutes.” He’s sure other labs can and will enhance the technique for their own circumstances. He noted a poster presented at the Ninth Guadalupe Workshop on the proper handling of carbon nanotubes earned recognition and discussion among the world’s premier researchers in the field, noting the importance of the work for agencies in general.

“When we decided to write about this, we were originally just going to put it on the web and hope somebody would read it occasionally,” Barron said. “We couldn’t imagine who would publish it, but we heard that an editor at Springer Nature was really keen to have published articles like this.

“I think this is something people will use,” he said. “There’s nothing outrageous but it helps everybody, from high schools and colleges that are starting to use nanoparticles for experiments to small companies. That was the goal: Let’s provide a process that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars to install and allows you to transfer nanomaterials safely and on a large scale. Finally, publish said work in an open-access journal to maximize the reach across the globe.”

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

The safe handling of bulk low-density nanomaterials by Varun Shenoy Gangoli, Pavan M. V. Raja, Gibran Liezer Esquenazi, Andrew R. Barron. SN Applied Sciences June 2019, 1:644 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s42452-019-0647-5 First Online 25 May 2019

This paper is open access.

‘Smart’ windows in Vancouver (Canada): engineering issues?

This post was going to focus on the first building in Canada to feature ‘smart’ windows. In this case, they are electrochromic windows and the company, View Dynamic Glass, was mentioned here in a September 17, 2018 posting about the windows’ use at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. (The posting includes a link to the View Dynamic Glass report on the windows’ use and a short video.)

However, things changed but, first, let’s start with an explanation as to what electrochromic glass ir. Chris Woodford in a December 5, 2018 article on explainthatstuff.com offers a great overview which includes an explanation, a description of how they work, and more. What follows is a brief excerpt from Woodford’s overview (Note: Links have been removed),

What is electrochromic glass?

Glass is an amazing material and our buildings would be dark, dingy, cold, and damp without it. But it has its drawbacks too. It lets in light and heat even when you don’t want it to. On a blinding summer’s day, the more heat (“solar gain”) that enters your building the more you’ll need to use your air-conditioning—a horrible waste of energy that costs you money and harms the environment. That’s why most of the windows in homes and offices are fitted with curtains or blinds. If you’re into interior design and remodeling, you might think furnishings like this are neat and attractive—but in cold, practical, scientific terms they’re a nuisance. Let’s be honest about this: curtains and blinds are a technological kludge to make up for glass’s big, built-in drawback: it’s transparent (or translucent) even when you don’t want it to be.

Since the early 20th century, people have got used to the idea of buildings that are increasingly automated. We have electric clothes washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and much more. So why not fit our homes with electric windows that can change from clear to dark automatically? Smart windows (also referred to by the names smart glass, switchable windows, and dynamic windows) do exactly that using a scientific idea called electrochromism, in which materials change color (or switch from transparent to opaque) when you apply an electrical voltage across them. Typically smart windows start off a blueish color and gradually (over a few minutes) turn transparent when the electric current passes through them.

As for the news about its Vancouver debut, I was very excited to see this April 28, 2019 article by Kenneth Chan for dailyhive.com/vancouver,

BlueSky Properties’ 10-storey office building at 988 West Broadway [in Vancouver, Canada; emphasis mine] is home to the new Vancouver offices of Industrial Alliance Financial Group, which has leased nine stories and 93,700-sq-ft of office space.



One of the building’s unique design features is its use of View Dynamic Glass technology [emphases mine] — a glass technology that controls heat and glare, reduces overall energy consumption and costs, and improves the health and wellness of individuals working inside the building.

These smart windows optimize the amount of natural light to enhance mental and physical well-being without the need for shades or blinds. The application of the technology on this building, the first of its kind in Canada, will result in energy savings of up to 20%, [emphasis mine] with the amount of sunlight streaming through automatically tinted to block glare.

Blue Sky Properties (a Bosa Family Company), the local developer for this building, was very excited about the building and the ‘smart’ glass technology, according to its April 23, 2019 news release (here for a short version and here for the full version).

Other than being happy to see the technology being employed in Vancouver, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the property. That changed on reading a May 8, 2019 article by Kenneth Chan for dailyhive.com/vancouver,

A structural engineer based in Vancouver has been stripped of his license to work in British Columbia [emphasis mine] following an investigation that determined his design for a condominium tower in Surrey fell short of the provincial building code.

According to a disciplinary notice posted by Engineers and Geoscientists British Columbia Association (EGBCA) on April 30, John Bryson, a managing partner of Bryson Markulin Zickmantel Structural Engineers (BMZSE), [emphases mine] admitted to unprofessional conduct and acted contrary to the association’s code of ethics that requires its members to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”

“Mr. Bryson admitted that his structural design for the building did not comply with the 2006 BC Building Code, to which he certified it had been designed, in particular with respect to seismic and wind loads,” reads the notice. [emphases mine]

BMZSE has been involved in the design work of a number of projects across Metro Vancouver, including Station Square, Rogers Arena South Tower, Lougheed Heights, River District Parcel 17, The Jervis, Harwood, Plaza 88, Solo District, Burrard Place, Centreview Place, Trump International Hotel & Tower Vancouver, Central, Sovereign, Kings Crossing, and 988 West Broadway. [emphases mine]

You can find the ‘disciplinary notice’ (it’s an account of what Bryson failed to do and the punishment for the failure) here on the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of the Province of British Columbia (also known as Engineers and Geoscientists British Columbia) website.

Presumably, all of Bryson’s projects have been reviewed since the disciplinary action.

Mushroom compost as a biobased nanocarrier for curing plant diseases

Scientists in Europe have just cured a plant disease Esca (fungi that destroy grapevines) for the first time ever. A May 22, 2019 news item on Nanowerk announces the research success,

Plant diseases, though a normal part of nature, can have disastrous effects in agriculture. They reduce food for people and revenues in rural areas. In the worst cases they result in hunger and starvation, as many famines in history show. About 16% of all crops are lost to plant diseases each year across the world.

The Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz has just delivered a double novelty to the scientific world: nanocarriers made of “waste”, which release drugs in a way that cured a plant disease for the first time.

Nanocarriers are very tiny degradable capsules that have been studied for medical applications in the last 30 years. These nanocapsules are considered the “magic bullet” to cure human cancer, because they discharge the drug directly to the targeted cells.

A May 20, 2019 BIOrescue project press release, which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

Treating plant diseases that have never been cured before

Thanks to the European research funds of the BIOrescue project, the researchers at the Max Plank Institute investigated the possibility to transpose the same principle to cure plant diseases. They have been testing these nanocapsules to treat ESCA, a fungi disease that affects 2 billion grapevine plants across the world for which there has not been a cure so far.
Dr Frederik Wurm, who is leading this research at Max Planck said “After two years of testing in our labs and then on Riesling vineyards in Germany, it looks like we have managed to reduce the symptoms of the disease. Further tests will confirm if this cure is a solution in the long term. If the effects are confirmed the same method can be extended potentially to any other disease in agriculture”.

“Circular” nanocarriers made of waste

The second novelty of these nanoscopic capsules is that they can be made of waste material – in this case used mushrooms compost.

“Normally nanocarriers are made of polymers based on fossil fuels. In the past, we have developed biobased nanocarriers made of lignin coming from the paper and pulp industry. But this is the very first time we try to develop them from agricultural residues, which makes them a truly “circular” product, from used plant fertiliser to plant cure. Nothing is going to be wasted!” said Wurm.

To obtain these tiny biodegradable capsules, the Max Planck researchers carried out a chemical conversion to transform the soluble lignin obtained after the pretreatment of used mushroom compost.

Afterwards the nanocarriers have been loaded with the drug that is usually sprayed on the plant with very limited effects. Thanks to the natural enzymatic degradation of the nanocarriers, the drug is released inside the plant in a controlled and progressive way. With this effective method the drug only targets the fungi, which destroy the plant from inside. Tests demonstrated that these nanocarriers are not toxic for the plants and do not reach the crop.

“Beyond the agricultural sector, the capsules have a myriad of other potential applications from food enhancement to pharmaceutical products. It’s only a matter of time until we find biobased nanocarriers available on the market for any of these uses” said Wurm.

Bio-based nanocarrier Courtesy: BIOrescue

You can find out more about the BIOrescue project here, including interesting facts such as this,

To satisfy consumer demand for mushrooms, European farmers use over three million tonnes of compost each year. Though the compost contains valuable organic components, it is only suitable for one to three mushroom harvests, and disposing of it creates significant economic and logistical problems for Europe’s farmers.

Apparently, this is is a ‘circular economy’ project. ‘Circular economy’ being one of the latest buzz terms. Let’s hope it graduates to something ‘beyond buzz’, as it were.