Category Archives: environment

The Broad Institute gives us another reason to love CRISPR

More and more, this resembles a public relations campaign. First, CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) gene editing is going to be helpful with COVID-19 and now it can help us to deal with conservation issues. (See my May 26, 2020 posting about the latest CRISPR doings as of May 7, 2020; included is a brief description of the patent dispute between Broad Institute and UC Berkeley and musings about a public relations campaign.)

A May 21, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces how CRISPR could be useful for conservation,

The gene-editing technology CRISPR has been used for a variety of agricultural and public health purposes — from growing disease-resistant crops to, more recently, a diagnostic test for the virus that causes COVID-19. Now a study involving fish that look nearly identical to the endangered Delta smelt finds that CRISPR can be a conservation and resource management tool, as well. The researchers think its ability to rapidly detect and differentiate among species could revolutionize environmental monitoring.

Caption: Longfin smelt can be difficult to differentiate from endangered Delta smelt. Here, a longfin smelt is swabbed for genetic identification through a CRISPR tool called SHERLOCK. Credit: Alisha Goodbla/UC Davis

A May 21, 2020 University of California at Davis (UC Davis) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Kat Kerlin, which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The study, published in the journal Molecular Ecology Resources, was led by scientists at the University of California, Davis, and the California Department of Water Resources in collaboration with MIT Broad Institute [emphasis mine].

As a proof of concept, it found that the CRISPR-based detection platform SHERLOCK (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter Unlocking) [emphasis mine] was able to genetically distinguish threatened fish species from similar-looking nonnative species in nearly real time, with no need to extract DNA.

“CRISPR can do a lot more than edit genomes,” said co-author Andrea Schreier, an adjunct assistant professor in the UC Davis animal science department. “It can be used for some really cool ecological applications, and we’re just now exploring that.”

WHEN GETTING IT WRONG IS A BIG DEAL

The scientists focused on three fish species of management concern in the San Francisco Estuary: the U.S. threatened and California endangered Delta smelt, the California threatened longfin smelt and the nonnative wakasagi. These three species are notoriously difficult to visually identify, particularly in their younger stages.

Hundreds of thousands of Delta smelt once lived in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta before the population crashed in the 1980s. Only a few thousand are estimated to remain in the wild.

“When you’re trying to identify an endangered species, getting it wrong is a big deal,” said lead author Melinda Baerwald, a project scientist at UC Davis at the time the study was conceived and currently an environmental program manager with California Department of Water Resources.

For example, state and federal water pumping projects have to reduce water exports if enough endangered species, like Delta smelt or winter-run chinook salmon, get sucked into the pumps. Rapid identification makes real-time decision making about water operations feasible.

FROM HOURS TO MINUTES

Typically to accurately identify the species, researchers rub a swab over the fish to collect a mucus sample or take a fin clip for a tissue sample. Then they drive or ship it to a lab for a genetic identification test and await the results. Not counting travel time, that can take, at best, about four hours.

SHERLOCK shortens this process from hours to minutes. Researchers can identify the species within about 20 minutes, at remote locations, noninvasively, with no specialized lab equipment. Instead, they use either a handheld fluorescence reader or a flow strip that works much like a pregnancy test — a band on the strip shows if the target species is present.

“Anyone working anywhere could use this tool to quickly come up with a species identification,” Schreier said.

OTHER CRYPTIC CRITTERS

While the three fish species were the only animals tested for this study, the researchers expect the method could be used for other species, though more research is needed to confirm. If so, this sort of onsite, real-time capability may be useful for confirming species at crime scenes, in the animal trade at border crossings, for monitoring poaching, and for other animal and human health applications.

“There are a lot of cryptic species we can’t accurately identify with our naked eye,” Baerwald said. “Our partners at MIT are really interested in pathogen detection for humans. We’re interested in pathogen detection for animals as well as using the tool for other conservation issues.”

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

Rapid and accurate species identification for ecological studies and monitoring using CRISPR‐based SHERLOCK by Melinda R. Baerwald, Alisha M. Goodbla, Raman P. Nagarajan, Jonathan S. Gootenberg, Omar O. Abudayyeh, Feng Zhang, Andrea D. Schreier. Molecular Ecology Resources https://doi.org/10.1111/1755-0998.13186 First published: 12 May 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

The business of CRISPR

SHERLOCK™, is a trademark for what Sherlock Biosciences calls one of its engineering biology platforms. From the Sherlock Biosciences Technology webpage,

What is SHERLOCK™?

SHERLOCK is an evolution of CRISPR technology, which others use to make precise edits in genetic code. SHERLOCK can detect the unique genetic fingerprints of virtually any DNA or RNA sequence in any organism or pathogen. Developed by our founders and licensed exclusively from the Broad Institute, SHERLOCK is a method for single molecule detection of nucleic acid targets and stands for Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing. It works by amplifying genetic sequences and programming a CRISPR molecule to detect the presence of a specific genetic signature in a sample, which can also be quantified. When it finds those signatures, the CRISPR enzyme is activated and releases a robust signal. This signal can be adapted to work on a simple paper strip test, in laboratory equipment, or to provide an electrochemical readout that can be read with a mobile phone.

However, things get a little more confusing when you look at the Broad Institute’s Developing Diagnostics and Treatments webpage,

Ensuring the SHERLOCK diagnostic platform is easily accessible, especially in the developing world, where the need for inexpensive, reliable, field-based diagnostics is the most urgent

SHERLOCK (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing) is a CRISPR-based diagnostic tool that is rapid, inexpensive, and highly sensitive, with the potential to have a transformative effect on research and global public health. The SHERLOCK platform can detect viruses, bacteria, or other targets in clinical samples such as urine or blood, and reveal results on a paper strip — without the need for extensive specialized equipment. This technology could potentially be used to aid the response to infectious disease outbreaks, monitor antibiotic resistance, detect cancer, and more. SHERLOCK tools are freely available [emphasis mine] for academic research worldwide, and the Broad Institute’s licensing framework [emphasis mine] ensures that the SHERLOCK diagnostic platform is easily accessible in the developing world, where inexpensive, reliable, field-based diagnostics are urgently needed.

Here’s what I suspect. as stated, the Broad Institute has free SHERLOCK licenses for academic institutions and not-for-profit organizations but Sherlock Biosciences, a Broad Institute spinoff company, is for-profit and has trademarked SHERLOCK for commercial purposes.

Final thoughts

This looks like a relatively subtle campaign to influence public perceptions. Genetic modification or genetic engineering as exemplified by the CRISPR gene editing technique is a force for the good of all. It will help us in our hour of need (COVID-19 pandemic) and it can help us save various species and better manage our resources.

This contrasts greatly with the publicity generated by the CRISPR twins situation where a scientist claimed to have successfully edited the germline for twins, Lulu and Nana. This was done despite a voluntary, worldwide moratorium on germline editing of viable embryos. (Search the terms [either here or on a standard search engine] ‘CRISPR twins’, ‘Lulu and Nana’, and/or ‘He Jiankui’ for details about the scandal.

In addition to presenting CRISPR as beneficial in the short term rather than the distant future, this publicity also subtly positions the Broad Institute as CRISPR’s owner.

Or, maybe I’m wrong. Regardless, I’m watching.

The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (4 of 5)

I was hoping this would be the concluding part of this series but there was much more than I dreamed. (I know that’s repetitive but I’m truly gobsmacked.)

Citizen science

Astronomy and bird watching (ornithology) are probably the only two scientific endeavours that have consistently engaged nonexperts/amateurs/citizen scientists right from the earliest days through the 21st century. Medical research, physics, chemistry, and others have, until recently and despite their origins in ‘amateur’ (or citizen) science, become the exclusive domain of professional experts.

This situation seems to be changing both here in Canada and elsewhere. One of the earliest postings about citizen science on this blog was in 2010 and, one of the most amusing to me personally, was this March 21, 2013 posting titled: Comparing techniques, citizen science to expert science. It’s about a study by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UK) comparing data collection by citizen scientists with experts. In this particular project where undersea data was being collected and people with diving skills needed, the citizen scientists did a better job than the expert scientists of collecting data. (I’m not trying to suggest that experts can be replaced by amateurs but do suggest that there are advantages to working together.)

*As for the Canadian science (from a June 15, 2018 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release),*

Take a look at your car. The bus you take to work. The smart phone you tap on during your commute. They all have one thing in common: science. Science is all around us. It shapes the way we live, the meals we grab on the go and the commute that takes us to school and work.

That is why the Government of Canada is encouraging young Canadians’ interest in science. Research and innovation lead to breakthroughs in agriculture, transit, medicine, green technology and service delivery, improving the quality of life for all Canadians. The outcomes of research also create jobs, strengthen the economy and support a growing middle class.

The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, carried that message to an audience of young students during her first citizen science Google Hangout today. The Hangout, run by Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, a not-for-profit organization, featured frog exhibits from the Toronto Zoo and a demonstration of the FrogWatch citizen science project by Dr. Nancy Kingsbury of Environment and Climate Change Canada. Toronto Zoo frog expert Katherine Wright joined Minister Duncan at the zoo to share information about frogs that are local to Ontario.

Minister Duncan, Dr. Kingsbury and Ms. Wright then engaged with elementary school children across Canada in a live Q&A session about the frogs in their own backyards. The Minister highlighted the importance of getting young Canadians interested in science fields and talked about ways they can take part in citizen science projects in their communities. Citizen scientists can share their observations on social media using the hashtag #ScienceAroundMe.

Quotes

“Science is for everyone, and it is important that we encourage today’s youth to be curious. Young Canadians who engage in citizen science today will become the highly skilled workers—engineers, scientists, mathematicians, technology experts and entrepreneurs—of tomorrow. Through citizen science, children can nurture an interest in the natural world. These young people will then go on to discover, to innovate and to find solutions that will help us build a better Canada.”
– The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities

“The Toronto Zoo is proud to participate in and encourage citizen science programs, such as FrogWatch, within the community. The Toronto Zoo’s Adopt-A-Pond Wetland Conservation Programme works to engage citizen scientists and deliver impactful conservation-focused research, restoration and outreach that highlight the importance of saving Canada’s sensitive wetland species and their habitats.”
– Robin Hale, Interim Chief Executive Officer, Toronto Zoo

Quick facts

NatureWatch, of which FrogWatch is a component, is a community program that engages all Canadians in collecting scientific information on nature to understand our changing environment.

Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants aims to inspire the next generation of scientists, explorers and conservationists by bringing science, exploration, adventure and conservation into classrooms through virtual field trips run by programs like Google Hangout.

The Government of Canada’s Citizen Science Portal is a one-stop shop for science in the community. It showcases science programs, including NatureWatch programs, across the country.

Associated links

The portal is not nearly as Ontario-centric as the projects mentioned in the news release (in case you were wondering).

Aside: In part 2 of this series, Jesse Hildebrand, founder of Science Literacy Week was mentioned as also being the founder of Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants.

Going to the birds

While bird watching and ornithological studies are not new to the Canadian science culture scene, there were some interesting developments in the 2010-19 period.

Canadian Geographic (magazine) sponsored a contest in 2015, the National Bird Project, where almost 50,000 people submitted suggestions for a national bird. Voting online ensued and on August 31, 2016 popular voting was closed. Five birds attracted the top votes and in September 2016, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society put together an expert panel to debate and decide which would be Canada’s national bird. The choice was announced in November 2016 (Canadian Geographic National Bird Project).

The gray jay. Also known as the whiskey jack or Canada jay. Photo: Steve Phillips [downloaded from http://nationalbird.canadiangeographic.ca/]

From the National Bird Project webpage,

The gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis in Latin, Mésangeai du Canada in French) lives in all 13 provinces and territories — the friendly spirit in Canada’s wild northern boreal and mountain forests. It remains in Canada year-round, is neither hunted nor endangered, and from the Atlantic provinces to the West is an indicator of the health of the boreal and mountain forests and climate change, inspiring a conservation philosophy for all kinds of northern land uses. The gray jay has long been important to Indigenous Peoples, and will draw all Canadians to their national and provincial/territorial parks, yet unlike the loon and snowy owl, it is not already a provincial or territorial bird.

I found a more fulsome description on the What is the National Bird of Canada? webpage on the World Atlas website,

Gray jay is a passerine bird belonging to the family Corvidae. It is mostly found in the boreal forest of North America. The bird is fairly large and has pale gray underparts and dark grey upperpart. Gray jay is a friendly bird and often approach human for food. It is also popularly known as the camp robber, whisky jack, and venison-hawk. Gray jay is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature]. However, the anthropogenic climate change in the southern range may adversely affect its population. In some Fist Nation cultures, the bird is associated with mythological figures including Wisakedjak who was anglicized to Whiskyjack.

For approximately 200 years, the gray jay was known as “Canadian Jay” to the English speakers. The bird was renamed the “gray jay” in 1957 by the American Ornithologists’ Union. However, scientifically the bird is referred to as Perisoreus Canadensis. The bird is found in almost all the provinces of territories of Canada. the preferred habitat for the species is Canada’s boreal and mountain forests. Gray jay is also one of the smartest birds in the world and has almost the same body-to-brain ratio as human beings.

Canadian Georgraphic offers more depth (and a map) in a November 16, 2016 article, by Nick Walker, titled, Canada, meet your national bird (Note: Links have been removed),

With 450 species in the country to choose from, Canadian Geographic’s decision was made neither lightly nor quickly.

This national debate has been running since January 2015, in fact. But after weighing the opinions and preferences of tens of thousands of Canadians, as well as the expertise of our National Conservation Partners at Bird Studies Canada and other ornithologists and conservationists, as well as cultural experts and Indigenous Peoples, that list was narrowed to five birds. And one finalist best met all reasonable criteria.
    
We give you the gray jay. …

Not only has the gray jay never been recorded outside of North America, the vast majority of its range is in Canada, with only a small percentage crossing into Alaska and the western mountains of the United States. The species’ preferred habitat is Canada’s boreal and mountain forests — ecozones that stretch from coast to coast and into the North, blanketing nearly two-thirds of the country.

Like the Canadian flag when it was selected in 1965, the gray jay is fresh and new and fitting. To quote David Bird, ornithologist and professor emeritus of wildlife biology at Montreal’s McGill University, we cannot think of a more Canadian bird.

Three sets of bird stamps were issued by Canada Post from 2016-2018 saluting “Canada’s avian citizens.” Here’s more from a July 12, 2016 Birds of Canada blog post on the Canada Post website announcing the first series of bird stamps,

Hatched by designer Kosta Tsetsekas and illustrator Keith Martin, these stamps are the first in a three-year series celebrating Canada’s avian citizens. Our first flock includes five official birds: the Atlantic puffin (Newfoundland and Labrador), the great horned owl (Alberta), the common raven (Yukon), the rock ptarmigan (Nunavut) and the sharp-tailed grouse (Saskatchewan).

An August 1, 2017 Canada Post blog post announced that year’s bird stamps and, finally, an August 20, 2018 Canada Post blog post announced the finale release. The 2018 series was released in time to celebrate the 27th International Ornithological Congress held in Vancouver (from the Vancouver Convention Centre congress webpage),

On behalf of the International Ornithologists’ Union, Vancouver is delighted to welcome ornithologists from around the world to the 27th International Ornithological Congress (IOCongress2018)! Considered the oldest and most prestigious of meetings for bird scientists, the Congress occurs every four years since first being held in Vienna, Austria, in 1884.

Canada has hosted only once previously, Ottawa in 1986, and Vancouver will be the first time the Congress has been on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The Congress has broad national endorsement, including from the City of Vancouver, the province of British Columbia, Environment Canada, Simon Fraser University, Artists for Conservation, Tourism Vancouver plus an array of scientific societies and conservation organizations.

The convention centre’s webpage features an impressive list of events which were open to the public,

  • Stars of the Bird World Presentation (August 19): Dr. Rob Butler, chair of the Vancouver International Bird Festival, presents Flyways to Culture: How birds give rise to a cultural awakening, at look at how the growing interest in birds in particular and nature in general, is a foundation for a new Nature Culture in which nature becomes embedded into a west coast culture. 8:30-10 a.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Admission by donation ($10 suggested).
  • Festival Opening Ceremony – Parade of Birds and a fanfare by Vancouver Symphony Brass Quintet (August 20): The festival begins with a Parade of Birds and a fanfare by the Vancouver Symphony Brass Quintet. The fanfare “Gathering Flock” was composed by Frederick Schipizky. 3:20 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Artists for Conservation Show (August 22): Artists for Conservation is the official visual arts partner for the festival and congress, showcasing some of the world’s best nature art through its annual juried exhibit, a collaborative mural, artist demo and lecture series and an artist booth expo. Official opening 6-10 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Nature & Bird Expo (until August 25): The three-day Bird Expo is the showcase of birds and nature in Canada, including exhibitors, speakers, yoga, poetry, art and more. Runs until Aug. 25 at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Check out a full event listing at www.vanbirdfest.com/calendar/nature-bird-expo.
  • Migration Songs – Poetry and Ornithology (August 23): Migration Songs brings together 11 contemporary poets to consider an array of bird species. Each poet was put in conversation with a particular ornithologist or scientist to consider their chosen species collaboratively. The poets involved include well-known west-coast authors, amongst them Governor General’s Award and Griffin Poetry Prize winners. A short book of these collaborations, Migration Songs, with cover art by poet, painter, and weaver Annie Ross, will be available. 6 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Unveiling of the Silent Skies Mural (August 23): A signature event of the week-long Artists for Conservation show is the unveiling of the Silent Skies mural made up of illustrations of the endangered birds of the world — 678 pieces, each depicting a different endangered bird, will make up the 100-foot-long installation that will form the artistic centrepiece for the 8th annual Artists for Conservation Festival, the 27th International Ornithological Congress and Vancouver International Bird Festival. The unveiling takes place at 6:30 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Stewardship Roundtable 2018 (August 24): A forum and showcase of innovative practices championed in B.C. province and beyond, presented by the Stewardship Centre for BC and Bird Studies Canada, in collaboration with the 27th International Ornithological Congress and Vancouver International Bird Festival. 8:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre. For more information or to register, visit stewardshipcentrebc.ca/programs/wildife-species-risk/stewardship-roundtable.
  • Closing Ceremony (August 26): The closing ceremony will include remarks from officials and First Nations representatives, and a Heron Dance by the New Dance Centre from Saskatchewan. 5-6:30 p.m. at Vancouver Convention Centre.

I attended the opening ceremony where they announced the final set of stamps in the Birds of Canada series by introducing people who’d dressed for the parade as the birds in question.

The Canadian birding community has continued to create interesting new projects for science outreach. A December 19, 2019 posting by Natasha Barlow for Birds Canada (also known as Bird Studies Canada) announces a new interactive story map,

The Boreal Region is a massive expanse of forests, wetlands, and waterways covering much of the Northern Hemisphere. In Canada, this vast region stretches for 5000 kilometres from Newfoundland and Labrador through the country’s central regions and northwest to the Yukon.

Over 300 bird species regularly breed here, from tiny songbirds like kinglets and warblers to comparatively giant swans and cranes. The Boreal is home to literally billions of birds, and serves as the continent’s bird “nursery” since it is such an important breeding ground.

While extensive tracts of Canada’s northern Boreal still remain largely undisturbed from major industrial development, the human footprint is expanding and much of the southern Boreal is already being exploited for its resources.

Birds Canada, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, has created an interactive story map that details the importance of the Boreal region for birds.

Click here to explore and share this colourful online resource, which celebrates the Boreal Region and its rich bird life.

H/t Nature Conservancy Canada January 29, 2020 blog posting.

Climate change, ecology, and Indigenous knowledge (science)

There is more focus on climate change everywhere in the world and much of the latest energy and focus internationally can be traced to Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg who turned 17 in January 2020. Her influence has galvanized a number of youth climate strikes in Canada and around the world.

There is a category of science fiction or speculative fiction known as Climate Fiction (cli-fi or clifi). Margaret Atwood (of course) has produced a trilogy in that subgenre of speculative fiction, from the Climate Fiction Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed,

Margaret Atwood explored the subject in her dystopian trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013).[13] In Oryx and Crake Atwood presents a world where “social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event”.[14] The novel’s protagonist, Jimmy, lives in a “world split between corporate compounds”, gated communities that have grown into city-states and pleeblands, which are “unsafe, populous and polluted” urban areas where the working classes live.[15]

There is some other cli-fi literature by Canadians, notably an anthology of Canadian short stories edited by Bruce Meyer, from a March 9, 2018 review by Emilie Moorhouse published in Canada’s National Observer (review originally published in Prism magazine on March 8, 2018), Note: A link has been removed,

A woman waits in line to get her water ration. She hasn’t had a sip of water in nearly three days. Her mouth is parched; she stumbles as she waits her turn for over an hour in the hot sun. When she he finally gets to the iTap and inserts her card into the machine that controls the water flow, the light turns red and her card is rejected. Her water credits have run out.

This scenario from “The Way of Water” by Nina Munteanu is one of many contained in the recently published anthology of short stories, Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change. The seventeen stories in this book edited by Bruce Meyer examine how humankind might struggle with the potential devastation of climate change in the near or distant future. Soon after I finished reading the book, Cape Town—known in precolonial times as “the place where clouds gather”—announced that it was only a few months away from what it called “Day Zero,” the day the city would officially run out of water, making the similarities between fiction and reality more than unsettling. Munteanu’s story is set in a futuristic Canada that has been mined of all its water by thirsty corporations who have taken over control of the resource. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation preventing rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border.

Indigenous knowledge (science)

The majority of Canada’s coastline is in the Arctic and climate change in that region is progressing at a disturbing pace. Weather, Climate Change, and Inuit Communities in the Western Canadian Arctic, a September 30, 2017 blog posting, by Dr. Laura Eerkes-Medrano at the University of Victoria (British Columbia) for Historical Climatology describes it this way (Note: A link has been removed),

Global climate change brings with it local weather that communities and cultures have difficulty anticipating. Unpredictable and socially impactful weather is having negative effects on the subsistence, cultural activities, and safety of indigenous peoples in Arctic communities. Since 2013, Professor David Atkinson and his team at the University of Victoria have been working with Inuvialuit communities in Tuktoyaktuk, Ulukhaktok, and Sachs Harbour. The main goal is to understand how impactful weather is affecting residents’ subsistence activities, particularly when they are on the water. The project involves site visits, interviews, and regular phone calls with residents.

Inuvialuit residents regularly observe the waves, winds, snow, and ice conditions that interfere with their hunting, fishing, camping, and other subsistence and cultural activities. In this project, communities identify specific weather events that impact their activities. These events are then linked to the broader atmospheric patterns that cause them. Summaries of the events will be provided to Environment Canada to hopefully assist with the forecasting process.

By taking this approach, the project links Western scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge to generate insights [emphasis mine] into how climate change is affecting Inuvialuit activities in the Canadian Arctic. An oversight committee has been established in each community to give direction to the project. This oversight committee includes representatives from each of the main community organizations, which ensures that the respective organizations provide direction to the project and advise on how to engage residents and communities.

Western science learning from and taking from traditional knowledge is not new. For example, many modern medicines are still derived from traditional remedies. Unfortunately, traditional practitioners have not benefited from sharing their knowledge.

It is to be hoped things are changing with projects like Atkinson’s and another one I mentioned in a December 2, 2019 posting featuring a discovery about ochre (a red dye used for rock art). The dye being examined was produced (in a manner that appears to be unique) in the Babine Lake region of British Columbia and the research may have applications for industrial use leading to economic benefits for the indigenous folks of that region. As important as the benefits, the science team worked closely with the indigenous communities in that area.

University in the Arctic

I was told several years ago that Canada is the only ‘arctic country’ that does not have a university in the high north. As of 2019 it seems the situation is changing, from a December 1, 2019 Global television news online item,

Canada will finally have its first Arctic university.

This past week [of December 1, 2019], the Yukon legislature passed a bill to make Yukon College a university. It will be an institution with an Indigenous flavour that will make it as unique as the region it is to serve.

“Everybody knows we’re moving toward something big and something special,” said Tom Ullyett, chairman of the board of governors.

The idea of a northern university has been kicked around since at least 2007 when a survey in all three territories found residents wanted more influence over Arctic research. Northern First Nations have been asking for one for 50 years.

Research is to centre on issues around environmental conservation and sustainable resource development. It will be conducted in a new, $26-million science building funded by Ottawa and currently being designed.

Indigenous content will be baked in.

“It’s about teaching with northern examples,” said Tosh Southwick, in charge of Indigenous engagement. “Every program will have a northern component.”

Science programs will have traditional knowledge embedded in them and talk about ravens and moose instead of, say, flamingos and giraffes. Anthropology classes will teach creation stories alongside archeological evidence.

The institution will report to Yukon’s 14 First Nations as well as to the territorial legislature. More than one-quarter of its current students are Indigenous.

“Our vision is to be that first northern university that focuses on Indigenous governance, that focuses on sustainable natural resources, that focuses on northern climate, and everything that flows from that.”

Climate adaptation and/or choices

While we have participated in a number of initiatives and projects concerned with climate change, I believe there is general agreement we should have done more. That said I would prefer to remain hopeful.

A January 23, 2020 Yukon College news release announces the appointment of a staff member to an Canadian federal government institute’s advisory committee,

A newly launched institute for climate policy research will have a Yukon connection. Brian Horton, Manager of Northern Climate ExChange at the Yukon Research Centre, has been named to the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices expert advisory panel for Climate Adaptation.   

The Institute, launched Tuesday morning, aims to bring clarity to Canada’s climate policy choices. The Institute’s initial report, Charting our Course, describes the current climate landscape in Canada and provides recommendations for policy makers and governments seeking to implement more effective policy.  

In order to remain grounded in issues of importance to Canadians, the Institute has appointed three Expert Advisory Panels (Adaptation, Mitigation and Clean Growth) to provide evidence-based research, analysis and engagement advice to support integrative policy decisions. 

“It is exciting to have a role to play in this dynamic new network,” said Horton. “The climate is rapidly changing in the North and affecting our landscapes and lives daily. I look forward to contributing a Northern voice to this impactful pan-Canadian expert collaboration.” 

At Yukon College, Horton’s research team focusses on applied research of climate impacts and adaptation in Yukon and Northwest Territories.  Northern Climate ExChange works with communities, governments, and the private sector to answer questions about permafrost, hydrology, and social factors to facilitate adaptation to climate change.

By the way, the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices was launched on January 21, 2020 (news release),

January 21, 2020 | OTTAWA — Dozens of academics and policy experts today launched the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, a new independent national research body. The Institute aims to bring clarity to the transformative challenges, opportunities and choices ahead for Canada as governments at all levels work to address climate change.

Experimental Lakes Area

This is a very special research effort originally funded and managed by the Canadian federal government. Rather controversially, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government defunded the research but that may not have been the tragedy many believed (from the Experimental Lakes Area Wikipedia entry),

IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA, known as ELA before 2014)[1] is an internationally unique research station encompassing 58 formerly pristine freshwater lakes in Kenora District Ontario, Canada.[2][3] Previously run by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, after being de-funded by the Canadian Federal Government, the facility is now managed and operated by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and has a mandate to investigate the aquatic effects of a wide variety of stresses on lakes and their catchments. IISD-ELA uses the whole ecosystem approach and makes long-term, whole-lake investigations of freshwater focusing on eutrophication.[4][5]

In an article[2] published in AAAS’s well-known scientific journal Science, Eric Stokstad described ELA’s “extreme science”[2] as the manipulation of whole lake ecosystem with ELA researchers collecting long-term records for climatology, hydrology, and limnology that address key issues in water management.[4] The site has influenced public policy in water management in Canada, the USA, and around the world.[2]

Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, argued that “our government has been working hard to ensure that the Experimental Lakes Area facility is transferred to a non-governmental operator better suited to conducting the type of world-class research that can be undertaken at this facility” and that “[t]he federal government has been leading negotiations in order to secure an operator with an international track record.” On April 1, 2014, the International Institute for Sustainable Development announced that it had signed three agreements to ensure that it will be the long-term operator of the research facility and that the facility would henceforth be called IISD Experimental Lakes Area.[6] Since taking over the facility, IISD has expanded the function of the site to include educational and outreach opportunities[7] and a broader research portfolio.[8]

You can find the IISD Experimental Lakes Area website here.

Part 5 is to a large extent a grab bag for everything I didn’t fit into parts 1 -4. As for what you can expect to find in Part 5: some science podcasting, eco art, a Saskatchewan lab with an artist-in-residence, and more.

For anyone who missed them:

Part 1 covers science communication, science media (mainstream and others such as blogging) and arts as exemplified by music and dance: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (1 of 5).

Part 2 covers art/science (or art/sci or sciart) efforts, science festivals both national and local, international art and technology conferences held in Canada, and various bar/pub/café events: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (2 of 5).

Part 3 covers comedy, do-it-yourself (DIY) biology, chief science advisor, science policy, mathematicians, and more: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (3 of 5)

* ETA April 24, 2020 at 1515 PT Added the line and link *As for the Canadian science (from a June 15, 2018 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release),*

Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) releases study on silver and titanium nanomaterials in wastewater

It turns out that silver and titanium nanomaterials (e.g. silver nanoparticles washed out of athletic clothing) in wastewater may have ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ effects on freshwater and marine life depending on the species.

A November 18, 2019 news item on Nanowerk provides an introduction to the research (Note: Links have been removed),

You may not always think about it when you do your laundry or flush the toilet; but whatever you eat, wear or apply on your skin ends up in wastewater and eventually reaches the environment. The use of nanoparticles in consumer products like textiles, foods and personal care products is increasing.

What is so special about nanoparticles, is their tiny size: One nanometer is one billionth of a meter. The small size gives nanoparticles unique and novel properties compared to their bigger counterparts and may for example reach locations that bigger particles cannot reach.
Further, pristine nanoparticles behave differently from nanoparticles in the environment. In the environment, nanoparticles are transformed by interacting and forming aggregates with other particles, elements or solids, and thereby obtain other physicochemical properties.

The transformation of these tiny particles in wastewater treatment processes and their effect on freshwater and marine organisms, have largely been unknown.
Increased mortality of marine crustaceans.

In a study (“Ecotoxicological Effects of Transformed Silver and Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles in the Effluent from a Lab-Scale Wastewater Treatment System”) conducted at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), Anastasia Georgantzopoulou and colleagues from NIVA and SINTEF investigated how silver and titanium dioxide nanoparticles behave in wastewater treatment plants, and how marine and freshwater organisms are affected by them.

Exposure to treated wastewater did not have any adverse effects on the freshwater crustacean Daphnia magna. (Photo: NIVA)

A November 18, 2019 NIVA press release, which originated the news item, fills in the details,

The researchers made a laboratory-scale wastewater treatment plant, using sludge from a wastewater treatment plant in Norway. They added environmentally relevant concentrations of silver (Ag) and titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles over a 5-week period and used the treated wastewater to assess the effects of transformed nanoparticles on freshwater and marine organisms, as well as on gill cells from rainbow trout.

The experiment demonstrated contrasting effects on the two crustacean species. For the marine copepod (Tisbe battagliai), mortality increased by 20-45%, whereas exposure to ttreated wastewater did not have any adverse effects on the freshwater crustacean (Daphnia magna).

“These differences are probably due, at least partly, to the two species’ different feeding habits, in combination with the fact that the nanoparticles showed a strong association to solids present in the wastewater”, Georgantzopoulou says, and explains:

“Daphnia magna is an organism that filters water for food, whereas the marine copepod feeds on bottom surfaces – like effluent solids that have settled out from the water. The bottom feeding crustacean is therefore more likely to ingest nanoparticles, and thereby be affected by solid-associated nanoparticles”. 

Effects on algal species

Nanoparticle-containing treated wastewater also affected algal growth, but the two algae species did not have a common response: The marine algae (Skeletonema pseudocostatum) responded with a 20-40 % growth inhibition, while the algal growth of the freshwater algae (Raphidocelis subcapitata) was actually stimulated, by a 40 % increase, accompanied by increased cell aggregation. The latter is probably some kind of a defense mechanism, aiming to decrease the surface area exposed to toxic particles.

“The results from our study indicate that algal responses to the treated wastewater exposure are species-dependent. This is possibly due to differences in algal cell size, surface area, and cell wall composition”, the NIVA researcher explains.

Increased permeability of fish gill cells

The researchers also found effects of silver and titanium nanoparticles on fish gill cells using an in vitro gill cell line model. As large amounts of water are passing through the gills, and they constitute a barrier to the external environment, this organ is highly exposed to water-borne contaminants, including nanoparticles.

“Exposure to nanoparticle-containing wastewater lead to an increase in reactive oxygen species, a group of molecules that can easily react with and damage cells. This was followed by increased permeability of the gill cells, leading to a compromised barrier function”, Georgantzopoulou says.

“However, the concentrations of silver and titanium nanoparticles in the treated wastewater were too low to fully account for the effects on cell permeability alone. The wastewater effluent is a complex mixture of materials, and the permeability response is probably caused by a combination of the presence of nanoparticles and other stressors”, Georgantzopoulou adds.

Wastewater treatment-transformation of nanoparticles

“We carried out this study on wastewater treatment plant-transformed nanoparticles, and compared them to pristine nanoparticles, as the former is more relevant to what is actually happening in the environment. The increased toxicity of the transformed nanomaterials observed in the study indicates that the effects cannot be predicted by assessing the effects of nanomaterials in their pristine form and highlights the importance of understanding their behavior, environmental transformation and interaction with organisms. Future studies should take nanoparticle transformation into account and focus on a more relevant experimental exposure conditions incorporating transformed nanoparticles in more long-term impact studies to provide a better understanding of their potential impacts”, Georgantzopoulou concludes.

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

Ecotoxicological Effects of Transformed Silver and Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles in the Effluent from a Lab-Scale Wastewater Treatment System by Anastasia Georgantzopoulou, Patricia Almeida Carvalho, Christian Vogelsang, Mengstab Tilahun, Kuria Ndungu, Andy M. Booth, Kevin V. Thomas, Ailbhe Macken. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2018, 52, 16, 9431-9441 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.8b01663 Publication Date:July 26, 2018 Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

A Café Scientifique Vancouver (Canada) February 25, 2020 talk ‘ Invasive Species of the Lower Mainland 101’

From a February 22, 2020 Café Scientifque announcement (received via email),

Our next café will happen on Tuesday, February 25th, 2020 at 7:30pm in the back room at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the evening will be marine biologist Dr. Nick Wong who is associated with the conservation of invasive species [sic].

TITLE OF PRESENTATION: Invasive Species of the Lower Mainland 101

BRIEF ABSTRACT OF WORK: The Invasive Species Council of BC (ISCBC) is a collaborative-based organization committed to reducing the spread and impacts of non-native species within BC.

My role focuses on educating and informing a diverse range of audiences on current and “watchlist” invasive species in British Columbia.

Nick will give details about the key invasives species in the lower mainland, describe some of the ISCBC programs and share things you can do to preserve BC’s amazing biodiversity.

BIO: Nick is the Research and Projects Coordinator with the Invasive Species Council of BC. He received his BSc from Western University [Ontario] and an MSc and PhD in Marine Ecology from the University of Auckland. Nick is passionate about teaching and creating engaging opportunities for people to learn and understand the role they can play in the prevention and mitigation of invasive species.

If the annual reports page is to be believed, the ISCBC has been around since 2006. Nope, I just looked at the 2006 report and the introduction states they were just starting their fourth year of existence at that time. Here’s the ISCBC website.

One final comment, it seems like there might have been a lost opportunity. The ISCBC would have been an interesting addition as a sponsor or partner to the Invasive Systems Festival organized by the Curiosity Collider folks. The festival was mentioned in my October 14, 2019 posting (scroll down about 60% of the way).

Space debris, water, and DIY biology, science events in Canada (Jan. 22 – 23, 2020)

There is a lot happening in the next day or two. I have two Vancouver (Canada) science events and an online event, which can be attended from anywhere.

Space debris on January 23, 2020 in Vancouver

I was surprised to learn about space debris (it was described as a floating junkyard in space) in 1992. It seems things have not gotten better. Here’s more from the Cosmic Nights: Space Debris event page on the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre website,

Cosmic Nights: Space Debris

….

There are tens of thousands of pieces of man-made debris, or “space junk,” orbiting the Earth that threaten satellites and other spacecraft. With the increase of space exploration and no debris removal processes in place that number is sure to increase.

Learn more about the impact space debris will have on current and future missions, space law, and the impact human activity, both scientific, and commercial are having on space as we discuss what it will take to make space exploration more sustainable. Physics professors Dr. Aaron Rosengren, and Dr. Aaron Boley will be joining us to share their expertise on the subject.

Tickets available for 7:30pm or 9:00pm planetarium star theatre shows.
________________

7:30 ticket holder schedule:
6:30 – check-in
7:00 – “Pooping in Space” (GroundStation Canada Theatre)
7:30 – 8:30 “Go Boldly and Sustainably” show (Planetarium Star Theatre)
9:00 – 9:30 “Space Debris” lecture

9:00 ticket holder schedule:
6:30 – check-in
7:00 – 9:00 (runs every 30 mins) “Pooping in Space” show (GroundStation Canada Theatre)
8:00 – 8:30 “Space Debris” lecture
9:00 – 10:00 “Go Boldly and Sustainably” show (Planetarium Star Theatre)
The bar will be open from 6:30 – 10:00pm in the Cosmic Courtyard.

Only planetarium shows are ticketed, all other activities are optional.

7:00pm, 7:30pm, 8:00pm, 8:30pm – “Pooping in Space” – GroundStation Canada Theatre
The ultimate waste! What happens when you have to “GO” in space? In this live show you’ll see how astronauts handle this on the ISS, look at some new innovations space suit design for future missions, and we’ll have some fun astronaut trivia.

7:30pm and 9:00pm – “Go Boldly and Sustainably” – Planetarium Star Theatre
As humans venture into a solar system, where no one can own anything, it is becoming increasingly important to create policies to control for waste and promote sustainability. But who will enact these policies? Will it be our governments or private companies? Our astronomer Rachel Wang, and special guest Dr. Aaron Boley will explore these concepts under the dome in the Planetarium Star Theatre. For the 7:30 show SFU’s Paul Meyer will be making an appearance to talk about the key aspects of space security diplomacy and how it relates to the space debris challenge.

Dr. Aaron Boley is an Assistant Professor in the Physics and Astronomy department at UBC whose research program uses theory and observations to explore a wide range of processes in the formation of planets, from the birth of planet-forming discs to the long-term evolution of planetary systems.

Paul Meyer is Fellow in International Security and Adjunct Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University and a founding member of the Outer Space Institute. Prior to his assuming his current positions in 2011, Mr. Meyer had a 35-year career with the Canadian Foreign Service, including serving as Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations and to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva (2003-2007). He teaches a course on diplomacy at SFU’s School for International Studies and writes on issues of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, outer space security and international cyber security.

8:00pm and 9:00pm – “Space Junk: Our Quest to Conquer the Space Environment Problem” lecture by Dr. Aaron Rosengren

At the end of 2019, after nearly two decades, the U.S. government issued updated orbital debris mitigation guidelines, but the revision fell short of the sweeping changes many in the space debris research community expected. The updated guidelines sets new quantitative limits on events that can create debris and updates the classes of orbits to be used for the retirement of satellites, even allowing for the new exotic idea of passive disposal through gravitational resonances (similar phenomena have left their mark on the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter). The revised guidelines, however, do not make major changes, and leave intact the 25-year time frame for end-of-life disposal of low-Earth orbit satellites, a period many now believe to be far too long with the ever increasing orbital traffic in near-Earth space. In this talk, I will discuss various approaches to cleaning up or containing space junk, such as a recent exciting activity in Australia to use laser photo pressure to nudge inactive debris to safe orbits.

Dr. Aaron J. Rosengren is an Assistant Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Arizona and Member of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Applied Mathematics. Prior to joining UA in 2017, he spent one year at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece working in the Department of Physics, as part of the European Union H2020 Project ReDSHIFT. He has also served as a member of the EU Asteroid and Space Debris Network, Stardust, working for two years at the Institute of Applied Physics Nello Carrara of the Italian National Research Council. His research interests include space situational awareness, orbital debris, celestial mechanics, and planetary science. Aaron is currently part of the Space Situational Awareness (SSA)-Arizona initiative at the University of Arizona, a member of the Outer Space Institute (OSI) for the sustainable development of Space at the University of British Columbia, and a research affiliate of the Center for Orbital Debris Education and Research (CODER) at the University of Maryland.

*Choose between either the 7:30pm or 9:00pm planetarium show when purchasing your ticket.*

This is a 19+ event. All attendees will be required to provide photo ID upon entry.

Date and Time

Thu, 23 January 2020
6:30 PM – 10:00 PM PST

Location

H.R. MacMillan Space Centre
1100 Chestnut Street
Vancouver, BC V6J 3J9

Cosmic Nights is the name for a series of talks about space and astronomy and an opportunity to socialize with your choice of beer or wine for purchase.

Canada-wide 2nd Canadian DIY Biology Summit (live audio and webcast)

This is a January 22, 2020 event accessible Canada-wide. For anyone on Pacific Time, it does mean being ready to check-in at 5 am. The first DIY Biology (‘do-it-yourself’ biology) Summit was held in 2016.

Here’s more about the event from its Open Science Network events page on Meetup,

Organizers of Community Biolabs across Canada are converging on Ottawa this Wednesday for the second Canadian DIY Biology Summit organized by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). OSN [Open Science Network] President & Co-Founder, Scott Pownall, has been invited to talk about the Future of DIY/Community Biology in Canada.

The agenda was just released. Times are East Standard Time.
https://www.opensciencenet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/2020-2nd-Canadian-DYI-Biology-Summit-Agenda.pdf

You can join in remotely via WebEx or audio conferencing.

WebEx Link: https://gts-ee.webex.com/webappng/sites/gts-ee/meeting/info/1144bc57660846349f15cf6e80a6a35f

A few points of clarification: DIYbio YVR has been renamed Open Science Network on Meetup and, should you wish to attend the summit virtually, there is information about passwords and codes on the agenda, which presumably will help you to get access.

Nerd Nite v. 49: Waterslides, Oil Tankers, and Predator-Prey Relationships on January 22, 2020 in Vancouver

Here’s more about Nerd Nite Vancouver v.49 from its event posting,

When you were young, did you spend your summers zooming down waterslides? We remember days where our calves ached from climbing stairs, and sore bums from well… you know. And, if you were like us, you also stared at those slides and thought “How are these things made? And, is it going to disassemble while I’m on it?”. Today, we spend more of our summer days staring out at the oil tankers lining the shore, or watching seagulls dive down to retrieve waste left behind by tourists on Granville Island, but we maintain that curiousity about the things around us! So, splash into a New Year with us to learn about all three: waterslides, oil tankers, and predator-prey relationships.

Hosted by: Kaylee Byers and Michael Unger

Where: The Fox Cabaret

When: Wednesday January 22nd; Doors @ 7, show starts @ 7:30

Tickets: Eventbrite

Poster by: Armin Mortazavi

Music by: DJ Burger

1. Ecology

Zachary Sherker 

Zachary is completing an MSc at UBC investigating freshwater and estuarine predation on juvenile salmon during their out-migration from natal rivers and works as a part-time contract biologist in the lower mainland. Prior to coming out west, Zach completed an interdisciplinary BSc in Aquatic Resources and Biology at St. F.X. University in Antigonish, N.S. During his undergraduate degree, Zach ran field and lab experiments to explore predator-induced phenotypic plasticity in intertidal blue mussels exposed to the waterborne cues of a drilling predator snail. He also conducted biological surveys on lobster fishing boats and worked as a fisheries observer for the offshore commercial snow crab fleet.

2. Waterslides

Shane Jensen

Shane is a professional mechanical engineer whose career transitioned from submarine designer to waterslide tester. He is currently a product manager for waterslides at WhiteWater West.

3. Oil Tankers 101

Kayla Glynn 

Kayla is an ocean enthusiast. She earned her Masters in Marine Management at Dalhousie University, studying compensation for environmental damage caused by ship-source oil spills. Passionate about sharing her knowledge of the ocean with others, Kayla’s shifted her focus to the realm of science communication to help more people foster a deeper relationship with science and the ocean. Kayla now works as a producer at The Story Collider, a non-profit dedicated to sharing true, personal stories about science, where she hosts live storytelling events and leads workshops on behalf of the organization. Follow her at @kaylamayglynn and catch her live on the Story Collider stage on February 11th, 2020!

There you have it.

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.