Category Archives: construction

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know? Artificial Intelligence at the Vancouver (Canada) Art Gallery (1 of 2): The Objects

To my imaginary AI friend

Dear friend,

I thought you might be amused by these Roomba-like* paintbots at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s (VAG) latest exhibition, “The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” (March 5, 2022 – October 23, 2022).

Sougwen Chung, Omnia per Omnia, 2018, video (excerpt), Courtesy of the Artist

*A Roomba is a robot vacuum cleaner produced and sold by iRobot.

As far as I know, this is the Vancouver Art Gallery’s first art/science or art/technology exhibit and it is an alternately fascinating, exciting, and frustrating take on artificial intelligence and its impact on the visual arts. Curated by Bruce Grenville, VAG Senior Curator, and Glenn Entis, Guest Curator, the show features 20 ‘objects’ designed to both introduce viewers to the ‘imitation game’ and to challenge them. From the VAG Imitation Game webpage,

The Imitation Game surveys the extraordinary uses (and abuses) of artificial intelligence (AI) in the production of modern and contemporary visual culture around the world. The exhibition follows a chronological narrative that first examines the development of artificial intelligence, from the 1950s to the present [emphasis mine], through a precise historical lens. Building on this foundation, it emphasizes the explosive growth of AI across disciplines, including animation, architecture, art, fashion, graphic design, urban design and video games, over the past decade. Revolving around the important roles of machine learning and computer vision in AI research and experimentation, The Imitation Game reveals the complex nature of this new tool and demonstrates its importance for cultural production.

And now …

As you’ve probably guessed, my friend, you’ll find a combination of both background information and commentary on the show.

I’ve initially focused on two people (a scientist and a mathematician) who were seminal thinkers about machines, intelligence, creativity, and humanity. I’ve also provided some information about the curators, which hopefully gives you some insight into the show.

As for the show itself, you’ll find a few of the ‘objects’ highlighted with one of them being investigated at more length. The curators devoted some of the show to ethical and social justice issues, accordingly, the Vancouver Art Gallery hosted the University of British Columbia’s “Speculative Futures: Artificial Intelligence Symposium” on April 7, 2022,

Presented in conjunction with the exhibition The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, the Speculative Futures Symposium examines artificial intelligence and the specific uses of technology in its multifarious dimensions. Across four different panel conversations, leading thinkers of today will explore the ethical implications of technology and discuss how they are working to address these issues in cultural production.”

So, you’ll find more on these topics here too.

And for anyone else reading this (not you, my friend who is ‘strong’ AI and not similar to the ‘weak’ AI found in this show), there is a description of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ AI on the avtsim.com/weak-ai-strong-ai webpage, Note: A link has been removed,

There are two types of AI: weak AI and strong AI.

Weak, sometimes called narrow, AI is less intelligent as it cannot work without human interaction and focuses on a more narrow, specific, or niched purpose. …

Strong AI on the other hand is in fact comparable to the fictitious AIs we see in media like the terminator. The theoretical Strong AI would be equivalent or greater to human intelligence.

….

My dear friend, I hope you will enjoy.

The Imitation Game and ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’

In some circles, it’s better known as ‘The Turing Test;” the Vancouver Art Gallery’s ‘Imitation Game’ hosts a copy of Alan Turing’s foundational paper for establishing whether artificial intelligence is possible (I thought this was pretty exciting).

Here’s more from The Turing Test essay by Graham Oppy and David Dowe for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

The phrase “The Turing Test” is most properly used to refer to a proposal made by Turing (1950) as a way of dealing with the question whether machines can think. According to Turing, the question whether machines can think is itself “too meaningless” to deserve discussion (442). However, if we consider the more precise—and somehow related—question whether a digital computer can do well in a certain kind of game that Turing describes (“The Imitation Game”), then—at least in Turing’s eyes—we do have a question that admits of precise discussion. Moreover, as we shall see, Turing himself thought that it would not be too long before we did have digital computers that could “do well” in the Imitation Game.

The phrase “The Turing Test” is sometimes used more generally to refer to some kinds of behavioural tests for the presence of mind, or thought, or intelligence in putatively minded entities. …

Next to the display holding Turing’s paper, is another display with an excerpt of an explanation from Turing about how he believed Ada Lovelace would have responded to the idea that machines could think based on a copy of some of her writing (also on display). She proposed that creativity, not thinking, is what set people apart from machines. (See the April 17, 2020 article “Thinking Machines? Has the Lovelace Test Been Passed?’ on mindmatters.ai.)

It’s like a dialogue between two seminal thinkers who lived about 100 years apart; Lovelace, born in 1815 and dead in 1852, and Turing, born in 1912 and dead in 1954. Both have fascinating back stories (more about those later) and both played roles in how computers and artificial intelligence are viewed.

Adding some interest to this walk down memory lane is a 3rd display, an illustration of the ‘Mechanical Turk‘, a chess playing machine that made the rounds in Europe from 1770 until it was destroyed in 1854. A hoax that fooled people for quite a while it is a reminder that we’ve been interested in intelligent machines for centuries. (Friend, Turing and Lovelace and the Mechanical Turk are found in Pod 1.)

Back story: Turing and the apple

Turing is credited with being instrumental in breaking the German ENIGMA code during World War II and helping to end the war. I find it odd that he ended up at the University of Manchester in the post-war years. One would expect him to have been at Oxford or Cambridge. At any rate, he died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning two years after he was arrested for being homosexual and convicted of indecency. Given the choice of incarceration or chemical castration, he chose the latter. There is, to this day, debate about whether or not it was suicide. Here’s how his death is described in this Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

On 8 June 1954, at his house at 43 Adlington Road, Wilmslow,[150] Turing’s housekeeper found him dead. He had died the previous day at the age of 41. Cyanide poisoning was established as the cause of death.[151] When his body was discovered, an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide,[152] it was speculated that this was the means by which Turing had consumed a fatal dose. An inquest determined that he had committed suicide. Andrew Hodges and another biographer, David Leavitt, have both speculated that Turing was re-enacting a scene from the Walt Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), his favourite fairy tale. Both men noted that (in Leavitt’s words) he took “an especially keen pleasure in the scene where the Wicked Queen immerses her apple in the poisonous brew”.[153] Turing’s remains were cremated at Woking Crematorium on 12 June 1954,[154] and his ashes were scattered in the gardens of the crematorium, just as his father’s had been.[155]

Philosopher Jack Copeland has questioned various aspects of the coroner’s historical verdict. He suggested an alternative explanation for the cause of Turing’s death: the accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes from an apparatus used to electroplate gold onto spoons. The potassium cyanide was used to dissolve the gold. Turing had such an apparatus set up in his tiny spare room. Copeland noted that the autopsy findings were more consistent with inhalation than with ingestion of the poison. Turing also habitually ate an apple before going to bed, and it was not unusual for the apple to be discarded half-eaten.[156] Furthermore, Turing had reportedly borne his legal setbacks and hormone treatment (which had been discontinued a year previously) “with good humour” and had shown no sign of despondency prior to his death. He even set down a list of tasks that he intended to complete upon returning to his office after the holiday weekend.[156] Turing’s mother believed that the ingestion was accidental, resulting from her son’s careless storage of laboratory chemicals.[157] Biographer Andrew Hodges theorised that Turing arranged the delivery of the equipment to deliberately allow his mother plausible deniability with regard to any suicide claims.[158]

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also has an entry for Alan Turing dated April 10, 2015 it’s titled, The Enigma of Alan Turing.

Back story: Ada Byron Lovelace, the 2nd generation of ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’

A mathematician and genius in her own right, Ada Lovelace’s father George Gordon Byron, better known as the poet Lord Byron, was notoriously described as ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’.

Lovelace too could have been been ‘mad, bad, …’ but she is described less memorably as “… manipulative and aggressive, a drug addict, a gambler and an adulteress, …” as mentioned in my October 13, 20215 posting. It marked the 200th anniversary of her birth, which was celebrated with a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary and an exhibit at the Science Museum in London, UK.

She belongs in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s show along with Alan Turing due to her prediction that computers could be made to create music. She also published the first computer program. Her feat is astonishing when you know only one working model {1/7th of the proposed final size) of a computer was ever produced. (The machine invented by Charles Babbage was known as a difference engine. You can find out more about the Difference engine on Wikipedia and about Babbage’s proposed second invention, the Analytical engine.)

(Byron had almost nothing to do with his daughter although his reputation seems to have dogged her. You can find out more about Lord Byron here.)

AI and visual culture at the VAG: the curators

As mentioned earlier, the VAG’s “The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” show runs from March 5, 2022 – October 23, 2022. Twice now, I have been to this weirdly exciting and frustrating show.

Bruce Grenville, VAG Chief/Senior Curator, seems to specialize in pulling together diverse materials to illustrate ‘big’ topics. His profile for Emily Carr University of Art + Design (where Grenville teaches) mentions these shows ,

… He has organized many thematic group exhibitions including, MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture [emphasis mine], a massive survey documenting the emergence of a mode of creativity that materialized in the late 1800s and has grown to become the dominant model of cultural production in the 21st century; KRAZY! The Delirious World [emphasis mine] of Anime + Manga + Video Games + Art, a timely and important survey of modern and contemporary visual culture from around the world; Home and Away: Crossing Cultures on the Pacific Rim [emphasis mine] a look at the work of six artists from Vancouver, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, Seoul and Los Angeles, who share a history of emigration and diaspora. …

Glenn Entis, Guest Curator and founding faculty member of Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media (CDM) is Grenville’s co-curator, from Entis’ CDM profile,

“… an Academy Award-winning animation pioneer and games industry veteran. The former CEO of Dreamworks Interactive, Glenn worked with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg on a number of video games …,”

Steve Newton in his March 4, 2022 preview does a good job of describing the show although I strongly disagree with the title of his article which proclaims “The Vancouver Art Gallery takes a deep dive into artificial intelligence with The Imitation Game.” I think it’s more of a shallow dive meant to cover more distance than depth,

… The exhibition kicks off with an interactive introduction inviting visitors to actively identify diverse areas of cultural production influenced by AI.

“That was actually one of the pieces that we produced in collaboration with the Centre for Digital Media,” Grenville notes, “so we worked with some graduate-student teams that had actually helped us to design that software. It was the beginning of COVID when we started to design this, so we actually wanted a no-touch interactive. So, really, the idea was to say, ‘Okay, this is the very entrance to the exhibition, and artificial intelligence, this is something I’ve heard about, but I’m not really sure how it’s utilized in ways. But maybe I know something about architecture; maybe I know something about video games; maybe I know something about the history of film.

“So you point to these 10 categories of visual culture [emphasis mine]–video games, architecture, fashion design, graphic design, industrial design, urban design–so you point to one of those, and you might point to ‘film’, and then when you point at it that opens up into five different examples of what’s in the show, so it could be 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Bladerunner, or World on a Wire.”

After the exhibition’s introduction—which Grenville equates to “opening the door to your curiosity” about artificial intelligence–visitors encounter one of its main categories, Objects of Wonder, which speaks to the history of AI and the critical advances the technology has made over the years.

“So there are 20 Objects of Wonder [emphasis mine],” Grenville says, “which go from 1949 to 2022, and they kind of plot out the history of artificial intelligence over that period of time, focusing on a specific object. Like [mathematician and philosopher] Norbert Wiener made this cybernetic creature, he called it a ‘Moth’, in 1949. So there’s a section that looks at this idea of kind of using animals–well, machine animals–and thinking about cybernetics, this idea of communication as feedback, early thinking around neuroscience and how neuroscience starts to imagine this idea of a thinking machine.

And there’s this from Newton’s March 4, 2022 preview,

“It’s interesting,” Grenville ponders, “artificial intelligence is virtually unregulated. [emphasis mine] You know, if you think about the regulatory bodies that govern TV or radio or all the types of telecommunications, there’s no equivalent for artificial intelligence, which really doesn’t make any sense. And so what happens is, sometimes with the best intentions [emphasis mine]—sometimes not with the best intentions—choices are made about how artificial intelligence develops. So one of the big ones is facial-recognition software [emphasis mine], and any body-detection software that’s being utilized.

In addition to it being the best overview of the show I’ve seen so far, this is the only one where you get a little insight into what the curators were thinking when they were developing it.

A deep dive into AI?

it was only while searching for a little information before the show that I realized I don’t have any definitions for artificial intelligence! What is AI? Sadly, there are no definitions of AI in the exhibit.

It seems even experts don’t have a good definition. Take a look at this,

The definition of AI is fluid [emphasis mine] and reflects a constantly shifting landscape marked by technological advancements and growing areas of application. Indeed, it has frequently been observed that once AI becomes capable of solving a particular problem or accomplishing a certain task, it is often no longer considered to be “real” intelligence [emphasis mine] (Haenlein & Kaplan, 2019). A firm definition was not applied for this report [emphasis mine], given the variety of implementations described above. However, for the purposes of deliberation, the Panel chose to interpret AI as a collection of statistical and software techniques, as well as the associated data and the social context in which they evolve — this allows for a broader and more inclusive interpretation of AI technologies and forms of agency. The Panel uses the term AI interchangeably to describe various implementations of machine-assisted design and discovery, including those based on machine learning, deep learning, and reinforcement learning, except for specific examples where the choice of implementation is salient. [p. 6 print version; p. 34 PDF version]

The above is from the Leaps and Boundaries report released May 10, 2022 by the Council of Canadian Academies’ Expert Panel on Artificial Intelligence for Science and Engineering.

Sometimes a show will take you in an unexpected direction. I feel a lot better ‘not knowing’. Still, I wish the curators had acknowledged somewhere in the show that artificial intelligence is a slippery concept. Especially when you add in robots and automatons. (more about them later)

21st century technology in a 19th/20th century building

Void stairs inside the building. Completed in 1906, the building was later designated as a National Historic Site in 1980 [downloaded from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vancouver_Art_Gallery#cite_note-canen-7]

Just barely making it into the 20th century, the building where the Vancouver Art Gallery currently resides was for many years the provincial courthouse (1911 – 1978). In some ways, it’s a disconcerting setting for this show.

They’ve done their best to make the upstairs where the exhibit is displayed look like today’s galleries with their ‘white cube aesthetic’ and strong resemblance to the scientific laboratories seen in movies.

(For more about the dominance, since the 1930s, of the ‘white cube aesthetic’ in art galleries around the world, see my July 26, 2021 posting; scroll down about 50% of the way.)

It makes for an interesting tension, the contrast between the grand staircase, the cupola, and other architectural elements and the sterile, ‘laboratory’ environment of the modern art gallery.

20 Objects of Wonder and the flow of the show

It was flummoxing. Where are the 20 objects? Why does it feel like a maze in a laboratory? Loved the bees, but why? Eeeek Creepers! What is visual culture anyway? Where am I?

The objects of the show

It turns out that the curators have a more refined concept for ‘object’ than I do. There weren’t 20 material objects, there were 20 numbered ‘pods’ with perhaps a screen or a couple of screens or a screen and a material object or two illustrating the pod’s topic.

Looking up a definition for the word (accessed from a June 9, 2022 duckduckgo.com search). yielded this, (the second one seems à propos),

objectŏb′jĭkt, -jĕkt″

noun

1. Something perceptible by one or more of the senses, especially by vision or touch; a material thing.

2. A focus of attention, feeling, thought, or action.

3. A limiting factor that must be considered.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

Each pod = a focus of attention.

The show’s flow is a maze. Am I a rat?

The pods are defined by a number and by temporary walls. So if you look up, you’ll see a number and a space partly enclosed by a temporary wall or two.

It’s a very choppy experience. For example, one minute you can be in pod 1 and, when you turn the corner, you’re in pod 4 or 5 or ? There are pods I’ve not seen, despite my two visits, because I kept losing my way. This led to an existential crisis on my second visit. “Had I missed the greater meaning of this show? Was there some sort of logic to how it was organized? Was there meaning to my life? Was I a rat being nudged around in a maze?” I didn’t know.

Thankfully, I have since recovered. But, I will return to my existential crisis later, with a special mention for “Creepers.”

The fascinating

My friend, you know I appreciated the history and in addition to Alan Turing, Ada Lovelace and the Mechanical Turk, at the beginning of the show, they included a reference to Ovid (or Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō), a Roman poet who lived from 43 BCE – 17/18 CE in one of the double digit (17? or 10? or …) in one of the pods featuring a robot on screen. As to why Ovid might be included, this excerpt from a February 12, 2018 posting on the cosmolocal.org website provides a clue (Note. Links have been removed),

The University of King’s College [Halifax, Nova Scotia] presents Automatons! From Ovid to AI, a nine-lecture series examining the history, issues and relationships between humans, robots, and artificial intelligence [emphasis mine]. The series runs from January 10 to April 4 [2018], and features leading scholars, performers and critics from Canada, the US and Britain.

“Drawing from theatre, literature, art, science and philosophy, our 2018 King’s College Lecture Series features leading international authorities exploring our intimate relationships with machines,” says Dr. Gordon McOuat, professor in the King’s History of Science and Technology (HOST) and Contemporary Studies Programs.

“From the myths of Ovid [emphasis mine] and the automatons [emphasis mine] of the early modern period to the rise of robots, cyborgs, AI and artificial living things in the modern world, the 2018 King’s College Lecture Series examines the historical, cultural, scientific and philosophical place of automatons in our lives—and our future,” adds McOuat.

I loved the way the curators managed to integrate the historical roots for artificial intelligence and, by extension, the world of automatons, robots, cyborgs, and androids. Yes, starting the show with Alan Turing and Ada Lovelace could be expected but Norbert Wiener’s Moth (1949) acts as a sort of preview for Sougwen Chung’s “Omnia per Omnia, 2018” (GIF seen at the beginning of this post). Take a look for yourself (from the cyberneticzoo.com September 19, 2009 posting by cyberne1. Do you see the similarity or am I the only one?

[sourced from Google images, Source:life) & downloaded from https://cyberneticzoo.com/cyberneticanimals/1949-wieners-moth-wiener-wiesner-singleton/]

Sculpture

This is the first time I’ve come across an AI/sculpture project. The VAG show features Scott Eaton’s sculptures on screens in a room devoted to his work.

Scott Eaton: Entangled II, 2019 4k video (still) Courtesy of the Artist [downloaded from https://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/exhibitions/the-imitation-game]

This looks like an image of a piece of ginger root and It’s fascinating to watch the process as the AI agent ‘evolves’ Eaton’s drawings into onscreen sculptures. It would have enhanced the experience if at least one of Eaton’s ‘evolved’ and physically realized sculptures had been present in the room but perhaps there were financial and/or logistical reasons for the absence.

Both Chung and Eaton are collaborating with an AI agent. In Chung’s case the AI is integrated into the paintbots with which she interacts and paints alongside and in Eaton’s case, it’s via a computer screen. In both cases, the work is mildly hypnotizing in a way that reminds me of lava lamps.

One last note about Chung and her work. She was one of the artists invited to present new work at an invite-only April 22, 2022 Embodied Futures workshop at the “What will life become?” event held by the Berrgruen Institute and the University of Southern California (USC),

Embodied Futures invites participants to imagine novel forms of life, mind, and being through artistic and intellectual provocations on April 22 [2022].

Beginning at 1 p.m., together we will experience the launch of five artworks commissioned by the Berggruen Institute. We asked these artists: How does your work inflect how we think about “the human” in relation to alternative “embodiments” such as machines, AIs, plants, animals, the planet, and possible alien life forms in the cosmos? [emphases mine]  Later in the afternoon, we will take provocations generated by the morning’s panels and the art premieres in small breakout groups that will sketch futures worlds, and lively entities that might dwell there, in 2049.

This leads to (and my friend, while I too am taking a shallow dive, for this bit I’m going a little deeper):

Bees and architecture

Neri Oxman’s contribution (Golden Bee Cube, Synthetic Apiary II [2020]) is an exhibit featuring three honeycomb structures and a video featuring the bees in her synthetic apiary.

Neri Oxman and the MIT Mediated Matter Group, Golden Bee Cube, Synthetic Apiary II, 2020, beeswax, acrylic, gold particles, gold powder Courtesy of Neri Oxman and the MIT Mediated Matter Group

Neri Oxman (then a faculty member of the Mediated Matter Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) described the basis for the first and all other iterations of her synthetic apiary in Patrick Lynch’s October 5, 2016 article for ‘ArchDaily; Broadcasting Architecture Worldwide’, Note: Links have been removed,

Designer and architect Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter group have announced their latest design project: the Synthetic Apiary. Aimed at combating the massive bee colony losses that have occurred in recent years, the Synthetic Apiary explores the possibility of constructing controlled, indoor environments that would allow honeybee populations to thrive year-round.

“It is time that the inclusion of apiaries—natural or synthetic—for this “keystone species” be considered a basic requirement of any sustainability program,” says Oxman.

In developing the Synthetic Apiary, Mediated Matter studied the habits and needs of honeybees, determining the precise amounts of light, humidity and temperature required to simulate a perpetual spring environment. [emphasis mine] They then engineered an undisturbed space where bees are provided with synthetic pollen and sugared water and could be evaluated regularly for health.

In the initial experiment, the honeybees’ natural cycle proved to adapt to the new environment, as the Queen was able to successfully lay eggs in the apiary. The bees showed the ability to function normally in the environment, suggesting that natural cultivation in artificial spaces may be possible across scales, “from organism- to building-scale.”

“At the core of this project is the creation of an entirely synthetic environment enabling controlled, large-scale investigations of hives,” explain the designers.

Mediated Matter chose to research into honeybees not just because of their recent loss of habitat, but also because of their ability to work together to create their own architecture, [emphasis mine] a topic the group has explored in their ongoing research on biologically augmented digital fabrication, including employing silkworms to create objects and environments at product, architectural, and possibly urban, scales.

“The Synthetic Apiary bridges the organism- and building-scale by exploring a “keystone species”: bees. Many insect communities present collective behavior known as “swarming,” prioritizing group over individual survival, while constantly working to achieve common goals. Often, groups of these eusocial organisms leverage collaborative behavior for relatively large-scale construction. For example, ants create extremely complex networks by tunneling, wasps generate intricate paper nests with materials sourced from local areas, and bees deposit wax to build intricate hive structures.”

This January 19, 2022 article by Crown Honey for its eponymous blog updates Oxman’s work (Note 1: All emphases are mine; Note 2: A link has been removed),

Synthetic Apiary II investigates co-fabrication between humans and honey bees through the use of designed environments in which Apis mellifera colonies construct comb. These designed environments serve as a means by which to convey information to the colony. The comb that the bees construct within these environments comprises their response to the input information, enabling a form of communication through which we can begin to understand the hive’s collective actions from their perspective.

Some environments are embedded with chemical cues created through a novel pheromone 3D-printing process, while others generate magnetic fields of varying strength and direction. Others still contain geometries of varying complexity or designs that alter their form over time.

When offered wax augmented with synthetic biomarkers, bees appear to readily incorporate it into their construction process, likely due to the high energy cost of producing fresh wax. This suggests that comb construction is a responsive and dynamic process involving complex adaptations to perturbations from environmental stimuli, not merely a set of predefined behaviors building toward specific constructed forms. Each environment therefore acts as a signal that can be sent to the colony to initiate a process of co-fabrication.

Characterization of constructed comb morphology generally involves visual observation and physical measurements of structural features—methods which are limited in scale of analysis and blind to internal architecture. In contrast, the wax structures built by the colonies in Synthetic Apiary II are analyzed through high-throughput X-ray computed tomography (CT) scans that enable a more holistic digital reconstruction of the hive’s structure.

Geometric analysis of these forms provides information about the hive’s design process, preferences, and limitations when tied to the inputs, and thereby yields insights into the invisible mediations between bees and their environment.
Developing computational tools to learn from bees can facilitate the very beginnings of a dialogue with them. Refined by evolution over hundreds of thousands of years, their comb-building behaviors and social organizations may reveal new forms and methods of formation that can be applied across our human endeavors in architecture, design, engineering, and culture.

Further, with a basic understanding and language established, methods of co-fabrication together with bees may be developed, enabling the use of new biocompatible materials and the creation of more efficient structural geometries that modern technology alone cannot achieve.

In this way, we also move our built environment toward a more synergistic embodiment, able to be more seamlessly integrated into natural environments through material and form, even providing habitats of benefit to both humans and nonhumans. It is essential to our mutual survival for us to not only protect but moreover to empower these critical pollinators – whose intrinsic behaviors and ecosystems we have altered through our industrial processes and practices of human-centric design – to thrive without human intervention once again.

In order to design our way out of the environmental crisis that we ourselves created, we must first learn to speak nature’s language. …

The three (natural, gold nanoparticle, and silver nanoparticle) honeycombs in the exhibit are among the few physical objects (the others being the historical documents and the paintbots with their canvasses) in the show and it’s almost a relief after the parade of screens. It’s the accompanying video that’s eerie. Everything is in white, as befits a science laboratory, in this synthetic apiary where bees are fed sugar water and fooled into a spring that is eternal.

Courtesy: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Copyright: Mediated Matter [downloaded from https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/synthetic-apiary/overview/]

(You may want to check out Lynch’s October 5, 2016 article or Crown Honey’s January 19, 2022 article as both have embedded images and the Lynch article includes a Synthetic Apiary video. The image above is a still from the video.)

As I asked a friend, where are the flowers? Ron Miksha, a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary, details some of the problems with Oxman’s Synthetic Apiary this way in his October 7, 2016 posting on his Bad Beekeeping Blog,

In a practical sense, the synthetic apiary fails on many fronts: Bees will survive a few months on concoctions of sugar syrup and substitute pollen, but they need a natural variety of amino acids and minerals to actually thrive. They need propolis and floral pollen. They need a ceiling 100 metres high and a 2-kilometre hallway if drone and queen will mate, or they’ll die after the old queen dies. They need an artificial sun that travels across the sky, otherwise, the bees will be attracted to artificial lights and won’t return to their hive. They need flowery meadows, fresh water, open skies. [emphasis mine] They need a better holodeck.

Dorothy Woodend’s March 10, 2022 review of the VAG show for The Tyee poses other issues with the bees and the honeycombs,

When AI messes about with other species, there is something even more unsettling about the process. American-Israeli artist Neri Oxman’s Golden Bee Cube, Synthetic Apiary II, 2020 uses real bees who are proffered silver and gold [nanoparticles] to create their comb structures. While the resulting hives are indeed beautiful, rendered in shades of burnished metal, there is a quality of unease imbued in them. Is the piece akin to apiary torture chambers? I wonder how the bees feel about this collaboration and whether they’d like to renegotiate the deal.

There’s no question the honeycombs are fascinating and disturbing but I don’t understand how artificial intelligence was a key factor in either version of Oxman’s synthetic apiary. In the 2022 article by Crown Honey, there’s this “Developing computational tools to learn from bees can facilitate the very beginnings of a dialogue with them [honeybees].” It’s probable that the computational tools being referenced include AI and the Crown Honey article seems to suggest those computational tools are being used to analyze the bees behaviour after the fact.

Yes, I can imagine a future where ‘strong’ AI (such as you, my friend) is in ‘dialogue’ with the bees and making suggestions and running the experiments but it’s not clear that this is the case currently. The Oxman exhibit contribution would seem to be about the future and its possibilities whereas many of the other ‘objects’ concern the past and/or the present.

Friend, let’s take a break, shall we? Part 2 is coming up.

Windows and roofs ‘self-adapt’ to heating and cooling conditions

I have two items about thermochromic coatings. It’s a little confusing since the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes the journal featuring both papers has issued a news release that seemingly refers to both papers as a single piece of research.

Onto, the press/new releases from the research institutions to be followed by the AAAS news release.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) does windows

A December 16, 2021 news item on Nanowerk announced work on energy-saving glass,

An international research team led by scientists from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) has developed a material that, when coated on a glass window panel, can effectively self-adapt to heat or cool rooms across different climate zones in the world, helping to cut energy usage.

Developed by NTU researchers and reported in the journal Science (“Scalable thermochromic smart windows with passive radiative cooling regulation”), the first-of-its-kind glass automatically responds to changing temperatures by switching between heating and cooling.

The self-adaptive glass is developed using layers of vanadium dioxide nanoparticles composite, Poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA), and low-emissivity coating to form a unique structure which could modulate heating and cooling simultaneously.

A December 17, 2021 NTU press release (PDF), also on EurekAlert but published December 16, 2021, which originated the news item, delves further into the research (Note: A link has been removed),

The newly developed glass, which has no electrical components, works by exploiting the spectrums of light responsible for heating and cooling.

During summer, the glass suppresses solar heating (near infrared light), while boosting radiative cooling (long-wave infrared) – a natural phenomenon where heat emits through surfaces towards the cold universe – to cool the room. In the winter, it does the opposite to warm up the room.

In lab tests using an infrared camera to visualise results, the glass allowed a controlled amount of heat to emit in various conditions (room temperature – above 70°C), proving its ability to react dynamically to changing weather conditions.

New glass regulates both heating and cooling

Windows are one of the key components in a building’s design, but they are also the least energy-efficient and most complicated part. In the United States alone, window-associated energy consumption (heating and cooling) in buildings accounts for approximately four per cent of their total primary energy usage each year according to an estimation based on data available from the Department of Energy in US.[1]

While scientists elsewhere have developed sustainable innovations to ease this energy demand – such as using low emissivity coatings to prevent heat transfer and electrochromic glass that regulate solar transmission from entering the room by becoming tinted – none of the solutions have been able to modulate both heating and cooling at the same time, until now.

The principal investigator of the study, Dr Long Yi of the NTU School of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) said, “Most energy-saving windows today tackle the part of solar heat gain caused by visible and near infrared sunlight. However, researchers often overlook the radiative cooling in the long wavelength infrared. While innovations focusing on radiative cooling have been used on walls and roofs, this function becomes undesirable during winter. Our team has demonstrated for the first time a glass that can respond favourably to both wavelengths, meaning that it can continuously self-tune to react to a changing temperature across all seasons.”

As a result of these features, the NTU research team believes their innovation offers a convenient way to conserve energy in buildings since it does not rely on any moving components, electrical mechanisms, or blocking views, to function.

To improve the performance of windows, the simultaneous modulation of both solar transmission and radiative cooling are crucial, said co-authors Professor Gang Tan from The University of Wyoming, USA, and Professor Ronggui Yang from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, China, who led the building energy saving simulation.

“This innovation fills the missing gap between traditional smart windows and radiative cooling by paving a new research direction to minimise energy consumption,” said Prof Gang Tan.

The study is an example of groundbreaking research that supports the NTU 2025 strategic plan, which seeks to address humanity’s grand challenges on sustainability, and accelerate the translation of research discoveries into innovations that mitigate human impact on the environment.

Innovation useful for a wide range of climate types

As a proof of concept, the scientists tested the energy-saving performance of their invention using simulations of climate data covering all populated parts of the globe (seven climate zones).

The team found the glass they developed showed energy savings in both warm and cool seasons, with an overall energy saving performance of up to 9.5%, or ~330,000 kWh per year (estimated energy required to power 60 household in Singapore for a year) less than commercially available low emissivity glass in a simulated medium sized office building.

First author of the study Wang Shancheng, who is Research Fellow and former PhD student of Dr Long Yi, said, “The results prove the viability of applying our glass in all types of climates as it is able to help cut energy use regardless of hot and cold seasonal temperature fluctuations. This sets our invention apart from current energy-saving windows which tend to find limited use in regions with less seasonal variations.”

Moreover, the heating and cooling performance of their glass can be customised to suit the needs of the market and region for which it is intended.

“We can do so by simply adjusting the structure and composition of special nanocomposite coating layered onto the glass panel, allowing our innovation to be potentially used across a wide range of heat regulating applications, and not limited to windows,” Dr Long Yi said.

Providing an independent view, Professor Liangbing Hu, Herbert Rabin Distinguished Professor, Director of the Center for Materials Innovation at the University of Maryland, USA, said, “Long and co-workers made the original development of smart windows that can regulate the near-infrared sunlight and the long-wave infrared heat. The use of this smart window could be highly important for building energy-saving and decarbonization.”  

A Singapore patent has been filed for the innovation. As the next steps, the research team is aiming to achieve even higher energy-saving performance by working on the design of their nanocomposite coating.

The international research team also includes scientists from Nanjing Tech University, China. The study is supported by the Singapore-HUJ Alliance for Research and Enterprise (SHARE), under the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) programme, Minster of Education Research Fund Tier 1, and the Sino-Singapore International Joint Research Institute.

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

Scalable thermochromic smart windows with passive radiative cooling regulation by Shancheng Wang, Tengyao Jiang, Yun Meng, Ronggui Yang, Gang Tan, and Yi Long. Science • 16 Dec 2021 • Vol 374, Issue 6574 • pp. 1501-1504 • DOI: 10.1126/science.abg0291

This paper is behind a paywall.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab; LBNL) does roofs

A December 16, 2021 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory news release (also on EurekAlert) announces an energy-saving coating for roofs (Note: Links have been removed),

Scientists have developed an all-season smart-roof coating that keeps homes warm during the winter and cool during the summer without consuming natural gas or electricity. Research findings reported in the journal Science point to a groundbreaking technology that outperforms commercial cool-roof systems in energy savings.

“Our all-season roof coating automatically switches from keeping you cool to warm, depending on outdoor air temperature. This is energy-free, emission-free air conditioning and heating, all in one device,” said Junqiao Wu, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and a UC Berkeley professor of materials science and engineering who led the study.

Today’s cool roof systems, such as reflective coatings, membranes, shingles, or tiles, have light-colored or darker “cool-colored” surfaces that cool homes by reflecting sunlight. These systems also emit some of the absorbed solar heat as thermal-infrared radiation; in this natural process known as radiative cooling, thermal-infrared light is radiated away from the surface.

The problem with many cool-roof systems currently on the market is that they continue to radiate heat in the winter, which drives up heating costs, Wu explained.

“Our new material – called a temperature-adaptive radiative coating or TARC – can enable energy savings by automatically turning off the radiative cooling in the winter, overcoming the problem of overcooling,” he said.

A roof for all seasons

Metals are typically good conductors of electricity and heat. In 2017, Wu and his research team discovered that electrons in vanadium dioxide behave like a metal to electricity but an insulator to heat – in other words, they conduct electricity well without conducting much heat. “This behavior contrasts with most other metals where electrons conduct heat and electricity proportionally,” Wu explained.

Vanadium dioxide below about 67 degrees Celsius (153 degrees Fahrenheit) is also transparent to (and hence not absorptive of) thermal-infrared light. But once vanadium dioxide reaches 67 degrees Celsius, it switches to a metal state, becoming absorptive of thermal-infrared light. This ability to switch from one phase to another – in this case, from an insulator to a metal – is characteristic of what’s known as a phase-change material.

To see how vanadium dioxide would perform in a roof system, Wu and his team engineered a 2-centimeter-by-2-centimeter TARC thin-film device.

TARC “looks like Scotch tape, and can be affixed to a solid surface like a rooftop,” Wu said.

In a key experiment, co-lead author Kechao Tang set up a rooftop experiment at Wu’s East Bay home last summer to demonstrate the technology’s viability in a real-world environment.

A wireless measurement device set up on Wu’s balcony continuously recorded responses to changes in direct sunlight and outdoor temperature from a TARC sample, a commercial dark roof sample, and a commercial white roof sample over multiple days.

How TARC outperforms in energy savings

The researchers then used data from the experiment to simulate how TARC would perform year-round in cities representing 15 different climate zones across the continental U.S.

Wu enlisted Ronnen Levinson, a co-author on the study who is a staff scientist and leader of the Heat Island Group in Berkeley Lab’s Energy Technologies Area, to help them refine their model of roof surface temperature. Levinson developed a method to estimate TARC energy savings from a set of more than 100,000 building energy simulations that the Heat Island Group previously performed to evaluate the benefits of cool roofs and cool walls across the United States.

Finnegan Reichertz, a 12th grade student at the East Bay Innovation Academy in Oakland who worked remotely as a summer intern for Wu last year, helped to simulate how TARC and the other roof materials would perform at specific times and on specific days throughout the year for each of the 15 cities or climate zones the researchers studied for the paper.

The researchers found that TARC outperforms existing roof coatings for energy saving in 12 of the 15 climate zones, particularly in regions with wide temperature variations between day and night, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, or between winter and summer, such as New York City.

“With TARC installed, the average household in the U.S. could save up to 10% electricity,” said Tang, who was a postdoctoral researcher in the Wu lab at the time of the study. He is now an assistant professor at Peking University in Beijing, China.

Standard cool roofs have high solar reflectance and high thermal emittance (the ability to release heat by emitting thermal-infrared radiation) even in cool weather.

According to the researchers’ measurements, TARC reflects around 75% of sunlight year-round, but its thermal emittance is high (about 90%) when the ambient temperature is warm (above 25 degrees Celsius or 77 degrees Fahrenheit), promoting heat loss to the sky. In cooler weather, TARC’s thermal emittance automatically switches to low, helping to retain heat from solar absorption and indoor heating, Levinson said.

Findings from infrared spectroscopy experiments using advanced tools at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry validated the simulations.

“Simple physics predicted TARC would work, but we were surprised it would work so well,” said Wu. “We originally thought the switch from warming to cooling wouldn’t be so dramatic. Our simulations, outdoor experiments, and lab experiments proved otherwise – it’s really exciting.”

The researchers plan to develop TARC prototypes on a larger scale to further test its performance as a practical roof coating. Wu said that TARC may also have potential as a thermally protective coating to prolong battery life in smartphones and laptops, and shield satellites and cars from extremely high or low temperatures. It could also be used to make temperature-regulating fabric for tents, greenhouse coverings, and even hats and jackets.

Co-lead authors on the study were Kaichen Dong and Jiachen Li.

The Molecular Foundry is a nanoscience user facility at Berkeley Lab.

This work was primarily supported by the DOE Office of Science and a Bakar Fellowship.

The technology is available for licensing and collaboration. If interested, please contact Berkeley Lab’s Intellectual Property Office, ipo@lbl.gov.

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

Temperature-adaptive radiative coating for all-season household thermal regulation by Kechao Tang, Kaichen Dong, Jiachen Li, Madeleine P. Gordon, Finnegan G. Reichertz, Hyungjin Kim, Yoonsoo Rho, Qingjun Wang, Chang-Yu Lin, Costas P. Grigoropoulos, Ali Javey, Jeffrey J. Urban, Jie Yao, Ronnen Levinson, Junqiao Wu. Science • 16 Dec 2021 • Vol 374, Issue 6574 • pp. 1504-1509 • DOI: 10.1126/science.abf7136

This paper is behind a paywall.

An interesting news release from the AAAS

While it’s a little confusing as it cites only the ‘window’ research from NTU, the body of this news release offers some additional information about the usefulness of thermochromic materials and seemingly refers to both papers, from a December 16, 2021 AAAS news release,

Temperature-adaptive passive radiative cooling for roofs and windows

When it’s cold out, window glass and roof coatings that use passive radiative cooling to keep buildings cool can be designed to passively turn off radiative cooling to avoid heat loss, two new studies show.  Their proof-of-concept analyses demonstrate that passive radiative cooling can be expanded to warm and cold climate applications and regions, potentially providing all-season energy savings worldwide. Buildings consume roughly 40% of global energy, a large proportion of which is used to keep them cool in warmer climates. However, most temperature regulation systems commonly employed are not very energy efficient and require external power or resources. In contrast, passive radiative cooling technologies, which use outer space as a near-limitless natural heat sink, have been extensively examined as a means of energy-efficient cooling for buildings. This technology uses materials designed to selectively emit narrow-band radiation through the infrared atmospheric window to disperse heat energy into the coldness of space. However, while this approach has proven effective in cooling buildings to below ambient temperatures, it is only helpful during the warmer months or in regions that are perpetually hot. Furthermore, the inability to “turn off” passive cooling in cooler climes or in regions with large seasonal temperature variations means that continuous cooling during colder periods would exacerbate the energy costs of heating. In two different studies, by Shancheng Wang and colleagues and Kechao Tang and colleagues, researchers approach passive radiative cooling from an all-season perspective and present a new, scalable temperature-adaptive radiative technology that passively turns off radiative cooling at lower temperatures. Wang et al. and Tang et al. achieve this using a tungsten-doped vanadium dioxide and show how it can be applied to create both window glass and a flexible roof coating, respectively. Model simulations of the self-adapting materials suggest they could provide year-round energy savings across most climate zones, especially those with substantial seasonal temperature variations. 

I wish them all good luck with getting these materials to market.

Concrete collapse and research into durability

I have two items about concrete buildings, one concerns the June 24, 2021 collapse of a 12-storey condominium building in Surfside, close to Miami Beach in Florida. There are at least 20 people dead and, I believe, over 120 are still unaccounted for (July 2, 2021 Associated Press news item on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news online website).

Miami collapse

Nate Berg’s June 25, 2021 article for Fast Company provides an instructive overview of the building collapse (Note: A link has been removed),

Why the building collapsed is not yet known [emphasis mine]. David Darwin is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Kansas and an expert in reinforced concrete structures, and he says the eventual investigation of the Surfside collapse will explore all the potential causes, ranging from movement in the foundation before the collapse, corrosion in the debris, and excessive cracking in the part of the building that remains standing. “There are all sorts of potential causes of failure,” Darwin says. “At this point, speculation is not helpful for anybody.”

Sometimes I can access the entire article, and at other times, only a few paragraphs; I hope you get access to all of it as it provides a lot of information.

The Surfside news puts this research from Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois) into much sharper relief than might otherwise be the case. (Further on I have some information about the difference between cement and concrete and how cement leads to concrete.)

Smart cement for more durable roads and cities

Coincidentally, just days before the Miami Beach building collapse, a June 21, 2021 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert), announced research into improving water and fracture resistance in cement,

Forces of nature have been outsmarting the materials we use to build our infrastructure since we started producing them. Ice and snow turn major roads into rubble every year; foundations of houses crack and crumble, in spite of sturdy construction. In addition to the tons of waste produced by broken bits of concrete, each lane-mile of road costs the U.S. approximately $24,000 per year to keep it in good repair.

Engineers tackling this issue with smart materials typically enhance the function of materials by increasing the amount of carbon, but doing so makes materials lose some mechanical performance. By introducing nanoparticles into ordinary cement, Northwestern University researchers have formed a smarter, more durable and highly functional cement.

The research was published today (June 21 [2021]) in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.

With cement being the most widely consumed material globally and the cement industry accounting for 8% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, civil and environmental engineering professor Ange-Therese Akono turned to nanoreinforced cement to look for a solution. Akono, the lead author on the study and an assistant professor in the McCormick School of Engineering, said nanomaterials reduce the carbon footprint of cement composites, but until now, little was known about its impact on fracture behavior.

“The role of nanoparticles in this application has not been understood before now, so this is a major breakthrough,” Akono said. “As a fracture mechanics expert by training, I wanted to understand how to change cement production to enhance the fracture response.”

Traditional fracture testing, in which a series of light beams is cast onto a large block of material, involves lots of time and materials and seldom leads to the discovery of new materials.

By using an innovative method called scratch testing, Akono’s lab efficiently formed predictions on the material’s properties in a fraction of the time. The method tests fracture response by applying a conical probe with increasing vertical force against the surface of microscopic bits of cement. Akono, who developed the novel method during her Ph.D. work, said it requires less material and accelerates the discovery of new ones.

“I was able to look at many different materials at the same time,” Akono said. “My method is applied directly at the micrometer and nanometer scales, which saves a considerable amount of time. And then based on this, we can understand how materials behave, how they crack and ultimately predict their resistance to fracture.”

Predictions formed through scratch tests also allow engineers to make changes to materials that enhance their performance at the larger scale. In the paper, graphene nanoplatelets, a material rapidly gaining popularity in forming smart materials, were used to improve the resistance to fracture of ordinary cement. Incorporating a small amount of the nanomaterial also was shown to improve water transport properties including pore structure and water penetration resistance, with reported relative decreases of 76% and 78%, respectively.

Implications of the study span many fields, including building construction, road maintenance, sensor and generator optimization and structural health monitoring.

By 2050, the United Nations predicts two-thirds of the world population will be concentrated in cities. Given the trend toward urbanization, cement production is expected to skyrocket.

Introducing green concrete that employs lighter, higher-performing cement will reduce its overall carbon footprint by extending maintenance schedules and reducing waste.

Alternately, smart materials allow cities to meet the needs of growing populations in terms of connectivity, energy and multifunctionality. Carbon-based nanomaterials including graphene nanoplatelets are already being considered in the design of smart cement-based sensors for structural health monitoring.

Akono said she’s excited for both follow-ups to the paper in her own lab and the ways her research will influence others. She’s already working on proposals that look into using construction waste to form new concrete and is considering “taking the paper further” by increasing the fraction of nanomaterial that cement contains.

“I want to look at other properties like understanding the long-term performance,” Akono said. “For instance, if you have a building made of carbon-based nanomaterials, how can you predict the resistance in 10, 20 even 40 years?”

The study, “Fracture toughness of one- and two-dimensional nanoreinforced cement via scratch testing,” was supported by the National Science Foundation Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation (award number 18929101).

Akono will give a talk on the paper at The Royal Society’s October [2021] meeting, “A Cracking Approach to Inventing Tough New Materials: Fracture Stranger Than Friction,” which will highlight major advances in fracture mechanics from the past century.

I don’t often include these kinds of photos (one or more of the researchers posing (sometimes holding something) for the camera but I love the professor’s first name, Ange-Therese (which means angel in French, I don’t know if she ever uses the French spelling for Thérèse),

Caption: Professor Ange-Therese Akono holds a sample of her smart cement. Credit: Northwestern University

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

Fracture toughness of one- and two-dimensional nanoreinforced cement via scratch testing by Ange-Therese Akono. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical & Engineering Sciences 2021 379 (2203): 20200288 DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2020.0288 Published June 21, 2021

This paper appears to be open access.

Cement vs. concrete

Andrew Logan’s April 3, 2020 article for MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) News is a very readable explanation of how cement and concrete differ and how they are related,

There’s a lot the average person doesn’t know about concrete. For example, it’s porous; it’s the world’s most-used material after water; and, perhaps most fundamentally, it’s not cement.

Though many use “cement” and “concrete” interchangeably, they actually refer to two different — but related — materials: Concrete is a composite made from several materials, one of which is cement. [emphasis mine]

Cement production begins with limestone, a sedimentary rock. Once quarried, it is mixed with a silica source, such as industrial byproducts slag or fly ash, and gets fired in a kiln at 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. What comes out of the kiln is called clinker. Cement plants grind clinker down to an extremely fine powder and mix in a few additives. The final result is cement.

“Cement is then brought to sites where it is mixed with water, where it becomes cement paste,” explains Professor Franz-Josef Ulm, faculty director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub). “If you add sand to that paste it becomes mortar. And if you add to the mortar large aggregates — stones of a diameter of up to an inch — it becomes concrete.”

Final thoughts

I offer my sympathies to the folks affected by the building collapse and my hopes that research will lead the way to more durable cement and, ultimately, concrete buildings.

Stronger concrete with graphene derived from tires

I’ve become strangely fascinated with concrete these last few months. Possibly, this is a consequence of a lot more ‘concrete’ research being published. Here’s a March 29, 2021 news item on phys.org featuring work from Rice University (Texas, US),

This could be where the rubber truly hits the road.

Rice University scientists have optimized a process to convert waste from rubber tires into graphene that can, in turn, be used to strengthen concrete.

The environmental benefits of adding graphene to concrete are clear, chemist James Tour said.

“Concrete is the most-produced material in the world, and simply making it produces as much as 9% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions,” Tour said. “If we can use less concrete in our roads, buildings and bridges, we can eliminate some of the emissions at the very start.”

A March 29, 2021 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides context for the work and more technical details,

Recycled tire waste is already used as a component of Portland cement, but graphene has been proven to strengthen cementitious materials, concrete among them, at the molecular level.

While the majority of the 800 million tires discarded annually are burned for fuel or ground up for other applications, 16% of them wind up in landfills.

“Reclaiming even a fraction of those as graphene will keep millions of tires from reaching landfills,” Tour said.

The “flash” process introduced by Tour and his colleagues in 2020 has been used to convert food waste, plastic and other carbon sources by exposing them to a jolt of electricity that removes everything but carbon atoms from the sample.

Those atoms reassemble into valuable turbostratic graphene, which has misaligned layers that are more soluble than graphene produced via exfoliation from graphite. That makes it easier to use in composite materials.

Rubber proved more challenging than food or plastic to turn into graphene, but the lab optimized the process by using commercial pyrolyzed waste rubber from tires. After useful oils are extracted from waste tires, this carbon residue has until now had near-zero value, Tour said.

Tire-derived carbon black or a blend of shredded rubber tires and commercial carbon black can be flashed into graphene. Because turbostratic graphene is soluble, it can easily be added to cement to make more environmentally friendly concrete.

The research led by Tour and Rouzbeh Shahsavari of C-Crete Technologies is detailed in the journal Carbon.

The Rice lab flashed tire-derived carbon black and found about 70% of the material converted to graphene. When flashing shredded rubber tires mixed with plain carbon black to add conductivity, about 47% converted to graphene. Elements besides carbon were vented out for other uses.

The electrical pulses lasted between 300 milliseconds and 1 second. The lab calculated electricity used in the conversion process would cost about $100 per ton of starting carbon.

The researchers blended minute amounts of tire-derived graphene — 0.1 weight/percent (wt%) for tire carbon black and 0.05 wt% for carbon black and shredded tires — with Portland cement and used it to produce concrete cylinders. Tested after curing for seven days, the cylinders showed gains of 30% or more in compressive strength. After 28 days, 0.1 wt% of graphene sufficed to give both products a strength gain of at least 30%.

“This increase in strength is in part due to a seeding effect of 2D graphene for better growth of cement hydrate products, and in part due to a reinforcing effect at later stages,” Shahsavari said.

Set of tires on a sky background

I’m not sure where I got this stock shot but it is pretty (if tires can ever be described that way).

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

Flash Graphene from Rubber Waste by Paul A. Advincula, Duy Xuan Luong, Weiyin Chen, Shivaranjan Raghuraman, Rouzbeh Shahsavari, James M.Tour. Carbon Available online 28 March 2021 In Press, Journal Pre-proof DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.carbon.2021.03.020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Sunlight makes transparent wood even lighter and stronger

Researchers at the University of Maryland (US) have found a way to make their wood transparent by using sunlight. From a February 2, 2021 news article by Bob Yirka on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),

A team of researchers at the University of Maryland, has found a new way to make wood transparent. In their paper published in the journal Science Advances, the group describes their process and why they believe it is better than the old process.

The conventional method for making wood transparent involves using chemicals to remove the lignin—a process that takes a long time, produces a lot of liquid waste and results in weaker wood. In this new effort, the researchers have found a way to make wood transparent without having to remove the lignin.

The process involved changing the lignin rather than removing it. The researchers removed lignin molecules that are involved in producing wood color. First, they applied hydrogen peroxide to the wood surface and then exposed the treated wood to UV light (or natural sunlight). The wood was then soaked in ethanol to further clean it. Next, they filled in the pores with clear epoxy to make the wood smooth.

Caption: Solar-assisted large-scale fabrication of transparent wood. (A) Schematic showing the potential large-scale fabrication of transparent wood based on the rotary wood cutting method and the solar-assisted chemical brushing process. (B) The outdoor fabrication of lignin-modified wood with a length of 1 m [9 August 2019 (the summer months) at 13:00 p.m. (solar noon), the Global Solar UV Index (UVI): 7 to 8]. (C) Digital photo of a piece of large transparent wood (400 mm by 110 mm by 1 mm). (D) The energy consumption, chemical cost, and waste emission for the solar-assisted chemical brushing process and NaClO2 solution–based delignification process. (E) A radar plot showing a comparison of the fabrication process for transparent wood. Photo credit: Qinqin Xia, University of Maryland, College Park. [downloaded from https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/7/5/eabd7342]

Bob McDonald in a February 5, 2021 posting on his Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Quirks & Quarks blog provides a more detailed description of the new ‘solar-based transparency process’,

Early attempts to make transparent wood involved removing the lignin, but this involved hazardous chemicals, high temperatures and a lot of time, making the product expensive and somewhat brittle. The new technique is so cheap and easy it could literally be done in a backyard.

Starting with planks of wood a metre long and one millimetre thick, the scientists simply brushed on a solution of hydrogen peroxide using an ordinary paint brush. When left in the sun, or under a UV lamp for an hour or so, the peroxide bleached out the brown chromophores but left the lignin intact, so the wood turned white.

Next, they infused the wood with a tough transparent epoxy designed for marine use, which filled in the spaces and pores in the wood and then hardened. This made the white wood transparent.

As window material, it would be much more resistant to accidental breakage. The clear wood is lighter than glass, with better insulating properties, which is important because windows are a major source of heat loss in buildings. It also might take less energy to manufacture clear wood because there are no high temperatures involved.

Many different types of wood, from balsa to oak, can be made transparent, and it doesn’t matter if it is cut along the grain or against it. If the transparent wood is made a little thicker, it would be strong enough to become part of the structure of a building, so there could be entire transparent wooden walls.

Adele Peters in her February 2, 2021 article for Fast Company describes the work in Maryland and includes some information about other innovative and possibly sustainable uses of wood (Note: Links have been removed),

It’s [transparent wood] just one of a number of ways scientists and engineers are rethinking how we can use this renewable resource in construction. Skyscrapers made entirely out of wood are gaining popularity in cities around the world. And scientists recently discovered a technique to grow wood in a lab, opening up the possibility of using wood without having to chop down a forest.

There were three previous posts here about this work at the University of Maryland,

University of Maryland looks into transparent wood May 11, 2016 posting

Transparent wood more efficient than glass in windows? Sept, 8, 2016 posting

Glass-like wood windows protect against UV rays and insulate heat October 21, 2020 posting

I have this posting, which is also from 2016 but features work in Sweden,

Transparent wood instead of glass for window panes? April 1, 2016 posting

Getting back to the latest work from the University of Maryland, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Solar-assisted fabrication of large-scale, patternable transparent wood by Qinqin Xia, Chaoji Chen, Tian Li, Shuaiming He, Jinlong Gao, Xizheng Wang and Liangbing Hu. Science Advances Vol. 7, no. 5, eabd7342 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd7342 Published: 27 Jan 2021

This paper is open access.

One last item, Liangbing Hu has founded a company InventWood for commercializing the work he and his colleagues have done at the University of Maryland.

Lobster-inspired 3D printed concrete

A January 19, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily highlights bioinspired 3D printing of concrete,

New research shows that patterns inspired by lobster shells can make 3D printed concrete stronger, to support more complex and creative architectural structures.

Digital manufacturing technologies like 3D concrete printing (3DCP) have immense potential to save time, effort and material in construction.

They also promise to push the boundaries of architectural innovation, yet technical challenges remain in making 3D printed concrete strong enough for use in more free-form structures.

In a new experimental study, researchers at RMIT University [Australia] looked to the natural strength of lobster shells to design special 3D printing patterns.

Their bio-mimicking spiral patterns improved the overall durability of the 3D printed concrete, as well as enabling the strength to be precisely directed for structural support where needed.

Video: Carelle Mulawa-Richards

A January 19, 2021 RMIT University press release (also on EurekAlert) by Gosia Kaszubska, which originated the news item, goes into technical detail about the research once you get past the ‘fluffy’ bits,

When the team combined the twisting patterns with a specialised concrete mix enhanced with steel fibres, the resulting material was stronger than traditionally-made concrete.

Lead researcher Dr Jonathan Tran said 3D printing and additive manufacturing opened up opportunities in construction for boosting both efficiency and creativity.

“3D concrete printing technology has real potential to revolutionise the construction industry, and our aim is to bring that transformation closer,” said Tran, a senior lecturer in structured materials and design at RMIT.

“Our study explores how different printing patterns affect the structural integrity of 3D printed concrete, and for the first time reveals the benefits of a bio-inspired approach in 3DCP.

“We know that natural materials like lobster exoskeletons?have evolved into high-performance structures over millions of years, so by mimicking their key advantages we can follow where nature has already innovated.”

3D printing for construction

The automation of concrete construction is set to transform how we build, with construction the next frontier in the automation and data-driven revolution known as industry 4.0.

A 3D concrete printer builds houses or makes structural components by depositing the material layer-by-layer, unlike the traditional approach of casting concrete in a mould.

With the latest technology, a house can be 3D printed in just 24 hours for about half the cost, while construction on the world’s first 3D printed community began in 2019 in Mexico.

The emerging industry is already supporting architectural and engineering innovation, such as a 3D printed office building in Dubai, a nature-mimicking concrete bridge in Madrid and The Netherlands’ sail-shaped “Europe Building”.

The research team in RMIT’s School of Engineering focuses on 3D printing concrete, exploring ways to enhance the finished product through different combinations of printing pattern design, material choices, modelling, design optimisation and reinforcement options.

Patterns for printing

The most conventional pattern used in 3D printing is unidirectional, where layers are laid down on top of each other in parallel lines.

The new study published in a special issue of 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing investigated the effect of different printing patterns on the strength of steel fibre-enhanced concrete.

Previous research by the RMIT team found that including 1-2% steel fibres in the concrete mix reduces defects and porosity, increasing strength. The fibres also help the concrete harden early without deformation, enabling higher structures to be built.

The team tested the impact of printing the concrete in helicoidal patterns (inspired by the internal structure of lobster shells), cross-ply and quasi-isotropic patterns (similar to those used for laminated composite structures and layer-by-layer deposited composites) and standard unidirectional patterns.

Supporting complex structures

The results showed strength improvement from each of the patterns, compared with unidirectional printing, but Tran said the spiral patterns hold the most promise for supporting complex 3D printed concrete structures.

“As lobster shells are naturally strong and naturally curved, we know this could help us deliver stronger concrete shapes like arches and flowing or twisted structures,” he said.

“This work is in early stages so we need further research to test how the concrete performs on a wider range of parameters, but our initial experimental results show we are on the right track.”

Further studies will be supported through a new large-scale mobile concrete 3D printer recently acquired by RMIT – making it the first research institution in the southern hemisphere to commission a machine of this kind.

The 5×5m robotic printer will be used by the team to research the 3D printing of houses, buildings and large structural components.

The team will also use the machine to explore the potential for 3D printing with concrete made with recycled waste materials such as soft plastic aggregate.

The work is connected to a new project with industry partners Replas and SR Engineering, focusing on sound-dampening walls made from post-consumer recycled soft plastics and concrete, which was recently supported with an Australian Government Innovations Connections grant.

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

Influences of Printing Pattern on Mechanical Performance of Three-Dimensional-Printed Fiber-Reinforced Concrete by Luong Pham, Guoxing Lu, and Phuong Tran. 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing DOI: https://doi.org/10.1089/3dp.2020.0172 Published Online:30 Dec 2020

This paper is open access.

Fungal wearable tech and building materials

This is the first time I’ve seen wearable tech based on biological material, in this case, fungi. In diving further into this material (wordplay intended), I discovered some previous work on using fungi for building materials, which you’ll find later in this posting.

Wearable tech and more

A January 18, 2021 news item on phys.org provides some illumination on the matter,

Fungi are among the world’s oldest and most tenacious organisms. They are now showing great promise to become one of the most useful materials for producing textiles, gadgets and other construction materials. The joint research venture undertaken by the University of the West of England, Bristol, the U.K. (UWE Bristol) and collaborators from Mogu S.r.l., Italy, Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Torino, Italy and the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) has demonstrated that fungi possess incredible properties that allow them to sense and process a range of external stimuli, such as light, stretching, temperature, the presence of chemical substances and even electrical signals. [emphasis mine]

This could help pave the way for the emergence of new fungal materials with a host of interesting traits, including sustainability, durability, repairability and adaptability. Through exploring the potential of fungi as components in wearable devices, the study has verified the possibility of using these biomaterials as efficient sensors with endless possible applications.

A January 18, 2021 Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes this vision for future wearable tech based on fungi,

Fungi to make smart wearables even smarter

People are unlikely to think of fungi as a suitable material for producing gadgets, especially smart devices such as pedometers or mobile phones. Wearable devices require sophisticated circuits that connect to sensors and have at least some computing power, which is accomplished through complex procedures and special materials. This, roughly speaking, is what makes them “smart”. The collaboration of Prof. Andrew Adamatzky and Dr. Anna Nikolaidou from UWE Bristol’s Unconventional Computing Laboratory, Antoni Gandia, Chief Technology Officer at Mogu S.r.l., Prof. Alessandro Chiolerio from Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Torino, Italy and Dr. Mohammad Mahdi Dehshibi, researcher with the UOC’s Scene Understanding and Artificial Intelligence Lab (SUNAI) have demonstrated that fungi can be added to the list of these materials.

Indeed, the recent study, entitled “Reactive fungal wearable” and featured in Biosystems, analyses the ability of oyster fungus Pleurotus ostreatus to sense environmental stimuli that could come, for example, from the human body. In order to test the fungus’s response capabilities as a biomaterial, the study analyses and describes its role as a biosensor with the ability to discern between chemical, mechanical and electrical stimuli.

“Fungi make up the largest, most widely distributed and oldest group of living organisms on the planet,” said Dehshibi, who added, “They grow extremely fast and bind to the substrate you combine them with”. According to the UOC researcher, fungi are even able to process information in a way that resembles computers.

“We can reprogramme a geometry and graph-theoretical structure of the mycelium networks and then use the fungi’s electrical activity to realize computing circuits,” said Dehshibi, adding that, “Fungi do not only respond to stimuli and trigger signals accordingly, but also allow us to manipulate them to carry out computational tasks, in other words, to process information”. As a result, the possibility of creating real computer components with fungal material is no longer pure science fiction. In fact, these components would be capable of capturing and reacting to external signals in a way that has never been seen before.

Why use fungi?

These fungi have less to do with diseases and other issues caused by their kin when grown indoors. What’s more, according to Dehshibi, mycelium-based products are already used commercially in construction. He said: “You can mould them into different shapes like you would with cement, but to develop a geometric space you only need between five days and two weeks. They also have a small ecological footprint. In fact, given that they feed on waste to grow, they can be considered environmentally friendly”.

The world is no stranger to so-called “fungal architectures” [emphasis mine], built using biomaterials made from fungi. Existing strategies in this field involve growing the organism into the desired shape using small modules such as bricks, blocks or sheets. These are then dried to kill off the organism, leaving behind a sustainable and odourless compound.

But this can be taken one step further, said the expert, if the mycelia are kept alive and integrated into nanoparticles and polymers to develop electronic components. He said: “This computer substrate is grown in a textile mould to give it shape and provide additional structure. Over the last decade, Professor Adamatzky has produced several prototypes of sensing and computing devices using the slime mould Physarum polycephalum, including various computational geometry processors and hybrid electronic devices.”

The upcoming stretch

Although Professor Adamatzky found that this slime mould is a convenient substrate for unconventional computing, the fact that it is continuously changing prevents the manufacture of long-living devices, and slime mould computing devices are thus confined to experimental laboratory set-ups.

However, according to Dehshibi, thanks to their development and behaviour, basidiomycetes are more readily available, less susceptible to infections, larger in size and more convenient to manipulate than slime mould. In addition, Pleurotus ostreatus, as verified in their most recent paper, can be easily experimented on outdoors, thus opening up the possibility for new applications. This makes fungi an ideal target for the creation of future living computer devices.

The UOC researcher said: “In my opinion, we still have to address two major challenges. The first consists in really implementing [fungal system] computation with a purpose; in other words, computation that makes sense. The second would be to characterize the properties of the fungal substrates via Boolean mapping, in order to uncover the true computing potential of the mycelium networks.” To word it another way, although we know that there is potential for this type of application, we still have to figure out how far this potential goes and how we can tap into it for practical purposes.

We may not have to wait too long for the answers, though. The initial prototype developed by the team, which forms part of the study, will streamline the future design and construction of buildings with unique capabilities, thanks to their fungal biomaterials. The researcher said: “This innovative approach promotes the use of a living organism as a building material that is also fashioned to compute.” When the project wraps up in December 2022, the FUNGAR project will construct a large-scale fungal building in Denmark and Italy, as well as a smaller version on UWE Bristol’s Frenchay Campus.

Dehshibi said: “To date, only small modules such as bricks and sheets have been manufactured. However, NASA [US National Aeronautics Space Administration] is also interested in the idea and is looking for ways to build bases on the Moon and Mars to send inactive spores to other planets.” To conclude, he said: “Living inside a fungus may strike you as odd, but why is it so strange to think that we could live inside something living? It would mark a very interesting ecological shift that would allow us to do away with concrete, glass and wood. Just imagine schools, offices and hospitals that continuously grow, regenerate and die; it’s the pinnacle of sustainable life.”

For the Authors of the paper, the point of fungal computers is not to replace silicon chips. Fungal reactions are too slow for that. Rather, they think humans could use mycelium growing in an ecosystem as a “large-scale environmental sensor.” Fungal networks, they reason, are monitoring a large number of data streams as part of their everyday existence. If we could plug into mycelial networks and interpret the signals, they use to process information, we could learn more about what was happening in an ecosystem.

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

Reactive fungal wearable by Andrew Adamatzky, Anna Nikolaidou, Antoni Gandia, Alessandro Chiolerio, Mohammad Mahdi Dehshibi. Biosystems Volume 199, January 2021, 104304 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biosystems.2020.104304

This paper is behind a paywall.

Fungal architecture and building materials

Here’s a video, which shows the work which inspired the fungal architecture that Dr. Dehshibi mentioned in the press release about wearable tech,

The video shows a 2014 Hy-Fi installation by The Living for MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) PS1 in New York City. Here’s more about HyFi and what it inspired from a January 15, 2021 article by Caleb Davies for the EU (European Union) Research and Innovation Magazine and republished on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),

In the summer of 2014 a strange building began to take shape just outside MoMA PS1, a contemporary art centre in New York City. It looked like someone had started building an igloo and then got carried away, so that the ice-white bricks rose into huge towers. It was a captivating sight, but the truly impressive thing about this building was not so much its looks but the fact that it had been grown.

The installation, called Hy-Fi, was designed and created by The Living, an architectural design studio in New York. Each of the 10,000 bricks had been made by packing agricultural waste and mycelium, the fungus that makes mushrooms, into a mould and letting them grow into a solid mass.

This mushroom monument gave architectural researcher Phil Ayres an idea. “It was impressive,” said Ayres, who is based at the Centre for Information Technology and Architecture in Copenhagen, Denmark. But this project and others like it were using fungus as a component in buildings such as bricks without necessarily thinking about what new types of building we could make from fungi.

That’s why he and three colleagues have begun the FUNGAR project—to explore what kinds of new buildings we might construct out of mushrooms.

FUNGAR (Fungal Architectures) can be found here, Mogu can be found here, and The Living can be found here.

Nuclear power plants take a cue from Roman concrete

Every once in a while I delve into concrete, especially Roman concrete, and cement. The most recent of these postings (until now) was a June 3, 2016 post titled, Making better concrete by looking to nature for inspiration.

A January 8, 2021 Nagoya University press release (also on EurekAlert but published Jan. 13, 2021) describes how nuclear power plants could lead the way to an eco-friendly modern concrete as durable as that the ancient Romans developed,

A rare mineral that has allowed Roman concrete marine barriers to survive for more than 2,000 years has been found in the thick concrete walls of a decommissioned nuclear power plant in Japan. The formation of aluminous tobermorite increased the strength of the walls more than three times their design strength, Nagoya University researchers and colleagues report in the journal Materials and Design. The finding could help scientists develop stronger and more eco-friendly concrete.

“We found that cement hydrates and rock-forming minerals reacted in a way similar to what happens in Roman concrete, significantly increasing the strength of the nuclear plant walls,” says Nagoya University environmental engineer Ippei Maruyama.

Research has shown that Roman concrete used in the construction of marine barriers has managed to survive for more than two millennia because seawater dissolves volcanic ash in the mixture, leading to the formation of aluminous tobermorite. Since aluminous tobermorite is a crystal, it makes the concrete more chemically stable and stronger. It is very difficult to incorporate aluminous tobermorite directly into modern-day concrete. Scientists have generated the mineral in the lab, but it requires very high temperatures above 70°C. On the other hand, laboratory experiments have shown that hot environments are detrimental to concrete strength, which has led to regulations that limit its use to temperatures below 65°C.

Maruyama and his colleagues found that aluminous tobermorite formed in a nuclear reactor’s concrete walls when temperatures of 40-55°C were maintained for 16.5 years.

The samples were taken from the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, which operated from 1976 to 2009.

In-depth analyses showed that the reactor’s very thick walls were able to retain moisture. Minerals used to make the concrete reacted in the presence of this water, increasing availability of silicon and aluminium ions and the alkali content of the wall. This ultimately led to the formation of aluminous tobermorite.

“Our understanding of concrete is based on short-term experiments conducted at lab time scales,” says Maruyama. “But real concrete structures give us more insights for long-term use.”

Maruyama and his colleagues are searching for ways to make concrete more durable and environmentally friendly. Cement used in concrete manufacturing produces nearly 10% of human-made carbon dioxide emissions, so the team is looking to produce more eco-friendly mixtures that still meet standardized requirements for strong concrete structures.

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

Long-term use of modern Portland cement concrete: The impact of Al-tobermorite formation by Ippei Maruyama, Jiří Rymeš, Abudushalamu Aili, Shohei Sawada, Osamu Kontani, Shinya Ueda, Ryu Shimamoto. Materials & Design
Volume 198, 15 January 2021, 109297 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.matdes.2020.109297

This paper appears to be open access.

Glass-like wood windows protect against UV rays and insulate heat

Engineers at the University of Maryland designed a transparent ceiling made of wood that highlights the natural woodgrain pattern. Credit: A. James Clark School of Engineering, University of Maryland [downloaded from https://phys.org/news/2020-08-glass-like-wood-insulates-tough-blocks.html]

An August 7, 2020 news item by Martha Hell on phys.org announces the latest research (links to previous posts about this research at the end of this post) on ‘transparent’ wood from the University of Maryland,

Need light but want privacy? A new type of wood that’s transparent, tough, and beautiful could be the solution. This nature-inspired building material allows light to come through (at about 80%) to fill the room but the material itself is naturally hazy (93%), preventing others from seeing inside.

An August 16, 2020 University of Maryland news release (also on EurekAlert) describes the work in more detail,

Engineers at the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland (UMD) demonstrate in a new study that windows made of transparent wood could provide more even and consistent natural lighting and better energy efficiency than glass

In a paper just published [July 31, 20202] in the peer-reviewed journal Advanced Energy Materials [this seems to be an incorrectly cited journal; I believe it should be Nature Communications as indicated in the phys.org news item], the team, headed by Liangbing Hu of UMD’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Energy Research Center lay out research showing that their transparent wood provides better thermal insulation and lets in nearly as much light as glass, while eliminating glare and providing uniform and consistent indoor lighting. The findings advance earlier published work on their development of transparent wood.

The transparent wood lets through just a little bit less light than glass, but a lot less heat, said Tian Li, the lead author of the new study. “It is very transparent, but still allows for a little bit of privacy because it is not completely see-through. We also learned that the channels in the wood transmit light with wavelengths around the range of the wavelengths of visible light, but that it blocks the wavelengths that carry mostly heat,” said Li.

The team’s findings were derived, in part, from tests on tiny model house with a transparent wood panel in the ceiling that the team built. The tests showed that the light was more evenly distributed around a space with a transparent wood roof than a glass roof.

The channels in the wood direct visible light straight through the material, but the cell structure that still remains bounces the light around just a little bit, a property called haze. This means the light does not shine directly into your eyes, making it more comfortable to look at. The team photographed the transparent wood’s cell structure in the University of Maryland’s Advanced Imaging and Microscopy (AIM) Lab.

Transparent wood still has all the cell structures that comprised the original piece of wood. The wood is cut against the grain, so that the channels that drew water and nutrients up from the roots lie along the shortest dimension of the window. The new transparent wood uses theses natural channels in wood to guide the sunlight through the wood.

As the sun passes over a house with glass windows, the angle at which light shines through the glass changes as the sun moves. With windows or panels made of transparent wood instead of glass, as the sun moves across the sky, the channels in the wood direct the sunlight in the same way every time.

“This means your cat would not have to get up out of its nice patch of sunlight every few minutes and move over,” Li said. “The sunlight would stay in the same place. Also, the room would be more equally lighted at all times.”

Working with transparent wood is similar to working with natural wood, the researchers said. However, their transparent wood is waterproof due to its polymer component. It also is much less breakable than glass because the cell structure inside resists shattering.

The research team has recently patented their process for making transparent wood. The process starts with bleaching from the wood all of the lignin, which is a component in the wood that makes it both brown and strong. The wood is then soaked in epoxy, which adds strength back in and also makes the wood clearer. The team has used tiny squares of linden wood about 2 cm x 2 cm, but the wood can be any size, the researchers said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the July 31, 2020 paper,

Scalable aesthetic transparent wood for energy efficient buildings by Ruiyu Mi, Chaoji Chen, Tobias Keplinger, Yong Pei, Shuaiming He, Dapeng Liu, Jianguo Li, Jiaqi Dai, Emily Hitz, Bao Yang, Ingo Burgert & Liangbing Hu. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3836 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17513-w Published 31 July 2020

This paper is open access.

There were two previous posts about this work at the University of Maryland,

University of Maryland looks into transparent wood May 11, 2016 posting

Transparent wood more efficient than glass in windows? Sept, 8, 2016 posting

I also have this posting, which is also from 2016 but features work in Sweden,

Transparent wood instead of glass for window panes? April 1, 2016 posting

I seem to have stumbled across a number of transparent wood stories in 2016. Hmm I think I need to spend more time searching previous titles for my postings so I didn’t end up with too many that sound similar.

Colo(u)r-changing building surfaces thanks to gold nanoparticles

Gold, at the nanoscale, has different properties than it has at the macroscale and research at the University of Cambridge has found a new way to exploit gold’s unique properties at the nanoscale according to a May 13, 2019 news item item on ScienceDaily,

The smallest pixels yet created — a million times smaller than those in smartphones, made by trapping particles of light under tiny rocks of gold — could be used for new types of large-scale flexible displays, big enough to cover entire buildings.

The colour pixels, developed by a team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge, are compatible with roll-to-roll fabrication on flexible plastic films, dramatically reducing their production cost. The results are reported in the journal Science Advances [May 10, 2019].

A May 10,2019 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

It has been a long-held dream to mimic the colour-changing skin of octopus or squid, allowing people or objects to disappear into the natural background, but making large-area flexible display screens is still prohibitively expensive because they are constructed from highly precise multiple layers.

At the centre of the pixels developed by the Cambridge scientists is a tiny particle of gold a few billionths of a metre across. The grain sits on top of a reflective surface, trapping light in the gap in between. Surrounding each grain is a thin sticky coating which changes chemically when electrically switched, causing the pixel to change colour across the spectrum.

The team of scientists, from different disciplines including physics, chemistry and manufacturing, made the pixels by coating vats of golden grains with an active polymer called polyaniline and then spraying them onto flexible mirror-coated plastic, to dramatically drive down production cost.

The pixels are the smallest yet created, a million times smaller than typical smartphone pixels. They can be seen in bright sunlight and because they do not need constant power to keep their set colour, have an energy performance that makes large areas feasible and sustainable. “We started by washing them over aluminized food packets, but then found aerosol spraying is faster,” said co-lead author Hyeon-Ho Jeong from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

“These are not the normal tools of nanotechnology, but this sort of radical approach is needed to make sustainable technologies feasible,” said Professor Jeremy J Baumberg of the NanoPhotonics Centre at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, who led the research. “The strange physics of light on the nanoscale allows it to be switched, even if less than a tenth of the film is coated with our active pixels. That’s because the apparent size of each pixel for light is many times larger than their physical area when using these resonant gold architectures.”

The pixels could enable a host of new application possibilities such as building-sized display screens, architecture which can switch off solar heat load, active camouflage clothing and coatings, as well as tiny indicators for coming internet-of-things devices.
The team are currently working at improving the colour range and are looking for partners to develop the technology further.

The research is funded as part of a UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) investment in the Cambridge NanoPhotonics Centre, as well as the European Research Council (ERC) and the China Scholarship Council.

This image accompanies the press release,

Caption: eNPoMs formed from gold nanoparticles (Au NPs) encapsulated in a conductive polymer shell. Credit: NanoPhotonics Cambridge/Hyeon-Ho Jeong, Jialong Peng Credit: NanoPhotonics Cambridge/Hyeon-Ho Jeong, Jialong Peng

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

Scalable electrochromic nanopixels using plasmonics by Jialong Peng, Hyeon-Ho Jeong, Qianqi Lin, Sean Cormier, Hsin-Ling Liang, Michael F. L. De Volder, Silvia Vignolini, and Jeremy J. Baumberg. Science Advances Vol. 5, no. 5, eaaw2205 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw2205 Published: 01 May 2019

This paper appears to be open access.