Category Archives: health and safety

Nanomaterial shapes and forms affect passage through blood brain barrier (BBB)

I meant to get this published a lot sooner.

There seems to be a lot of excitement about this research. I got an embargoed press release further in advance than usual and now the embargo is lifted, it’s everywhere except, at the time of this writing (0920 PDT July 6, 2021), on the publisher’s (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS]) website.

A July 5, 2021 news item on Medical Express announces the news,

Nanomaterials found in consumer and health-care products can pass from the bloodstream to the brain side of a blood-brain barrier model with varying ease depending on their shape—creating potential neurological impacts that could be both positive and negative, a new study reveals.

A July 5, 2021 University of Birmingham press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves into the details,

Scientists found that metal-based nanomaterials such as silver and zinc oxide can cross an in vitro model of the ‘blood brain barrier’ (BBB) as both particles and dissolved ions – adversely affecting the health of astrocyte cells, which control neurological responses.

But the researchers also believe that their discovery will help to design safer nanomaterials and could open up new ways of targeting hard-to-reach locations when treating brain disease.

Publishing its findings today in PNAS, an international team of researchers discovered that the physiochemical properties of metallic nanomaterials influence how effective they are at penetrating the in vitro model of the blood brain barrier and their potential levels of toxicity in the brain.

Higher concentration of certain shapes of silver nanomaterials and zinc oxide may impair cell growth and cause increased permeability of the BBB, which can lead to the BBB allowing easier brain access to these compounds.

The BBB plays a vital role in brain health by restricting the passage of various chemical substances and foreign molecules into the brain from surrounding blood vessels.

Impaired BBB integrity compromises the health of the central nervous system and increased permeability to foreign substances may eventually cause damage to the brain (neurotoxicity).

Study co-author Iseult Lynch, Professor of Environmental Nanosciences at the University of Birmingham, commented: “We found that silver and zinc oxide nanomaterials, which are widely used in various daily consumer and health-care products, passed through our in vitro BBB model, in the form of both particles and dissolved ions.

“Variation in shape, size and chemical composition can dramatically influence nanomaterials penetration through the (in vitro) blood brain barrier. This is of paramount importance for tailored medical application of nanomaterials – for example targeted delivery systems, bioimaging and assessing possible risks associated with each type of metallic nanomaterial.”

The BBB is a physical barrier composed of a tightly packed layer of endothelial cells surrounding the brain which separates the blood from the cerebrospinal fluid allowing the transfer of oxygen and essential nutrients but preventing the access of most molecules.

Recent studies found nanomaterials such as zinc oxide can accumulate on the brain side of the in vitro BBB in altered states which can affect neurological activity and brain health. Inhaled, ingested, and dermally-applied nanomaterials can reach the blood stream and a small fraction of these may cross the BBB – impacting on the central nervous system.

The researchers synthesised a library of metallic nanomaterials with different particle compositions, sizes, and shapes – evaluating their ability to penetrate the BBB using an in vitro BBB model, followed by assessment of their behaviour and fate in and beyond the model BBB.

Co-author Zhiling Guo, a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, commented: “”Understanding these materials’ behaviour once past the blood brain barrier is vital for evaluating the neurological effects arising from their unintentional entry into the brain. Neurotoxicity potential is greater in some materials than others, due to the different ways their shapes allow them to move and be transported.”

The research team tested varied sizes of cerium oxide and iron oxide, along with zinc oxide and four different shapes of silver – spherical (Ag NS), disc-like (Ag ND), rod-shaped (Ag NR) and nanowires (Ag NW).

Zinc oxide slipped through the in vitro BBB with the greatest ease. The researchers found spherical and disc-like silver nanomaterials underwent different dissolution regimes – gradually transforming to silver-sulfur compounds within the BBB, creating ‘easier’ entry pathways.

Zinc oxide is used as a bulking agent and a colorant. In over-the-counter drug products, it is used as a skin protectant and a sunscreen – reflecting and scattering UV radiation to help reduce or prevent sunburn and premature aging of the skin. Silver is used in cosmetic and skincare products such as anti-aging creams.

There’s still a long way to go with this research. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the term ‘in vitro’, the rough translation is ‘in glass’ meaning test tubes, petri dishes, etc. are used. Even though the research paper has been peer-reviewed (not a perfect process), once it becomes available there will be added scrutiny from scientists with regard to how the research was conducted and whether or not the conclusions drawn are reasonable. One more question should also be asked, are the results reproducible by other scientists?

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

Biotransformation modulates the penetration of metallic nanomaterials across an artificial blood–brain barrier model by Zhiling Guo, Peng Zhang, Swaroop Chakraborty, Andrew J Chetwynd, Fazel Abdolahpur Monikh, Christopher Stark, Hanene Ali-Boucetta, Sandra Wilson, Iseult Lynch, and Eugenia Valsami-Jones. PNAS 118 (28) e2105245118 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2105245118 Published: July 13, 2021

This paper appears to be open access.

Use AI to reduce worries about nanoparticles in food

A June 16, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily announces research into the impact that engineered metallic nanoparticles used in agricultural practices have on food,

While crop yield has achieved a substantial boost from nanotechnology in recent years, alarms over the health risks posed by nanoparticles within fresh produce and grains have also increased. In particular, nanoparticles entering the soil through irrigation, fertilizers and other sources have raised concerns about whether plants absorb these minute particles enough to cause toxicity.

In a new study published online in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers at Texas A&M University have used machine learning [a form of artificial intelligence {AI}] to evaluate the salient properties of metallic nanoparticles that make them more susceptible for plant uptake. The researchers said their algorithm could indicate how much plants accumulate nanoparticles in their roots and shoots.

A June 16, 2021 Texas A&M University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research, which employed two different machine learning algorithms, in more detail,

Nanoparticles are a burgeoning trend in several fields, including medicine, consumer products and agriculture. Depending on the type of nanoparticle, some have favorable surface properties, charge and magnetism, among other features. These qualities make them ideal for a number of applications. For example, in agriculture, nanoparticles may be used as antimicrobials to protect plants from pathogens. Alternatively, they can be used to bind to fertilizers or insecticides and then programmed for slow release to increase plant absorption.

These agricultural practices and others, like irrigation, can cause nanoparticles to accumulate in the soil. However, with the different types of nanoparticles that could exist in the ground and a staggeringly large number of terrestrial plant species, including food crops, it is not clearly known if certain properties of nanoparticles make them more likely to be absorbed by some plant species than others.

“As you can imagine, if we have to test the presence of each nanoparticle for every plant species, it is a huge number of experiments, which is very time-consuming and expensive,” said Xingmao “Samuel” Ma, associate professor in the Zachry Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “To give you an idea, silver nanoparticles alone can have hundreds of different sizes, shapes and surface coatings, and so, experimentally testing each one, even for a single plant species, is impractical.”

Instead, for their study, the researchers chose two different machine learning algorithms, an artificial neural network and gene-expression programming. They first trained these algorithms on a database created from past research on different metallic nanoparticles and the specific plants in which they accumulated. In particular, their database contained the size, shape and other characteristics of different nanoparticles, along with information on how much of these particles were absorbed from soil or nutrient-enriched water into the plant body.

Once trained, their machine learning algorithms could correctly predict the likelihood of a given metallic nanoparticle to accumulate in a plant species. Also, their algorithms revealed that when plants are in a nutrient-enriched or hydroponic solution, the chemical makeup of the metallic nanoparticle determines the propensity of accumulation in the roots and shoots. But if plants are grown in soil, the contents of organic matter and the clay in soil are key to nanoparticle uptake.

Ma said that while the machine learning algorithms could make predictions for most food crops and terrestrial plants, they might not yet be ready for aquatic plants. He also noted that the next step in his research would be to investigate if the machine learning algorithms could predict nanoparticle uptake from leaves rather than through the roots.

“It is quite understandable that people are concerned about the presence of nanoparticles in their fruits, vegetables and grains,” said Ma. “But instead of not using nanotechnology altogether, we would like farmers to reap the many benefits provided by this technology but avoid the potential food safety concerns.”

This image accompanies the paper’s research abstract,

[downloaded frm https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.1c01603]

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

Prediction of Plant Uptake and Translocation of Engineered Metallic Nanoparticles by Machine Learning by Xiaoxuan Wang, Liwei Liu, Weilan Zhang, and Xingmao Ma. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2021, 55, 11, 7491–7500 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.1c01603 Publication Date:May 17, 2021 Copyright © 2021 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Autonopia will pilot automated window cleaning in Vancouver (Canada) in 2022

Construction worker working outdoors with the project. Courtesy: Autonopia

Kenneth Chan in a June 10, 2021 article for the Daily Hive describes a startup company in Vancouver (Canada), which hopes to run a pilot project in 2022 for its “HŌMĀN, a highly capable, fast and efficient autonomous machine, designed specifically for cleaning the glasses [windows] perfectly and quickly.” (The description is from Autonopia’s homepage.)

Chan’s June 10, 2021 article describe the new automated window washer as a roomba-like robot,

The business of washing windows on a tower with human labour is a dangerous, inefficient, and costly practice, but a Vancouver innovator’s robotic solution could potentially disrupt this service globally.

Researchers with robotic systems startup Autonopia have come up with a robot that can mimic the behaviour of human window washers, including getting into the nooks and crannies of all types of complicated building facades — any surface structure.

It is also far more efficient than humans, cleaning windows three to four times faster, and can withstand wind and cold temperatures. According to a [news?] release, the robot is described as a modular device with a plug-and-play design [emphasis mine] that allows it to work on any building without requiring any additional infrastructure to be installed.

While artificial intelligence and the robotic device replaces manual work, it still requires a skilled operator to oversee the cleaning.

“It’s intimidating, hard work that most workers don’t want to do, [emphasis mine]” said Autonopia co-founder Mohammad Dabiri, who came up with the idea after witnessing an accident in Southeast Asia [emphasis mine].

“There’s high overhead to manage the hiring, allocation and training of workers, and sometimes they quit as soon as it comes time to go on a high rise.”

“We realized this problem has existed for a while, and yet none of the available solutions has managed to scale,” said Kamali Hossein, the co-founder and CTO of Autonopia, and a Mitacs postdoctoral research [sic] in mechatronic systems engineering at Simon Fraser University.

To clarify, the company is Autonopia and the product the company is promoting is HŌMĀN, an automated or robotic window washer for tall buildings (towers).

HŌMĀN (as it’s written in the Encyclopedia Iranica) or Houmān, as it’s written in Wikipedia, seems to be a literary hero or, perhaps, superhero,

… is one of the most famous Turanian heroes in Shahnameh, the national epic of Greater Iran. Houmān is famous for his bravery, loyalty, and chivalry, such that even Iranians who are longtime enemies of Turanians admire his personality. He is a descendant of Tur, a son of Viseh and brother of Piran. Houmān is the highest ranking Turanian commander and after Piran, he is the second leading member of Viseh clan. Houman first appears in the story of Rostam and Sohrab, …

Autonopia’s website is very attractive and weirdly uninformative. I looked for a more in depth description of ‘plug and play’ and found this,

Modular and Maintainable

The design of simple, but highly capable and modular components, along with the overall simplicity of the robot structure allows for a shorter build time and maintenance turnover. …

Cleans any tower

The flexible and capable design of the robot allows it to adjust to the complexities of the structures and it can maneuver uneven surfaces of different buildings very quickly and safely. No tower is off-limits for HŌMĀN. It is designed to cater to the specific requirements of each high-rise

I wish there were more details about the hardware and the software, e.g., there’s no mention of artificial intelligence as mentioned in Chan’s article.

As for whether or not this is “intimidating, hard work that most workers don’t want to do,” I wonder how Mohammad Dabiri can be so certain. If this product is successful, it will have an impact on people who rely on this work for their livelihoods. Possibly adding some insult to injury, Dabiri and Hossein claim their product is better at the job than humans are.

Nobody can argue about making work safer but it would be nice if some of these eager, entrepreneurial types put some thought into the impact both positive and negative that their bright ideas can have on other people.

As for whether HŌMĀN can work on any tower, photographs like the one at the beginning of this posting, feature modern office buildings which look like glass sheets held together with steel and concrete. So, it doesn’t look likely to work (and it’s probably not feasible from a business perspective) on older buildings with fewer stories, stone ornamentation, and even more nooks and crannies. As for some of the newer buildings which feature odd shapes and are reintroducing ornamentation, I’d imagine that will be problematic. But perhaps the market is overseas where tall buildings can range from 65 stories to over 100 stories (Wikipedia ‘List of tallest buildings‘). After all the genesis for this project was an incident in Southeast Asia. Vancouver doesn’t have 65 story buildings—yet. But, I’m sure there’s a developer or two out there with some plans.

A library of properties for nanomaterials

Researchers at the University of Birmingham (UK) announced the development of a library of nanomaterial properties according to a June 8, 2021 news item on Nanowerk (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers have developed a ‘library of properties’ to help identify the environmental impact of nanomaterials faster and more cost effectively.

Whilst nanomaterials have benefited a wide range of industries and revolutionized everyday life, there are concerns over potential adverse effects—including toxic effects following accumulation in different organs and indirect effects from transport of co-pollutants.

The European Union H2020-funded NanoSolveIT project is developing a ground-breaking computer-based Integrated Approach to Testing and Assessment (IATA) for the environmental health and safety of nanomaterials.

A June 8, 2021 University of Birmingham press release (also on EurekAlert) spells out the details,

Over the last two years, researchers from the University of Birmingham have worked with experts at NovaMechanics, in Nicosia, Cyprus to develop a decision support system in the form of both stand-alone open software and a Cloud platform.

The team has developed a freely available cloud library containing full physicochemical characterisation of 69 nanomaterials, plus calculated molecular descriptors to increase the value of the available information, details of which are published in NanoImpact. [link and citation follow]

Professor Iseult Lynch, from the University of Birmingham commented: “One of the limitations to widespread application of computer-based approaches is the lack of large well-organised high-quality datasets, or of data with adequate metadata that will allow dataset interoperability and their combination to create larger datasets.”

“Making the library of calculated and experimental descriptors available to the community, along with the detailed description of how they were calculated is a key first step towards filling this datagap.”

Development of the cloud-based nanomaterials library is the fifth freely available web-based application that the project has delivered.

Antreas Afantitis, from NovaMechanics, commented: “Over the last two years, this project has already presented some very impressive results with more than 30 publications, making NanoSolveIT one of the most active projects in the nanomaterials safety and informatics space.”

Concerns about nanomaterials are also arising as risk assessment is lagging behind product development, mainly because current approaches to assessing exposure, hazard and risk are expensive and time-consuming, and frequently involve testing in animal models. The NanoSolveIT project aspires to address these challenges.

The latest development aims to enrich our knowledge of nanomaterials properties and the link from property to (cytotoxic) effect. The enriched dataset contains over 70 descriptors per nanomaterial.

The dataset was used to develop a computer-based workflow to predict nanomaterials’ effective surface charge (zeta-potential) based on a set of descriptors that can be used to help design and produce safer and more functional nanomaterials.

The resulting predictive read-across model has been made publicly and freely available as a web service through the Horizon 2020 (H2020) NanoCommons project (http://enaloscloud.novamechanics.com/nanocommons/mszeta/ ) and via the H2020 NanoSolveIT Cloud Platform (https://mszeta.cloud.nanosolveit.eu/ ) to ensure accessibility to the community and interested stakeholders.

In addition, the full data set, ready for further computational modeling, is available through the NanoPharos database, as the project consortium supports the FAIR data principles – committing to making its data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Re-usable.

I quite like this image of how the scales are illustrated (BTW, you can find NanoSolveIT here the NanoCommons project [closing date May 15, 2021] here, and NovaMechanics here)

Scales of descriptors – from whole nanoparticle to unit cell to individual atoms Courtesy University of Birmingham and NanoSolveIT

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

Computational enrichment of physicochemical data for the development of a ζ-potential read-across predictive model with Isalos Analytics Platform by Anastasios G. Papadiamantis, Antreas Afantitis, Andreas Tsoumanis, Eugenia Valsami-Jones, Iseult Lynch, Georgia Melagraki. NanoImpact Volume 22, April 2021, 100308 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.impact.2021.100308 Available online 18 March 2021

This paper is open access.

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.

Edible nano-structured holograms could decorate food one day

Caption Nanostructures (yellowish-green images; scale bar, 5 μm) were patterned onto dried corn syrup films, producing edible, rainbow-colored holograms (scale bar, 2 mm). Credit Adapted from ACS Nano 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.0c02438

Where food safety is concerned, much of the research I’ve seen is focused on adding senors to the packaging rather than direct application to the foodstuff but this is different, from a February 17, 2021 news item on phys.org,

Holograms are everywhere, from driver’s licenses to credit cards to product packaging. And now, edible holograms could someday enhance foods. Researchers reporting in ACS [American Chemical Society] Nano have developed a laser-based method to print nanostructured holograms on dried corn syrup films. The edible holograms could also be used to ensure food safety, label a product or indicate sugar content, the researchers say.

A February 17, 2021American Chemical Society news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,

Most holograms are imprinted with lasers onto metal surfaces, such as aluminum, but the materials aren’t edible. For foods, holograms made with nanoparticles have been proposed, but the tiny particles can generate reactive oxygen species, which might be harmful for people to eat. In a different approach, food scientists have molded edible holograms onto chocolate, but the process only works for certain types of the confection, and a different mold is needed for each hologram design. Bader AlQattan, Haider Butt and colleagues wanted to find a safe, fast and versatile way to pattern edible holograms onto a variety of foods.

To develop their method, the researchers made a solution of corn syrup, vanilla and water and dried it into a thin film. They coated the film with a fine layer of non-toxic black dye. Then, they used a technique called direct laser interference patterning to etch off most of the dye, leaving behind raised, nanoscale lines that formed a diffraction grating. When struck by light, the nanostructure diffracted the light into a rainbow pattern, with different colors appearing at different angles of viewing. The team could control the intensity and range of colors by varying the spacing between lines in the grating or the sugar content of the corn syrup film. Before edible holograms are ready to hit store shelves, however, the researchers want to adapt the method to a food-grade dye that could replace the synthetic black dye used in these pilot experiments.

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

Direct Printing of Nanostructured Holograms on Consumable Substrates by Bader AlQattan, Joelle Doocey, Murad Ali, Israr Ahmed, Ahmed E. Salih, Fahad Alam, Magdalena Bajgrowicz-Cieslak, Ali K. Yetisen, Mohamed Elsherif, and Haider Butt. ACS Nano 2021, 15, 2, 2340–2349 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c02438 Publication Date:February 1, 2021 Copyright © 2021 American Chemical Society

This paper appears to be open access.

It seems these scientists are also considering the aesthetic possibilities. Ffrom the paper, Note: Links have been removed,

The use of holograms in food could potentially improve sensory appeal [emphasis mine] and, through biosensing, could increase health and safety.(1,2) Holograms can even be used to store information as edible microtags.(3) They are also attractive to the eye as they produce rainbow patterns with light. Using edible holograms on foods, not only as decoration but also to sense harmful bacteria, could improve food quality/lifetime monitoring.(4,5) Food holograms which signify a qualitative information about the sugar contents could be of value in controlling the sugar consumption, that is challenging to be measured at the moment.(6)

As it is, I find food pretty attractive. So, I’m not sure why there’s a need to improve its sensory appeal. On the other hand, I can’t argue with increased food safety.

Should you be interested in more about holograms and their current applications, including chocolate decoration, you can check out Michael Berger’s February 17, 2021 Nanowerk Spotlight article.

Holographic chocolate surfaces. (Image: Morphotonix) [downloaded from https://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=57310.php]

What do you think about decorating food with holograms? If you feel inclined, do let me know in the comments.

Health Canada advisory: Face masks that contain graphene may pose health risks

Since COVID-19, we’ve been advised to wear face masks. It seems some of them may not be as safe as we assumed. First, the Health Canada advisory that was issued today, April 2, 2021 and then excerpts from an in-depth posting by Dr. Andrew Maynard (associate dean in the Arizona State University College of Global Futures) about the advisory and the use of graphene in masks.

From the Health Canada Recalls & alerts: Face masks that contain graphene may pose health risks webpage,

Summary

  • Product: Face masks labelled to contain graphene or biomass graphene.
  • Issue: There is a potential that wearers could inhale graphene particles from some masks, which may pose health risks.
  • What to do: Do not use these face masks. Report any health product adverse events or complaints to Health Canada.

Issue

Health Canada is advising Canadians not to use face masks that contain graphene because there is a potential that they could inhale graphene particles, which may pose health risks.

Graphene is a novel nanomaterial (materials made of tiny particles) reported to have antiviral and antibacterial properties. Health Canada conducted a preliminary scientific assessment after being made aware that masks containing graphene have been sold with COVID-19 claims and used by adults and children in schools and daycares. Health Canada believes they may also have been distributed for use in health care settings.

Health Canada’s preliminary assessment of available research identified that inhaled graphene particles had some potential to cause early lung toxicity in animals. However, the potential for people to inhale graphene particles from face masks and the related health risks are not yet known, and may vary based on mask design. The health risk to people of any age is not clear. Variables, such as the amount and duration of exposure, and the type and characteristics of the graphene material used, all affect the potential to inhale particles and the associated health risks. Health Canada has requested data from mask manufacturers to assess the potential health risks related to their masks that contain graphene.

Until the Department completes a thorough scientific assessment and has established the safety and effectiveness of graphene-containing face masks, it is taking the precautionary approach of removing them from the market while continuing to gather and assess information. Health Canada has directed all known distributors, importers and manufacturers to stop selling and to recall the affected products. Additionally, Health Canada has written to provinces and territories advising them to stop distribution and use of masks containing graphene. The Department will continue to take appropriate action to stop the import and sale of graphene face masks.

Products affected

Face masks labelled as containing graphene or biomass graphene.

What you should do

  • Do not use face masks labelled to contain graphene or biomass graphene.
  • Consult your health care provider if you have used graphene face masks and have health concerns, such as new or unexplained shortness of breath, discomfort or difficulty breathing.
  • Report any health product adverse events or complaints regarding graphene face masks to Health Canada.

Dr. Andrew Maynard’s Edge of Innovation series features a March 26, 2021 posting about the use of graphene in masks (Note: Links have been removed),

Face masks should protect you, not place you in greater danger. However, last Friday Radio Canada revealed that residents of Quebec and Ottawa were being advised not to use specific types of graphene-containing masks as they could potentially be harmful.

The offending material in the masks is graphene — a form of carbon that consists of nanoscopically thin flakes of hexagonally-arranged carbon atoms. It’s a material that has a number of potentially beneficial properties, including the ability to kill bacteria and viruses when they’re exposed to it.

Yet despite its many potential uses, the scientific jury is still out when it comes to how safe the material is.

As with all materials, the potential health risks associated with graphene depend on whether it can get into the body, where it goes if it can, what it does when it gets there, and how much of it is needed to cause enough damage to be of concern.

Unfortunately, even though these are pretty basic questions, there aren’t many answers forthcoming when it comes to the substance’s use in face masks.

Early concerns around graphene were sparked by previous research on another form of carbon — carbon nanotubes. It turns out that some forms of these fiber-like materials can cause serious harm if inhaled. And following on from research here, a natural next-question to ask is whether carbon nanotubes’ close cousin graphene comes with similar concerns.

Because graphene lacks many of the physical and chemical aspects of carbon nanotubes that make them harmful (such as being long, thin, and hard for the body to get rid of), the indications are that the material is safer than its nanotube cousins. But safer doesn’t mean safe. And current research indicates that this is not a material that should be used where it could potentially be inhaled, without a good amount of safety testing first.

[downloaded from https://medium.com/edge-of-innovation/how-safe-are-graphene-based-face-masks-b88740547e8c] Original source: Wikimedia

When it comes to inhaling graphene, the current state of the science indicates that if the material can get into the lower parts of the lungs (the respirable or alveolar region) it can lead to an inflammatory response at high enough concentrations.

There is some evidence that adverse responses are relatively short-lived, and that graphene particles can be broken down and disposed of by the lungs’ defenses.

This is good news as it means that there are less likely to be long-term health impacts from inhaling the material.

There’s also evidence that graphene, unlike some forms of thin, straight carbon nanotubes, does not migrate to the outside layers of the lungs where it could potentially do a lot more damage.

Again, this is encouraging as it suggests that graphene is unlikely to lead to serious long-term health impacts like mesothelioma.

However, research also shows that this is not a benign material. Despite being made of carbon — and it’s tempting to think of carbon as being safe, just because we’re familiar with it — there is some evidence that the jagged edges of some graphene particles can harm cells, leading to local damage as the body responds to any damage the material causes.

There are also concerns, although they are less well explored in the literature, that some forms of graphene may be carriers for nanometer-sized metal particles that can be quite destructive in the lungs. This is certainly the case with some carbon nanotubes, as the metallic catalyst particles used to manufacture them become embedded in the material, and contribute to its toxicity.

The long and short of this is that, while there are still plenty of gaps in our knowledge around how much graphene it’s safe to inhale, inhaling small graphene particles probably isn’t a great idea unless there’s been comprehensive testing to show otherwise.

And this brings us to graphene-containing face masks.

….

Here, it’s important to stress that we don’t yet know if graphene particles are being released and, if they are, whether they are being released in sufficient quantities to cause health effects. And there are indications that, if there are health risks, these may be relatively short-term — simply because graphene particles may be effectively degraded by the lungs’ defenses.

At the same time, it seems highly irresponsible to include a material with unknown inhalation risks in a product that is intimately associated with inhalation. Especially when there are a growing number of face masks available that claim to use graphene.

… There are millions of graphene face masks and respirators being sold and used around the world. And while the unfolding news focuses on Quebec and one particular type of face mask, this is casting uncertainty over the safety of any graphene-containing masks that are being sold.

And this uncertainty will persist until manufacturers and regulators provide data indicating that they have tested the products for the release and subsequent inhalation of fine graphene particles, and shown the risks to be negligible.

I strongly recommend reading, in its entirety , Dr. Maynard’s March 26, 2021 posting, Which he has updated twice since first posting the story.

In short. you may want to hold off before buying a mask with graphene until there’s more data about safety.

It’s about sound: (1) Earable computing? (2) The end of the cacophony in hospitals?

I have two items, both concerning sound but in very different ways.

Phones in your ears

Researchers at the University of Illinois are working on smartphones you can put in your ears like you do an earbud. The work is in its very earliest stages as they are trying to establish a new field of research. There is a proposed timeline,

Caption: Earable computing timeline, according to SyNRG. Credit: Romit Roy Choudhury, The Grainger College of Engineering

Here’s more from a December 2, 2020 University of Illinois Grainger College of Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert but published on December 15, 2020),

CSL’s [Coordinated Science Laboratory] Systems and Networking Research Group (SyNRG) is defining a new sub-area of mobile technology that they call “earable computing.” The team believes that earphones will be the next significant milestone in wearable devices, and that new hardware, software, and apps will all run on this platform.

“The leap from today’s earphones to ‘earables’ would mimic the transformation that we had seen from basic phones to smartphones,” said Romit Roy Choudhury, professor in electrical and computer engineering (ECE). “Today’s smartphones are hardly a calling device anymore, much like how tomorrow’s earables will hardly be a smartphone accessory.”

Instead, the group believes tomorrow’s earphones will continuously sense human behavior, run acoustic augmented reality, have Alexa and Siri whisper just-in-time information, track user motion and health, and offer seamless security, among many other capabilities.

The research questions that underlie earable computing draw from a wide range of fields, including sensing, signal processing, embedded systems, communications, and machine learning. The SyNRG team is on the forefront of developing new algorithms while also experimenting with them on real earphone platforms with live users.

Computer science PhD student Zhijian Yang and other members of the SyNRG group, including his fellow students Yu-Lin Wei and Liz Li, are leading the way. They have published a series of papers in this area, starting with one on the topic of hollow noise cancellation that was published at ACM SIGCOMM 2018. Recently, the group had three papers published at the 26th Annual International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking (ACM MobiCom) on three different aspects of earables research: facial motion sensing, acoustic augmented reality, and voice localization for earphones.

In Ear-AR: Indoor Acoustic Augmented Reality on Earphones, the group looks at how smart earphone sensors can track human movement, and, depending on the user’s location, play 3D sounds in the ear.

“If you want to find a store in a mall,” says Zhijian, “the earphone could estimate the relative location of the store and play a 3D voice that simply says ‘follow me.’ In your ears, the sound would appear to come from the direction in which you should walk, as if it’s a voice escort.”

The second paper, EarSense: Earphones as a Teeth Activity Sensor, looks at how earphones could sense facial and in-mouth activities such as teeth movements and taps, enabling a hands-free modality of communication to smartphones. Moreover, various medical conditions manifest in teeth chatter, and the proposed technology would make it possible to identify them by wearing earphones during the day. In the future, the team is planning to look into analyzing facial muscle movements and emotions with earphone sensors.

The third publication, Voice Localization Using Nearby Wall Reflections, investigates the use of algorithms to detect the direction of a sound. This means that if Alice and Bob are having a conversation, Bob’s earphones would be able to tune into the direction Alice’s voice is coming from.

“We’ve been working on mobile sensing and computing for 10 years,” said Wei. “We have a lot of experience to define this emerging landscape of earable computing.”

Haitham Hassanieh, assistant professor in ECE, is also involved in this research. The team has been funded by both NSF [US National Science Foundation] and NIH [National Institutes of Health], as well as companies like Nokia and Google. See more at the group’s Earable Computing website.

Noise hurts hospital caregivers and patients

A December 11, 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) article features one of the corporation’s Day 6 Radio programmes. This one was about proposed sound design in hospitals as imagined by musician Yoko Sen and, on a converging track, professor of applied psychology, Judy Edworthy,

As an ambient electronic musician, Yoko Sen spends much of her time building intricate, soothing soundscapes. 

But when she was hospitalized in 2012, she found herself immersed in a very different sound environment.

Already panicked by her health condition, she couldn’t tune out the harsh tones of the medical machinery in her hospital room.

Instead, she zeroed in on two machines — a patient monitor and a bed fall alarm. Their piercing tones had blended together to create a diminished fifth, a musical interval so offensive that it was banned in medieval churches.

Sen went on to start Sen Sound, a Washington, D.C.-based social enterprise dedicated to improving the sound of hospitals. 

‘Alarms are ignored, missed’

The volume of noise in today’s hospitals isn’t just unpleasant. It can also put patients’ health at risk.

According to Judy Edworthy, a professor of applied psychology at the University of Plymouth, the sheer number of alarms going off each day can spark a sort of auditory burnout among doctors and nurses.

“Alarms are ignored, missed, or generally just not paid attention to,” says Edworthy.

In a hospital environment that’s also inundated with announcements from overhead speakers, ringing phones, trolleys, and all other manner of insidious background sound, it can be difficult for staff to accurately locate and differentiate between the alarms.

Worse yet, in many hospitals, many of the alarms ringing out across the ward are false. Studies have shown that as many as 99 per cent of clinical alarms are inaccurate

The resulting problem has become so widespread that a term has been coined to describe it: alarm fatigue.

Raising the alarm

Sen’s company, launched in 2016, has partnered with hospitals and design incubators and even collaborates directly with medical device companies seeking to redesign their alarms.

Over the years, Sen has interviewed countless patients and hospital staff who share her frustration with noise. 

But when she first sat down with the engineers responsible for the devices’ design, she found that they tended to treat the sound of their devices as an “afterthought.” 

“When people first started to develop medical devices … people thought it was a good idea to have one or two sounds to demonstrate or to indicate when, let’s say for example, the patient’s temperature … exceeded some kind of range,” she [Edworthy] said.

“There wasn’t really any design put into this; it was just a sound that people thought would get your attention by being very loud and aversive and so on.”

Edworthy, who has spent decades studying medical alarm design, took things one step further this summer. In July, the International Standards Organization approved a new set of alarm designs, created by Edworthy, that mimic the natural hospital environment.

The standards, which are accepted by Health Canada, include an electronic heartbeat sound for alarms related to cardiac issues; and a rattling pillbox for drug administration. 

Her [Sen’s] team continues to work with companies to improve the sound of existing medical devices. But she has also begun to think more deeply about the long-term future of hospital sound — especially as it relates to the end-of-life experience.

“A study shows that hearing can be the last sense to go when we die,” says Sen. 

“It’s really beyond upsetting to think that many people end up dying in acute care hospitals and there are all these medical devices.”

As part of her interviews with patients, Sen has asked what sounds they would most like to hear at the end of their lives — and she discovered a common theme in their responses.

“I asked this question in many different countries, but they are all sounds that symbolize life,” said Sen. 

“Sounds of nature, sound of water, voices of loved ones. It’s all the sounds of life that people say they want to hear.”

As the pandemic continues to affect hospitals around the world, those efforts have taken on a new resonance — and Sen hopes the current crisis might serve as an opportunity to help usher in a more healing soundscape.

“My own health crisis almost gave me a new pathway in life,” she said.

There’s an embedded audio file from the Day 6 radio programme featuring this material on sound design and hospitals and there’s an embedded video of Sen delivery a talk about her work in the December 11, 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) article.

Sen and Edworthy give hope for a less noisy future and better care in hospitals for the living and the dying. Here’s a link to Sen Sound.

Living plants detect arsenic by way of embedded nanosensors

There’s a lot of arsenic in the world and it’s often a factor in making water undrinkable. When that water is used in farming It also pollutes soil and enters food-producing plants. A December 11, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces research into arsenic detectors in plants,

Researchers have developed a living plant-based sensor that can in real-time detect and monitor levels of arsenic, a highly toxic heavy metal, in the soil. Arsenic pollution is a major threat to humans and ecosystems in many Asia Pacific countries.

Caption: Non-destructive plant nanobionic sensor embedded within leaves to report arsenic levels within plants to portable electronics, enabling real-time monitoring of arsenic uptake in living plants. Credit: Dr. Tedrick Thomas Salim Lew

I was not able to find the source for the news item but I did locate something close. From a December 13, 2020 Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), also on EurekAlert,

Scientists from the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) research group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, have engineered a novel type of plant nanobionic optical sensor that can detect and monitor, in real time, levels of the highly toxic heavy metal arsenic in the underground environment. This development provides significant advantages over conventional methods used to measure arsenic in the environment and will be important for both environmental monitoring and agricultural applications to safeguard food safety, as arsenic is a contaminant in many common agricultural products such as rice, vegetables, and tea leaves.

Arsenic and its compounds are a serious threat to humans and ecosystems. Long-term exposure to arsenic in humans can cause a wide range of detrimental health effects, including cardiovascular disease such as heart attack, diabetes, birth defects, severe skin lesions, and numerous cancers including those of the skin, bladder, and lung. Elevated levels of soil arsenic as a result of anthropogenic activities such as mining and smelting are also harmful to plants, inhibiting growth and resulting in substantial crop losses.

Food crops can absorb arsenic from the soil, leading to contamination of food and produce consumed by humans. Arsenic in underground environments can also contaminate groundwater and other underground water sources, the long-term consumption of which can cause severe health issues. As such, developing accurate, effective, and easy-to-deploy arsenic sensors is important to protect both the agriculture industry and wider environmental safety.

The novel optical nanosensors exhibit changes in their fluorescence intensity upon detecting arsenic. Embedded in plant tissues, with no detrimental effects on the plant, these sensors provide a nondestructive way to monitor the internal dynamics of arsenic taken up by plants from the soil. This integration of optical nanosensors within living plants enables the conversion of plants into self-powered detectors of arsenic from their natural environment, marking a significant upgrade from the time- and equipment-intensive arsenic sampling methods of current conventional methods.

“Our plant-based nanosensor is notable not only for being the first of its kind, but also for the significant advantages it confers over conventional methods of measuring arsenic levels in the below-ground environment, requiring less time, equipment, and manpower,” says Lew. “We envision that this innovation will eventually see wide use in the agriculture industry and beyond. I am grateful to SMART DiSTAP and the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL), both of which were instrumental in idea generation and scientific discussion as well as research funding for this work.”

Besides detecting arsenic in rice and spinach, the team also used a species of fern, Pteris cretica, which can hyperaccumulate arsenic. This fern species can absorb and tolerate high levels of arsenic with no detrimental effect — engineering an ultrasensitive plant-based arsenic detector, capable of detecting very low concentrations of arsenic, as low as 0.2 parts per billion. In contrast, the regulatory limit for arsenic detectors is 10 parts per billion. Notably, the novel nanosensors can also be integrated into other species of plants. The researchers say this is the first successful demonstration of living plant-based sensors for arsenic and represents a groundbreaking advancement that could prove highly useful in both agricultural research (e.g., to monitor arsenic taken up by edible crops for food safety) and general environmental monitoring.

Previously, conventional methods of measuring arsenic levels included regular field sampling, plant tissue digestion, extraction, and analysis using mass spectrometry. These methods are time-consuming, require extensive sample treatment, and often involve the use of bulky and expensive instrumentation. The new approach couples nanoparticle sensors with plants’ natural ability to efficiently extract analytes via the roots and transport them. This allows for the detection of arsenic uptake in living plants in real time, with portable, inexpensive electronics such as a portable Raspberry Pi platform equipped with a charge-coupled device camera akin to a smartphone camera.

Co-author, DiSTAP co-lead principal investigator, and MIT Professor Michael Strano adds, “This is a hugely exciting development, as, for the first time, we have developed a nanobionic sensor that can detect arsenic — a serious environmental contaminant and potential public health threat. With its myriad advantages over older methods of arsenic detection, this novel sensor could be a game-changer, as it is not only more time-efficient, but also more accurate and easier to deploy than older methods. It will also help plant scientists in organizations such as TLL to further produce crops that resist uptake of toxic elements. Inspired by TLL’s recent efforts to create rice crops which take up less arsenic, this work is a parallel effort to further support SMART DiSTAP’s efforts in food security research, constantly innovating and developing new technological capabilities to improve Singapore’s food quality and safety.”

The research is carried out by SMART and supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program.

Led by MIT’s Strano and Singapore co-lead principal investigator Professor Chua Nam Hai, DiSTAP is one of the five Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs) in SMART. The DiSTAP program addresses deep problems in food production in Singapore and the world by developing a suite of impactful and novel analytical genetic and biosynthetic technologies. The goal is to fundamentally change how plant biosynthetic pathways are discovered, monitored, engineered, and ultimately translated to meet the global demand for food and nutrients. Scientists from MIT, TTL, Nanyang Technological University, and National University of Singapore are collaboratively developing new tools for the continuous measurement of important plant metabolites and hormones for novel discovery, deeper understanding and control of plant biosynthetic pathways in ways not yet possible, especially in the context of green leafy vegetables; leveraging these new techniques to engineer plants with highly desirable properties for global food security, including high yield density production, drought and pathogen resistance and biosynthesis of high-value commercial products; developing tools for producing hydrophobic food components in industry-relevant microbes; developing novel microbial and enzymatic technologies to produce volatile organic compounds that can protect and/or promote growth of leafy vegetables; and applying these technologies to improve urban farming.

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

Plant Nanobionic Sensors for Arsenic Detection by Tedrick Thomas Salim Lew, Minkyung Park, Jianqiao Cui, Michael S. Strano. Advanced Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202005683 First published: 26 November 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.