Category Archives: biomimcry

Bacterial cellulose nanofibers made strong and tough

Despite all the promise that nanocellulose offers, scientists don’t seem to have found significant applications for the material . In the software industry, they used to call it ‘a killer app’, i.e., an application everyone would start using (e.g. Facebook or Google) thereby making much money for its developer(s)..

This July 31, 2019 news item on phys.org describes research that may help scientists develop a nanocellulose ‘killer app’,

High-performance biomass-based nanocomposites are emerging as promising materials for future structural and functional applications due to their environmentally friendly, renewable and sustainable characteristics. Bio-sourced nanocelluloses [sic] (a kind of nanofibers [sic]) obtained from plants and bacterial fermentation are the most abundant raw materials on earth. They have attracted tremendous attention recently due to their attractive inherent merits including biodegradability, low density, thermal stability, global availability from renewable resources, as well as impressive mechanical properties. These features make them appropriate building blocks for spinning the next generation of advanced macrofibers for practical applications.

In past decades, various strategies have been pursued to gain cellulose-based macrofibers with improved strength and stiffness. However, nearly all of them have been achieved at the expense of elongation and toughness, because strength and toughness are always mutually exclusive for man-made structural materials. Therefore, this dilemma is quite common for previously reported cellulose-based macrofibers, which greatly limited their practical applications.

In a new article published in the National Science Review, Recently, a bionics research team led by Prof. Yu Shuhong from the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) sought an inspiration to solve this problem from biological structures. …

A July 31, 2019 Science China Press news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides a few moretechnical details,

… They found that the widespread biosynthesized fibers, such as some plant fibers, spider silk and animal hairs, all have some similar features. They are both strong and tough, and have hierarchical helical structures across multiple length scales with stiff and strong nanoscale fibrous building blocks embedded in soft and energy dissipating matrices.

Inspired by these structural features in biosynthesized fibers, they presented a design strategy to make nanocellulose-based macrofibers with similar structural features. They used bacterial cellulose nanofibers as the strong and stiff building blocks, sodium alginate as the soft matrix. By combining a facile wet-spinning process with a subsequent multiple wet-twisting procedure, they successfully obtained biomimetic hierarchical helical nanocomposite macrofibers, and realized impressive improvement of their tensile strength, elongation and toughness simultaneously as expected.

This achievement certifies the validity of their bioinspired design and provides a potential route for further creating many other strong and tough nanocomposite fiber materials for diverse applications.

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

Bioinspired hierarchical helical nanocomposite macrofibers based on bacterial cellulose nanofibers by Huai-Ling Gao, Ran Zhao, Chen Cui, Yin-Bo Zhu, Si-Ming Chen, Zhao Pan, Yu-Feng Meng, Shao-Meng Wen, Chuang Liu, Heng-An Wu, Shu-Hong Yu. National Science Review, nwz077, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwz077 Published: 21 June 2019

This paper appears to be open access.

New ingredient for computers: water!

A July 25, 2019 news item on Nanowerk provides a description of Moore`s Law and some ‘watery’ research that may upend it,

Moore’s law – which says the number of components that could be etched onto the surface of a silicon wafer would double every two years – has been the subject of recent debate. The quicker pace of computing advancements in the past decade have led some experts to say Moore’s law, the brainchild of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in the 1960s, no longer applies. Particularly of concern, next-generation computing devices require features smaller than 10 nanometers – driving unsustainable increases in fabrication costs.

Biology creates features at sub-10nm scales routinely, but they are often structured in ways that are not useful for applications like computing. A Purdue University group has found ways of transforming structures that occur naturally in cell membranes to create other architectures, like parallel 1nm-wide line segments, more applicable to computing.

Inspired by biological cell membranes, Purdue researchers in the Claridge Research Group have developed surfaces that act as molecular-scale blueprints for unpacking and aligning nanoscale components for next-generation computers. The secret ingredient? Water, in tiny amounts.

A July 25, 2019 Purdue University news release (also on EurekAlert), expands on the theme,

“Biology has an amazing tool kit for embedding chemical information in a surface,” said Shelley Claridge, a recently tenured faculty member in chemistry and biomedical engineering at Purdue, who leads a group of nanomaterials researchers. “What we’re finding is that these instructions can become even more powerful in nonbiological settings, where water is scarce.”

In work just published in Chem, sister journal to Cell, the group has found that stripes of lipids can unpack and order flexible gold nanowires with diameters of just 2 nm, over areas corresponding to many millions of molecules in the template surface.

“The real surprise was the importance of water,” Claridge said. “Your body is mostly water, so the molecules in your cell membranes depend on it to function. Even after we transform the membrane structure in a way that’s very nonbiological and dry it out, these molecules can pull enough water out of dry winter air to do their job.”

Their work aligns with Purdue’s Giant Leaps celebration, celebrating the global advancements in sustainability as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. Sustainability is one of the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, designed to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center solving real-world issues.

The research team is working with the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization to patent their work. They are looking for partners for continued research and to take the technology to market. [emphasis mine]

I wonder how close they are to taking this work to market. Usually they say it will be five to 10 years but perhaps we’ll see water-based computers in the near future. In the meantime, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

1-nm-Wide Hydrated Dipole Arrays Regulate AuNW Assembly on Striped Monolayers in Nonpolar Solvent by Ashlin G. Porter, Tianhong Ouyang, Tyler R. Hayes, John Biechele-Speziale, Shane R. Russell, Shelley A. Claridge. Chem DOI: DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2019.07.002 Published online:July 25, 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Memristor-based neural network and the biosimilar principle of learning

Once you get past the technical language (there’s a lot of it), you’ll find that they make the link between biomimicry and memristors explicit. Admittedly I’m not an expert but if I understand the research correctly, the scientists are suggesting that the algorithms used in machine learning today cannot allow memristors to be properly integrated for use in true neuromorphic computing and this work from Russia and Greece points to a new paradigm. If you understand it differently, please do let me know in the comments.

A July 12, 2019 news item on Nanowerk kicks things off (Note: A link has been removed),

Lobachevsky University scientists together with their colleagues from the National Research Center “Kurchatov Institute” (Moscow) and the National Research Center “Demokritos” (Athens) are working on the hardware implementation of a spiking neural network based on memristors.

The key elements of such a network, along with pulsed neurons, are artificial synaptic connections that can change the strength (weight) of connection between neurons during the learning (Microelectronic Engineering, “Yttria-stabilized zirconia cross-point memristive devices for neuromorphic applications”).

For this purpose, memristive devices based on metal-oxide-metal nanostructures developed at the UNN Physics and Technology Research Institute (PTRI) are suitable, but their use in specific spiking neural network architectures developed at the Kurchatov Institute requires demonstration of biologically plausible learning principles.

Caption: Cross-section image of the metal-oxide-metal memristive structure based on ZrO2(Y) polycrystalline film (a); corresponding schematic view of the cross-point memristive device (b); STDP dependencies of memristive device conductance changes for different delay values between pre- and postsynaptic neuron spikes (c); photographs of a microchip and an array of memristive devices in a standard cermet casing (d); the simplest spiking neural network architecture learning on the basis of local rules for changing memristive weights (e). Credit: Lobachevsky University

A July 12, 2019 (?) Lobachevsky University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

The biological mechanism of learning of neural systems is described by Hebb’s rule, according to which learning occurs as a result of an increase in the strength of connection  (synaptic weight) between simultaneously active neurons, which indicates the presence of a causal relationship in their excitation. One of the clarifying forms of this fundamental rule is plasticity, which depends on the time of arrival of pulses (Spike-Timing Dependent Plasticity – STDP).

In accordance with STDP, synaptic weight increases if the postsynaptic neuron generates a pulse (spike) immediately after the presynaptic one, and vice versa, the synaptic weight decreases if the postsynaptic neuron generates a spike right before the presynaptic one. Moreover, the smaller the time difference Δt between the pre- and postsynaptic spikes, the more pronounced the weight change will be.

According to one of the researchers, Head of the UNN PTRI laboratory Alexei Mikhailov, in order to demonstrate the STDP principle, memristive nanostructures based on yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ) thin films were used. YSZ is a well-known solid-state electrolyte with high oxygen ion mobility.

“Due to a specified concentration of oxygen vacancies, which is determined by the controlled concentration of yttrium impurities, and the heterogeneous structure of the films obtained by magnetron sputtering, such memristive structures demonstrate controlled bipolar switching between different resistive states in a wide resistance range. The switching is associated with the formation and destruction of conductive channels along grain boundaries in the polycrystalline ZrO2 (Y) film,” notes Alexei Mikhailov.

An array of memristive devices for research was implemented in the form of a microchip mounted in a standard cermet casing, which facilitates the integration of the array into a neural network’s analog circuit. The full technological cycle for creating memristive microchips is currently implemented at the UNN PTRI. In the future, it is possible to scale the devices down to the minimum size of about 50 nm, as was established by Greek partners.
Our studies of the dynamic plasticity of the memoristive devices, continues Alexey Mikhailov, have shown that the form of the conductance change depending on Δt is in good agreement with the STDP learning rules. It should be also noted that if the initial value of the memristor conductance is close to the maximum, it is easy to reduce the corresponding weight while it is difficult to enhance it, and in the case of a memristor with a minimum conductance in the initial state, it is difficult to reduce its weight, but it is easy to enhance it.

According to Vyacheslav Demin, director-coordinator in the area of nature-like technologies of the Kurchatov Institute, who is one of the ideologues of this work, the established pattern of change in the memristor conductance clearly demonstrates the possibility of hardware implementation of the so-called local learning rules. Such rules for changing the strength of synaptic connections depend only on the values ​​of variables that are present locally at each time point (neuron activities and current weights).

“This essentially distinguishes such principle from the traditional learning algorithm, which is based on global rules for changing weights, using information on the error values ​​at the current time point for each neuron of the output neural network layer (in a widely popular group of error back propagation methods). The traditional principle is not biosimilar, it requires “external” (expert) knowledge of the correct answers for each example presented to the network (that is, they do not have the property of self-learning). This principle is difficult to implement on the basis of memristors, since it requires controlled precise changes of memristor conductances, as opposed to local rules. Such precise control is not always possible due to the natural variability (a wide range of parameters) of memristors as analog elements,” says Vyacheslav Demin.

Local learning rules of the STDP type implemented in hardware on memristors provide the basis for autonomous (“unsupervised”) learning of a spiking neural network. In this case, the final state of the network does not depend on its initial state, but depends only on the learning conditions (a specific sequence of pulses). According to Vyacheslav Demin, this opens up prospects for the application of local learning rules based on memristors when solving artificial intelligence problems with the use of complex spiking neural network architectures.

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

Yttria-stabilized zirconia cross-point memristive devices for neuromorphic applications by A. V. Emelyanov, K. E. Nikiruy, A. Demin, V. V. Rylkov, A. I. Belov, D. S. Korolev, E. G. Gryaznov, D. A. Pavlov, O. N. Gorshkov, A. N. Mikhaylov, P. Dimitrakis. Microelectronic Engineering Volume 215, 15 July 2019, 110988 First available online 16 May 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Red wine for making wearable electronics?

Courtesy: University of Manchester [1920_stock-photo-red-wine-pouring-58843885-927462.jpg]

A July 12, 2019 news item on Nanowerk may change how you view that glass of red wine,

A team of scientists are seeking to kick-start a wearable technology revolution by creating flexible fibres and adding acids from red wine.

Extracting tannic acid from red wine, coffee or black tea, led a team of scientists from The University of Manchester to develop much more durable and flexible wearable devices. The addition of tannins improved mechanical properties of materials such as cotton to develop wearable sensors for rehabilitation monitoring, drastically increasing the devices lifespan.

A July 11, 2019 University of Manchester press release, which originated the news item, describes how this new approach could affect the scientists’ previous work,

The team have developed wearable devices such as capacitive breath sensors and artificial hands for extreme conditions by improving the durability of flexible sensors. Previously, wearable technology has been subject to fail after repeated bending and folding which can interrupt the conductivity of such devices due to tiny micro cracks. Improving this could open the door to more long-lasting integrated technology.

Dr Xuqing Liu who led the research team said: “We are using this method to develop new flexible, breathable, wearable devices. The main research objective of our group is to develop comfortable wearable devices for flexible human-machine interface.

“Traditional conductive material suffers from weak bonding to the fibers which can result in low conductivity. When red wine, or coffee, or black tea, is spilled on a dress, it’s difficult to get rid of these stains. The main reason is that they all contain tannic acid, which can firmly adsorb the material on the surface of the fiber. This good adhesion is exactly what we need for durable wearable, conductive devices.”

The new research published in the journal Small demonstrated that without this layer of tannic acid, the conductivity is several hundred times, or even thousands of times, less than traditional conductive material samples as the conductive coating becomes easily detached from the textile surface through repeated bending and flexing.

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

A Nature‐Inspired, Flexible Substrate Strategy for Future Wearable Electronics by Chuang Zhu, Evelyn Chalmers, Liming Chen, Yuqi Wang, Ben Bin Xu, Yi Li, Xuqing Liu. Small Online Version of Record before inclusion in an issue 1902440 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.201902440 First published: 19 June 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

The glorious glasswing butterfly and superomniphobic glass

This is not the first time the glasswing butterfly has inspired some new technology. Lat time, it was an eye implant,

The clear wings make this South-American butterfly hard to see in flight, a succesfull defense mechanism. Credit: Eddy Van 3000 from in Flanders fields – B – United Tribes ov Europe – the wings-become-windows butterfly. [downloaded from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Greta_oto#/media/File:South-American_butterfly.jpg]

You’ll find that image and more in my May 22, 2018 posting about the eye implant. Don’t miss scrolling down to the video which features the butterfly fluttering its wings in the first few seconds.

Getting back to the glasswing butterfly’s latest act of inspiration a July 11, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announces the work,

Glass for technologies like displays, tablets, laptops, smartphones, and solar cells need to pass light through, but could benefit from a surface that repels water, dirt, oil, and other liquids. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering have created a nanostructure glass that takes inspiration from the wings of the glasswing butterfly to create a new type of glass that is not only very clear across a wide variety of wavelengths and angles, but is also antifogging.

A July 11, 2019 University of Pittsburgh news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail about the new glass,

The nanostructured glass has random nanostructures, like the glasswing butterfly wing, that are smaller than the wavelengths of visible light. This allows the glass to have a very high transparency of 99.5% when the random nanostructures are on both sides of the glass. This high transparency can reduce the brightness and power demands on displays that could, for example, extend battery life. The glass is antireflective across higher angles, improving viewing angles. The glass also has low haze, less than 0.1%, which results in very clear images and text.

“The glass is superomniphobic, meaning it repels a wide variety of liquids such as orange juice, coffee, water, blood, and milk,” explains Sajad Haghanifar, lead author of the paper and doctoral candidate in industrial engineering at Pitt. “The glass is also anti-fogging, as water condensation tends to easily roll off the surface, and the view through the glass remains unobstructed. Finally, the nanostructured glass is durable from abrasion due to its self-healing properties–abrading the surface with a rough sponge damages the coating, but heating it restores it to its original function.”

Natural surfaces like lotus leaves, moth eyes and butterfly wings display omniphobic properties that make them self-cleaning, bacterial-resistant and water-repellant–adaptations for survival that evolved over millions of years. Researchers have long sought inspiration from nature to replicate these properties in a synthetic material, and even to improve upon them. While the team could not rely on evolution to achieve these results, they instead utilized machine learning.

“Something significant about the nanostructured glass research, in particular, is that we partnered with SigOpt to use machine learning to reach our final product,” says Paul Leu, PhD, associate professor of industrial engineering, whose lab conducted the research. Dr. Leu holds secondary appointments in mechanical engineering and materials science and chemical engineering. “When you create something like this, you don’t start with a lot of data, and each trial takes a great deal of time. We used machine learning to suggest variables to change, and it took us fewer tries to create this material as a result.”

“Bayesian optimization and active search are the ideal tools to explore the balance between transparency and omniphobicity efficiently, that is, without needing thousands of fabrications, requiring hundreds of days.” said Michael McCourt, PhD, research engineer at SigOpt. Bolong Cheng, PhD, fellow research engineer at SigOpt, added, “Machine learning and AI strategies are only relevant when they solve real problems; we are excited to be able to collaborate with the University of Pittsburgh to bring the power of Bayesian active learning to a new application.”

Here’s an image illustrating the work from the researchers,

Courtesy: University of Pittsburgh

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

Creating glasswing butterfly-inspired durable antifogging superomniphobic supertransmissive, superclear nanostructured glass through Bayesian learning and optimization by Sajad Haghanifar, Michael McCourt, Bolong Cheng, Jeffrey Wuenschell, Paul Ohodnickic, and Paul W. Leu. Mater. Horiz., 2019, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C9MH00589G first published on 10 Jun 2019

This paper is behind a paywall. One more thing, here’s SigOpt, the company the scientists partnered.

My love is a black, black rose that purifies water

Cockrell School of Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin

The device you see above was apparently inspired by a rose. Personally, Ill need to take the scientists’ word for this image brings to my mind, lava lamps like the one you see below.

A blue lava lamp Credit: Risa1029 – Own work [downloaded from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lava_lamp#/media/File:Blue_Lava_lamp.JPG]

In any event, the ‘black rose’ collects and purifies water according to a May 29, 2019 University of Texas at Austin news release (also on EurekAlert),

The rose may be one of the most iconic symbols of the fragility of love in popular culture, but now the flower could hold more than just symbolic value. A new device for collecting and purifying water, developed at The University of Texas at Austin, was inspired by a rose and, while more engineered than enchanted, is a dramatic improvement on current methods. Each flower-like structure costs less than 2 cents and can produce more than half a gallon of water per hour per square meter.

A team led by associate professor Donglei (Emma) Fan in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering developed a new approach to solar steaming for water production – a technique that uses energy from sunlight to separate salt and other impurities from water through evaporation.

In a paper published in the most recent issue of the journal Advanced Materials, the authors outline how an origami rose provided the inspiration for developing a new kind of solar-steaming system made from layered, black paper sheets shaped into petals. Attached to a stem-like tube that collects untreated water from any water source, the 3D rose shape makes it easier for the structure to collect and retain more liquid.

Current solar-steaming technologies are usually expensive, bulky and produce limited results. The team’s method uses inexpensive materials that are portable and lightweight. Oh, and it also looks just like a black-petaled rose in a glass jar.

Those in the know would more accurately describe it as a portable low-pressure controlled solar-steaming-collection “unisystem.” But its resemblance to a flower is no coincidence.

“We were searching for more efficient ways to apply the solar-steaming technique for water production by using black filtered paper coated with a special type of polymer, known as polypyrrole,” Fan said.

Polypyrrole is a material known for its photothermal properties, meaning it’s particularly good at converting solar light into thermal heat.

Fan and her team experimented with a number of different ways to shape the paper to see what was best for achieving optimal water retention levels. They began by placing single, round layers of the coated paper flat on the ground under direct sunlight. The single sheets showed promise as water collectors but not in sufficient amounts. After toying with a few other shapes, Fan was inspired by a book she read in high school. Although not about roses per se, “The Black Tulip” by Alexandre Dumas gave her the idea to try using a flower-like shape, and she discovered the rose to be ideal. Its structure allowed more direct sunlight to hit the photothermic material – with more internal reflections – than other floral shapes and also provided enlarged surface area for water vapor to dissipate from the material.

The device collects water through its stem-like tube – feeding it to the flower-shaped structure on top. It can also collect rain drops coming from above. Water finds its way to the petals where the polypyrrole material coating the flower turns the water into steam. Impurities naturally separate from water when condensed in this way.

“We designed the purification-collection unisystem to include a connection point for a low-pressure pump to help condense the water more effectively,” said Weigu Li, a Ph.D. candidate in Fan’s lab and lead author on the paper. “Once it is condensed, the glass jar is designed to be compact, sturdy and secure for storing clean water.”

The device removes any contamination from heavy metals and bacteria, and it removes salt from seawater, producing clean water that meets drinking standard requirements set by the World Health Organization.

“Our rational design and low-cost fabrication of 3D origami photothermal materials represents a first-of-its-kind portable low-pressure solar-steaming-collection system,” Li said. “This could inspire new paradigms of solar-steaming technologies in clean water production for individuals and homes.”

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

Portable Low‐Pressure Solar Steaming‐Collection Unisystem with Polypyrrole Origamis by Weigu Li, Zheng Li, Karina Bertelsmann, Donglei Emma Fan. Advanced Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.201900720 First published: 28 May 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

AI (artificial intelligence) and a hummingbird robot

Every once in a while I stumble across a hummingbird robot story (my August 12, 2011 posting and my August 1, 2014 posting). Here’s what the hummingbird robot looks like now (hint: there’s a significant reduction in size),

Caption: Purdue University researchers are building robotic hummingbirds that learn from computer simulations how to fly like a real hummingbird does. The robot is encased in a decorative shell. Credit: Purdue University photo/Jared Pike

I think this is the first time I’ve seen one of these projects not being funded by the military, which explains why the researchers are more interested in using these hummingbird robots for observing wildlife and for rescue efforts in emergency situations. Still, they do acknowledge theses robots could also be used in covert operations.

From a May 9, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

What can fly like a bird and hover like an insect?

Your friendly neighborhood hummingbirds. If drones had this combo, they would be able to maneuver better through collapsed buildings and other cluttered spaces to find trapped victims.

Purdue University researchers have engineered flying robots that behave like hummingbirds, trained by machine learning algorithms based on various techniques the bird uses naturally every day.

This means that after learning from a simulation, the robot “knows” how to move around on its own like a hummingbird would, such as discerning when to perform an escape maneuver.

Artificial intelligence, combined with flexible flapping wings, also allows the robot to teach itself new tricks. Even though the robot can’t see yet, for example, it senses by touching surfaces. Each touch alters an electrical current, which the researchers realized they could track.

“The robot can essentially create a map without seeing its surroundings. This could be helpful in a situation when the robot might be searching for victims in a dark place — and it means one less sensor to add when we do give the robot the ability to see,” said Xinyan Deng, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue.

The researchers even have a video,

A May 9, 2019 Purdue University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,


The researchers [presented] their work on May 20 at the 2019 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Montreal. A YouTube video is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hl892dHqfA&feature=youtu.be. [it’s the video I’ve embedded in the above]

Drones can’t be made infinitely smaller, due to the way conventional aerodynamics work. They wouldn’t be able to generate enough lift to support their weight.

But hummingbirds don’t use conventional aerodynamics – and their wings are resilient. “The physics is simply different; the aerodynamics is inherently unsteady, with high angles of attack and high lift. This makes it possible for smaller, flying animals to exist, and also possible for us to scale down flapping wing robots,” Deng said.

Researchers have been trying for years to decode hummingbird flight so that robots can fly where larger aircraft can’t. In 2011, the company AeroVironment, commissioned by DARPA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Defense, built a robotic hummingbird that was heavier than a real one but not as fast, with helicopter-like flight controls and limited maneuverability. It required a human to be behind a remote control at all times.

Deng’s group and her collaborators studied hummingbirds themselves for multiple summers in Montana. They documented key hummingbird maneuvers, such as making a rapid 180-degree turn, and translated them to computer algorithms that the robot could learn from when hooked up to a simulation.

Further study on the physics of insects and hummingbirds allowed Purdue researchers to build robots smaller than hummingbirds – and even as small as insects – without compromising the way they fly. The smaller the size, the greater the wing flapping frequency, and the more efficiently they fly, Deng says.

The robots have 3D-printed bodies, wings made of carbon fiber and laser-cut membranes. The researchers have built one hummingbird robot weighing 12 grams – the weight of the average adult Magnificent Hummingbird – and another insect-sized robot weighing 1 gram. The hummingbird robot can lift more than its own weight, up to 27 grams.

Designing their robots with higher lift gives the researchers more wiggle room to eventually add a battery and sensing technology, such as a camera or GPS. Currently, the robot needs to be tethered to an energy source while it flies – but that won’t be for much longer, the researchers say.

The robots could fly silently just as a real hummingbird does, making them more ideal for covert operations. And they stay steady through turbulence, which the researchers demonstrated by testing the dynamically scaled wings in an oil tank.

The robot requires only two motors and can control each wing independently of the other, which is how flying animals perform highly agile maneuvers in nature.

“An actual hummingbird has multiple groups of muscles to do power and steering strokes, but a robot should be as light as possible, so that you have maximum performance on minimal weight,” Deng said.

Robotic hummingbirds wouldn’t only help with search-and-rescue missions, but also allow biologists to more reliably study hummingbirds in their natural environment through the senses of a realistic robot.

“We learned from biology to build the robot, and now biological discoveries can happen with extra help from robots,” Deng said.
Simulations of the technology are available open-source at https://github.com/
purdue-biorobotics/flappy
.

Early stages of the work, including the Montana hummingbird experiments in collaboration with Bret Tobalske’s group at the University of Montana, were financially supported by the National Science Foundation.

The researchers have three paper on arxiv.org for open access peer review,

Learning Extreme Hummingbird Maneuvers on Flapping Wing Robots
Fan Fei, Zhan Tu, Jian Zhang, and Xinyan Deng
Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
https://arxiv.org/abs/1902.0962

Biological studies show that hummingbirds can perform extreme aerobatic maneuvers during fast escape. Given a sudden looming visual stimulus at hover, a hummingbird initiates a fast backward translation coupled with a 180-degree yaw turn, which is followed by instant posture stabilization in just under 10 wingbeats. Consider the wingbeat frequency of 40Hz, this aggressive maneuver is carried out in just 0.2 seconds. Inspired by the hummingbirds’ near-maximal performance during such extreme maneuvers, we developed a flight control strategy and experimentally demonstrated that such maneuverability can be achieved by an at-scale 12- gram hummingbird robot equipped with just two actuators. The proposed hybrid control policy combines model-based nonlinear control with model-free reinforcement learning. We use model-based nonlinear control for nominal flight control, as the dynamic model is relatively accurate for these conditions. However, during extreme maneuver, the modeling error becomes unmanageable. A model-free reinforcement learning policy trained in simulation was optimized to ‘destabilize’ the system and maximize the performance during maneuvering. The hybrid policy manifests a maneuver that is close to that observed in hummingbirds. Direct simulation-to-real transfer is achieved, demonstrating the hummingbird-like fast evasive maneuvers on the at-scale hummingbird robot.

Acting is Seeing: Navigating Tight Space Using Flapping Wings
Zhan Tu, Fan Fei, Jian Zhang, and Xinyan Deng
Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
https://arxiv.org/abs/1902.0868

Wings of flying animals can not only generate lift and control torques but also can sense their surroundings. Such dual functions of sensing and actuation coupled in one element are particularly useful for small sized bio-inspired robotic flyers, whose weight, size, and power are under stringent constraint. In this work, we present the first flapping-wing robot using its flapping wings for environmental perception and navigation in tight space, without the need for any visual feedback. As the test platform, we introduce the Purdue Hummingbird, a flapping-wing robot with 17cm wingspan and 12 grams weight, with a pair of 30-40Hz flapping wings driven by only two actuators. By interpreting the wing loading feedback and its variations, the vehicle can detect the presence of environmental changes such as grounds, walls, stairs, obstacles and wind gust. The instantaneous wing loading can be obtained through the measurements and interpretation of the current feedback by the motors that actuate the wings. The effectiveness of the proposed approach is experimentally demonstrated on several challenging flight tasks without vision: terrain following, wall following and going through a narrow corridor. To ensure flight stability, a robust controller was designed for handling unforeseen disturbances during the flight. Sensing and navigating one’s environment through actuator loading is a promising method for mobile robots, and it can serve as an alternative or complementary method to visual perception.

Flappy Hummingbird: An Open Source Dynamic Simulation of Flapping Wing Robots and Animals
Fan Fei, Zhan Tu, Yilun Yang, Jian Zhang, and Xinyan Deng
Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
https://arxiv.org/abs/1902.0962

Insects and hummingbirds exhibit extraordinary flight capabilities and can simultaneously master seemingly conflicting goals: stable hovering and aggressive maneuvering, unmatched by small scale man-made vehicles. Flapping Wing Micro Air Vehicles (FWMAVs) hold great promise for closing this performance gap. However, design and control of such systems remain challenging due to various constraints. Here, we present an open source high fidelity dynamic simulation for FWMAVs to serve as a testbed for the design, optimization and flight control of FWMAVs. For simulation validation, we recreated the hummingbird-scale robot developed in our lab in the simulation. System identification was performed to obtain the model parameters. The force generation, open- loop and closed-loop dynamic response between simulated and experimental flights were compared and validated. The unsteady aerodynamics and the highly nonlinear flight dynamics present challenging control problems for conventional and learning control algorithms such as Reinforcement Learning. The interface of the simulation is fully compatible with OpenAI Gym environment. As a benchmark study, we present a linear controller for hovering stabilization and a Deep Reinforcement Learning control policy for goal-directed maneuvering. Finally, we demonstrate direct simulation-to-real transfer of both control policies onto the physical robot, further demonstrating the fidelity of the simulation.

Enjoy!

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.

Growing perfect human blood vessels in a Petri dish

I had not realized that blood vessels are considered organs (Live and learn.) The big news about blood vessel organoids was announced in a January 16, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists have managed to grow perfect human blood vessels as organoids in a petri dish for the first time

The breakthrough engineering technology, outlined in a new study published today [January 16, 2019] in Nature, dramatically advances research of vascular diseases like diabetes, identifying a key pathway to potentially prevent changes to blood vessels — a major cause of death and morbidity among those with diabetes.

A January 16, 2019 University of British Columbia (UBC; Canada) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains organoids and describes the work in more detail,

An organoid is a three-dimensional structure grown from stem cells that mimics an organ and can be used to study aspects of that organ in a petri dish.

“Being able to build human blood vessels as organoids from stem cells is a game changer,” said the study’s senior author Josef Penninger, the Canada 150 Research Chair in Functional Genetics, director of the Life Sciences Institute at UBC and founding director of the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA).

“Every single organ in our body is linked with the circulatory system. This could potentially allow researchers to unravel the causes and treatments for a variety of vascular diseases, from Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular diseases, wound healing problems, stroke, cancer and, of course, diabetes.”

Diabetes affects an estimated 420 million people worldwide. Many diabetic symptoms are the result of changes in blood vessels that result in impaired blood circulation and oxygen supply of tissues. Despite its prevalence, very little is known about the vascular changes arising from diabetes. This limitation has slowed the development of much-needed treatment.

To tackle this problem, Penninger and his colleagues developed a groundbreaking model: three-dimensional human blood vessel organoids grown in a petri dish. These so-called “vascular organoids” can be cultivated using stem cells in the lab, strikingly mimicking the structure and function of real human blood vessels.

When researchers transplanted the blood vessel organoids into mice, they found that they developed into perfectly functional human blood vessels including arteries and capillaries. The discovery illustrates that it is possible to not only engineer blood vessel organoids from human stem cells in a dish, but also to grow a functional human vascular system in another species.

“What is so exciting about our work is that we were successful in making real human blood vessels out of stem cells,” said Reiner Wimmer, the study’s first author and a postdoctoral research fellow at IMBA. “Our organoids resemble human capillaries to a great extent, even on a molecular level, and we can now use them to study blood vessel diseases directly on human tissue.”

One feature of diabetes is that blood vessels show an abnormal thickening of the basement membrane. As a result, the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to cells and tissues is strongly impaired, causing a multitude of health problems, such as kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes, blindness and peripheral artery disease, leading to amputations.

The researchers then exposed the blood vessel organoids to a “diabetic” environment in a petri dish.

“Surprisingly, we could observe a massive expansion of the basement membrane in the vascular organoids,” said Wimmer. “This typical thickening of the basement membrane is strikingly similar to the vascular damage seen in diabetic patients.”

The researchers then searched for chemical compounds that could block thickening of the blood vessel walls. They found none of the current anti-diabetic medications had any positive effects on these blood vessel defects. However, they discovered that an inhibitor of γ-secretase, a type of enzyme in the body, prevented the thickening of the blood vessel walls, suggesting, at least in animal models, that blocking γ-secretase could be helpful in treating diabetes.

The researchers say the findings could allow them to identify underlying causes of vascular disease, and to potentially develop and test new treatments for patients with diabetes.

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

Human blood vessel organoids as a model of diabetic vasculopathy by Reiner A. Wimmer, Alexandra Leopoldi, Martin Aichinger, Nikolaus Wick, Brigitte Hantusch, Maria Novatchkova, Jasmin Taubenschmid, Monika Hämmerle, Christopher Esk, Joshua A. Bagley, Dominik Lindenhofer, Guibin Chen, Manfred Boehm, Chukwuma A. Agu, Fengtang Yang, Beiyuan Fu, Johannes Zuber, Juergen A. Knoblich, Dontscho Kerjaschki & Josef M. Penninger. Nature volume 565, pages505–510 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0858-8 Issue Date: 24 January 2019

This paper is behind a paywall. One other thing, a patent application has been filed according to the Author information section (subsection: Competing interests) of the abstract.

Tapping into wound healing by harnessing the natural healing process

If you’re imagining an enhanced chakra balancing experience or more efficient digestion of your vitamin supplements, you will be a little disappointed in this latest news from the Imperial College of London (ICL). On the other hand, if you have damaged tissue, this discovery could make your recovery much easier. From a January 7, 2019 news item on phys.org,

Materials are widely used to help heal wounds: Collagen sponges help treat burns and pressure sores, and scaffold-like implants are used to repair bones. However, the process of tissue repair changes over time, so scientists are developing biomaterials that interact with tissues as healing takes place

Now, Dr. Ben Almquist and his team at Imperial College London have created a new molecule that could change the way traditional materials work with the body. Known as traction force-activated payloads (TrAPs), their method lets materials talk to the body’s natural repair systems to drive healing.

The researchers say incorporating TrAPs into existing medical materials could revolutionise the way injuries are treated. Dr. Almquist, from Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, said: “Our technology could help launch a new generation of materials that actively work with tissues to drive healing.”

A January 7, 2019 ICL press release (also on EurekAlert) by Caroline Brogan, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

After an injury, cells ‘crawl’ through the collagen ‘scaffolds’ found in wounds, like spiders navigating webs. As they move, they pull on the scaffold, which activates hidden healing proteins that begin to repair injured tissue.

The researchers in the study designed TrAPs as a way to recreate this natural healing method. They folded the DNA segments into three-dimensional shapes known as aptamers that cling tightly to proteins. Then, they attached a customisable ‘handle’ that cells can grab onto on one end, before attaching the opposite end to a scaffold such as collagen.

During laboratory testing of their technique, they found that cells pulled on the TrAPs as they crawled through the collagen scaffolds. The pulling made the TrAPs unravel like shoelaces to reveal and activate the healing proteins. These proteins instruct the healing cells to grow and multiply

The researchers also found that by changing the cellular ‘handle’, they can change which type of cell can grab hold and pull, letting them tailor TrAPs to release specific therapeutic proteins based on which cells are present at a given point in time. In doing so, the TrAPs produce materials that can smartly interact with the correct type of cell at the correct time during wound repair.

This is the first time scientists have activated healing proteins using differing cell types in man-made materials. The technique mimics healing methods found in nature. Dr Almquist said: “Creatures from sea sponges to humans use cell movement to activate healing. Our approach mimics this by using the different cell varieties in wounds to drive healing.””

From lab to humans

This approach is adaptable to different cell types, so could be used in a variety of injuries such as fractured bones, scar tissue after heart attacks, and damaged nerves. New techniques are also desperately needed for patients whose wounds won’t heal despite current interventions, like diabetic foot ulcers, which are the leading cause of non-traumatic lower leg amputations.

TrAPs are relatively straightforward to create and are fully man-made, meaning they are easily recreated in different labs and can be scaled up to industrial quantities. Their adaptability also means they could help scientists create new methods for laboratory studies of diseases, stem cells, and tissue development.

Aptamers are currently used as drugs, meaning they are already proven safe and optimised for clinical use. Because TrAPs take advantage of aptamers that are safe for humans, they may be able to take a shorter path to the clinic than methods that start from ground zero.

Dr Almquist said: “TrAPs provide a flexible method of actively communicating with wounds, as well as key instructions when and where they are needed. This intelligent healing is useful during every phase of the healing process, has the potential to increase the body’s chance to recover, and has far-reaching uses on many different types of wounds. This technology could serve as a conductor of wound repair, orchestrating different cells over time to work together to heal damaged tissues.”

The researchers have made available an image and a video abstract illustrating their work,

TrAPs could harness the body’s natural healing powers to repair bone. Courtesy: Imperial College of London

By the way, the video was produced by www.animateyour.science (based in Adelaide, Australia) and they have a very interesting About page,

Our story

Your research is brilliant and novel. I’m sure of it. You might even be a pioneer in your field. But ask yourself honestly, is it enough? Is it truly enough to make a difference in the world?
 
My name is Tullio Rossi, and I founded Animate Your Science on my quest to make a positive impact on society through science.
 
During my Ph.D., I found that my peer-reviewed paper alone wasn’t cutting it. If I wanted to reach my peers, let alone the general public, I needed to communicate my findings in a fun and imaginative way.
 
This realization changed everything and inspired me to create “Lost at Sea,” an award-winning video that reached the hearts and minds of thousands of people.
 
The success of this first video blew my mind. And I got to thinking, maybe other scientists are lost at sea, so to speak. Maybe others want to reach the masses with their research, but just don’t know where to start.
 
This was the day Animate Your Science was born.

Why we do it

What we really want to do is bring science into society. That’s the true value of this company and the reason we believe in it.

We love science but we believe that, if not communicated properly, science is of limited use to society.​
 
As scientists, it’s our privilege and duty to unearth these revelations and package them in a way that appeals to our peers as well as the general public.

Getting back to TrAPS, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Biologically Inspired, Cell‐Selective Release of Aptamer‐Trapped Growth Factors by Traction Forces by Anna Stejskalová, Nuria Oliva, Frances J. England, Benjamin D. Almquist. Advanced Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.201806380 First published: 07 January 2019

This paper is open access.