Category Archives: biomimcry

A structural colour solution for energy-saving paint (thank the butterflies)

The UCF-developed plasmonic paint uses nanoscale structural arrangement of colorless materials — aluminum and aluminum oxide — instead of pigments to create colors. Here the plasmonic paint is applied to the wings of metal butterflies, the insect that inspired the research. Credit: University of Central Florida

A March 9, 2023 news item on Nanowerk announces research into multicolour energy-saving coating/paint, so, this is a structural colour story, Note: Links have been removed,

University of Central Florida researcher Debashis Chanda, a professor in UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center, has drawn inspiration from butterflies to create the first environmentally friendly, large-scale and multicolor alternative to pigment-based colorants, which can contribute to energy-saving efforts and help reduce global warming.

A March 8, 2023 University of Central Florida (UCF) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Katrina Cabansay, which originated the news item, provides more context and more details,

“The range of colors and hues in the natural world are astonishing — from colorful flowers, birds and butterflies to underwater creatures like fish and cephalopods,” Chanda says. “Structural color serves as the primary color-generating mechanism in several extremely vivid species where geometrical arrangement of typically two colorless materials produces all colors. On the other hand, with manmade pigment, new molecules are needed for every color present.”

Based on such bio-inspirations, Chanda’s research group innovated a plasmonic paint, which utilizes nanoscale structural arrangement of colorless materials — aluminum and aluminum oxide — instead of pigments to create colors.

While pigment colorants control light absorption based on the electronic property of the pigment material and hence every color needs a new molecule, structural colorants control the way light is reflected, scattered or absorbed based purely on the geometrical arrangement of nanostructures.

Such structural colors are environmentally friendly as they only use metals and oxides, unlike present pigment-based colors that use artificially synthesized molecules.

The researchers have combined their structural color flakes with a commercial binder to form long-lasting paints of all colors.

“Normal color fades because pigment loses its ability to absorb photons,” Chanda says. “Here, we’re not limited by that phenomenon. Once we paint something with structural color, it should stay for centuries.”

Additionally, because plasmonic paint reflects the entire infrared spectrum, less heat is absorbed by the paint, resulting in the underneath surface staying 25 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than it would if it were covered with standard commercial paint, the researcher says.

“Over 10% of total electricity in the U.S. goes toward air conditioner usage,” Chanda says. “The temperature difference plasmonic paint promises would lead to significant energy savings. Using less electricity for cooling would also cut down carbon dioxide emissions, lessening global warming.”

Plasmonic paint is also extremely lightweight, the researcher says.

This is due to the paint’s large area-to-thickness ratio, with full coloration achieved at a paint thickness of only 150 nanometers, making it the lightest paint in the world, Chanda says.

The paint is so lightweight that only about 3 pounds of plasmonic paint could cover a Boeing 747, which normally requires more than 1,000 pounds of conventional paint, he says.

Chanda says his interest in structural color stems from the vibrancy of butterflies.

“As a kid, I always wanted to build a butterfly,” he says. “Color draws my interest.”

Future Research

Chanda says the next steps of the project include further exploration of the paint’s energy-saving aspects to improve its viability as commercial paint.

“The conventional pigment paint is made in big facilities where they can make hundreds of gallons of paint,” he says. “At this moment, unless we go through the scale-up process, it is still expensive to produce at an academic lab.”

“We need to bring something different like, non-toxicity, cooling effect, ultralight weight, to the table that other conventional paints can’t.” Chanda says.

Licensing Opportunity

For more information about licensing this technology, please visit the Inorganic Paint Pigment for Vivid Plasmonic Color technology sheet.

Researcher’s Credentials

Chanda has joint appointments in UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center, Department of Physics and College of Optics and Photonics. He received his doctorate in photonics from the University of Toronto and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined UCF in Fall 2012.

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

Ultralight plasmonic structural color paint by Pablo Cencillo-Abad, Daniel Franklin, Pamela Mastranzo-Ortega, Javier Sanchez-Mondragon, and Debashis Chanda. Science Advances 8 Mar 2023 Vol 9, Issue 10 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adf7207

This paper is open access.

Here’s the researcher with one of ‘his butterflies’ (I may be reading a little too much into this but it looks like he’s uncomfortable having his photo taken but game to do it for work that he’s proud of),

Caption: Debashis Chanda, a professor in UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center, drew inspiration from butterflies to create the innovative new plasmonic paint, shown here applied to metal butterfly wings. Credit: University of Central Florida

International conference “Living Machines” dedicated to technology inspired by nature in Genoa, Italy (July 10 – 13, 2023)

I love the look and the theme for this “Living Machines” conference, which seems to be water,

A June 28, 2023 Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) press release (also on EurekAlert) provides more detail about the conference,

Now in its twelfth year, the international conference “Living Machines”, organised by Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology, IIT), returns to Italy and comes to Genoa for the first time, from 10 to 13 July. Around one hundred experts from all over the world are expected, and they will present their achievements in the field of bio-inspired science and technology. The conference will take place in an exceptional venue, the Acquario di Genova (Genoa Aquarium), which, having reached its 30th birthday, is the ideal location at which to bring together various subject areas, from biology to artificial intelligence and robotics, with a focus on sustainability and environmental protection.

The scientific organiser of the event is Barbara Mazzolai, Associate Director for Robotics and head of the Bioinspired Soft Robotics Lab at IIT, along with Fabian Meder, researcher in the Bioinspired Soft Robotics Lab group and co-chair of the conference programme.

The conference will include two events open to the public: an exhibition area, which will be accessible from 11 to 13 July in the afternoon (from 2 to 4.30 pm); and a scientific café, which will take place on the 12 July at 5 pm. The conference will be an opportunity for international guests to appreciate the region’s beauty and talents, and it will also include the participation of students from the Niccolò Paganini Conservatory of Music. In addition, a satellite event of the conference will be the ISPA – Italian Sustainability Photo Award – exhibition, which will open at Palazzo Ducale on 10 July at 6 p.m.

The “Living Machines” conference is the landmark event for the international scientific community which bases its research on living organisms, such as human beings and other animal species – terrestrial, marine, and airborne – in addition to plants, fungi, and bacteria, in order to create so-called “living machines”, in other words, forms of technology capable of replicating their structure and mechanisms of operation.

“The conference is rooted in the union between robotics and neuroscience, using man and other animal species as a model for the study of intelligence and control systems,” said Barbara Mazzolai, Associate Director for Robotics at IIT. “This year the conference will focus on the role of biomimicry in the creation of robots that are more sustainable, with applications for the challenges of environmental protection and human health. Discussions will revolve around the development of robots with a lower energy impact, made using recyclable and biodegradable materials, and that can be used in emergency situations or extreme environments, such as deep sea, soil, space, or environmental disasters, but also for precision agriculture, environmental surveillance, infrastructure monitoring, human care and medical-surgical assistance.

In the conference programme, experts will take part in a first day of parallel workshop and tutorial sessions (on 10 July), during which the topics of bioinspiration and biohybrid technology in the fields of medicine and the marine environment will be addressed. This first day will be followed by three days of plenary sessions, featuring talks by internationally-renowned scientists. More specifically: Oussama Khatib, one of the pioneers of robotics and director of the Robotics Laboratory at Stanford University; Marco Dorigo, professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and one of the pioneers of collective intelligence; Peter Fratzl, director of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, working on research into osteoporosis and tissue regeneration; Eleni Stavrinidou, coordinator of the “Electronic Plants” group at Linköping University and an expert in bioelectronic and biohybrid systems; Olga Speck, Principal Researcher at the University of Freiburg, specialising in biomimetic materials and the regenerative capabilities of plants; and Kyu-Jin Cho, director of the Research Centre for Soft Robotics and the Biorobotics Laboratory at Seoul National University, one of the world’s leading experts on soft robotics.

For conference participants only, the programme includes: a visit to the Acquario, guided by the facility’s scientific staff, who will illustrate the work and practices needed for the protection and conservation of marine species and the undergoing research projects; an exhibition area for prototypes and products by research groups and companies operating in this field; and a dinner at Villa Lo Zerbino, with a musical contribution by students from the Niccolò Paganini Conservatory.

Open to the general public, on 12 July from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. there will be a round table entitled “Living Machines: The Origin and the Future” chaired by science journalist Nicola Nosengo, Chief Editor of Nature Italy. Speakers will include Cecilia Laschi from the National University of Singapore, Vickie Webster-Wood from Carnegie Mellon University, Thomas Speck from the University of Freiburg and Paul Verschure from Radboud University Nijmegen.

A satellite initiative of the conference will be the exhibition for ISPA, the Italian Sustainability Photo Award, which will open at Palazzo Ducale on 10 July at 6.00 p.m. ISPA is the photographic award created by the Parallelozero agency in cooperation with the main sponsor PIMCO, to raise public awareness of environmental, social, and governance sustainability issues, encapsulated in the acronym ESG. The works of the winning photographers and finalists in the last three editions will be on display in Genoa: a selection of images that depict the emblematic stories of Italy, a nation moving towards a more sustainable future, a visual narrative that makes it easier to understand the country’s progress in research and innovation.

The organisations supporting the event include, in addition to the principal organiser Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology), the international Convergent Science Network [emphasis mine], the Office of Naval Research, Radboud University Nijmegen, and the Living, Adaptive and Energy-autonomous Materials Systems Cluster of Excellence in Freiburg.

Event website:

I was particularly struck by this quote, “The conference is rooted in the union between robotics and neuroscience [emphasis mine], using man and other animal species as a model for the study of intelligence and control systems,” from Barbara Mazzolai as I have an as yet unpublished post for a UNESCO neurotechnology event coming up on July 13, 2023. These events come on the heels of a May 16, 2023 Canadian Science Policy Centre panel discussion on responsible neurotechnology (see my May 12, 2023 posting).

For the curious, you can find the Convergent Science Network here.

‘Polar bear wear’: 30% lighter than cotton and much warmer

For the same reason some people like ‘Christmas in July’ events, I like to occasionally feature a nonseasonal story. Especially since the area where I live is going through an unseasonal cold snap and will be followed shortly by anomalously hot temperatures. So, more or less fittingly, an April 10, 2023 news item announces a new fabric,

Three engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have invented a fabric that concludes the 80-year quest to make a synthetic textile modeled on Polar bear fur. The results, published recently in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, are already being developed into commercially available products. [ACS is American Chemical Society.]

Caption: Inspired by polar bears, this new textile creates an on-body “greenhouse” effect to keep you warm. Credit: Viola et al., 10.1021/acsami.2c23075

Nice to see a properly drawn polar bear. Back to the research, an April 10, 2023 University of Massachusetts Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides a brief history of the research and a few technical details about the current work, Note: Links have been removed,

Polar bears live in some of the harshest conditions on earth, shrugging off Arctic temperatures as low as -50 Fahrenheit. While the bears have many adaptations that allow them to thrive when the temperature plummets, since the 1940s scientists have focused on one in particular: their fur. How, the scientific community has asked, does a polar bear’s fur keep them warm?

Typically, we think that the way to stay warm is to insulate ourselves from the weather. But there’s another way: One of the major discoveries of the last few decades is that many polar animals actively use the sunlight to maintain their temperature, and polar bear fur is a well-known case in point.

Scientists have known for decades that part of the bears’ secret is their white fur. One might think that black fur would be better at absorbing heat, but it turns out that the polar bears’ fur is extremely effective at transmitting solar radiation toward the bears’ skin.

“But the fur is only half the equation,” says the paper’s senior author,  Trisha L. Andrew, associate professor of chemistry and adjunct in chemical engineering at UMass Amherst. “The other half is the polar bears’ black skin.”

As Andrew explains it, polar bear fur is essentially a natural fiberoptic, conducting sunlight down to the bears’ skin, which absorbs the light, heating the bear. But the fur is also exceptionally good at preventing the now-warmed skin from radiating out all that hard-won warmth. When the sun shines, it’s like having a thick blanket that warms itself up, and then traps that warmth next to your skin.

What Andrew and her team have done is to engineer a bilayer fabric whose top layer is composed of threads that, like polar bear fur, conduct visible light down to the lower layer, which is made of nylon and coated with a dark material called PEDOT [Poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene)]. PEDOT, like the polar bears’ skin, warms efficiently.

So efficiently, in fact, that a jacket made of such material is 30% lighter than the same jacket made of cotton yet will keep you comfortable at temperatures 10 degrees Celsius colder than the cotton jacket could handle, as long as the sun is shining or a room is well lit.

“Space heating consumes huge amounts of energy that is mostly fossil fuel-derived,” says Wesley Viola, the paper’s lead author, who completed his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at UMass and is now at Andrew’s startup, Soliyarn, LLC. “While our textile really shines as outerwear on sunny days, the light-heat trapping structure works efficiently enough to imagine using existing indoor lighting to directly heat the body. By focusing energy resources on the ‘personal climate’ around the body, this approach could be far more sustainable than the status quo.”

The research, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, is already being applied, and  Soliyarn has begun production of the PEDOT-coated cloth.

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

Solar Thermal Textiles for On-Body Radiative Energy Collection Inspired by Polar Animals by Wesley Viola, Peiyao Zhao, and Trisha L. Andrew. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2023, 15, 15, 19393–19402 DOI: Publication Date: April 5, 2023 Copyright © 2023 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

You can find Soliyarn here.

Smart fabric from University of Waterloo (Canada) responds to temperature and electricity

This textile from the University of Waterloo is intriguing,

Caption: An electric current is applied to an engineered smart fabric consisting of plastic and steel fibres. Credit: University of Waterloo

An April 24, 2023 news item on introduces this new material,

A new smart material developed by researchers at the University of Waterloo is activated by both heat and electricity, making it the first ever to respond to two different stimuli.

The unique design paves the way for a wide variety of potential applications, including clothing that warms up while you walk from the car to the office in winter and vehicle bumpers that return to their original shape after a collision.

An April 24, 2023 University of Waterloo news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail, Note: A link has been removed,

Inexpensively made with polymer nano-composite fibres from recycled plastic, the programmable fabric can change its colour and shape when stimuli are applied.

“As a wearable material alone, it has almost infinite potential in AI, robotics and virtual reality games and experiences,” said Dr. Milad Kamkar, a chemical engineering professor at Waterloo. “Imagine feeling warmth or a physical trigger eliciting a more in-depth adventure in the virtual world.”

The novel fabric design is a product of the happy union of soft and hard materials, featuring a combination of highly engineered polymer composites and stainless steel in a woven structure. 

Researchers created a device similar to a traditional loom to weave the smart fabric. The resulting process is extremely versatile, enabling design freedom and macro-scale control of the fabric’s properties.

The fabric can also be activated by a lower voltage of electricity than previous systems, making it more energy-efficient and cost-effective. In addition, lower voltage allows integration into smaller, more portable devices, making it suitable for use in biomedical devices and environment sensors.

“The idea of these intelligent materials was first bred and born from biomimicry science,” said Kamkar, director of the Multi-scale Materials Design (MMD) Centre at Waterloo.

“Through the ability to sense and react to environmental stimuli such as temperature, this is proof of concept that our new material can interact with the environment to monitor ecosystems without damaging them.”

The next step for researchers is to improve the fabric’s shape-memory performance for applications in the field of robotics. The aim is to construct a robot that can effectively carry and transfer weight to complete tasks.

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

Multi-Stimuli Dually-Responsive Intelligent Woven Structures with Local Programmability for Biomimetic Applications by Runxin Xu, Guanzheng Wu, Mengmeng Jiang, Shaojie Cao, Mahyar Panahi-Sarmad, Milad Kamkar, Xueliang Xiao. Nano-Micro Small DOI: First published: 19 February 2023

This paper is open access.

Fairy-like robot powered by wind and light

Caption: For their artificial fairy, Hao Zeng and Jianfeng Yang got inspired by dandelion seeds. Credit: Jianfeng Yang / Tampere University

That image makes me think of Tinker Bell (the fairy in the novel/play/movie with ‘Peter Pan’ in its titles) but I can also see how the researchers were inspired by dandelion seeds, which we used to call ‘wishes’.

Dandelion Seeds Free Stock Photo – Public Domain Pictures

A January 30, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily announces the fairy-like robot,

The development of stimuli-responsive polymers has brought about a wealth of material-related opportunities for next-generation small-scale, wirelessly controlled soft-bodied robots. For some time now, engineers have known how to use these materials to make small robots that can walk, swim and jump. So far, no one has been able to make them fly.

Researchers of the Light Robots group at Tampere University [Finland] are now researching how to make smart material fly. Hao Zeng, Academy Research Fellow and the group leader, and Jianfeng Yang, a doctoral researcher, have come up with a new design for their project called FAIRY — Flying Aero-robots based on Light Responsive Materials Assembly. They have developed a polymer-assembly robot that flies by wind and is controlled by light.

A January 26, 2023 Tampere University press release (also on EurekAlert but published January 30, 2023), which originated the news item, elucidates why the researchers are excited about their work,

Superior to its natural counterparts, this artificial seed is equipped with a soft actuator. The actuator is made of light-responsive liquid crystalline elastomer, which induces opening or closing actions of the bristles upon visible light excitation,” explains Hao Zeng.

The artificial fairy is controlled by light

The artificial fairy developed by Zeng and Yang has several biomimetic features. Because of its high porosity (0.95) and lightweight (1.2 mg) structure, it can easily float in the air directed by the wind. What is more, a stable separated vortex ring generation enables long-distance wind-assisted travelling.

“The fairy can be powered and controlled by a light source, such as a laser beam or LED,” Zeng says.

This means that light can be used to change the shape of the tiny dandelion seed-like structure. The fairy can adapt manually to wind direction and force by changing its shape. A light beam can also be used to control the take-off and landing actions of the polymer assembly.

Potential application opportunities in agriculture

Next, the researchers will focus on improving the material sensitivity to enable the operation of the device in sunlight. In addition, they will up-scale the structure so that it can carry micro-electronic devices such as GPS and sensors as well as biochemical compounds.

According to Zeng, there is potential for even more significant applications.

“It sounds like science fiction, but the proof-of-concept experiments included in our research show that the robot we have developed provides an important step towards realistic applications suitable for artificial pollination,” he reveals.

In the future, millions of artificial dandelion seeds carrying pollen could be dispersed freely by natural winds and then steered by light toward specific areas with trees awaiting pollination.

“This would have a huge impact on agriculture globally since the loss of pollinators due to global warming has become a serious threat to biodiversity and food production,” Zeng says.

Challenges remain to be solved

However, many problems need to be solved first. For example, how to control the landing spot in a precise way, and how to reuse the devices and make them biodegradable? These issues require close collaboration with materials scientists and people working on microrobotics.

The FAIRY project started in September 2021 and will last until August 2026. It is funded by the Academy of Finland. The flying robot is researched in cooperation with Dr. Wenqi Hu from Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (Germany) and Dr. Hang Zhang from Aalto University.

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

Dandelion-Inspired, Wind-Dispersed Polymer-Assembly Controlled by Light by Jianfeng Yang, Hang Zhang, Alex Berdin, Wenqi Hu, Hao Zeng. Advanced Science Volume 10, Issue 7 March 3, 2023 2206752 DOI: First published online: 27 December 2022

This paper is open access.

Insect-inspired microphones

I was hoping that there would be some insect audio files but this research is more about their role as inspiration for a new type of microphone than the sounds they make themselves. From a May 10, 2023 Acoustical Society of America news release (also on EurekAlert),

What can an insect hear? Surprisingly, quite a lot. Though small and simple, their hearing systems are highly efficient. For example, with a membrane only 2 millimeters across, the desert locust can decompose frequencies comparable to human capability. By understanding how insects perceive sound and using 3D-printing technology to create custom materials, it is possible to develop miniature, bio-inspired microphones.

The displacement of the wax moth Acroia grisella membrane, which is one of the key sources of inspiration for designing miniature, bio-inspired microphones. Credit: Andrew Reid

Andrew Reid of the University of Strathclyde in the U.K. will present his work creating such microphones, which can autonomously collect acoustic data with little power consumption. His presentation, “Unnatural hearing — 3D printing functional polymers as a path to bio-inspired microphone design,” will take place Wednesday, May 10 [2023], at 10:05 a.m. Eastern U.S. in the Northwestern/Ohio State room, as part of the 184th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America running May 8-12 at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile Hotel.

“Insect ears are ideal templates for lowering energy and data transmission costs, reducing the size of the sensors, and removing data processing,” said Reid.

Reid’s team takes inspiration from insect ears in multiple ways. On the chemical and structural level, the researchers use 3D-printing technology to fabricate custom materials that mimic insect membranes. These synthetic membranes are highly sensitive and efficient acoustic sensors. Without 3D printing, traditional, silicon-based attempts at bio-inspired microphones lack the flexibility and customization required.

“In images, our microphone looks like any other microphone. The mechanical element is a simple diaphragm, perhaps in a slightly unusual ellipsoid or rectangular shape,” Reid said. “The interesting bits are happening on the microscale, with small variations in thickness and porosity, and on the nanoscale, with variations in material properties such as the compliance and density of the material.”

More than just the material, the entire data collection process is inspired by biological systems. Unlike traditional microphones that collect a range of information, these microphones are designed to detect a specific signal. This streamlined process is similar to how nerve endings detect and transmit signals. The specialization of the sensor enables it to quickly discern triggers without consuming a lot of energy or requiring supervision.

The bio-inspired sensors, with their small size, autonomous function, and low energy consumption, are ideal for applications that are hazardous or hard to reach, including locations embedded in a structure or within the human body.

Bio-inspired 3D-printing techniques can be applied to solve many other challenges, including working on blood-brain barrier organoids or ultrasound structural monitoring.

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

Unnatural hearing—3D printing functional polymers as a path to bio-inspired microphone design by Andrew Reid. J Acoust Soc Am 153, A195 (2023) or JASA (Journal of the Acoustical Sociey of America) Volume 153, Issue 3_supplement March 2023 DOI:

You will find the abstract but I wish you good luck with finding the paper online; I wasn’t able and am guessing it’s available on paper only.

Inspired by Picasso (or Schumpeter, Shiva, and others?), Université de Montréal researchers employ creative destruction to create new nanomachines

I associate the idea of ‘creative destruction’ with economics and Joseph Schumpeter but it is more widespread and has a much longer history (see more at the end of this posting).

Here we have Université de Montréal researchers being inspired by the idea from (what was to me) an unexpected source, from a February 9, 2023 news item on Nanowerk,

“Every act of creation,” Picasso famously noted, “is first an act of destruction.”

Taking this concept literally, researchers in Canada have now discovered that “breaking” molecular nanomachines basic to life can create new ones that work even better.

I love this image. Bravo!

Researchers Dominic Lauzon and Alexis Vallée-Bélisle Credit: Amélie Philibert & Benoit Gougeon | Université de Montréal

A February 9, 2023 Université de Montréal news release, which originated the news item, delves further into this act of creative destruction,

Evolved over millions of years

Life on Earth is made possible by tens of thousands of nanomachines that have evolved over millions of years. Often made of proteins or nucleic acids, they typically contain thousands of atoms and are less than 10,000 times the size of a human hair.

“These nanomachines control all molecular activities in our body, and problems with their regulation or structure are at the origin of most human diseases,” said the new study’s principal investigator Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, a chemistry professor at Université de Montréal.

Studying the way these nanomachines are built, Vallée-Bélisle, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Bioengineering and Bio-Nanotechnology, noticed that while some are made using a single component or part (often long biopolymers), others use several components that spontaneously assemble.

“Since most of my students spend their lives creating nanomachines, we started to wonder if it is more beneficial to create them using one or more self-assembling molecular components,” said Vallée-Bélisle.

A ‘destructive’ idea

To explore this question, his doctoral student Dominic Lauzon, had the “destructive” idea of breaking up some nanomachines to see if they could be reassembled. To do so, he made artificial DNA-based nanomachines that could be “destroyed” by breaking them up.

“DNA is a remarkable molecule that offers simple, programmable and easy-to-use chemistry,” said Lauzon, the study’s first author. “We believed that DNA-based nanomachines could help answer fundamental questions about the creation and evolution of natural and human-made nanomachines.”

Lauzon and Vallée-Bélisle spent years performing the experimental validations. They were able to demonstrate that nanomachines could easily withstand fragmentation, but more importantly, that such a destructive event allowed for the creation of various novel functionalities, including different sensitivity levels towards variation in component concentration, temperature and mutations.

What the researchers found is that these functionalities could arise simply by controlling the concentration of each individual component. For example, when cutting a nanomachine in three components, nanomachines were found to activate more sensitively at high concentration of components. In contrast, at low concentration of components, nanomachines could be programmed to activate or deactivate at specific moment in time or to simply inhibit their function.

“Overall, these novel functionalities were created  by simply cutting up, or destroying, the structure of an existing nanomachine,” said Lauzon. “These functionalities could drastically improve human-based nanotechnologies such as sensors, drug carriers and even molecular computers”.

Evolving new functionalities

Just as Picasso typically destroyed dozens of unfinished works to create his famous artworks, and just like muscles need to break down to get stronger, and innovative new companies are born by eliminating older competitors from the market, nanoscale machines can evolve new functionalities by being taken apart.

Unlike common machines like cell phones, televisions and cars, which are made by combining components using screws and bolts, glue, solder or electronics, “nanomachines rely on thousands of weak dynamic intermolecular forces that can spontaneously reform, enabling broken nanomachines to re-assemble,” said Vallée-Bélisle.

In addition to providing nanotechnology researchers with a simple design strategy to create the next generation of nanomachines, the UdeM team’s findings also shed light on how natural molecular nanomachines may have evolved.

“Biologists have recently discovered that about 20 per cent of biological nanomachines may have evolved through the fragmentation of their genes,” said Vallée-Bélisle. “With our results, biologists now have a rational basis for understanding how the fragmentation of these ancestral proteins could have created new molecular functionalities for life on Earth.”

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

Functional advantages of building nanosystems using multiple molecular components by D. Lauzon & A. Vallée-Bélisle. Nature Chemistry volume 15, pages 458–467 (2023) DOI: Published online: 09 February 2023 Issue Date: April 2023

This paper is behind a paywall.

Creative destruction

The Wikipedia entry for ‘Creative destruction’ is primarily on economic theory and various philosophies with no mention of Picasso. However, there is a fascinating segue into Eastern mysticism,

Other early usage

Hugo Reinert has argued that Sombart’s formulation of the concept was influenced by Eastern mysticism, specifically the image of the Hindu god Shiva, who is presented in the paradoxical aspect of simultaneous destroyer and creator.

On that note, have a lovely weekend.

McGill University’s proposed anti-icing technology inspired by penguin feathers

An October 24, 2022 news item on Nanowerk announces new research from McGill University (Montréal, Canada),

Ice buildup on powerlines and electric towers brought the northern US and southern Canada to a standstill during the Great Ice Storm of 1998, leaving many in the cold and dark for days and even weeks. Whether it is on wind turbines, electric towers, drones, or airplane wings, dealing with ice buildup typically depends on techniques that are time consuming, costly and/or use a lot of energy, along with various chemicals.

But, by looking to nature, McGill researchers believe that they have found a promising new way of dealing with the problem. Their inspiration came from the wings of Gentoo penguins who swim in the ice-cold waters of the south polar region, with pelts that remain ice-free even when the outer surface temperature is well below freezing.

An October 24, 2022 McGill University news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail, Note: A link has been removed,

“We initially explored the qualities of the lotus leaf, which is very good at shedding water but proved less effective at shedding ice,” said Anne Kietzig, who has been looking for a solution for close to a decade. She is an associate professor in Chemical Engineering at McGill and the director of the Biomimetic Surface Engineering Laboratory. “It was only when we started investigating the qualities of penguin feathers that we discovered a material found in nature that was able to shed both water and ice.”

Fine wire mesh replicates water-shedding and ice-shedding qualities of feathers

“We found that the hierarchical arrangement of the feathers themselves provides water-shedding qualities, while their barbed surfaces lower the adhesion of ice,” explains Michael Wood, a recent PhD graduate who worked with Kietzig, who is one of the co-authors on a new paper in ACS Applied Material Interfaces. “We were able to replicate these combined effects through a laser-machined woven wire mesh.”

Kietzig adds, “It may seem counter intuitive, but the key to ice shedding is all the pores of the mesh which draw water in under freezing conditions. The water in these pores is the last to freeze, creating cracks when it expands, much like you see in the ice cube trays in your freezer. We need such little force to remove ice from our meshes because the crack in each of these pores easily snakes along the surface of those woven wires.”

Promising results from early tests

The researchers carried out wind-tunnel testing of surfaces covered by the steel mesh and found that the treatment was 95% more effective at resisting ice build up than an unenveloped sheet of polished stainless steel. Because there are no chemical treatments involved, the new approach provides a potentially maintenance-free solution to ice buildup on wind turbines, electric towers and power lines as well as drones.

“Given the number of regulations in place in passenger aviation and the risks involved, it is unlikely that airplane wings will ever be simply wrapped in metal mesh,” adds Kietzig. “It is, possible, however, that the surface of plane wings may one day incorporate the kind of texture that we are exploring, and that de-icing will occur thanks to a combination of traditional de-icing techniques working in concert in wing surfaces that incorporate surface texture inspired by penguin wings.”

Although more research is needed, the results thus far are promising.

The image on the left shows the microstructure of a penguin feather (the 10 micrometer closeup of the inset is the equivalent of 1/10th of the width of a human hair, to give a sense of scale) Those barbs, and barbules are branches off the feather’s central stem. The ‘hooks’ serve to attach individual feather hairs together into a mat. On the right is the stainless-steel wire cloth that the researchers decorated with nanogrooves that copy the hierarchy of the penguin feather structure (wire-like with nanogrooves on top). [downloaded from]

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

Robust Anti-Icing Surfaces Based on Dual Functionality─Microstructurally-Induced Ice Shedding with Superimposed Nanostructurally-Enhanced Water Shedding by Michael J. Wood, Gregory Brock, Juliette Debray, Phillip Servio, and Anne-Marie Kietzig. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2022, 14, 41, 47310–47321 DOI: Publication Date: October 4, 2022 Copyright © 2022 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Water-based ionic computing (neural computing networks)

An ionic circuit comprising hundreds of ionic transistors
Caption: An ionic circuit comprising hundreds of ionic transistors. Credit: Woo-Bin Jung/Harvard SEAS

I love that image and it pertains to this September 29, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily,

Microprocessors in smartphones, computers, and data centers process information by manipulating electrons through solid semiconductors but our brains have a different system. They rely on the manipulation of ions in liquid to process information.

Inspired by the brain, researchers have long been seeking to develop ‘ionics’ in an aqueous solution. While ions in water move slower than electrons in semiconductors, scientists think the diversity of ionic species with different physical and chemical properties could be harnessed for richer and more diverse information processing.

Ionic computing, however, is still in its early days. To date, labs have only developed individual ionic devices such as ionic diodes and transistors, but no one has put many such devices together into a more complex circuit for computing — until now.

A team of researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), in collaboration with DNA Script, a biotech startup, have developed an ionic circuit comprising hundreds of ionic transistors and performed a core process of neural net computing.

A September 28, 2022 Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences news release (also on EurekAlert but published on Sept. 29, 2022), which originated the news item, provides details (Note: A link has been removed),

The researchers began by building a new type of ionic transistor from a  technique they recently pioneered. The transistor consists of an aqueous solution of quinone molecules, interfaced with two concentric ring electrodes with a center disk electrode, like a bullseye. The two ring electrodes electrochemically lower and tune the local pH around the center disk by producing and trapping hydrogen ions. A voltage applied to the center disk causes an electrochemical reaction to generate an ionic current from the disk into the water. The reaction rate can be sped up or down –– increasing or decreasing the ionic current — by tuning the local pH.  In other words, the pH controls, or gates, the disk’s ionic current in the aqueous solution, creating an ionic counterpart of the electronic transistor.

They then engineered the pH-gated ionic transistor in such a way that the disk current is an arithmetic multiplication of the disk voltage and a “weight” parameter representing the local pH gating the transistor. They organized these transistors into a 16 × 16 array to expand the analog arithmetic multiplication of individual transistors into an analog matrix multiplication, with the array of local pH values serving as a weight matrix encountered in neural networks.

“Matrix multiplication is the most prevalent calculation in neural networks for artificial intelligence,” said Woo-Bin Jung, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS and the first author of the paper. “Our ionic circuit performs the matrix multiplication in water in an analog manner that is based fully on electrochemical machinery.”

“Microprocessors manipulate electrons in a digital fashion to perform matrix multiplication,” said Donhee Ham, the Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics at SEAS and the senior author of the paper. “While our ionic circuit cannot be as fast or accurate as the digital microprocessors, the electrochemical matrix multiplication in water is charming in its own right, and has a potential to be energy efficient.”

Now, the team looks to enrich the chemical complexity of the system.

“So far, we have used only 3 to 4 ionic species, such as hydrogen and quinone ions, to enable the gating and ionic transport in the aqueous ionic transistor,” said Jung. “It will be very interesting to employ more diverse ionic species and to see how we can exploit them to make rich the contents of information to be processed.”

The research was co-authored by Han Sae Jung, Jun Wang, Henry Hinton, Maxime Fournier, Adrian Horgan, Xavier Godron, and Robert Nicol. It was supported in part by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), under grant 2019-19081900002.

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

An Aqueous Analog MAC Machine by Woo-Bin Jung, Han Sae Jung, Jun Wang, Henry Hinton, Maxime Fournier, Adrian Horgan, Xavier Godron, Robert Nicol, Donhee Ham. Advanced Materials DOI: First published online: 23 August 2022

This paper is behind a paywall.

As for the biotech startup mentioned as a collaborative partner in the research, DNA Script can be found here.

Photonic synapses with low power consumption (and a few observations)

This work on brainlike (neuromorphic) computing was announced in a June 30, 2022 Compuscript Ltd news release on EurekAlert,

Photonic synapses with low power consumption and high sensitivity are expected to integrate sensing-memory-preprocessing capabilities

A new publication from Opto-Electronic Advances; DOI 10.29026/oea.2022.210069 discusses how photonic synapses with low power consumption and high sensitivity are expected to integrate sensing-memory-preprocessing capabilities.

Neuromorphic photonics/electronics is the future of ultralow energy intelligent computing and artificial intelligence (AI). In recent years, inspired by the human brain, artificial neuromorphic devices have attracted extensive attention, especially in simulating visual perception and memory storage. Because of its advantages of high bandwidth, high interference immunity, ultrafast signal transmission and lower energy consumption, neuromorphic photonic devices are expected to realize real-time response to input data. In addition, photonic synapses can realize non-contact writing strategy, which contributes to the development of wireless communication. The use of low-dimensional materials provides an opportunity to develop complex brain-like systems and low-power memory logic computers. For example, large-scale, uniform and reproducible transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDs) show great potential for miniaturization and low-power biomimetic device applications due to their excellent charge-trapping properties and compatibility with traditional CMOS processes. The von Neumann architecture with discrete memory and processor leads to high power consumption and low efficiency of traditional computing. Therefore, the sensor-memory fusion or sensor-memory- processor integration neuromorphic architecture system can meet the increasingly developing demands of big data and AI for low power consumption and high performance devices. Artificial synaptic devices are the most important components of neuromorphic systems. The performance evaluation of synaptic devices will help to further apply them to more complex artificial neural networks (ANN).

Chemical vapor deposition (CVD)-grown TMDs inevitably introduce defects or impurities, showed a persistent photoconductivity (PPC) effect. TMDs photonic synapses integrating synaptic properties and optical detection capabilities show great advantages in neuromorphic systems for low-power visual information perception and processing as well as brain memory.

The research Group of Optical Detection and Sensing (GODS) have reported a three-terminal photonic synapse based on the large-area, uniform multilayer MoS2 films. The reported device realized ultrashort optical pulse detection within 5 μs and ultralow power consumption about 40 aJ, which means its performance is much better than the current reported properties of photonic synapses. Moreover, it is several orders of magnitude lower than the corresponding parameters of biological synapses, indicating that the reported photonic synapse can be further used for more complex ANN. The photoconductivity of MoS2 channel grown by CVD is regulated by photostimulation signal, which enables the device to simulate short-term synaptic plasticity (STP), long-term synaptic plasticity (LTP), paired-pulse facilitation (PPF) and other synaptic properties. Therefore, the reported photonic synapse can simulate human visual perception, and the detection wavelength can be extended to near infrared light. As the most important system of human learning, visual perception system can receive 80% of learning information from the outside. With the continuous development of AI, there is an urgent need for low-power and high sensitivity visual perception system that can effectively receive external information. In addition, with the assistant of gate voltage, this photonic synapse can simulate the classical Pavlovian conditioning and the regulation of different emotions on memory ability. For example, positive emotions enhance memory ability and negative emotions weaken memory ability. Furthermore, a significant contrast in the strength of STP and LTP based on the reported photonic synapse suggests that it can preprocess the input light signal. These results indicate that the photo-stimulation and backgate control can effectively regulate the conductivity of MoS2 channel layer by adjusting carrier trapping/detrapping processes. Moreover, the photonic synapse presented in this paper is expected to integrate sensing-memory-preprocessing capabilities, which can be used for real-time image detection and in-situ storage, and also provides the possibility to break the von Neumann bottleneck. 

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

Photonic synapses with ultralow energy consumption for artificial visual perception and brain storage by Caihong Li, Wen Du, Yixuan Huang, Jihua Zou, Lingzhi Luo, Song Sun, Alexander O. Govorov, Jiang Wu, Hongxing Xu, Zhiming Wang. Opto-Electron Adv Vol 5, No 9 210069 (2022). doi: 10.29026/oea.2022.210069

This paper is open access.


I don’t have much to say about the research itself other than, I believe this is the first time I’ve seen a news release about neuromorphic computing research from China.

it’s China that most interests me, especially these bits from the June 30, 2022 Compuscript Ltd news release on EurekAlert,

Group of Optical Detection and Sensing (GODS) [emphasis mine] was established in 2019. It is a research group focusing on compound semiconductors, lasers, photodetectors, and optical sensors. GODS has established a well-equipped laboratory with research facilities such as Molecular Beam Epitaxy system, IR detector test system, etc. GODS is leading several research projects funded by NSFC and National Key R&D Programmes. GODS have published more than 100 research articles in Nature Electronics, Light: Science and Applications, Advanced Materials and other international well-known high-level journals with the total citations beyond 8000.

Jiang Wu obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas Fayetteville in 2011. After his Ph.D., he joined UESTC as associate professor and later professor. He joined University College London [UCL] as a research associate in 2012 and then lecturer in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at UCL from 2015 to 2018. He is now a professor at UESTC [University of Electronic Science and Technology of China] [emphases mine]. His research interests include optoelectronic applications of semiconductor heterostructures. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Senior Member of IEEE.

Opto-Electronic Advances (OEA) is a high-impact, open access, peer reviewed monthly SCI journal with an impact factor of 9.682 (Journals Citation Reports for IF 2020). Since its launch in March 2018, OEA has been indexed in SCI, EI, DOAJ, Scopus, CA and ICI databases over the time and expanded its Editorial Board to 36 members from 17 countries and regions (average h-index 49). [emphases mine]

The journal is published by The Institute of Optics and Electronics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, aiming at providing a platform for researchers, academicians, professionals, practitioners, and students to impart and share knowledge in the form of high quality empirical and theoretical research papers covering the topics of optics, photonics and optoelectronics.

The research group’s awkward name was almost certainly developed with the rather grandiose acronym, GODS, in mind. I don’t think you could get away with doing this in an English-speaking country as your colleagues would mock you mercilessly.

It’s Jiang Wu’s academic and work history that’s of most interest as it might provide insight into China’s Young Thousand Talents program. A January 5, 2023 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) news release describes the program,

In a systematic evaluation of China’s Young Thousand Talents (YTT) program, which was established in 2010, researchers find that China has been successful in recruiting and nurturing high-caliber Chinese scientists who received training abroad. Many of these individuals outperform overseas peers in publications and access to funding, the study shows, largely due to access to larger research teams and better research funding in China. Not only do the findings demonstrate the program’s relative success, but they also hold policy implications for the increasing number of governments pursuing means to tap expatriates for domestic knowledge production and talent development. China is a top sender of international students to United States and European Union science and engineering programs. The YTT program was created to recruit and nurture the productivity of high-caliber, early-career, expatriate scientists who return to China after receiving Ph.Ds. abroad. Although there has been a great deal of international attention on the YTT, some associated with the launch of the U.S.’s controversial China Initiative and federal investigations into academic researchers with ties to China, there has been little evidence-based research on the success, impact, and policy implications of the program itself. Dongbo Shi and colleagues evaluated the YTT program’s first 4 cohorts of scholars and compared their research productivity to that of their peers that remained overseas. Shi et al. found that China’s YTT program successfully attracted high-caliber – but not top-caliber – scientists. However, those young scientists that did return outperformed others in publications across journal-quality tiers – particularly in last-authored publications. The authors suggest that this is due to YTT scholars’ greater access to larger research teams and better research funding in China. The authors say the dearth of such resources in the U.S. and E.U. “may not only expedite expatriates’ return decisions but also motivate young U.S.- and E.U.-born scientists to seek international research opportunities.” They say their findings underscore the need for policy adjustments to allocate more support for young scientists.

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

Has China’s Young Thousand Talents program been successful in recruiting and nurturing top-caliber scientists? by Dongbo Shi, Weichen Liu, and Yanbo Wang. Science 5 Jan 2023 Vol 379, Issue 6627 pp. 62-65 DOI: 10.1126/science.abq1218

This paper is behind a paywall.

Kudos to the folks behind China’s Young Thousands Talents program! Jiang Wu’s career appears to be a prime example of the program’s success. Perhaps Canadian policy makers will be inspired.