Monthly Archives: November 2010

Nanobiotechnology research cooperation between India and Australia

The Nov. 28, 2010 news item on Nanowerk features a nanotechnology project which seems to have been 120 years in the making,

Professor Den Hollander Vice-Chancellor and President of Deakin University was excited as well about this partnership and said, ‘Alfred Deakin first recognized the possibilities of India and Australia working together nearly 120 years ago. It is pleasing for everyone at Deakin and TERI [The Energy and Resources Institute] to be involved in a partnership that not only fulfils his prophecies but which has mutual benefits for both nations,” She further added, ‘For Deakin to be partnered with such an organization led by a man of Dr. Pachauri’s [TERI, Director-General] standing is a massive complement. We hope to use the agreement with TERI as a model for other partners.’

Dr. R. K. Pachauri is a world-renowned economist and the head of the Nobel Prize winning UN Climate panel. TERI, The Energy and Resources Institute in India, and Deakin University in Australia have recently signed a memorandum of understanding,

The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), India and Deakin University, Australia signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to announce the setting up of a Centre of Excellence, the TERI-Deakin Nano Biotechnology Research Centre in the field of Nano Biotechnology in India. This development is an outcome of TERI’s core capability of knowledge creation and development of efficient, environment friendly technologies and Deakin’s India Research Initiative (DIRI) which is committed towards establishing a lasting association with industry partners in India to chart a vibrant culture of research and scholastic excellence.

The initiative is also aimed at bridging the gap between industry and academia through research and collaboration of world leading experts, which will enable efficiency, effectiveness and provide solutions for a sustainable future through the utilization of biotechnology. The TERI- Deakin Nano Biotechnology Research Centre will bring to the fore Deakin’s expertise in the design and characterization of novel nanomaterials while TERI’s Biotechnology and Management of Bioresource Division (BMBD) will bring their wealth of experience in biotech applications in pharmacology, food, agriculture and environmental areas.

Nanotechnology and European space technology initiatives

They’re holding a conference right now (Nov. 29 & 30, 2010) in Belgium about space technology and scientific areas such as nanotechnology, not usually directly associated with space, that might be useful. From the Nov. 29, 2010 news item on Nanowerk,

Dr. Alberto Tobias from the European Space Agency (ESA) commented: “Space shares the technology and industrial base with other sectors and open innovation is the rule. In some domains technology advances faster in terrestrial sectors and if space enters the game, it can become a lead user. Bringing the two domains together offers many benefits: better products and lower costs for space; and an increased innovation for terrestrial industries, driven by space research.”

TECHBREAK combines a forward view of space sciences with the forward view of technology coming from non-space areas. It will be using a classification of non-space disciplines under the broad headings of ‘Key Enabling Technologies’ which were identified in 2009 by the European Commission as being likely to be the driving forces behind future European developments. During the launching conference, participants will present the different problems, their work, goals and limitations, and brainstorm and answer related targeted discussions. Participants to the conference will then attempt to match key enabling technologies from both space and non-space and identify gaps and to define if necessary the contents of further specialised workshops in support of this activity.

You can read more about the TECHBREAK conference here. (I gather this initiative is being funded by the European Science Foundation.)

Award-winning science outreach: Ask a Biologist

Before the ‘Ask a Biologist‘ website won its Science Prize for Online Resources in Education, or SPORE, award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), there was a scholarly October article in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) written by the project’s developer, Charles Kazilek.

Since 1997, Ask A Biologist has grown from a single page on Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences website to more than 2,500 pages of content. More than 150 scientists and experts support the “Ask a” section, which has now offered insight to more than 25,000 perplexed or curious children and adults. The School of Life Sciences is the home for a large group of biology experts who can provide insights on a wide range of topics. Questions are routed to appropriate faculty and graduate student experts through a common email address which protects any single person from being inundated with questions. It also provides a level of review, and an opportunity to revise answers to ensure they are grade appropriate.

In addition to the core question and answer (Q & A) feature, a strong conduit between the public and the working scientist, Ask A Biologist has grown to involve scientists in content creation. The site has also evolved to include multiple media formats. Audio interviews with scientists, video, teachers’ tools, photo galleries, and games have been developed to accommodate different types of learners and meet the expectations of nearly one million visitors, yearly. [ref. to figure removed]

The Oct. 14, 2010 news item on physorg. com offers a more lively perspective than is possible with a scholarly article,

“A key-stroke can bring the world to one’s laptop, but nothing substitutes for a living, breathing expert,” says Kazilek, director for technology integration and outreach in ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

The experts backing up Dr. Biology are more than 150 volunteer scholars at ASU, which include professors, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the School of Life Sciences and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The popularity of the site has also attracted an army of off-campus volunteers from around the world.

“Scientists, educators and science Web developers often don’t realize that great graphics and in-depth content are only part of why ‘Ask A Biologist’ is popular,” Kazilek says. “People still need people.”

(I have a feeling I’ve featured this quote before but my website searches don’t yield it.)

A Nov. 25, 2010 news item on celebrates the AAAS award,

What set Arizona’s Ask A Biologist apart? Reading interventionist Joan Howell with the Phoenix Elementary School District, a teacher for 20 years, says that it is Kazilek. “Charles simply knows how to connect with children,” she says. “He has combined science and art and created a wonderful vehicle for learning. It keeps you aware of the Web, it’s something local, it shows that ASU is a leading institution and it’s infectious. We are very thankful at our school and in our district. He has opened up a world of possibility.”

Kazilek’s virtual world is kaleidoscopic, encompassing coloring pages, image and zoom galleries, games, stories, science career pages, teacher’s resources, experiments, and language translations into Spanish and French. Entrancing more than a million visitors a year from across the globe, favorite offerings from amongst the 2,500 pages of content are the Ugly Bug contest and the Ask A Biologist’s podcast, which injects children’s voices, as co-hosts, in the website’s audioprogramming (

“The Ugly Bug contest teaches kindergarteners to sixth graders how to look at things closely,” says Howell. “The details of the bugs inspire all sorts of questions. It’s a wonderful skill for children to develop. They don’t even realize that they are learning.”

The numbers are telling: more than 10,735 votes have been cast to determine 2010’s ugliest bug since it debuted on Oct. 31. Locked in battle are top contenders, the assassin bug and yellow dragonfly (

Congratulations to Charles Kazilek and ‘Ask a Biologist’.

Graphene video

The graphene video jumps in right away. No introduction. But, if your interest in graphene was provoked by the recent Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded to two scientists (Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov) for their research on  graphene, the video demonstrates how the scientists used sticky tape to isolate graphene sheets. The video was produced by The Vega Science Trust and COST [European Cooperation in Science and Technology] Action MP0901 “NanoTP”, according to the Nov. 26, 2010 news item on Azonano. The host, Jonathan Hare, demonstrates how you can separate graphene sheets with sticky tape and a pencil,

Science and politicians in the UK

There’s an interesting post by scientist Emily Nurse about her experience shadowing British MP (member of Parliament), Gavin Barwell. From the Five things I learnt when shadowing an MP posting on The Guardian science blog, Life and Physics,

I was paired [as part of the Royal Societies Pairing Scheme programme] with Gavin Barwell, the new conservative MP for Croydon central. I applied for the scheme with the hope to educate myself about how political decisions about science are made, and to understand how us scientists can become more involved. The first part of the scheme consisted of a week in Westminster, two days of tours and talks about Science in government and parliament, then two days shadowing our respective pairs. The second part will involve reciprocal visits where the MPs/civil servants shadow their pairs for a day or two.

She notes five things she learned, I’m excerpting the three that I think are the most salient from a Canadian perspective,

1. There are a lot of scientific governmental and parliamentary bodies!

The ones we learnt about include: Chief Scientific Advisors Committee, Science Advisory Councils and Committees, Council for Science and Technology, Science and Engineering Advice in Emergencies (SAGE), Science and Engineering Assurance programme (SEA), Foresight Projects, Foresight Horizon scanning, the House of Commons and House of Lords Select Committees, House of Commons Library, The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)… etc! Wow… and, to be honest, I’m still very hazy on the subtle differences between them all.

2. The Science and Technology Select Committees really do look into how well government deals with scientific issues.

I sat in on one of their meetings dealing with an enquiry into “Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies” where they discussed how well prepared the government was in the volcanic ash crisis, whether decisions were evidence based, etc. See here for the transcript. What’s more, I learnt that it is possible for scientists to influence these enquiries by responding to calls for evidence or even making suggestions for enquiry topics. Good to know.

5. Some politicians really do see the value in science.

In the recent spending review the science budget was protected, in flat cash terms at least. It seems the government ring-fenced the budget in a realisation of the importance science plays in the economic growth of our country. I asked Gavin if politicians also valued the bigger picture too, science is not just about short-term economic gain but about advancing humanity on a global and very long term scale. Gavin certainly gets this, and I think some other politicians do too. During the week Gavin’s colleague Nicola Blackwood MP for Oxford West and Abingdon managed to secure a Westminster Hall debate on Science Research. A full transcript of the debate can be found here, in general it was extremely positive for science.

I thought points 2 and 5 helped me to better understand the importance of Preston Manning’s comment about scientists and politicians in Canada needing communicate more (noted in my June 24, 2010 posting), while point 1 had me somewhat envious that there are so many agencies that are designed for communication with politicians although there does seem to be confusing number of them.

I wonder if we’ll ever get the second half of the story, Barwell’s experience shadowing the scientist.

Follow up on 2010 USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo

I was delighted to see some follow up information about the the USA Science and Engineering Festival (Oct. 10 – 24, 2010) which I last mentioned in my Oct. 12, 2010 posting. From the Nov. 24, 2010 news item on Nanowerk,

An estimated 500,000 people attended the two-day event, which featured 550 participating organizations and 1,500 hands-on activities. Those who stopped by INBT’s “Nano-Magic” booth learned about how atoms, molecules and materials have ways of building structures all by themselves.

Twelve graduate students affiliated with INBT training programs and a handful of friends of the Institute volunteered to help visitors understand the science. In addition, several of the research and news videos created by INBT’s Animation Studio were on display throughout the day.

An estimated 500 to 600 people came to the INBT booth and spent from 5 to 20 minutes discussing nanotechnology, Johns Hopkins research, and INBT’s training programs. This first-ever event was a major outreach opportunity for INBT and one of the first times the Institute has had a public display of this kind.

“Outreach serves an important purpose,” said Denis Wirtz, INBT’s associate director and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who came out Saturday to assist with the demonstration. “It showcases the interdisciplinary nature of INBT’s work to a broad audience. But it also gives the students an opportunity to explain their research in an accessible way. These outreach activities are a requirement of their training program grants, but this skill will also help them in their future careers when explaining their work to funding sources.”

It’s not a full report but one so rarely sees anything after these types of events that this feels like a gift. I especially like the last line where Wirz notes that “explaining research in an accessible way” is a skill that will help students in their future careers.

Rare earths, China, and Nanosys

There’s been some discussion recently about rare earths in the light of tensions between China and Japan. Here’s a brief description of rare earths for anyone who’s not certain what they are, from the Wikipedia essay on rare earths,

… rare earth elements or rare earth metals are a collection of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, namely scandium, yttrium, and the fifteen lanthanides.

Despite their name, rare earth elements (with the exception of the highly unstable promethium) are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million (similar to copper). However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms, generally called rare earth minerals. It was the very scarcity of these minerals (previously called “earths”) that led to the term “rare earth”

Here’s what started the tensions (from the NY Times article by Keith Bradsher),

Chinese customs officials abruptly halted the processing of paperwork for shipments bound for Japan on Sept. 21 [2010]. The shipments were halted during an acrimonious dispute over Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing trawler that rammed two Japanese coast guard vessels two weeks earlier near islands long controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

Here’s why they’re so important,

Rare earths are vital to the production of a wide range of industrial products, including automobiles, glass, oil refining, computers, smartphones, wind turbines and flat-screen televisions. The military needs them for missiles, sonar systems and the range finders of tanks.

Here are some of the consequences of the ban,

Many factories in China assemble products that require high-tech components from Japan that use rare earths. Some of these factories, which employ large numbers of workers in China, have begun running low on components as Japanese suppliers ran short on some of the more obscure rare earths needed to manufacture them, two rare earth industry executives said.

Electronics industries have been affected, particularly camera manufacturers, leading to a desperate scramble for raw materials that has even included buying tons of obscure rare earth compounds from corporate stockpiles in Europe and airlifting them to Japan.

All 32 of the authorized rare earth exporters in China have refused to increase their shipments to other countries during the unannounced ban on shipments to Japan, making it difficult for Japanese traders to obtain supplies indirectly.

As a result of the blocked shipments, some rare earths now cost up to 10 times as much outside China as inside; the Chinese government has started a vigorous campaign to prevent this from leading to smuggling.

Brasher’s article is very interesting and I do recommend reading all of it.

There has been one other consequence to this concern over a dependency on China’s rare earths (excerpted from the Nov. 23, 2010 article by Ariel Schwartz on Fast Company),

There’s just one problem: The metals are only found in high concentrations in a few sites in China, the U.S., and Australia–and China has threatened to stop exporting its supply. But instead of expanding rare earth metal mines, what if we look for more sustainable replacements?

Enter Nanosys, a company that offers process-ready materials for the LED and energy-storage markets, among other things. Nanosys has been thinking about rare earth material shortages for years, which is why the company manufactures synthetic phosphors out of common materials–not the rare earth materials (i.e. yttrium) usually used in phosphors.

“We make a semiconductor phosphor that employs a nanomaterial called a quantum dot,” explains Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove. “It’s made out of indium phosphide and phosphorous, and the synthesis process is all in the lab. There’s no heavy metal mining, no destructive mining practices.”

Nanosys’s QuantumRail LED backlighting device is made out of quantum dots, which can purportedly generate brighter and richer colors than their rare earth metal counterparts–all while delivering a higher efficiency and lower cost.

I don’t know how close they are to producing these quantum dots in industrial quantities but the appeal of a process that lessens dependency on resources that have to be mined and/or be used to apply political pressure is undeniable. If you’re interested, you can visit the Nanosys website here.

(They talk about ‘architected’ materials. I view that word with the same enthusiasm I have for ‘impactful’. These people should never be allowed to invent another word, ever again.)

European Consumer Groups’ response to public consultation on nanomaterial definition

The ANEC (The European Consumer Voice in Standardisation) and the BEUC (European Consumers’ Organisation) have issued a joint response to the European Commission’s public consultation, which was open from Oct. 21, 2010 to Nov. 19, 2010 (and mentioned in my Oct. 25, 2010 posting).

From the Nov. 23, 2010 news item on Nanowerk,

1. The proposed size range of up to 100nm is too limited

The Commission draft recommendation foresees basing the term “nanomaterial” on the size range of 1nm to 100nm. Those are also the limits contained in the ISO 27687 standard published in 2008. However, most recent scientific knowledge seems to point out that this size limit seems to be too restrictive and risks that certain nanomaterials will not be properly risk assessed with regard to their potential toxicity.

Recent studies finding that carbon nanotubes can cause the same disease as asbestos fibres received world wide attention (Poland et al. 2008; Takagi et al. 2008). Yet many of the nanotubes in the studies measured >100nm and so would not be considered to be ‘nanomaterials’ using a <100nm size-based definition. Poland et al. (2008) found that two samples of long, tangled multi-walled carbon nanotubes caused asbestos-like pathogenicity when introduced into the stomachs of mice. One of their two samples had a diameter of 165nm and a length of greater than 10µm. Similarly, Takagi et al. (2008) found that in a long term study, more mice died from mesothelioma following exposure to multi-walled carbon nanotubes than died following exposure to crocidolite (blue) asbestos. In this study >40% of sample nanotubes had a diameter >110nm.

Today, we still do not know enough about the new properties of materials at the nanoscale. For this reason, it will be crucial to apply a broad definition to nanomaterials. This is also confirmed by the SCENIHR’s opinion that “there is no scientific evidence to qualify the appropriateness of the 100 nm value”.

The approach to go beyond 100nm has already been followed by some public authorities such as the Federal Office for Public Health and the Federal Office for the Environment in Switzerland which recommend 500nm to be used as the limit of the nanoscale in order to avoid excluding any nano-specific risk.

Concrete examples where a limitation to 100nm may cause problems

– At a workshop on nanotechnologies which had been organised by DG SANCO on 22 October, it has been discussed that in the case of pharmaceuticals the size range of 100nm may be inadequate. As nanomedicines may be at the range of about 1000nm, a definition which is not appropriate for nanomedicines may hamper research and risk assessment. Thus, an EU definition needs to take into account the specific needs of nanomedicines.

– The current REACH legislation shows severe shortcomings when it comes to nanomaterials. We see an urgent need to consider all nanomaterials as new substances under REACH. Moreover, the volume threshold for registration of 1 ton per annum seems to be inadequate for nanomaterials and should be lowered to e.g. 10kg. Limiting the definition of nanomaterials to 100nm could create a new loophole in the future as substances which are slightly bigger than 100nm may escape from the above mentioned requirements that should apply to all nanomaterials.

2. Definition should include agglomerates and aggregates

A definition for regulatory purposes should include agglomerates and aggregates as they often show physiochemicals properties which may pose safety concerns. For this reason we welcome that the Draft Recommendation includes nanoparticles that have a specific surface area by volume greater than 60 m2/cm3.

You can get the entire recommendation (5 pp.) including references from here.

This puts me in mind of Health Canada’s public consultation on a nanomaterials definition. I did put in a submission to the consultation which closed in August and have yet to hear of any results from this process. I did find this notice on their Interim Policy Statement on Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials page,

This consultation is now closed. Comments and suggestions received during this consultation period are being considered in any necessary revisions to the Interim Policy Statement on Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials. Health Canada will make available information to further clarify the use of this policy statement.

Couldn’t they tell us how many responses they got and maybe share a little information?

Latest on silver nanoparticle toxicity

Dr. Bernd Nowack has issued another report on nanosilver. His work was first mentioned in my Sept. 8, 2010 posting which focused on how washing silver nanoparticle-treated textiles releases silver nanoparticles into the wash water. Nowack’s latest work is a report recommending a more stringent approach to studying the risk that silver nanoparticles might pose to the environment. From the Nov. 22, 2010  news item by Lin Edwards on,

Dr. Nowack said one of the risks arises because some of the wastewater and sludge from sewage treatment plants ends up on farms in fertilizers, and could therefore enter the food chain. Another risk is that nanosilver could have a detrimental effect on the nitrifying bacteria that are vital to the effluent treatment processes, and could prevent treatment plants from working properly.

Nowack’s report said in earlier studies some nanosilver had been shown to bond with sulfur in sewage sludge to produce non-toxic silver sulfide nanoparticles, but it is not known how efficient sulfur is at removing biocidal silver.

Co-writing a symposium blurb about Risk, uncertainty and sustainable innovation

Co-writing may be a little bit of an exaggeration but Andrew Maynard over at his 2020 Science blog has asked for comments about a blurb he’s writing for a 2011 a symposium on Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation being organized by the Risk Science center [at the University of Michigan] next September [2011]. Here’s an excerpt,

As technologies become more sophisticated, pressures on global resources grow and society becomes ever-more interconnected, governments, businesses and citizens are facing increasingly complex challenges as they strive to build an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future. Over the past century, technology innovation has accelerated to the point where scientists and engineers have greater control over materials, organisms and systems – from the atomic scale to the planetary scale – that ever before. This has facilitated a radical shift in global communication, leading to an interconnected society where the flow of information, ideas and influence transcends geographical, economic and social boundaries. At the same time, a growing and increasingly plugged-in world population is placing unprecedented demands on ever-scarcer global resources.

The result is a world where innovation is both a driver of and a potential source of solutions to an increasing number of emerging global challenges.

You can go here to read all of it and comment.