Monthly Archives: January 2011

Opalux, Inc., another Canadian company with an anti-counterfeiting strategy

On the heels (more or less) of my Jan. 17, 2011 posting about the Simon Fraser University-related start-up company, Nanotech Security, and its anti-counterfeiting technology based on the Morpho butterfly, I came across an article about a University of Toronto-related company, Oplaux, and its anti-counterfeiting technology which is based on opals and, again, the Morpho butterfly.  The Canada Foundation for Innovation article provides some details in the Fall/Winter 2009 issue of its Innovation Canada online magazine,

Inspired by the iridescent colours found in nature, such as butterfly wings, researchers at Opalux, a University of Toronto spin-off company, are recreating nature’s colours using nanotechnology. The “photonic colour” product that results can be switched on and off, offering applications in currency dyes and perishable food packaging. (p. 3)

The company is focused on more than anti-counterfeiting measures (as opposed to Nanotech Security) and food packaging, there’s also work being done on,

… a rechargeable battery whose changing surface colour indicates how much charge the battery currently holds and how much rechargeable life remains? (p. 3)

Opalux, derives its name and inspiration from opals (as well as, the Morpho butterfly mentioned previously). André Arsenault, one of Opalux’s co-founders and Chief Technology Officer, synthesized work from two researchers (Geoffrey Ozin and Ian Manners) at the University of Toronto to develop the notion of a ‘tunable and opal-like crystal’,

Ozin’s research involved the creation of synthetic nanostructures that, when exposed to light, mimic the visual qualities of an opal, the mineral renowned for its ability to appear as all colours of the rainbow. Manners was looking into producing artificial materials, particularly an iron-based polymer that could carry an electrical charge. For his thesis, Arsenault combined the two concepts to create a “tunable” opal-like crystal — a material in which you could control extremely rapid colour changes.

If you are interested in Opalux, the website is here. By contrast here’s a description of the work done by the researchers and nascent entrpreneurs at Simon Fraser University (SFU), from the Jan. 17, 2011 news release,

Imagine a hole so small that air can’t go through it, or a hole so small it can trap a single wavelength of light. Nanotech Security Corp., with the help of Simon Fraser University researchers, is using this type of nano-technology – 1,500 times thinner than a human hair and first of its kind in the world – to create unique anti-counterfeiting security features.

Landrock and Kaminska [Chris Landrock and Bozena Kaminska, SFU researchers) both continue their work as part of Nanotech’s scientific team. The company’s Nano-Optic Technology for Enhanced Security (NOtES) product stems from an idea originating in the purest form of nature – insects using colorful markings to identify themselves.

How this works is microscopic gratings composed of nanostructures interact with light to produce the shimmering iridescence seen on the Costa Rican morpho butterfly. The nanostructures act to reflect and refract light waves to produce the morpho’s signature blue wings and absorb other unwanted light.

There you have it, two different approaches to anti-counterfeiting and the beginnings of a possible case study about innovation in Canada.

Can governments keep pace with science and technology?

Later this week (Feb. 3 & 4, 2011), an imaginative discussion about society, emerging technologies, and the role of government, Here Be Dragons: Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future, will take place at Google’s Washington, DC, headquarters.  The event (one of a series dubbed ‘Future Tense’) is the result of a partnership between Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate magazine. Not surprisingly Slate has an article about the event but it’s written by Robert J. Sawyer, a Canadian science fiction novelist and it’s not about the event per se. From the Slate article, The Purpose of Science Fiction; How it teaches governments—and citizens—how to understand the future of technology,

… science-fiction writers explore these issues in ways that working scientists simply can’t. Some years ago, for a documentary for Discovery Channel Canada, I interviewed neurobiologist Joe Tsien, who had created superintelligent mice in his lab at Princeton—something he freely spoke about when the cameras were off. But as soon as we started rolling, and I asked him about the creation of smarter mice, he made a “cut” gesture. “We can talk about the mice having better memories but not about them being smarter. The public will be all over me if they think we’re making animals more intelligent.”

But science-fiction writers do get to talk about the real meaning of research. We’re not beholden to skittish funding bodies and so are free to speculate about the full range of impacts that new technologies might have—not just the upsides but the downsides, too. And we always look at the human impact rather than couching research in vague, nonthreatening terms.

That bit about ‘smarter mice’ is related to the issue I was discussing in regard to PBS’s Nova Series: Making Stuff and their approach to transgenic goats (my Jan. 21, 2011 posting). Many people are distressed by this notion of crossing boundaries and ‘playing God’ to the point where discussion is rendered difficult if not impossible.The ‘smarter mice’ issue points to a related problem in that people find some boundaries more acceptable to cross than others.

Sawyer’s point about science fiction being a means of holding the discussion is well taken. He will be presenting at this week’s ‘Dragons’ event. Here’s more about it,

Maps in the old days often included depictions of sea dragons or lions to connote unknown or dangerous terrain. Unfortunately, when it comes to a future that will be altered in unimaginable ways by emerging technologies, society and government cannot simply lay down a “Here Be Dragons” marker with a fanciful illustration to signal that most of us have no clue.

How does a democratic society both nurture and regulate — and find the right balance between those two imperatives — fast-evolving technologies poised to radically alter life?

Synthetic biology, with its potential to engineer and manipulate living organisms, and the Internet, which continues to alter how we live and relate to each other, offer two compelling cases in point.

Future Tense is convening at Google DC a number of leading scientists, Internet thinkers, governance experts and science fiction writers to grapple with the challenge of governing an unchartered future.

Related but tangential: The Canadian Army has shown an interest in science fiction as they have commissioned at least two novels by Karl Schroeder as I noted in my Feb. 16, 2009 posting.

One last thought, I am curious about the fact that the ‘Dragons’ event is being held at a Google headquarters yet Google is not a sponsor, a host, or a partner.

Lady Gaga parody with a science edge

A friend alerted me to a video on Youtube video, Zheng Lab – Bad Project (Lady Gaga parody) and since it’s Friday and I usually blog about science in one form or another, I think it’s worth a whirl.

There is a real lab, the head researcher is Hui Zheng and she and her team study Alzheimer’s Disease (at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas). Note: There’s a brief segment with mice where they’ve sped up the motion (this team does some animal testing).

This is partly an experiment on my part as I’m using Youtube’s new embed code, which required adopting a new and somewhat bewildering strategy. ETA Feb.3.11: I started playing with the sizing and had to go back to using the old embed code.

Environmental Nanoscience Initiative goes transatlantic (UK/US) in phase 2 and related ISO news

Launched in 2006, the Environmental Nanoscience Initiative (ENI) will see scientists from the US and UK collaborate on three projects in phase 2. From the Jan. 26, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

One of the ENI consortia will carry out a risk assessment for manufactured nanoparticles used in consumer products. Earlier research has focused on the toxicities – the degrees to which the nanoparticles can affect organisms – at the source. It has also shown that nanomaterials can affect marine organisms and change the properties of chemicals they come into contact with. For this project the researchers intend to evaluate the effect of the nanoparticles on people and aquatic animals at the point of exposure.

A second research team will investigate how the nanoparticles and nanotubes are transported into sewage treatment systems, into soil, surface waters and sediments, as well as their toxicity and absorption into a range of organisms such as bacteria, algae, invertebrates and fish.

The third group will examine the rate and behaviour of nanomaterials carried into soils used for agriculture and absorbed into plants, bacteria and invertebrates such as worms. They will also be generating new knowledge for use in risk assessment models using a unique pilot-scale waste water treatment facility.

Overall this research will provide key information about whether wildlife and humans are exposed to manufactured nanomaterials, and if so in what form.

The three Phase 2 consortium projects and the institutes involved are:

Risk assessment for manufactured nanoparticles used in consumer products (RAMNUC):
– Imperial College, London; Health Protection Agency, Oxfordshire.
USA – University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey; Rutgers University, Piscataway NJ; Duke University, Durham, NC.

Consortium for manufactured nanomaterial bioavailability & environmental exposure (nanoBEE):
– University of Birmingham; Napier University, Edinburgh; Natural History Museum, London.
USARice University, Houston, TX; Clemson University, SC; University of California, Davis, CA. [emphasis mine]

Transatlantic initiative for nanotechnology and the environment (TINE):
UK – Rothamsted Research, Hertfordshire; Cranfield University, Cranfield, Bedfordshire; Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford, Oxfordshire; Lancaster University, Lancashire.
USA – University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY; Duke University, Durham, NC; Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA.

I first came across the news in a Jan. 26, 2011 article in the Houston (Texas) Business Journal which provides more details about the research team that includes professor Vicki Colvin from Rice University,

Colvin, a professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice, is heading up a team of three researchers in the U.S., which is collaborating with three U.K. researchers on the project.

Known as the Nanomaterial Bioavailability and Environmental Exposure Consortia, it will focus on creating a “plug and play” tool for regulators to input information about the size and type of the nanomaterial, local water chemistry, soil types and other factors. Once this data is in the system, regulators will be shown how much of the material could be safely released into a given area.

Coincidentally or not, the ENI announcement was made the same day as the International Standards Organization (ISO) announced a new standard for establishing nanoparticle inhalation toxicity testing. From the Jan. 26, 2011 ISO news release,

Dr. Peter Hatto, Chair of the committee that developed the standard explains, “With the rapid expansion of nanotechnology applications comes a growing risk of exposure to potentially toxic substances, especially for workers in nanotechnology-based industries. Moreover, if airborne nanoparticles were liberated from products, the general public could also be affected. Ensuring the safety of these particles is therefore paramount for the well-being of workers and consumers.”

Carefully monitored tests are used to establish the inhalation toxicity of airborne nanoparticles. The new standard, ISO 10808:2010, Nanotechnologies – Characterization of nanoparticles in inhalation exposure chambers for inhalation toxicity testing, helps ensure that the results of such tests are reliable and harmonized worldwide.

While these projects are distantly related (with the ENI focused on establishing possible risks associated with nanomaterials released  into soil and water and the ISO standard focused on developing parameters for standards for testing toxicity when nanoparticles are inhaled), this all suggests that we are learning to assess the impact of nanotechnology-enabled products and processes.

Sabanci University, nanotechnology, and ISEA 2011

The Sabanci University’s (Istanbul, Turkey) new Nanotechnology and Application Center (SUNAC) has placed an order for an electron-beam lithography system. From the Jan. 26 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

“The EBPG5000plusES is a 100kV high performance system, which is state of the art. It will enable us to address the nanotechnology development needs of natural sciences, applied sciences and engineering programs”, says Dr. Volkan Özgüz, Director of the Nanotechnology and Application Center. “Due to its flexibility and advantages, the EBPG5000plusES is a perfect investment for the future and will help to establish SUNAC as one of Turkeys leading nanotechnology institution.”

Vistec’s EBPG5000plusES are dedicated electron-beam lithography systems, which have been developed to meet the diverse requirements for advanced nano-lithography applications in direct write for both R&D and production of GaAs devices. It enables a rapid exposure with a 25MHz rate and a minimum feature size of less than 8nm. The EBPG5000plusES system is capable to expose various substrate types including masks and dimensions up to 150mm size.

This is the first “nanotechnology in Turkey” item I’ve come across. It caught my eye since Sabanci University will be hosting the 2011 International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA), Sept. 14 – 21 2011. (I posted about my experiences at ISEA 2009 in Belfast in my Sept. 30, 2009 and Oct. 1, 2009 postings.) I didn’t get to the 2010 ISEA but have submitted an abstract of paper for 2011 in Istanbul.

Hiding a peppercorn with your invisibility cloak

It’s the first time I’ve heard of an invisibility cloak that can hide something visible to the naked eye.  A peppercorn may not sound like much but compared to cloaked objects that are usually measured at the nanoscale (nano means one billionth of a metre), this is a huge step forward. What makes this discovery even more interesting is that it’s simple and inexpensive compared to the other systems used to achieve invisibility. From the Jan. 25, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Unlike the other attempts to produce invisibility by constructing synthetic layered materials, the new method uses an ordinary, common mineral called calcite — a crystalline form of calcium carbonate, the main ingredient in seashells. “Very often, the obvious solution is just sitting there,” says MIT mechanical-engineering professor George Barbastathis, one of the new report’s co-authors.

The work is being done by a team of researchers from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research & Technology (SMART). From the SMART website,

Established in 2007, the SMART Centre is MIT’s first research centre outside of Cambridge, MA and its largest international research endeavor. The Centre is also the first entity in the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) currently being developed by NRF.

Here’s how they created an invisibility cloak,

In the experiment reported in this paper, the system works in a very carefully controlled setting: The object to be hidden (a metal wedge in the experiment, or anything smaller than it) is placed on a flat, horizontal mirror, and a layer of calcite crystal — made up of two pieces with opposite crystal orientations, glued together — is placed on top of it. When illuminated by visible light and viewed from a certain direction, the object under the calcite layer “disappears,” and the observer sees the scene as if there was nothing at all on top of the mirror.

Nanotechnology efforts in Manitoba

I’m glad to be pointing to some nanotechnology work in Manitoba. The University of Manitoba’s Dept. of Chemistry is working on ways to fabricate liquid crystal (LC) nanocomposites. From the Jan. 25, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Market leaders in temperature controlled microscopy, Linkam Scientific Instruments, have been chosen by the Chemistry Department of the University of Manitoba to characterize liquid crystal composites conjunction with SAXS.

The research goal of Associate Professor Torsten Hegmann’s group in Manitoba is the fabrication of liquid crystal (LC) nanocomposites using functionalized metal or semiconductor nanoparticles as dopants in thermotropic amphiphilic and non-amphiphilic nematic, smectic and other types of liquid crystals. Of particular interest is the design of LC nanocomposite materials, chiral and non-chiral, that will respond to external stimuli such as temperature and applied electric fields. LCs are extremely useful in a variety of applications (e.g., flat panel displays, light shutters, spatial light modulators and others), because external perturbations via applied electric fields as well as modified surfaces (e.g. alignment layers) can cause significant changes in the macroscopic properties.

Latest MRS Science as Art images

The Materials Research Society (MRS) holds a “Science as Art” competition for its Spring and Fall meetings. First place and second place winners for the Fall 2010 meeting are being featured in a Jan. 22, 2011 news item on Nanowerk.  I’ve copied two images as a sampler of what you can find on Nanowerk.

Stem of nanoflowers. SThis picture is created from a high resolution SEM image of zinc oxide "nanoflowers" synthesized by a physical vapor deposition technique. (Image: Abhishek Prasad, Michigan Technological University)

Then there’s this one,

Aurora Zinc Oxide. This picture was created from the convergence of a high-resolution cross-sectional and a plan view SEM image of a zinc oxide "nanowall structure" synthesized by a metal-organic chemical vapor deposition technique. Color was added to the original image. (Image: Dong Chan Kim, Sungkyunkwan University)

Gorgeous, aren’t they? If you are interested in seeing of the “Science as Art” competition winners from all the years of competition, you can go here.

Preview of new book on nanotechnology and public attitudes

For anyone who has been following the discussion about public perceptions, opinion polling, and nanotechnology, there’s a new book on the horizon: Nanotechnology: Public Perception and Risk Communication by Susanna Priest. The proposed publication date is Aug. 15, 2011. Dietram Scheufele (nanopublic blog) will be contributing a chapter of which a draft copy is currently being featured on his blog. Here’s an excerpt from Dietram’s draft,

Patterns of news coverage on nanotechnology are developing in ways that mirror issue cycles for previous technologies, including agricultural biotechnology. In particular, early coverage of nanotechnology was dominated by a general optimism about the scientific potential and economic impacts of this new technology (Dudo, Dunwoody, & Scheufele, forthcoming; Friedman & Egolf, 2005; Friedman & Egolf, 2007). This is in part related to the fact that a sizeable proportion of nanotechnology news coverage – at least in newspapers – continues to be provided by a handful of science journalists and business writers (Dudo, Choi, & Scheufele, 2011; Dudo et al., forthcoming).

Attitudes without Knowledge?

The overall positive framing of nanotechnology in news outlets is also linked to support for more research and funding among the general public (Cobb & Macoubrie, 2004; Scheufele & Lewenstein, 2005). This connection between media coverage and support for nanotechnology, however, does not follow traditional knowledge deficit models (for an overview, see Brossard, Lewenstein, & Bonney, 2005). Instead, most research on public attitudes toward nanotechnology does not show an impact of media coverage on lay audiences’ understanding of the technology, which – according to knowledge deficit models – would produce more positive attitudes toward the technology. Instead, most recent research has found that the driving factor behind public attitudes are various forms of heuristics or cognitive shortcuts that audiences use to make sense of the technology, even in the absence of information (Scheufele, 2006).