Butterfly wings inspire nanotechnology; Canadian nanoscience and business breakthrough?; Visible Verse

The iridescence and colours that you see on butterflies and other insects result from  nanoscale structures not pigment as was believed previously. From a news item on Azonano,

Insects’ colours and their iridescence (the ability to change colours depending on the angle) or their ability to appear metallic are determined by tiny nano-sized photonic structures (1 nanometre=10-9 m) which can be found in their cuticle. Scientists have focused on these biostructures to develop devices with light emitting properties that they have just presented in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

A joint team of researchers from the State University of Pennsylvania and the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid have developed a new technique for replicating these structures. From another news item on Azonano about the same research,

Up to now, the methods used to replicate biostructures on a nanometric scale have been limited, often damaging the original biostructure because of the high temperatures and toxic, corrosive substances that were applied.

The new method uses a normal temperature and avoids toxins.

Potential uses for this material (if and when it comes to market) include covers that maximize solar light cell absorption and optical diffusers, as well as, other optically active structures. What I found most intriguing is that the scientists have replicated the colours and iridescence that we see on butterfly wings and insects. I would imagine then that these structures will be quite beautiful (assuming the materials retain those properties at sizes much larger than butterflies and insects) and the aesthetics could help to increase consumer interest in solar cells.

There’s an interesting article (Canada strikes nanotech gold)  in Canadian Business by Rosie Lombardi about FP Innovations and a new material, NanoCrystalline Cellulose, which the company is readying for the market. I suspect FP could stand for ‘forest products although I couldn’t confirm it from viewing their website although the company tag line is highly suggestive, Creating forest sector solutions.

From the article,

Although the concept of NCC has been around for decades and its source — any kind of tree — is abundant, Berry and his team have cracked the code in developing a process to produce large-scale quantities economically.

NCC has many unusual properties, in addition to having all the biodegradable attributes associated with its cellulose source.  Materials scientists are in awe of NCC’s extraordinary potential due to its strength, optical properties, conductivity, reactivity, self-assembling, anti-microbial, self-cleaning and bio-compatibility characteristics. “NCC is beautiful,” says Orlando Rojas, chair of the American Chemical Society.

Design plans for a plant have been developed by NORAM Engineering +  Constructors,  a Vancouver-based company, and three Canadian forestry companies are currently vying for the right to host the federally-funded facility (competition results should be announced by the end of 2009).

Why all the excitement from forest companies? From the article,

But it’s hard-nosed economic imperatives, not just green goodwill, that are driving the battered forestry sector to pour millions into research for new products that may ensure its survival.

Over the past two years, the Canadian forestry sector lost 50,000 jobs and more than 250 mills closed or suspended operations, according to Avrim Lazar, CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada.

The sector has been bleeding red ink since 2006, says Craig Campbell, leader of the Canadian forestry group at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “It’s been hard hit by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Most of our lumber goes to the U.S. but housing starts were down 75% last winter. And newsprint is another key area: demand has been contracting every quarter since 9/11.”

As a result, the forestry industry is looking to transform itself by switching its focus beyond tissue paper and two-by-fours to producing higher-value materials with advanced technology.

I’ve commented before about Canadians being seen as ‘drawers of water and hewers of wood’ and so I find this development is very much in line with our history.  From the article,

Having conquered the science and start-up issues, Canadian researchers now have yet another mountain to climb. The real hurdles in developing NCC’s potential lie in economics, and the complicated realm of working with other industries outside the familiar confines of the forestry sector to develop new industrial applications.

To facilitate cross-industry development, a new R&D network called ArboraNano was set up this year through Industry Canada’s Business-led Centres of Excellence program. The initiative received $8.9 million in funding over four years, and is working with industry partners such as Bell Helicopter and Kruger, and scientists at McGill and other universities to develop and test new materials made with NCC for various industries.

Canada is doing a lot of things right, says Jones. [Phil Jones, Atlanta-based director of new ventures at IMERYS Mineral Ltd.] “Supporting the application development side is the critical bit. People talk about the valley of death: university guys spin out ideas, and then industry has to commercialize them. But that part is enormously expensive, and the five-year payback is usually low. Anyone in industry doing this is punished by Wall Street.”

I think Canadians support companies through their ‘valley of death’ stage quite well. We just don’t grow the companies afterward; we sell them, which contributes in part to the lack of  industrial innovation in Canada. No company gets big enough to support a large industrial laboratory.

Kudos to Rosie Lombardi for an exciting and hopeful article. Do read the article, there’s a lot I couldn’t include here.

My nitpicks have nothing to do with the writer but I would like to have seen some information about health and safety and environmental issues as per NCC production and some scientific information about NCC. I expect the magazine, Canadian Business, does not encourage forays into topics that are not usually considered part of the business scene but if business is based on economics, then health, safety, and environmental concerns are important and ignored economic issues in many business magazines. As for more science information, I have to admit that’s my personal preference.

Heather Haley’s annual videopoetry festival, See the Voice: Visible Verse 2009 will take place on November 19, 2009, 7:30 pm at Pacific Cinematheque (1131 Howe St., Vancouver, Canada). You can read more about the festival here. This year, in addition to the short videos, the festival features a live performance by Gabrielle Everall from Australia.

3 thoughts on “Butterfly wings inspire nanotechnology; Canadian nanoscience and business breakthrough?; Visible Verse

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