Printing metal on flowers or gelatin

Martin Thuo and his research group have developed heat-free technology that can print conductive, metallic lines and traces on just about anything, including a rose petal. Photo courtesy of Martin Thuo.

I’m not sure how I feel about an electrified rose but it is strangely fascinating. Here’s more from a July 29, 2019 news item on Nanowerk,

Martin Thuo of Iowa State University and the Ames Laboratory clicked through the photo gallery for one of his research projects.

How about this one? There was a rose with metal traces printed on a delicate petal.

Or this? A curled sheet of paper with a flexible, programmable LED display.

Maybe this? A gelatin cylinder with metal traces printed across the top.

Caption: Martin Thuo and his research group have printed electronic traces on gelatin. Credit: Martin Thuo/Iowa State University

A July 26, 2019 Iowa State University news release (also on EurekAlert but published on July 29, 2019), which originated the news item,

All those photos showed the latest application of undercooled metal technology developed by Thuo and his research group. The technology features liquid metal (in this case Field’s metal, an alloy of bismuth, indium and tin) trapped below its melting point in polished, oxide shells, creating particles about 10 millionths of a meter across.

When the shells are broken – with mechanical pressure or chemical dissolving – the metal inside flows and solidifies, creating a heat-free weld or, in this case, printing conductive, metallic lines and traces on all kinds of materials, everything from a concrete wall to a leaf.

That could have all kinds of applications, including sensors to measure the structural integrity of a building or the growth of crops. The technology was also tested in paper-based remote controls that read changes in electrical currents when the paper is curved. Engineers also tested the technology by making electrical contacts for solar cells and by screen printing conductive lines on gelatin, a model for soft biological tissues, including the brain.

“This work reports heat-free, ambient fabrication of metallic conductive interconnects and traces on all types of substrates,” Thuo and a team of researchers wrote in a paper describing the technology recently published online by the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

Thuo – an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Iowa State, an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and a co-founder of the Ames startup SAFI-Tech Inc. that’s commercializing the liquid-metal particles – is the lead author. Co-authors are Andrew Martin, a former undergraduate in Thuo’s lab and now an Iowa State doctoral student in materials science and engineering; Boyce Chang, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, who earned his doctoral degree at Iowa State Zachariah Martin, Dipak Paramanik and Ian Tevis, of SAFI-Tech; Christophe Frankiewicz, a co-founder of Sep-All in Ames and a former Iowa State postdoctoral research associate; and Souvik Kundu, an Iowa State graduate student in electrical and computer engineering.
The project was supported by university startup funds to establish Thuo’s research lab at Iowa State, Thuo’s Black & Veatch faculty fellowship and a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant.

Thuo said he launched the project three years ago as a teaching exercise.

“I started this with undergraduate students,” he said. “I thought it would be fun to get students to make something like this. It’s a really beneficial teaching tool because you don’t need to solve 2 million equations to do sophisticated science.”

And once students learned to use a few metal-processing tools, they started solving some of the technical challenges of flexible, metal electronics.

“The students discovered ways of dealing with metal and that blossomed into a million ideas,” Thuo said. “And now we can’t stop.”

And so the researchers have learned how to effectively bond metal traces to everything from water-repelling rose petals to watery gelatin. Based on what they now know, Thuo said it would be easy for them to print metallic traces on ice cubes or biological tissue.

All the experiments “highlight the versatility of this approach,” the researchers wrote in their paper, “allowing a multitude of conductive products to be fabricated without damaging the base material.”

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

Heat‐Free Fabrication of Metallic Interconnects for Flexible/Wearable Devices by Andrew Martin, Boyce S. Chang, Zachariah Martin, Dipak Paramanik, Christophe Frankiewicz, Souvik Kundu, Ian D. Tevis, Martin Thuo. Advanced Functional Materials Online Version of Record before inclusion in an issue 1903687 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.201903687 First published online: 15 July 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Bringing a technique from astronomy down to the nanoscale

A January 2, 2020 Columbia University news release on EurekAlert (also on phys.org but published Jan. 3, 2020) describes research that takes the inter-galactic down to the quantum level,

Researchers at Columbia University and University of California, San Diego, have introduced a novel “multi-messenger” approach to quantum physics that signifies a technological leap in how scientists can explore quantum materials.

The findings appear in a recent article published in Nature Materials, led by A. S. McLeod, postdoctoral researcher, Columbia Nano Initiative, with co-authors Dmitri Basov and A. J. Millis at Columbia and R.A. Averitt at UC San Diego.

“We have brought a technique from the inter-galactic scale down to the realm of the ultra-small,” said Basov, Higgins Professor of Physics and Director of the Energy Frontier Research Center at Columbia. Equipped with multi-modal nanoscience tools we can now routinely go places no one thought would be possible as recently as five years ago.”

The work was inspired by “multi-messenger” astrophysics, which emerged during the last decade as a revolutionary technique for the study of distant phenomena like black hole mergers. Simultaneous measurements from instruments, including infrared, optical, X-ray and gravitational-wave telescopes can, taken together, deliver a physical picture greater than the sum of their individual parts.

The search is on for new materials that can supplement the current reliance on electronic semiconductors. Control over material properties using light can offer improved functionality, speed, flexibility and energy efficiency for next-generation computing platforms.

Experimental papers on quantum materials have typically reported results obtained by using only one type of spectroscopy. The researchers have shown the power of using a combination of measurement techniques to simultaneously examine electrical and optical properties.

The researchers performed their experiment by focusing laser light onto the sharp tip of a needle probe coated with magnetic material. When thin films of metal oxide are subject to a unique strain, ultra-fast light pulses can trigger the material to switch into an unexplored phase of nanometer-scale domains, and the change is reversible.

By scanning the probe over the surface of their thin film sample, the researchers were able to trigger the change locally and simultaneously manipulate and record the electrical, magnetic and optical properties of these light-triggered domains with nanometer-scale precision.

The study reveals how unanticipated properties can emerge in long-studied quantum materials at ultra-small scales when scientists tune them by strain.

“It is relatively common to study these nano-phase materials with scanning probes. But this is the first time an optical nano-probe has been combined with simultaneous magnetic nano-imaging, and all at the very low temperatures where quantum materials show their merits,” McLeod said. “Now, investigation of quantum materials by multi-modal nanoscience offers a means to close the loop on programs to engineer them.”

The excitement is palpable.

Caption: The discovery of multi-messenger nanoprobes allows scientists to simultaneously probe multiple properties of quantum materials at nanometer-scale spatial resolutions. Credit: Ella Maru Studio

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

Multi-messenger nanoprobes of hidden magnetism in a strained manganite by A. S. McLeod, Jingdi Zhang, M. Q. Gu, F. Jin, G. Zhang, K. W. Post, X. G. Zhao, A. J. Millis, W. B. Wu, J. M. Rondinelli, R. D. Averitt & D. N. Basov. Nature Materials (2019) doi:10.1038/s41563-019-0533-y Published: 16 December 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Infinity, time, physics, math, and a play at the Vancouver (Canada) East Cultural Centre, January 7 – 19, 2020

Time seems to be having a moment. (I couldn’t resist. 🙂 If Carlo Rovelli’s 2018 book, The Order of Time, is any indication the topic has attained a new level of interest. The only other evidence I have is that I stumble across essays about time in unlikely places.

Infinity, a play about time and more, has been produced and toured on and off since 2015 when it won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for best new play.

Here’s a clip from one of the productions,

Here’s what the publicists at the Cultch (Vancouver East Cultural Centre) have posted about the play on the Events webpage,

A surprising, funny, and revelatory new play about love, sex, and math.

The cynical, skeptical daughter of a theoretical physicist and a composer, Sarah Jean’s clinical approach to love meets with little success. In this absorbing drama infused with science and classical music, three exceptional minds collide like charged particles in an accelerator. Sarah Jean’s hugely talented, yet severely dysfunctional, family will learn that love and time itself are connected in unimaginable ways.

From award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch; featuring two of our country’s most esteemed actors, Jonathon Young and Amy Rutherford, up-and-comer Emily Jane King, and violinist Andréa Tyniec; with original music by visionary composer Njo Kong Kie.

“The play makes you feel as much as it makes you think.”—NOW Toronto

There is a December 23, 2019 preview article by Janet Smith for the Georgia Straight which gives you some insight into the playwright and her work (Note: There is some profanity in the second paragraph),

Albert Einstein once called time a “stubbornly persistent illusion”, but tell that to a busy playwright who’s juggling deadlines for TV scripts and stage openings with parenting a four-year-old-boy.

“I’m in an insane relationship with time as a mother—this agonized relationship with time,” writer Hannah Moscovitch laments with a laugh, speaking to the Straight from her Halifax home before her show Infinity opens here after the holidays. “This work-life balance: I was like, ‘What the fuck is everybody complaining about?’ Until I had to do it.

“I mean, if I don’t work less I will wreck his childhood. So it’s not like a theoretical ideal that I should have work-life balance,” she continues, sounding as self-effacing, funny, and candidly introspective as some of her best-known female stage characters. And then she reflects more seriously, “Writing Infinity gave me the chance to grapple with that. And now I’m in a constant existential relationship with time; I’m constantly thinking about it. Time is intricately linked to death, they’re inevitably linked. When you come back to time you come back to death.”

In 2008, Ross Manson, artistic director, of Toronto’s Volcano Theatre, approached Moscovitch with an article in Harper’s magazine about the history of timekeeping, with the idea of commissioning her to write on the theme. Moscovitch went on to read Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe [2013], in which American theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, challenges Einstein’s idea of time as illusion.

With Manson’s help, she would go on to meet Smolin as she worked on her play, turning to him as an expert source on the science she was trying to convey in her story. Along the way, she formed a friendship with the man she was once intimidated to meet.

“Oddly enough, while all the specifics are different about what we do, some of the generals are the same,” she explains. “We have no language in common, but we really enjoy hanging out with each other. There’s a critical endeavour in both of our work that is thought-based, and we both very much live in our minds.”

For a more jaundiced view, there’s Conrad Sweatman’s April 5, 2019 review of the play’s script in book form for prairiefire,

The uses and abuses of science in playwriting: a review of Hannah Moscovitch’s play Infinity 

Hannah Moscovitch is an indie darling of Canadian theatre, and her Dora-winning play Infinity reaffirms her reputation as one of Canada’s brightest, most ambitious playwrights. If this sounds like the sort of detached praise one reads on a student report card, it’s partially because throughout my readings of Infinity I wrestled between admiration and annoyance at its rather academic cleverness. While ultimately it earns my letter of recommendation, Infinity sometimes feels like the dramatic equivalent of a class valedictorian’s graduation speech.

Back to Infinity. In his lively introduction to the play’s script, the famous physicist Lee Smolin, who consulted on the play, describes scientists and artists as“explorers of our common future” and pleads for a more open, friendly exchange between these two camps. (Smolin, vi). It comes off as a conciliatory remark after decades of the ‘science wars’ in academia, and Smolin also lauds Moscovitch for bucking the humanities’ postmodernist trend of knocking science and its practitioners. All fine sentiments. But what does this emphasis on the commonality between art and science mean, if anything, about the relationship between the subjective, social stuff of art and the objective, natural stuff of science? Does it suggest that the scientific method should by employed by playwrights and novelists in the fictional study of human nature, as some of the naturalist novelists of the 19th century believed? 

I have no reason to think that either Smolin or Moscovitch really wish for science to colonize the arts and humanities. …

Infinity is a fine addition to the aforementioned genre of smart, humanistic plays about physicists and mathematicians that had its heyday around the turn of the Millennium. It has some of their same flaws and cerebral charms and belongs more, in spirit, to the comparatively untroubled moment, before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Global Recession, and Trump. If, like me, you spent your first years willingly reading serious literature and theatre at length in a humanities department where every text was filtered through the parallax perspectives of postmodern critical theory, you may find refreshing Infinity’s enthusiasm for science and its world of objectivism. You may feel the same way about its avoidance of the crude identity politics, inspired partially by such theory, that’s particularly in vogue in the arts right now: a kind of reactive agitprop in the age of Trump. But with the world staggering right now from one crisis to the next, a contemporary play about Ivy League intellectuals, their theories of time and struggles for authenticity, seems, well, a little untimely. …

Sweatman has identified one of the big problems with using concepts from mathematics and the sciences to inform fiction and art. The romantic poets ran into the same problem as Richard Holmes explores at length in his 2008 book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Shelley eventually abandoned his attempts at including science in his poems.

Interestingly, most of us don’t seem to realize that the arts and sciences have been intimately linked for millenia. For example, De rerum natura a multi-volume poem by Roman poet, Lucretius ( (c. 99 BCE – c. 55 BCE), is a philosophical treatise exploring mind, soul, and the principles of atomism (i.e., atoms).

I hope you enjoy the play, if you choose to go. According to the Events webpage (scroll down), the playwright will be present at two post-show talkbacks.

Science and technology, the 2019 Canadian federal government, and the Phoenix Pay System

This posting will focus on science, technology, the tragic consequence of bureaucratic and political bungling (the technology disaster that is is the Phoenix payroll system), and the puzzling lack of concern about some of the biggest upcoming technological and scientific changes in government and society in decades or more.

Setting the scene

After getting enough Liberal party members elected to the Canadian Parliament’s House of Commons to form a minority government in October 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new cabinet and some changes to the ‘science’ portfolios in November 2019. You can read more about the overall cabinet announcement in this November 20, 2019 news item by Peter Zimonjic on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, my focus will be the science and technology. (Note: For those who don’t know, there is already much discussion about how long this Liberal minority government will last. All i takes is a ‘loss of confidence’ motion and a majority of the official opposition and other parties to vote ‘no confidence’ and Canada will back into the throes of an election. Mitigating against a speedy new federal election,, the Conservative party [official opposition] needs to choose a new leader and the other parties may not have the financial resources for another federal election so soon after the last one.)

Getting back to now and the most recent Cabinet announcements, it seems this time around, there’s significantly less interest in science. Concerns about this were noted in a November 22, 2019 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail,

Canadian researchers are raising concerns that the loss of a dedicated science minister signals a reduced voice for their agenda around the federal cabinet table.

“People are wondering if the government thinks its science agenda is done,” said Marie Franquin, a doctoral student in neuroscience and co-president of Science and Policy Exchange, a student-led research-advocacy group. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”

While not a powerful player within cabinet, Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan] proved to be an ardent booster of Canada’s research community and engaged with its issues, including the muzzling of federal scientists by the former Harper government and the need to improve gender equity in the research ecosystem.

Among Ms. Duncan’s accomplishments was the appointment of a federal chief science adviser [sic] and the commissioning of a landmark review of Ottawa’s support for fundamental research, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor

… He [Andre Albinati, managing principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group] added the role of science in government is now further bolstered by chief science adviser [sic] Mona Nemer and a growing network of departmental science advisers [sic]. .

Mehrdad Hariri, president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre …, cautioned that the chief science adviser’s [sic] role was best described as “science for policy,” meaning the use of science advice in decision-making. He added that the government still needed a separate role like that filled by Ms. Duncan … to champion “policy for science,” meaning decisions that optimize Canada’s research enterprise.

There’s one other commentary (by CresoSá) but I’m saving it for later.

The science minister disappears

There is no longer a separate position for Science. Kirsty Duncan was moved from her ‘junior’ position as Minister of Science (and Sport) to Deputy Leader of the government. Duncan’s science portfolio has been moved over to Navdeep Bains whose portfolio evolved from Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (yes, there were two ‘ministers of science’) to Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Sadly, nobody from the Prime Minister’s team called to ask for my input on the matter.)

Science (and technology) have to be found elsewhere

There’s the Natural Resources (i.e., energy, minerals and metals, forests, earth sciences, mapping, etc.) portfolio which was led by Catherine McKenna who’s been moved over to Infrastructure and Communities. There have been mumblings that she was considered ‘too combative’ in her efforts. Her replacement in Natural Resources is Seamus O’Regan. No word yet on whether or not, he might also be ‘too combative’. Of course, it’s much easier if you’re female to gain that label. (You can read about the spray-painted slurs found on the windows of McKenna’s campaign offices after she was successfully re-elected. See: Mike Blanchfield’s October 24, 2019 article for Huffington Post and Brigitte Pellerin’s October 31, 2019 article for the Ottawa Citizen.)

There are other portfolios which can also be said to include science such as Environment and Climate Change which welcomes a new minister, Jonathan Wilkinson moving over from his previous science portfolio, Fisheries, Oceans, and Canadian Coast Guard where Bernadette Jordan has moved into place. Patti Hajdu takes over at Heath Canada (which despite all of the talk about science muzzles being lifted still has its muzzle in place). While it’s not typically considered a ‘science’ portfolio in Canada, the military establishment regardless of country has long been considered a source of science innovation; Harjit Sajjan has retained his Minister of National Defence portfolio.

Plus there are at least half a dozen other portfolios that can be described as having significant science and/or technology elements folded into their portfolios, e.g., Transport Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, etc.

As I tend to focus on emerging science and technology, most of these portfolios are not ones I follow even on an irregular basis meaning I have nothing more to add about them in this posting. Mixing science and technology together in this posting is a reflection of how tightly the two are linked together. For example, university research into artificial intelligence is taking place on theoretical levels (science) and as applied in business and government (technology). Apologies to the mathematicians but this explanation is already complicated and I don’t think I can do justice to their importance.

Moving onto technology with a strong science link, this next portfolio received even less attention than the ‘science’ portfolios and I believe that’s undeserved.

The Minister of Digital Government and a bureaucratic débacle

These days people tend to take the digital nature of daily life for granted and that may be why this portfolio has escaped much notice. When the ministerial posting was first introduced, it was an addition to Scott Brison’s responsibilities as head of the Treasury Board. It continued to be linked to the Treasury Board when Joyce Murray* inherited Brison’s position, after his departure from politics. As of the latest announcement in November 2019, Digital Government and the Treasury Board are no longer tended to by the same cabinet member.

The new head of the Treasury Board is Jean-Yves Duclos while Joyce Murray has held on to the Minister of Digital Government designation. I’m not sure if the separation from the Treasury Board is indicative of the esteem the Prime Minister has for digital government or if this has been done to appease someone or some group, which means the digital government portfolio could well disappear in the future just as the ‘junior’ science portfolio did.

Regardless, here’s some evidence as to why I think ‘digital government’ is unfairly overlooked, from the minister’s December 13, 2019 Mandate Letter from the Prime Minister (Note: All of the emphases are mine],

I will expect you to work with your colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory and Cabinet processes to deliver on your top priorities. In particular, you will:

  • Lead work across government to transition to a more digital government in order to improve citizen service.
  • Oversee the Chief Information Officer and the Canadian Digital Service as they work with departments to develop solutions that will benefit Canadians and enhance the capacity to use modern tools and methodologies across Government.
  • Lead work to analyze and improve the delivery of information technology (IT) within government. This work will include identifying all core and at-risk IT systems and platforms. You will lead the renewal of SSC [Shared Services Canada which provides ‘modern, secure and reliable IT services so federal organizations can deliver digital programs and services to meet Canadians’ needs’] so that it is properly resourced and aligned to deliver common IT infrastructure that is reliable and secure.
  • Lead work to create a centre of expertise that brings together the necessary skills to effectively implement major transformation projects across government, including technical, procurement and legal expertise.
  • Support the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry in continuing work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.
  • With the support of the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, accelerate progress on a new Government of Canada service strategy that aims to create a single online window for all government services with new performance standards.
  • Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development in expanding and improving the services provided by Service Canada.
  • Support the Minister of National Revenue on additional steps required to meaningfully improve the satisfaction of Canadians with the quality, timeliness and accuracy of services they receive from the Canada Revenue Agency.
  • Support the Minister of Public Services and Procurement in eliminating the backlog of outstanding pay issues for public servants as a result of the Phoenix Pay System.
  • Lead work on the Next Generation Human Resources and Pay System to replace the Phoenix Pay System and support the President of the Treasury Board as he actively engages Canada’s major public sector unions.
  • Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development and the Minister of National Revenue to implement a voluntary, real-time e-payroll system with an initial focus on small businesses.
  • Fully implement lessons learned from previous information technology project challenges and failures [e,g, the Phoenix Payroll System], particularly around sunk costs and major multi-year contracts. Act transparently by sharing identified successes and difficulties within government, with the aim of constantly improving the delivery of projects large and small.
  • Encourage the use and development of open source products and open data, allowing for experimentation within existing policy directives and building an inventory of validated and secure applications that can be used by government to share knowledge and expertise to support innovation.

To be clear, the Minister of Digital Government is responsible (more or less) for helping to clean up a débacle, i.e., the implementation of the federal government’s Phoenix Payroll System and drive even more digitization and modernization of government data and processes.

They’ve been trying to fix the Phoenix problems since the day it was implemented in early 2016.That’s right, it will be four years in Spring 2020 when the Liberal government chose to implement a digital payroll system that had been largely untested and despite its supplier’s concerns.

The Phoenix Pay System and a great sadness

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (the largest union for federal employees; PSAC) has a separate space for Phoneix on its website, which features this video,

That video was posted on September 24, 2018 (on YouTube) and, to my knowledge, the situation has not changed appreciably. A November 8, 2019 article by Tom Spears for the Ottawa Citizen details a very personal story about what can only be described as a failure on just about every level you can imagine,

Linda Deschâtelets’s death by suicide might have been prevented if the flawed Phoenix pay system hadn’t led her to emotional and financial ruin, a Quebec coroner has found.

Deschâtelets died in December of 2017, at age 52. At the time she was struggling with chronic pain and massive mortgage payments.

The fear of losing her home weighed heavily on her. In her final text message to one of her sons she said she had run out of energy and wanted to die before she lost her house in Val des Monts.

But Deschâtelets might have lived, says a report from coroner Pascale Boulay, if her employer, the Canada Revenue Agency, had shown a little empathy.

“During the final months before her death, she experienced serious financial troubles linked to the federal government’s pay system, Phoenix, which cut off her pay in a significant way, making her fear she would lose her house,” said Boulay’s report.

“A thorough analysis of this case strongly suggests that this death could have been avoided if a search for a solution to the current financial, psychological and medical situation had been made.”

Boulay found “there is no indication that management sought to meet Ms. Deschâtelets to offer her options. In addition, the lack of prompt follow-up in the processing of requests for information indicates a distressing lack of empathy for an employee who is experiencing real financial insecurity.”

Pay records “indeed show that she was living through serious financial problems and that she received irregular payments since the beginning of October 2017,” the coroner wrote.

As well, “her numerous online applications using the form for a compensation problem, in which she expresses her fear of not being able to make her mortgage payments and says that she wants a detailed statement of account, remain unanswered.”

On top of that, she had chronic back pain and sciatica and had been missing work. She was scheduled to get an ergonomically designed work area, but this change was never made even though she waited for months.

Money troubles kept getting worse.

She ran out of paid sick leave, and her department sent her an email to explain that she had automatically been docked pay for taking sick days. “In this same email, she was also advised that in the event that she missed additional days, other amounts would be deducted. No further follow-up with her was done,” the coroner wrote.

That email came eight days before her death.

Deschâtelets was also taking cocaine but this did not alter the fact that she genuinely risked losing her home over her financial problems, the coroner wrote.

“Given the circumstances, it is highly likely that Ms. Deschâtelets felt trapped” and ended her life “because of her belief that she would lose the house anyway. It was only a matter of time.”

The situation is “even more sad” because CRA had advisers on site who dealt with Phoenix issues, and could meet with employees, Boulay wrote.

“The federal government does a lot of promotion of workplace wellness. Surprisingly, these wellness measures are silent on the subject of financial insecurity at work,” Boulay wrote.

I feel sad for the family and indignant that there doesn’t seem to have been enough done to mitigate the hardships due to an astoundingly ill-advised decision to implement an untested payroll system for the federal government’s 280,000 or more civil servants.

Canada’s Senate reports back on Phoenix

I’m highlighting the Senate report here although there are also two reports from the Auditor General should you care to chase them down. From an August 1, 2018 article by Brian Jackson for IT World Canada,

In February 2016, in anticipation of the start of the Phoenix system rolling out, the government laid off 2,700 payroll clerks serving 120,000 employees. [I’m guessing the discrepancy in numbers of employees may be due to how the clerks were laid off, i.e., if they were load off in groups scheduled to be made redundant at different intervals.]

As soon as Phoenix was launched, problems began. By May 2018 there were 60,000 pay requests backlogged. Now the government has dedicated resources to explaining to affected employees the best way to avoid pay-related problems, and to file grievances related to the system.

“The causes of the failure are multiple, including, failing to manage the pay system in an integrated fashion with human resources processes, not conducting a pilot project, removing essential processing functions to stay on budget, laying off experienced compensation advisors, and implementing a pay system that wasn’t ready,” the Senate report states. “We are dismayed that this project proceeded with minimal independent oversight, including from central agencies, and that no one has accepted responsibility for the failure of Phoenix or has been held to account. We believe that there is an underlying cultural problem that needs to be addressed. The government needs to move away from a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility, [emphasis mine] to one that encourages employee engagement, feedback and collaboration.”

There is at least one estimate that the Phoenix failure will cost $2.2 billion but I’m reasonably certain that figure does not include the costs of suicide, substance abuse, counseling, marriage breakdown, etc. (Of course, how do you really estimate the cost of a suicide or a marriage breakdown or the impact that financial woes have on children?)

Also concerning the Senate report, there is a July 31, 2018 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online,

“We are not confident that this problem has been solved, that the lessons have all been learned,” said Sen. André Pratte, deputy chair of the committee. [emphases mine]

I haven’t seen much coverage about the Phoenix Pay System recently in the mainstream media but according to a December 4, 2019 PSAC update,

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has said the Phoenix situation could continue until 2023, yet government funding commitments so far have fallen significantly short of what is needed to end the Phoenix nightmare. 

PSAC will continue pressing for enough funding and urgent action:

  • eliminate the over 200,000 cases in the pay issues backlog
  • compensate workers for their many hardships
  • stabilize Phoenix
  • properly develop, test and launch a new pay system

2023 would mean the débacle had a seven year lifespan, assuming everything has been made better by then.

Finally, there seems to be one other minister tasked with the Phoenix Pay System ‘fix’ (December 13, 2019 mandate letter) and that is the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, Anita Anand. She is apparently a rookie MP (member of Parliament), which would make her a ‘cabinet rookie’ as well. Interesting choice.

More digital for federal workers and the Canadian public

Despite all that has gone before, the government is continuing in its drive to digitize itself as can be seen in the Minister of Digital Government’s mandate letter (excerpted above in ‘The Minister of Digital Government and some …’ subsection) and on the government’s Digital Government webspace,

Our digital shift to becoming more agile, open, and user-focused. We’re working on tomorrow’s Canada today.

I don’t find that particularly reassuring in light of the Phoenix Payroll System situation. However, on the plus side, Canada has a Digital Charter with 10 principles which include universal access, safety and security, control and consent, etc. Oddly, it looks like it’s the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry who are tasked with enhancing and advancing the charter. Shouldn’t this group also include the Minister of Digital Government?

The Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, does not oversee a ministry and I think that makes this a ‘junior’ position in much the same way the Minister of Science was a junior position. It suggests a mindset where some of the biggest changes to come for both employees and the Canadian public are being overseen by someone without the resources to do the work effectively or the bureaucratic weight and importance to ensure the changes are done properly.

It’s all very well to have a section on the Responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI) on your Digital Government webspace but there is no mention of ways and means to fix problems. For example, what happens to people who somehow run into an issue that the AI system can’t fix or even respond to because the algorithm wasn’t designed that way. Ever gotten caught in an automated telephone system? Or perhaps more saliently, what about the people who died in two different airplane accidents due to the pilots’ poor training and an AI system? (For a more informed view of the Boeing 737 Max, AI, and two fatal plane crashes see: a June 2, 2019 article by Rachel Kraus for Mashable.)

The only other minister whose mandate letter includes AI is the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains (from his December 13, 2019 mandate letter),

  • With the support of the Minister of Digital Government, continue work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.

So, the Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, is supporting the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains. That would suggest a ‘junior’ position wouldn’t it? If you look closely at the Minister of Digital Services’ mandate letter, you’ll see the Minister is almost always supporting another minister.

Where the Phoenix Pay System is concerned, the Minister of Digital Services is supporting the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, the previously mentioned rookie MP and rookie Cabinet member, Anita Anand. Interestingly, the employees’ union, PSAC, has decided (as of a November 20, 2019 news release) to ramp up its ad campaign regarding the Phoenix Pay System and its bargaining issues by targeting the Prime Minister and the new President of the Treasury Board, Jean-Yves Duclos. Guess whose mandate letter makes no mention of Phoenix (December 13, 2019 mandate letter for the President of the Treasury Board).

Open government, eh?

Putting a gift bow on a pile of manure doesn’t turn it into a gift (for most people, anyway) and calling your government open and/or transparent doesn’t necessarily make it so even when you amend your Access to Information Act to make it more accessible (August 22, 2019 Digital Government news release by Ruth Naylor).

One of the Liberal government’s most heavily publicized ‘open’ initiatives was the lifting of the muzzles put on federal scientists in the Environment and Natural Resources ministries. Those muzzles were put into place by a Conservative government and the 2015 Liberal government gained a lot of political capital from its actions. No one seemed to remember that Health Canada also had been muzzled. That muzzle had been put into place by one of the Liberal governments preceding the Conservative one. To date there is no word as to whether or not that muzzle has ever been lifted.

However, even in the ministries where the muzzles were lifted, it seems scientists didn’t feel free to speak even many months later (from a Feb 21, 2018 article by Brian Owens for Science),

More than half of government scientists in Canada—53%—do not feel they can speak freely to the media about their work, even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government eased restrictions on what they can say publicly, according to a survey released today by a union that represents more than 16,000 federal scientists.

That union—the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) based in Ottawa—conducted the survey last summer, a little more than a year and a half into the Trudeau government. It followed up on a similar survey the union released in 2013 at the height of the controversy over the then-Conservative government’s reported muzzling of scientists by preventing media interviews and curtailing travel to scientific conferences. The new survey found the situation much improved—in 2013, 90% of scientists felt unable to speak about their work. But the union says more work needs to be done. “The work needs to be done at the department level,” where civil servants may have been slow to implement political directives, PIPSC President Debi Daviau said. ”We need a culture change that promotes what we have heard from ministers.”

I found this a little chilling (from the PIPSC Defrosting Public Science; a 2017 survey of federal scientists webpage),

To better illustrate this concern, in 2013, The Big Chill revealed that 86% of respondents feared censorship or retaliation from their department or agency if they spoke out about a departmental decision or action that, based on their scientific knowledge, could bring harm to the public interest. In 2017, when asked the same question, 73% of respondents said they would not be able to do so without fear of censorship or retaliation – a mere 13% drop.

It’s possible things have improved but while the 2018 Senate report did not focus on scientists, it did highlight issues with the government’s openness and transparency or in their words: “… a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility.” It seems the Senate is not the only group with concerns about government culture; so do the government’s employees (the scientists, anyway).

The other science commentary

I can’t find any commentary or editorials about the latest ministerial changes or the mandate letters on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website so was doubly pleased to find this December 6, 2019 commentary by Creso Sá for University Affairs,

The recently announced Liberal cabinet brings what appear to be cosmetic changes to the science file. Former Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is no longer in it, which sparked confusion among casual observers who believed that the elimination of her position signalled the termination of the science ministry or the downgrading of the science agenda. In reality, science was and remains part of the renamed Ministry of Innovation, Science, and (now) Industry (rather than Economic Development), where Minister Navdeep Bains continues at the helm.

Arguably, these reactions show that appearances have been central [emphasis mine] to the modus operandi of this government. Minister Duncan was an active, and generally well-liked, champion for the Trudeau government’s science platform. She carried the torch of team science over the last four years, becoming vividly associated with the launch of initiatives such as the Fundamental Science Review, the creation of the chief science advisor position, and the introduction of equity provisions in the Canada Research Chairs program. She talked a good talk, but her role did not in fact give her much authority to change the course of science policy in the country. From the start, her mandate was mostly defined around building bridges with members of cabinet, which was likely good experience for her new role of deputy house leader.

Upon the announcement of the new cabinet, Minister Bains took to Twitter to thank Dr. Duncan for her dedication to placing science in “its rightful place back at the centre of everything our government does.” He indicated that he will take over her responsibilities, which he was already formally responsible for. Presumably, he will now make time to place science at the centre of everything the government does.

This kind of sloganeering has been common [emphasis mine] since the 2015 campaign, which seems to be the strategic moment the Liberals can’t get out of. Such was the real and perceived hostility of the Harper Conservatives to science that the Liberals embraced the role of enlightened advocates. Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit their predecessors left behind was the sheer absence of any intelligible articulation of where they stood on the science file, which the Liberals seized upon with gusto. Virtue signalling [emphasis mine] became a first line of response.

When asked about her main accomplishments over the past year as chief science advisor at the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, Mona Nemer started with the creation of a network of science advisors across government departments. Over the past four years, the government has indeed not been shy about increasing the number of appointments with “science” in their job titles. That is not a bad thing. We just do not hear much about how “science is at the centre of everything the government does.” Things get much fuzzier when the conversation turns to the bold promises of promoting evidence-based decision making that this government has been vocal about. Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians. [emphasis mine]

I’m tempted to describe the ‘Digital Government’ existence and portfolio as virtue signalling.

Finally

There doesn’t seem to be all that much government interest in science or, even, technology for that matter. We have a ‘junior’ Minister of Science disappear so that science can become part of all the ministries. Frankly, I wish that science were integrated throughout all the ministries but when you consider the government culture, this move more easily lends itself to even less responsibility being taken by anyone. Take another look at the Canada’s Chief Science Advisor’s comment: “Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians.” Meanwhile, we get a ‘junior Minister of Digital Government whose portfolio has the potential to affect Canadians of all ages and resident in Canada or not.

A ‘junior’ minister is not necessarily evil as Sá points out but I would like to see some indication that efforts are being made to shift the civil service culture and the attitude about how the government conducts its business and that the Minister of Digital Government will receive the resources and the respect she needs to do her job. I’d also like to see some understanding of how catastrophic a wrong move has already been and could be in the future along with options for how citizens are going to be making their way through this brave new digital government world and some options for fixing problems, especially the catastrophic ones.

*December 30, 2019 correction: After Scott Brison left his position as President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government in January 2019, Jane Philpott held the two positions until March 2019 when she left the Liberal Party. Carla Quatrough was acting head from March 4 – March 18, 2019 when Joyce Murray was appointed to the two positions which she held for eight months until November 2019 when, as I’ve noted, the ‘Minister of Digital Government’ was split from the ‘President of the Treasury Board’ appointment.

Cryonaut LEGO ®, quantum computing, and Season’s Greetings for 2019!

Caption: For the first time, LEGO ® has been cooled to the lowest temperature possible in an experiment which reveals a new use for the popular toy. Credit: Josh Chawner

Pretty interesting science and seasonally appropriate for large numbers of people, this video was posted on December 23, 2019 (from YouTube’s The World’s Coolest LEGO Set! webpage),

Hamster Productions 154K subscribers Our LEGO insulator paper: https://nature.com/articles/s41598-01… A world leading team of ultra-low temperature physicists at Lancaster University decided to place a LEGO figure and four LEGO blocks inside their record-breaking dilution refrigerator. This machine – specially made at the University – is the most effective refrigerator in the world, capable of reaching 1.6 millidegrees above absolute zero (minus 273.15 Centigrade), which is about 200,000 times colder than room temperature and 2,000 times colder than deep space. This research was lead by Low Temperature Physicist Dr. Dmitry Zmeev https://twitter.com/dmitry_zmeev ——————————- TRANSLATORS: Chinese (Traditional) – Hsin Hui Chang Russian – Dmitry Zmeev Dutch – Ruben Leenders Spanish – Marta San Juan Mucientes Italian – Leonardo Forcieri Polish – Veronica Letka ——————————– …

From a December 23, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

For the first time, LEGO ® has been cooled to the lowest temperature possible in an experiment which reveals a new use for the popular toy.

Its special properties mean it could be useful in the development of quantum computing.

A world leading team of ultra-low temperature physicists at Lancaster University decided to place a LEGO ® figure and four LEGO ® blocks inside their record-breaking dilution refrigerator.

This machine — specially made at the University — is the most effective refrigerator in the world, capable of reaching 1.6 millidegrees above absolute zero (minus 273.15 Centigrade), which is about 200,000 times colder than room temperature and 2,000 times colder than deep space.

The results — published in the journal Scientific Reports — were surprising.

A December 23, 2019 Lancaster University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Dr Dmitry Zmeev, who led the research team, said: “”Our results are significant because we found that the clamping arrangement between the LEGO ® blocks causes the LEGO ® structures to behave as an extremely good thermal insulator at cryogenic temperatures.

“This is very desirable for construction materials used for the design of future scientific equipment like dilution refrigerators.”

Invented 50 years ago, the dilution refrigerator is at the centre of a global multi-billion dollar industry and is crucial to the work of modern experimental physics and engineering, including the development of quantum computers.

The use of ABS plastic structures, such as LEGO ®, instead of the solid materials currently in use, means that any future thermal insulator could be produced at a significantly reduced cost.

Researchers say the next step is to design and 3D print a new thermal insulator for the next generation of dilution refrigerators.

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

LEGO® Block Structures as a Sub-Kelvin Thermal Insulator by J. M. A. Chawner, A. T. Jones, M. T. Noble, G. R. Pickett, V. Tsepelin & D. E. Zmeev. Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 19642 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-55616-7 Published 23 December 2019

This paper is open access.

Finally, Joyeux Noël et Bonne année 2020!

Good for your bones and good for art conservation: calcium

The statues on Easter Island, the Great Wall of China, Egyptian pyramids, MesoAmerican pyramids, castles in Europe and other structures made of stone are deteriorating and now comes another approach to halting the destruction. (I have covered other approaches to the problem in two previous postings, a December 5, 2017 posting, Europe’s cathedrals get a ‘lift’ with nanoparticles, and an October 21, 2014 posting, Heart of stone.)

An August 7, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announces the latest in conserving stone monuments and structures,

When it comes to cultural heritage sites, there are few things historians wouldn’t do to preserve them for future generations. In particular, stone buildings and sculptures made of plaster and marble are increasingly at risk of damage from air pollution, acid rain and other factors. Researchers now report a new, calcium-based conservation treatment inspired by nature that overcomes many drawbacks of currently used methods.

An August 7, 2019 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release, which originated the news item, provides a bit more technical detail,

Historically, conservation scientists have turned to alkoxysilanes, silicon-based molecules used to consolidate stone and other artworks, in their preservation efforts. However, alkoxysilane treatments do not bond properly with non-silicate surfaces, are prone to cracking and are limited in their ability to repel water. Adding other compounds to this treatment have helped overcome these effects, but only to a point. Instead Encarnación Ruiz Agudo and colleagues looked to nature for inspiration, and found that calcium could be the answer. As a major element of strong, natural structures like bone and kidney stones, the researchers theorized that nanoparticles made from calcium could bolster alkoxysilanes and provide the desired protective effects to conserve historical artifacts.

The researchers made calcium carbonate and calcium oxalate nanoparticles and included polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) as a stabilizer. PDMS also likely helps the nanoparticles bond to surfaces. The team added the nanoparticles to traditional alkoxysilane treatments, then applied them to samples of three different building materials: white marble, calcarenite limestone and gypsum plaster, and put the samples through a battery of tests. Overall, the results showed enhanced hydrophobicity, less cracking and improved surface adhesion compared to alkoxysilane treatments alone, with calcium oxalate providing a marked improvement in acid resistance. A minimal color effect was observed, but the researchers say this change was within acceptable values for conservation efforts.

The authors acknowledge funding from the European Regional Development Fund, the Regional Government of Andalusia, the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Finance and the University of Granada.

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

Bioinspired Alkoxysilane Conservation Treatments for Building Materials Based on Amorphous Calcium Carbonate and Oxalate Nanoparticles by A. Burgos-Cara, C. Rodríguez-Navarro, M. Ortega-Huertas, E. Ruiz-Agudo. ACS Appl. Nano Mater.2019XXXXXXXXXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsanm.9b00905 Publication Date:July 18, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Artificial nose for intelligent olfactory substitution

The signal transmitted into mouse brain can participate in mouse perception and act as the brain stimulator. (Image credit: Prof. ZHAN Yang)

I’m fascinated by the image. Are they suggesting putting implants into people’s brains that can sense dangerous gaseous molecules and convert that into data which can be read on a smartphone? And, are they harvesting bioenergy to supply energy to the implant?

A July 29, 2019 news item on Azonano was not as helpful in answering my questions as I’d hoped (Note: A link has been removed),

An artificial olfactory system based on a self-powered nano-generator has been built by Prof. ZHAN Yang’s team at the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology (SIAT) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences [CAS], together with colleagues at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China.

The device, which can detect a variety of odor molecules and identify different odors, has been demonstrated in vivo in animal models. The research titled “An artificial triboelectricity-brain-behavior closed loop for intelligent olfactory substitution” has been reported in Nano Energy.

A July 25, 2019 CAS press release, which originated the news item, provides a little more information,

Odor processing is important to many species. Specific olfactory receptors located on the neurons are involved in odor recognition. These different olfactory receptors form patterned distribution.

Inspired by the biological receptors, the teams collaborated on formulating an artificial olfactory system. Through nano-fabrication on the soft materials and special alignment of material structures, the teams built a self-power device that can code and differentiate different odorant molecules.

This device has been connected to the mouse brain to demonstrate that the olfactory signals can produce appropriate neural stimulation. When the self-powered device generated the electric currents, the mouse displayed behavioral motion changes.

This study, inspired by the biological olfactory system, provides insights on novel design of neural stimulation and brain-machine interface. 

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

An artificial triboelectricity-brain-behavior closed loop for intelligent olfactory substitution by Tianyan Zhong, Mengyang Zhang, Yongming Fu, Yechao Han, Hongye Guan, Haoxuan He, Tianming Zhao, Lili Xing, Xinyu Xue, Yan Zhang, Yang Zhan.Nano Energy Volume 63, September 2019, 103884 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nanoen.2019.103884

This paper is behind a paywall.

Understanding the fundamental limits of graphene electronics by way of a new quantum phenomenon

A July 26, 2019 news item on Nanowerk takes us into the world of quantum physics and graphene (Note: Links have been removed),

A team of researchers from the Universities of Manchester, Nottingham and Loughborough have discovered quantum phenomena that helps to understand the fundamental limits of graphene electronics.

As published in Nature Communications (“Strong magnetophonon oscillations in extra-large graphene”), the work describes how electrons in a single atomically-thin sheet of graphene scatter off the vibrating carbon atoms which make up the hexagonal crystal lattice.

By applying a magnetic field perpendicular to the plane of graphene, the current-carrying electrons are forced to move in closed circular “cyclotron” orbits. In pure graphene, the only way in which an electron can escape from this orbit is by bouncing off a “phonon” in a scattering event. These phonons are particle-like bundles of energy and momentum and are the “quanta” of the sound waves associated with the vibrating carbon atom. The phonons are generated in increasing numbers when the graphene crystal is warmed up from very low temperatures.

By passing a small electrical current through the graphene sheet, the team were able to measure precisely the amount of energy and momentum that is transferred between an electron and a phonon during a scattering event.

A July 26, 2019 University of Manchester press release, which originated the news item, provides additional technical details,

Their experiment revealed that two types of phonon scatter the electrons: transverse acoustic (TA) phonons in which the carbon atoms vibrate perpendicular to the direction of phonon propagation and wave motion (somewhat analogous to surface waves on water) and longitudinal acoustic (LA) phonons in which the carbon atoms vibrate back and forth along the direction of the phonon and the wave motion; (this motion is somewhat analogous to the motion of sound waves through air).

The measurements provide a very accurate measure of the speed of both types of phonons, a measurement which is otherwise difficult to make for the case of a single atomic layer. An important outcome of the experiments is the discovery that TA phonon scattering dominates over LA phonon scattering.

The observed phenomena, commonly referred to as “magnetophonon oscillations”, was measured in many semiconductors years before the discovery of graphene. It is one of the oldest quantum transport phenomena that has been known for more than fifty years, predating the quantum Hall effect. Whereas graphene possesses a number of novel, exotic electronic properties, this rather fundamental phenomenon has remained hidden.

Laurence Eaves & Roshan Krishna Kumar, co-authors of the work said: “We were pleasantly surprised to find such prominent magnetophonon oscillations appearing in graphene. We were also puzzled why people had not seen them before, considering the extensive amount of literature on quantum transport in graphene.”

Their appearance requires two key ingredients. First, the team had to fabricate high quality graphene transistors with large areas at the National Graphene Institute. If the device dimensions are smaller than a few micrometres the phenomena could not be observed.

Piranavan Kumaravadivel from The University of Manchester, lead author of the paper said: “At the beginning of quantum transport experiments, people used to study macroscopic, millimetre sized crystals. In most of the work on quantum transport on graphene, the studied devices are typically only a few micrometres in size. It seems that making larger graphene devices is not only important for applications but now also for fundamental studies.”

The second ingredient is temperature. Most graphene quantum transport experiments are performed at ultra-cold temperatures in-order to slow down the vibrating carbon atoms and “freeze-out” the phonons that usually break quantum coherence. Therefore, the graphene is warmed up as the phonons need to be active to cause the effect.

Mark Greenaway, from Loughborough University, who worked on the quantum theory of this effect said: “This result is extremely exciting – it opens a new route to probe the properties of phonons in two-dimensional crystals and their heterostructures. This will allow us to better understand electron-phonon interactions in these promising materials, understanding which is vital to develop them for use in new devices and applications.”

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

Strong magnetophonon oscillations in extra-large graphene by P. Kumaravadivel, M. T. Greenaway, D. Perello, A. Berdyugin, J. Birkbeck, J. Wengraf, S. Liu, J. H. Edgar, A. K. Geim, L. Eaves & R. Krishna Kumar. ature Communicationsvolume 10, Article number: 3334 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-11379-3 Published 26 July 2019

This paper is open access.

New ingredient for computers: water!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

An artificial graphene throat

A July 24, 2019 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (received via email and also on EurekAlert) describes a ‘tattoo-like- artificial throat derived from graphene,

Most people take speech for granted, but it’s actually a complex process that involves both motions of the mouth and vibrations of folded tissues, called vocal cords, within the throat. If the vocal cords sustain injuries or other lesions, a person can lose the ability to speak. Now, researchers reporting in ACS Nano have developed a wearable artificial throat that, when attached to the neck like a temporary tattoo, can transform throat movements into sounds.

Scientists have developed detectors that measure movements on human skin, such as pulse or heartbeat. However, the devices typically can’t convert these motions into sounds. Recently, He Tian, Yi Yang, Tian-Ling Ren and colleagues developed a prototype artificial throat with both capabilities, but because the device needed to be taped to the skin, it wasn’t comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time. So the researchers wanted to develop a thinner, skin-like artificial throat that would adhere to the neck like a temporary tattoo.

To make their artificial throat, the researchers laser-scribed graphene on a thin sheet of polyvinyl alcohol film. The flexible device measured 0.6 by 1.2 inches, or about double the size of a person’s thumbnail. The researchers used water to attach the film to the skin over a volunteer’s throat and connected it with electrodes to a small armband that contained a circuit board, microcomputer, power amplifier and decoder. When the volunteer noiselessly imitated the throat motions of speech, the instrument converted these movements into emitted sounds, such as the words “OK” and “No.” The researchers say that, in the future, mute people could be trained to generate signals with their throats that the device would translate into speech.

Caption: A wearable artificial graphene throat, abbreviated here as ‘WAGT,’ can transform human throat movements into different sounds with training of the wearer. Credit: Adapted from ACS Nano 2019, 10.1021/acsnano.9b03218

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

A Wearable Skinlike Ultra-Sensitive Artificial Graphene Throat by Yuhong Wei, Yancong Qiao, Guangya Jiang, Yunfan Wang, Fangwei Wang, Mingrui Li, Yunfei Zhao, Ye Tian, Guangyang Gou, Songyao Tan He, Tian, Yi Yang, Tian-Ling Ren. ACS Nano2019XXXXXXXXXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.9b03218 Publication Date: July 3, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.