It seems lignin is a bit of a problem. Its presence in a tree makes processing the wood into various products more difficult. (Of course, some people appreciate trees for other reasons both practical [carbon sequestration?] and/or aesthetic.)
In any event, scientists have been working on ways to reduce the amount of lignin in poplar trees since at least 2014 (see my April 7, 2014 posting titled ‘Good lignin, bad lignin: Florida researchers use plant waste to create lignin nanotubes while researchers in British Columbia develop trees with less lignin’; scroll down about 40% of the way for the ‘less lignin’ story).
(I don’t believe the 2014 research was accomplished with the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-Cas9 technique as it had only been developed in 2012.)
The latest in the quest to reduce the amount of lignin of poplar trees comes from a Belgian/US team, from an Oct. 6, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,
Researchers led by prof. Wout Boerjan (VIB-UGent [Ghent University] Center for Plant Systems Biology) have discovered a way to stably finetune the amount of lignin in poplar by applying CRISPR/Cas9 technology. Lignin is one of the main structural substances in plants and it makes processing wood into, for example, paper difficult. This study is an important breakthrough in the development of wood resources for the production of paper with a lower carbon footprint, biofuels, and other bio-based materials. Their work, in collaboration with VIVES University College (Roeselare, Belgium) and University of Wisconsin (USA) appears in Nature Communications.
Today’s fossil-based economy results in a net increase of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and is a major cause of global climate change. To counter this, a shift towards a circular and bio-based economy is essential. Woody biomass can play a crucial role in such a bio-based economy by serving as a renewable and carbon-neutral resource for the production of many chemicals. Unfortunately, the presence of lignin hinders the processing of wood into bio-based products.
Prof. Wout Boerjan (VIB-UGent): “A few years ago, we performed a field trial with poplars that were engineered to make wood containing less lignin. Most plants showed large improvements in processing efficiency for many possible applications. The downside, however, was that the reduction in lignin accomplished with the technology we used then – RNA interference – was unstable and the trees grew less tall.”
Undeterred, the researchers went looking for a solution. They employed the recent CRISPR/Cas9 technology in poplar to lower the lignin amount in a stable way, without causing a biomass yield penalty. In other words, the trees grew just as well and as tall as those without genetic changes.
Dr. Barbara De Meester (VIB-UGent): “Poplar is a diploid species, meaning every gene is present in two copies. Using CRISPR/Cas9, we introduced specific changes in both copies of a gene that is crucial for the biosynthesis of lignin. We inactivated one copy of the gene, and only partially inactivated the other. The resulting poplar line had a stable 10% reduction in lignin amount while it grew normally in the greenhouse. Wood from the engineered trees had an up to 41% increase in processing efficiency”.
Dr. Ruben Vanholme (VIB-UGent): “The mutations that we have introduced through CRISPR/Cas9 are similar to those that spontaneously arise in nature. The advantage of the CRISPR/Cas9 method is that the beneficial mutations can be directly introduced into the DNA of highly productive tree varieties in only a fraction of the time it would take by a classical breeding strategy.”
The applications of this method are not only restricted to lignin but might also be useful to engineer other traits in crops, providing a versatile new breeding tool to improve agricultural productivity.
Here’s one of the more recent efforts to create fibres that are electronic and capable of being woven into a smart textile. (Details about a previous effort can be found at the end of this post.) Now for this one, from a Dec. 3, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,
The quest to create affordable, durable and mass-produced ‘smart textiles’ has been given fresh impetus through the use of the wonder material Graphene.
An international team of scientists, led by Professor Monica Craciun from the University of Exeter Engineering department, has pioneered a new technique to create fully electronic fibres that can be incorporated into the production of everyday clothing.
Currently, wearable electronics are achieved by essentially gluing devices to fabrics, which can mean they are too rigid and susceptible to malfunctioning.
The new research instead integrates the electronic devices into the fabric of the material, by coating electronic fibres with light-weight, durable components that will allow images to be shown directly on the fabric.
The research team believe that the discovery could revolutionise the creation of wearable electronic devices for use in a range of every day applications, as well as health monitoring, such as heart rates and blood pressure, and medical diagnostics.
The international collaborative research, which includes experts from the Centre for Graphene Science at the University of Exeter, the Universities of Aveiro and Lisbon in Portugal, and CenTexBel in Belgium, is published in the scientific journal Flexible Electronics.
Professor Craciun, co-author of the research said: “For truly wearable electronic devices to be achieved, it is vital that the components are able to be incorporated within the material, and not simply added to it.
Dr Elias Torres Alonso, Research Scientist at Graphenea and former PhD student in Professor Craciun’s team at Exeter added “This new research opens up the gateway for smart textiles to play a pivotal role in so many fields in the not-too-distant future. By weaving the graphene fibres into the fabric, we have created a new technique to all the full integration of electronics into textiles. The only limits from now are really within our own imagination.”
At just one atom thick, graphene is the thinnest substance capable of conducting electricity. It is very flexible and is one of the strongest known materials. The race has been on for scientists and engineers to adapt graphene for the use in wearable electronic devices in recent years.
This new research used existing polypropylene fibres – typically used in a host of commercial applications in the textile industry – to attach the new, graphene-based electronic fibres to create touch-sensor and light-emitting devices.
The new technique means that the fabrics can incorporate truly wearable displays without the need for electrodes, wires of additional materials.
Professor Saverio Russo, co-author and from the University of Exeter Physics department, added: “The incorporation of electronic devices on fabrics is something that scientists have tried to produce for a number of years, and is a truly game-changing advancement for modern technology.”
Dr Ana Neves, co-author and also from Exeter’s Engineering department added “The key to this new technique is that the textile fibres are flexible, comfortable and light, while being durable enough to cope with the demands of modern life.”
In 2015, an international team of scientists, including Professor Craciun, Professor Russo and Dr Ana Neves from the University of Exeter, have pioneered a new technique to embed transparent, flexible graphene electrodes into fibres commonly associated with the textile industry.
I have an earlier post about an effort to weave electronics into textiles for soldiers, from an April 5, 2012 posting,
I gather that today’s soldier (aka, warfighter) is carrying as many batteries as weapons. Apparently, the average soldier carries a couple of kilos worth of batteries and cables to keep their various pieces of equipment operational. The UK’s Centre for Defence Enterprise (part of the Ministry of Defence) has announced that this situation is about to change as a consequence of a recently funded research project with a company called Intelligent Textiles. From Bob Yirka’s April 3, 2012 news item for physorg.com,
To get rid of the cables, a company called Intelligent Textiles has come up with a type of yarn that can conduct electricity, which can be woven directly into the fabric of the uniform. And because they allow the uniform itself to become one large conductive unit, the need for multiple batteries can be eliminated as well.
I dug down to find more information about this UK initiative and the Intelligent Textiles company but the trail seems to end in 2015. Still, I did find a Canadian connection (for those who don’t know I’m a Canuck) and more about Intelligent Textile’s work with the British military in this Sept. 21, 2015 article by Barry Collins for alphr.com (Note: Links have been removed),
A two-person firm operating from a small workshop in Staines-upon-Thames, Intelligent Textiles has recently landed a multimillion-pound deal with the US Department of Defense, and is working with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to bring its potentially life-saving technology to British soldiers. Not bad for a company that only a few years ago was selling novelty cushions.
Intelligent Textiles was born in 2002, almost by accident. Asha Peta Thompson, an arts student at Central Saint Martins, had been using textiles to teach children with special needs. That work led to a research grant from Brunel University, where she was part of a team tasked with creating a “talking jacket” for the disabled. The garment was designed to help cerebral palsy sufferers to communicate, by pressing a button on the jacket to say “my name is Peter”, for example, instead of having a Stephen Hawking-like communicator in front of them.
Another member of that Brunel team was engineering lecturer Dr Stan Swallow, who was providing the electronics expertise for the project. Pretty soon, the pair realised the prototype waistcoat they were working on wasn’t going to work: it was cumbersome, stuffed with wires, and difficult to manufacture. “That’s when we had the idea that we could weave tiny mechanical switches into the surface of the fabric,” said Thompson.
The conductive weave had several advantages over packing electronics into garments. “It reduces the amount of cables,” said Thompson. “It can be worn and it’s also washable, so it’s more durable. It doesn’t break; it can be worn next to the skin; it’s soft. It has all the qualities of a piece of fabric, so it’s a way of repackaging the electronics in a way that’s more user-friendly and more comfortable.” The key to Intelligent Textiles’ product isn’t so much the nature of the raw materials used, but the way they’re woven together. “All our patents are in how we weave the fabric,” Thompson explained. “We weave two conductive yarns to make a tiny mechanical switch that is perfectly separated or perfectly connected. We can weave an electronic circuit board into the fabric itself.”
Intelligent Textiles’ big break into the military market came when they met a British textiles firm that was supplying camouflage gear to the Canadian armed forces. [emphasis mine] The firm was attending an exhibition in Canada and invited the Intelligent Textiles duo to join them. “We showed a heated glove and an iPod controller,” said Thompson. “The Canadians said ‘that’s really fantastic, but all we need is power. Do you think you could weave a piece of fabric that distributes power?’ We said, ‘we’re already doing it’.”Before long it wasn’t only power that the Canadians wanted transmitted through the fabric, but data.
“The problem a soldier faces at the moment is that he’s carrying 60 AA batteries [to power all the equipment he carries],” said Thompson. “He doesn’t know what state of charge those batteries are at, and they’re incredibly heavy. He also has wires and cables running around the system. He has snag hazards – when he’s going into a firefight, he can get caught on door handles and branches, so cables are a real no-no.”
The Canadians invited the pair to speak at a NATO conference, where they were approached by military brass with more familiar accents. “It was there that we were spotted by the British MoD, who said ‘wow, this is a British technology but you’re being funded by Canada’,” said Thompson. That led to £235,000 of funding from the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE) – the money they needed to develop a fabric wiring system that runs all the way through the soldier’s vest, helmet and backpack.
There are more details about the 2015 state of affairs, textiles-wise, in a March 11, 2015 article by Richard Trenholm for CNET.com (Note: A link has been removed),
Speaking at the Wearable Technology Show here, Swallow describes IT [Intelligent Textiles]L as a textile company that “pretends to be a military company…it’s funny how you slip into these domains.”
One domain where this high-tech fabric has seen frontline action is in the Canadian military’s IAV Stryker armoured personnel carrier. ITL developed a full QWERTY keyboard in a single piece of fabric for use in the Stryker, replacing a traditional hardware keyboard that involved 100 components. Multiple components allow for repair, but ITL knits in redundancy so the fabric can “degrade gracefully”. The keyboard works the same as the traditional hardware, with the bonus that it’s less likely to fall on a soldier’s head, and with just one glaring downside: troops can no longer use it as a step for getting in and out of the vehicle.
An armoured car with knitted controls is one thing, but where the technology comes into its own is when used about the person. ITL has worked on vests like the JTAC, a system “for the guys who call down airstrikes” and need “extra computing oomph.” Then there’s SWIPES, a part of the US military’s Nett Warrior system — which uses a chest-mounted Samsung Galaxy Note 2 smartphone — and British military company BAE’s Broadsword system.
ITL is currently working on Spirit, a “truly wearable system” for the US Army and United States Marine Corps. It’s designed to be modular, scalable, intuitive and invisible.
While this isn’t an ITL product, this video about Broadsword technology from BAE does give you some idea of what wearable technology for soldiers is like,
Uploaded on Jul 8, 2014
Broadsword™ delivers groundbreaking technology to the 21st Century warfighter through interconnecting components that inductively transfer power and data via The Spine™, a revolutionary e-textile that can be inserted into any garment. This next-generation soldier system offers enhanced situational awareness when used with the BAE Systems’ Q-Warrior® see-through display.
If anyone should have the latest news about Intelligent Textile’s efforts, please do share in the comments section.
I do have one other posting about textiles and the military, which is dated May 9, 2012, but while it does reference US efforts it is not directly related to weaving electronics into solder’s (warfighter’s) gear.
A work led by SISSA [Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati] and published on Nature Nanotechnology reports for the first time experimentally the phenomenon of ion ‘trapping’ by graphene carpets and its effect on the communication between neurons. The researchers have observed an increase in the activity of nerve cells grown on a single layer of graphene. Combining theoretical and experimental approaches they have shown that the phenomenon is due to the ability of the material to ‘trap’ several ions present in the surrounding environment on its surface, modulating its composition. Graphene is the thinnest bi-dimensional material available today, characterised by incredible properties of conductivity, flexibility and transparency. Although there are great expectations for its applications in the biomedical field, only very few works have analysed its interactions with neuronal tissue.
A study conducted by SISSA – Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati, in association with the University of Antwerp (Belgium), the University of Trieste and the Institute of Science and Technology of Barcelona (Spain), has analysed the behaviour of neurons grown on a single layer of graphene, observing a strengthening in their activity. Through theoretical and experimental approaches the researchers have shown that such behaviour is due to reduced ion mobility, in particular of potassium, to the neuron-graphene interface. This phenomenon is commonly called ‘ion trapping’, already known at theoretical level, but observed experimentally for the first time only now. “It is as if graphene behaves as an ultra-thin magnet on whose surface some of the potassium ions present in the extra cellular solution between the cells and the graphene remain trapped. It is this small variation that determines the increase in neuronal excitability” comments Denis Scaini, researcher at SISSA who has led the research alongside Laura Ballerini.
The study has also shown that this strengthening occurs when the graphene itself is supported by an insulator, like glass, or suspended in solution, while it disappears when lying on a conductor. “Graphene is a highly conductive material which could potentially be used to coat any surface. Understanding how its behaviour varies according to the substratum on which it is laid is essential for its future applications, above all in the neurological field” continues Scaini, “considering the unique properties of graphene it is natural to think for example about the development of innovative electrodes of cerebral stimulation or visual devices”.
It is a study with a double outcome. Laura Ballerini comments as follows: “This ‘ion trap’ effect was described only in theory. Studying the impact of the ‘technology of materials’ on biological systems, we have documented a mechanism to regulate membrane excitability, but at the same time we have also experimentally described a property of the material through the biology of neurons.”
Dexter Johnson in a June 13, 2018 posting, on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website), provides more context for the work (Note: Links have been removed),
While graphene has been tapped to deliver on everything from electronics to optoelectronics, it’s a bit harder to picture how it may offer a key tool for addressing neurological damage and disorders. But that’s exactly what researchers have been looking at lately because of the wonder material’s conductivity and transparency.
In the most recent development, a team from Europe has offered a deeper understanding of how graphene can be combined with neurological tissue and, in so doing, may have not only given us an additional tool for neurological medicine, but also provided a tool for gaining insights into other biological processes.
“The results demonstrate that, depending on how the interface with [single-layer graphene] is engineered, the material may tune neuronal activities by altering the ion mobility, in particular potassium, at the cell/substrate interface,” said Laura Ballerini, a researcher in neurons and nanomaterials at SISSA.
Ballerini provided some context for this most recent development by explaining that graphene-based nanomaterials have come to represent potential tools in neurology and neurosurgery.
“These materials are increasingly engineered as components of a variety of applications such as biosensors, interfaces, or drug-delivery platforms,” said Ballerini. “In particular, in neural electrode or interfaces, a precise requirement is the stable device/neuronal electrical coupling, which requires governing the interactions between the electrode surface and the cell membrane.”
This neuro-electrode hybrid is at the core of numerous studies, she explained, and graphene, thanks to its electrical properties, transparency, and flexibility represents an ideal material candidate.
In all of this work, the real challenge has been to investigate the ability of a single atomic layer to tune neuronal excitability and to demonstrate unequivocally that graphene selectively modifies membrane-associated neuronal functions.
I encourage you to read Dexter’s posting as it clarifies the work described in the SISSA press release for those of us (me) who may fail to grasp the implications.
All this brings to mind a prediction made about the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project shortly after the European Commission announced in January 2013 that each project had won funding of 1B Euros to be paid out over a period of 10 years. The prediction was that scientists would work on graphene/human brain research.
Health, safety, and risks have been an important discussion where nanotechnology is concerned. The sense of urgency and concern has died down somewhat but scientists and regulators continue with their risk analysis.
Over 100 scientists from 25 research institutions and industries in 12 different European Countries, coordinated by the group of professor Antonio Marcomini from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, have completed one of the first attempts to understand the risks nanomaterials carry throughout their life-cycle, starting from their fabrication and ending in being discarded or recycled.
From nanoscale silver to titanium dioxide for air purification, the use of nanomaterials of high commercial relevance proves to have clear benefits as it attracts investments, and raises concerns. ‘Nano’ sized materials (a nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre) could pose environmental and health risks under certain conditions. The uncertainties and insufficient scientific knowledge could slow down innovation and economic growth.
How do we evaluate these risks and take the appropriate preventative measures? The answer comes from the results of the Sustainable Nanotechnologies Project (SUN), which has been given 13 million euros of funding from the European Commission.
After 3 years of research in laboratories and in contact with industrial partners, the scientists have processed, tested and made available an online platform (https://sunds.gd/) that supports industries and control and regulating institutions in evaluating potential risks that may arise for the production teams, for the consumers and for the environment.
The goal is to understand the extent to which these risks are sustainable, especially in relation to the traditional materials available, and to take the appropriate preventative measures. Additionally, this tool allows us to compare risk reduction costs with the benefits generated by this innovative product, while measuring its possible environmental impact.
Danail Hristozov, the project’s principal investigator from the Department of Environmental Sciences, Informatics and Statistics at Ca’ Foscari, commented: “The great amount of work done for developing and testing the methods and tools for evaluating and managing the risks posed by nanomaterials has not only generated an enormous amount of new scientific data and knowledge on the potential dangers of different types of nanomaterials, but has also resulted in key discoveries on the interactions between nanomaterials and biological or ecological systems and on their diffusion, on how they work and on their possible adverse consequences. These results, disseminated in over 140 research papers, have been immediately taken up by industries and regulators and will inevitably have great impact on developing safer and more sustainable nanotechnologies and on regulating their risks”.”.
The SUN project has also composed a guide for the safest products and processes, published on its website: www.sun.fp7.eu.
Scientists have focused their research on specific materials and their us, in order to analyse the entire life cycle of the products. Two of the best-known were chosen: nanoscale silver that is used in textiles, and multi-walled carbon nanotubes that is used in marine coatings and automotive parts. Less known materials that are of great relevance for their use were also included: car pigments and silica anticaking agents used by food industry.
Lastly, SUN included nanomaterials of high commercial value which are extremely innovative: Nitrogen doped Titanium Dioxide for air purification is a new product enabled by SUN and exploited by the large colour ceramics company Colorobbia. The copper based coating and impregnation for wood protection has been re-oriented based on SUN safety assessment, and the Tungsten Carbide based coatings for paper mills is marketed based on SUN results.
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the White Rabbit keeps saying “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late.” The same could have been said by the Belgian federal government when it adopted the Royal Decree of 22nd December 2017, published in the annexes of the Belgian Official Gazette of 15th January 2018 (“Amending Royal Decree”), whose main provisions retroactively enter into force on 31st December 2016. …
The Belgian federal government unnecessarily delayed the adoption of the Amending Royal Decree until December 2017 and published it only mid-January 2018. It creates legal uncertainty where it should have been avoided. The Belgian nanomaterials register (…) symbolizes a Belgian exceptionalism in the small world of national nanomaterials registers. Unlike France, Denmark and Sweden, Belgium decided from the very beginning to have three different deadlines for substances, mixtures and articles.
In an already fragmented regulatory landscape (with 4 EU Member States having their own national nanomaterials register and 24 EU Member States which do not have such registration requirements), the confusion around the deadline for the registration of mixtures in Belgium does not allow the addressees of the legal obligations to comply with them.
Even though failure to properly register substances – and now mixtures – within the Belgian nanomaterials register exposes the addressees of the obligation to criminal penalties, the function of the register remains purely informational.
The data collected through the registration was meant to be used to identify the presence of manufactured nanomaterials on the Belgian market, with the implicit objective of regulating the exposure of workers and consumers to these nanomaterials. The absence of entry into force of the provisions relating to the registration of articles is therefore incoherent and should question the relevance of the whole Belgian registration system.
Researcher Bor-Kai Hsiung’s work has graced this blog before but the topic was tarantulas and their structural colour. This time, it’s all about Australian peacock spiders and their structural colour according to a December 22, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,
Even if you are arachnophobic, you probably have seen pictures or videos of Australian peacock spiders (Maratus spp.). These tiny spiders are only 1-5 mm long but are famous for their flamboyant courtship displays featuring diverse and intricate body colorations, patterns, and movements.
The spiders extremely large anterior median eyes have excellent color vision and combine with their bright colors to make peacock spiders cute enough to cure most people of their arachnophobia. But these displays aren’t just pretty to look at, they also inspire new ways for humans to produce color in technology.
One species of peacock spider — the rainbow peacock spider (Maratus robinsoni) is particularly neat, because it showcases an intense rainbow iridescent signal in males’ courtship displays to the females. This is the first known instance in nature of males using an entire rainbow of colors to entice females. Dr. Bor-Kai Hsiung led an international team of researchers from the US (UAkron, Cal Tech, UC San Diego, UNL [University of Nebraska-Lincoln]), Belgium (Ghent University), Netherlands (UGroningen), and Australia to discover how rainbow peacock spiders produce this unique multi-color iridescent signal.
Using a diverse array of research techniques, including light and electron microscopy, hyperspectral imaging, imaging scatterometry, nano 3D printing and optical modeling, the team found the origin of this intense rainbow iridescence emerged from specialized abdominal scales of the spiders. These scales have an airfoil-like microscopic 3D contour with nanoscale diffraction grating structures on the surface.
The interaction between the surface nano-diffraction grating and the microscopic curvature of the scales enables separation and isolation of light into its component wavelengths at finer angles and smaller distances than are possible with current manmade engineering technologies.
Inspiration from these super iridescent scales can be used to overcome current limitations in spectral manipulation, and to further reduce the size of optical spectrometers for applications where fine-scale spectral resolution is required in a very small package, notably instruments on space missions, or wearable chemical detection systems. And it could have a wide array of implications to fields ranging from life sciences and biotechnologies to material sciences and engineering.
Here’s a video of an Australian rainbow peacock spider,
Here’s more from the YouTube description published on April 13, 2017 by Peacockspiderman,
Scenes of Maratus robinsoni, a spider Peter Robinson discovered and David Hill and I named it after him in 2012. You can read our description on pages 36-41 in Peckhamia 103.2, which can be downloaded from the Peckhamia website http://peckhamia.com/peckhamia_number…. This is one of the two smallest species of peacock spider (2.5 mm long) and the only spider we know of in which colour changes occur every time it moves, this video was created to document this. Music: ‘Be Still’ by Johannes Bornlöf licensed through my MCN ‘Brave Bison’ from ‘Epidemic Sound’ For licensing inquiries please contact Brave Bison firstname.lastname@example.org
The University of California at San Diego also published a December 22, 2017 news release about this work, which covers some of the same ground while providing a few new tidbits of information,
Brightly colored Australian peacock spiders (Maratus spp.) captivate even the most arachnophobic viewers with their flamboyant courtship displays featuring diverse and intricate body colorations, patterns, and movements – all packed into miniature bodies measuring less than five millimeters in size for many species. However, these displays are not just pretty to look at. They also inspire new ways for humans to produce color in technology.
One species of peacock spider – the rainbow peacock spider (Maratus robinsoni) – is particularly impressive, because it showcases an intense rainbow iridescent signal in males’ courtship displays to females. This is the first known instance in nature of males using an entire rainbow of colors to entice females to mate. But how do males make their rainbows? A new study published in Nature Communications looked to answer that question.
Figuring out the answers was inherently interdisciplinary so Bor-Kai Hsiung, a postdoctoral scholar at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, assembled an international team that included biologists, physicists and engineers. Starting while he was a Ph.D. student at The University of Akron under the mentorship of Todd Blackledge and Matthew Shawkey, the team included researchers from UA, Scripps Oceanography, California Institute of Technology, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Ghent in Belgium, University of Groningen in Netherlands, and Australia to discover how rainbow peacock spiders produce this unique iridescent signal.
The team investigated the spider’s photonic structures using techniques that included light and electron microscopy, hyperspectral imaging, imaging scatterometry and optical modeling to generate hypotheses about how the spider’s scale generate such intense rainbows. The team then used cutting-edge nano 3D printing to fabricate different prototypes to test and validate their hypotheses. In the end, they found that the intense rainbow iridescence emerged from specialized abdominal scales on the spiders. These scales combine an airfoil-like microscopic 3D contour with nanoscale diffraction grating structures on the surface. It is the interaction between the surface nano-diffraction grating and the microscopic curvature of the scales that enables separation and isolation of light into its component wavelengths at finer angles and smaller distances than are possible with current engineering technologies.
“Who knew that such a small critter would create such an intense iridescence using extremely sophisticated mechanisms that will inspire optical engineers,” said Dimitri Deheyn, Hsuing’s advisor at Scripps Oceanography and a coauthor of the study.
For Hsiung, the finding wasn’t quite so unexpected.
“One of the main questions that I wanted to address in my Ph.D. dissertation was ‘how does nature modulate iridescence?’ From a biomimicry perspective, to fully understand and address a question, one has to take extremes from both ends into consideration. I purposefully chose to study these tiny spiders with intense iridescence after having investigated the non-iridescent blue tarantulas,” said Hsiung.
The mechanism behind these tiny rainbows may inspire new color technology, but would not have been discovered without research combining basic natural history with physics and engineering, the researchers said.
“Nanoscale 3D printing allowed us to experimentally validate our models, which was really exciting,” said Shawkey. “We hope that these techniques will become common in the future.”
“As an engineer, what I found fascinating about these spider structural colors is how these long evolved complex structures can still outperform human engineering,” said Radwanul Hasan Siddique, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and study coauthor. “Even with high-end fabrication techniques, we could not replicate the exact structures. I wonder how the spiders assemble these fancy structural patterns in the first place!”
Inspiration from these super iridescent spider scales can be used to overcome current limitations in spectral manipulation, and to reduce the size of optical spectrometers for applications where fine-scale spectral resolution is required in a very small package, notably instruments on space missions, or wearable chemical detection systems.
In the end, peacock spiders don’t just produce nature’s smallest rainbows.They could also have implications for a wide array of fields ranging from life sciences and biotechnologies to material sciences and engineering.
Before citing the paper and providing a link, here’s a story by Robert F. Service for Science magazine about attempts to capitalize on ‘spider technology’, in this case spider silk,
The hype over spider silk has been building since 1710. That was the year François Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire, president of the Royal Society of Sciences in Montpellier, France, wrote to his colleagues, “You will be surpriz’d to hear, that Spiders make a Silk, as beautiful, strong and glossy, as common Silk.” Modern pitches boast that spider silk is five times stronger than steel yet more flexible than rubber. If it could be made into ropes, a macroscale web would be able to snare a jetliner.
The key word is “if.” Researchers first cloned a spider silk gene in 1990, in hopes of incorporating it into other organisms to produce the silk. (Spiders can’t be farmed like silkworms because they are territorial and cannibalistic.) Today, Escherichia coli bacteria, yeasts, plants, silkworms, and even goats have been genetically engineered to churn out spider silk proteins, though the proteins are often shorter and simpler than the spiders’ own. Companies have managed to spin those proteins into enough high-strength thread to produce a few prototype garments, including a running shoe by Adidas and a lightweight parka by The North Face. But so far, companies have struggled to mass produce these supersilks.
Some executives say that may finally be about to change. One Emeryville, California-based startup, Bolt Threads, says it has perfected growing spider silk proteins in yeast and is poised to turn out tons of spider silk thread per year. In Lansing, Michigan, Kraig Biocraft Laboratories says it needs only to finalize negotiations with silkworm farms in Vietnam to produce mass quantities of a combination spider/silkworm silk, which the U.S. Army is now testing for ballistics protection. …
I encourage you to read Service’s article in its entirety if the commercialization prospects for spider silk interest you as it includes gems such as this,
Spider silk proteins are already making their retail debut—but in cosmetics and medical devices, not high-strength fibers. AMSilk grows spider silk proteins in E. coli and dries the purified protein into powders or mixes it into gels, for use as additives for personal care products, such as moisture-retaining skin lotions. The silk proteins supposedly help the lotions form a very smooth, but breathable, layer over the skin. Römer says the company now sells tons of its purified silk protein ingredients every year.
Finally, here’s a citation for and a link to the paper about Australian peacock spiders and nanophotonics,
Rainbow peacock spiders inspire miniature super-iridescent optics by Bor-Kai Hsiung, Radwanul Hasan Siddique, Doekele G. Stavenga, Jürgen C. Otto, Michael C. Allen, Ying Liu, Yong-Feng Lu, Dimitri D. Deheyn, Matthew D. Shawkey, & Todd A. Blackledge. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 2278 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-02451-x Published online: 22 December 2017
That headline is a teensy bit laboured but I couldn’t resist the levels of wordplay available to me. They’re working on a cathedral close to the leaning Tower of Pisa in this video about the latest in stone preservation in Europe.
*ETA August 7, 2019: Video reinserted today.*
I have covered the topic of preserving stone monuments before (most recently in my Oct. 21, 2014 posting). The action in this field seems to be taking place mostly in Europe, specifically Italy, although other countries are also quite involved.
Just a few meters from Pisa’s famous Leaning Tower, restorers are defying scorching temperatures to bring back shine to the city’s Cathedral.
Ordinary restoration techniques like laser are being used on much of the stonework that dates back to the 11th century. But a brand new technique is also being used: a new material made of innovative nanoparticles. The aim is to consolidate the inner structure of the stones. It’s being applied mainly on marble.
A March 7, 2017 item on the Euro News website, which originated the Nanowerk news item, provides more detail,
“Marble has very low porosity, which means we have to use nanometric particles in order to go deep inside the stone, to ensure that the treatment is both efficient while still allowing the stone to breathe,” explains Roberto Cela, civil engineer at Opera Della Primaziale Pisana.
The material developed by the European research team includes calcium carbonate, which is a mix of calcium oxide, water and carbon dioxide.
The nano-particles penetrate the stone cementing its decaying structure.
“It is important that these particles have the same chemical nature as the stones that are being treated, so that the physical and mechanical processes that occur over time don’t lead to the break-up of the stones,” says Dario Paolucci, chemist at the University of Pisa.
Vienna’s St Stephen’s is another of the five cathedrals where the new restoration materials are being tested.
The first challenge for researchers is to determine the mechanical characteristics of the cathedral’s stones. Since there are few original samples to work on, they had to figure out a way of “ageing” samples of stones of similar nature to those originally used.
“We tried different things: we tried freeze storage, we tried salts and acids, and we decided to go for thermal ageing,” explains Matea Ban, material scientist at the University of Technology in Vienna. “So what happens is that we heat the stone at certain temperatures. Minerals inside then expand in certain directions, and when they expand they build up stresses to neighbouring minerals and then they crack, and we need those cracks in order to consolidate them.”
Consolidating materials were then applied on a variety of limestones, sandstones and marble – a selection of the different types of stones that were used to build cathedrals around Europe.
What researchers are looking for are very specific properties.
“First of all, the consolidating material has to be well absorbed by the stone,” says petrologist Johannes Weber of the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. “Then, as it evaporates, it has to settle properly within the stone structure. It should not shrink too much. All materials shrink when drying, including consolidating materials. They should adhere to the particles of the stone but shouldn’t completely obstruct its pores.”
Further tests are underway in cathedrals across Europe in the hope of better protecting our invaluable cultural heritage.
With the meeting of June 3 this year the Nano Cathedral project kicked off, supported by the European Union within the nanotechnology field applied to Horizon 2020 cultural heritage with a fund of about 6.5 million euro.
A total of six monumental buildings will be for three years under the eyes and hands of petrographers, geologists, chemists and restorers of the institutes belonging to the Consortium: five cathedrals have been selected to represent the cultural diversity within Europe from the perspective of developing shared values and transnational identity, and a contemporary monumental building entirely clad in Carrara marble, the Opera House of Oslo.
Purpose: the testing of nanomaterials for the conservation of marble and the outer surfaces of our ‘cathedrals’.
The field of investigation to check degradation, testing new consolidating and protective products is the Cathedral of Pisa together with the Cathedrals of Cologne, Vienna, Ghent and Vitoria.
For the selection of case studies we have crosschecked requirements for their historical and architectural value but also for the different types of construction materials – marble, limestone and sandstone – as well as the relocation of six monumental buildings according to European climates.
The Cathedral of Pisa is the most southern, fully positioned in Mediterranean climate, therefore subject to degradation and very different from those which the weather conditions of the Scandinavian peninsula recorded; all the intermediate climate phases are modulated through Ghent, Vitoria, Cologne and Vienna.
At the conclusion of the three-year project, once the analysis in situ and in the laboratory are completed and all the experiments are tested on each different identified portion in each monumental building, an intervention protocol will be defined in detail in order to identify the mineralogical and petrographic characteristics of stone materials and of their degradation, the assessment of the causes and mechanisms of associated alteration, including interactions with factors of environmental pollution. Then we will be able to identify the most appropriate method of restoration and testing of nanotechnology products for the consolidation and protection of different stone materials.
In 2018 we hope to have new materials to protect and safeguard the ‘skin’ of our historic buildings and monuments for a long time.
Back to my headline and the second piece of wordplay, ‘lift’ as in ‘skin lift’ in that last sentence.
I realize this is a bit off topic but it’s worth taking a look at ORA’s home page,
Gabriele D’Annunzio effectively condenses the wonder and admiration that catch whoever visits the Duomo Square of Pisa.
The Opera della Primaziale Pisana (O₽A) is a non-profit organisation which was established in order to oversee the first works for the construction of the monuments in the Piazza del Duomo, subject to its own charter which includes the protection, promotion and enhancement of its heritage, in order to pass the religious and artistic meaning onto future generations.
«L’Ardea roteò nel cielo di Cristo, sul prato dei Miracoli.»
Gabriele d’Annunzio in Forse che sì forse che no (1910)
If you go to the home page, you can buy tickets to visit the monuments surrounding the square and there are other notices including one for a competition (it’s too late to apply but the details are interesting) to construct four stained glass windows for the Pisa cathedral.
The organic pollution decomposing properties of titanium dioxide (TiO2 ) have been known for about half a century. However, practical applications have been few and hard to develop, but now a Greek paint producer claims to have found a solution
The photocatalytic properties of anatase, one of the three naturally occurring forms of titanium dioxide, were discovered in Japan in the late 1960s. Under the influence of the UV-radiation in sunlight, it can decompose organic pollutants such as bacteria, fungi and nicotine, and some inorganic materials into carbon dioxide. The catalytic effect is caused by the nanostructure of its crystals.
Applied outdoors, this affordable and widely available material could represent an efficient self-cleaning solution for buildings. This is due to the chemical reaction, which leaves a residue on building façades, a residue then washed away when it rains. Applying it to monuments in urban areas may save our cultural heritage, which is threatened by pollutants.
However, “photocatalytic paints and additives have long been a challenge for the coating industry, because the catalytic action affects the durability of resin binders and oxidizes the paint components,” explains Ioannis Arabatzis, founder and managing director of NanoPhos, based in the Greek town of Lavrio, in one of the countries home to some of the most important monuments of human history. The Greek company is testing a paint called Kirei, inspired by a Japanese word meaning both clean and beautiful.
According to Arabatzis, it’s an innovative product because it combines the self-cleaning action of photocatalytic nanoparticles and the reflective properties of cool wall paints. “When applied on exterior surfaces this paint can reﬂect more than 94% of the incident InfraRed radiation (IR), saving energy and reducing costs for heating and cooling”, he says. “The reﬂection values are enhanced by the self-cleaning ability. Compared to conventional paints, they remain unchanged for longer.”
The development of Kirei has been included in the European project BRESAER (BREakthrough Solutions for Adaptable Envelopes in building Refurbishment) which is studying a sustainable and adaptable “envelope system” to renovate buildings. The new paint was tested and subjected to quality controls following ISO standard procedures at the company’s own facilities and in other independent laboratories. “The lab results from testing in artificial, accelerated weathering conditions are reliable,” Arabatzis claims. “There was no sign of discolouration, chalking, cracking or any other paint defect during 2,000 hours of exposure to the simulated environmental conditions. We expect the coating’s service lifetime to be at least ten years.”
Many studies are being conducted to exploit the properties of titanium dioxide. Jan Duyzer, researcher at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) in Utrecht, focused on depollution: “There is no doubt about the ability of anatase to decrease the levels of nitrogen oxides in the air. But in real situations, there are many differences in pollution, wind, light, and temperature. We were commissioned by the Dutch government specifically to find a way to take nitrogen oxides out of the air on roads and in traffic tunnels. We used anatase coated panels. Our results were disappointing, so the government decided to discontinue the research. Furthermore, we still don’t know what caused the difference between lab and life. Our best current hypothesis is that the total surface of the coated panels is very small compared to the large volumes of polluted air passing over them,” he tells youris.com.
Experimental deployment of titanium dioxide panels on an acoustic wall along a Dutch highway – Courtesy of Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO)
“In laboratory conditions the air is blown over the photocatalytic surface with a certain degree of turbulence. This results in the NOx-particles and the photocatalytic material coming into full contact with one another,” says engineer Anne Beeldens, visiting professor at KU Leuven, Belgium. Her experience with photocatalytic TiO2 is also limited to nitrogen dioxide (NOx) pollution.
“In real applications, the air stream at the contact surface becomes laminar. This results in a lower velocity of the air at the surface and a lower depollution rate. Additionally, not all the air will be in contact with the photocatalytic surfaces. To ensure a good working application, the photocatalytic material needs to be positioned so that all the air is in contact with the surface and flows over it in a turbulent manner. This would allow as much of the NOx as possible to be in contact with photocatalytic material. In view of this, a good working application could lead to a reduction of 5 to 10 percent of NOx in the air, which is significant compared to other measures to reduce pollutants.”
The depollution capacity of TiO2 is undisputed, but most applications and tests have only involved specific kinds of substances. More research and measurements are required if we are to benefit more from the precious features of this material.
I think the most recent piece here on protecting buildings, i.e., the historic type, from pollution is an Oct. 21, 2014 posting: Heart of stone.
There aren’t many details about this chip and so far as I can tell this technology is not based on a memristor. From a May 16, 2017 news item on plys.org,
Today [May 16, 2017], at the imec technology forum (ITF2017), imec demonstrated the world’s first self-learning neuromorphic chip. The brain-inspired chip, based on OxRAM technology, has the capability of self-learning and has been demonstrated to have the ability to compose music.
The human brain is a dream for computer scientists: it has a huge computing power while consuming only a few tens of Watts. Imec researchers are combining state-of-the-art hardware and software to design chips that feature these desirable characteristics of a self-learning system. Imec’s ultimate goal is to design the process technology and building blocks to make artificial intelligence to be energy efficient so that that it can be integrated into sensors. Such intelligent sensors will drive the internet of things forward. This would not only allow machine learning to be present in all sensors but also allow on-field learning capability to further improve the learning.
By co-optimizing the hardware and the software, the chip features machine learning and intelligence characteristics on a small area, while consuming only very little power. The chip is self-learning, meaning that is makes associations between what it has experienced and what it experiences. The more it experiences, the stronger the connections will be. The chip presented today has learned to compose new music and the rules for the composition are learnt on the fly.
It is imec’s ultimate goal to further advance both hardware and software to achieve very low-power, high-performance, low-cost and highly miniaturized neuromorphic chips that can be applied in many domains ranging for personal health, energy, traffic management etc. For example, neuromorphic chips integrated into sensors for health monitoring would enable to identify a particular heartrate change that could lead to heart abnormalities, and would learn to recognize slightly different ECG patterns that vary between individuals. Such neuromorphic chips would thus enable more customized and patient-centric monitoring.
“Because we have hardware, system design and software expertise under one roof, imec is ideally positioned to drive neuromorphic computing forward,” says Praveen Raghavan, distinguished member of the technical Staff at imec. “Our chip has evolved from co-optimizing logic, memory, algorithms and system in a holistic way. This way, we succeeded in developing the building blocks for such a self-learning system.”
The Imec Technology Forum (ITF) is imec’s series of internationally acclaimed events with a clear focus on the technologies that will drive groundbreaking innovation in healthcare, smart cities and mobility, ICT, logistics and manufacturing, and energy.
At ITF, some of the world’s greatest minds in technology take the stage. Their talks cover a wide range of domains – such as advanced chip scaling, smart imaging, sensor and communication systems, the IoT, supercomputing, sustainable energy and battery technology, and much more. As leading innovators in their fields, they also present early insights in market trends, evolutions, and breakthroughs in nanoelectronics and digital technology: What will be successful and what not, in five or even ten years from now? How will technology evolve, and how fast? And who can help you implement your technology roadmaps?
Imec is the world-leading research and innovation hub in nano-electronics and digital technologies. The combination of our widely-acclaimed leadership in microchip technology and profound software and ICT expertise is what makes us unique. By leveraging our world-class infrastructure and local and global ecosystem of partners across a multitude of industries, we create groundbreaking innovation in application domains such as healthcare, smart cities and mobility, logistics and manufacturing, and energy.
As a trusted partner for companies, start-ups and universities we bring together close to 3,500 brilliant minds from over 75 nationalities. Imec is headquartered in Leuven, Belgium and also has distributed R&D groups at a number of Flemish universities, in the Netherlands, Taiwan, USA, China, and offices in India and Japan. In 2016, imec’s revenue (P&L) totaled 496 million euro. Further information on imec can be found at www.imec.be.
Imec is a registered trademark for the activities of IMEC International (a legal entity set up under Belgian law as a “stichting van openbaar nut”), imec Belgium (IMEC vzw supported by the Flemish Government), imec the Netherlands (Stichting IMEC Nederland, part of Holst Centre which is supported by the Dutch Government), imec Taiwan (IMEC Taiwan Co.) and imec China (IMEC Microelectronics (Shanghai) Co. Ltd.) and imec India (Imec India Private Limited), imec Florida (IMEC USA nanoelectronics design center).
I don’t usually include the ‘abouts’ but I was quite intrigued by imec. For anyone curious about the ITF (imec Forums), here’s a website with a listing all of the previously held and upcoming 2017 forums.
I have no idea how viable this concept might be but it is certainly appealing, From a May 8, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),
Researchers from the University of Antwerp and KU Leuven (University of Leuven), Belgium, have succeeded in developing a process that purifies air and, at the same time, generates power. The device must only be exposed to light in order to function (ChemSusChem, “Harvesting Hydrogen Gas from Air Pollutants with an Unbiased Gas Phase Photoelectrochemical Cell”).
Caption: The new device must only be exposed to light in order to purify air and generate power. Credit: UAntwerpen and KU Leuven
“We use a small device with two rooms separated by a membrane,” explains Professor Sammy Verbruggen (UAntwerp/KU Leuven). “Air is purified on one side, while on the other side hydrogen gas is produced from a part of the degradation products. This hydrogen gas can be stored and used later as fuel, as is already being done in some hydrogen buses, for example.”
In this way, the researchers respond to two major social needs: clean air and alternative energy production. The heart of the solution lies at the membrane level, where the researchers use specific nanomaterials. “These catalysts are capable of producing hydrogen gas and breaking down air pollution,” explains Professor Verbruggen. “In the past, these cells were mostly used to extract hydrogen from water. We have now discovered that this is also possible, and even more efficient, with polluted air.”
It seems to be a complex process, but it is not: the device must only be exposed to light. The researchers’ goal is to be able to use sunlight, as the processes underlying the technology are similar to those found in solar panels. The difference here is that electricity is not generated directly, but rather that air is purified while the generated power is stored as hydrogen gas.
“We are currently working on a scale of only a few square centimetres. At a later stage, we would like to scale up our technology to make the process industrially applicable. We are also working on improving our materials so we can use sunlight more efficiently to trigger the reactions. “
The aliens in question are subatomic particles and the havoc they wreak is low-grade according to the scientist who was presenting on the topic at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 2017 Annual Meeting (Feb. 16 – 20, 2017) in Boston, Massachusetts. From a Feb. 17, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,
You may not realize it but alien subatomic particles raining down from outer space are wreaking low-grade havoc on your smartphones, computers and other personal electronic devices.
When your computer crashes and you get the dreaded blue screen or your smartphone freezes and you have to go through the time-consuming process of a reset, most likely you blame the manufacturer: Microsoft or Apple or Samsung. In many instances, however, these operational failures may be caused by the impact of electrically charged particles generated by cosmic rays that originate outside the solar system.
“This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public,” said Bharat Bhuva, professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, in a presentation on Friday, Feb. 17 at a session titled “Cloudy with a Chance of Solar Flares: Quantifying the Risk of Space Weather” at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
When cosmic rays traveling at fractions of the speed of light strike the Earth’s atmosphere they create cascades of secondary particles including energetic neutrons, muons, pions and alpha particles. Millions of these particles strike your body each second. Despite their numbers, this subatomic torrent is imperceptible and has no known harmful effects on living organisms. However, a fraction of these particles carry enough energy to interfere with the operation of microelectronic circuitry. When they interact with integrated circuits, they may alter individual bits of data stored in memory. This is called a single-event upset or SEU.
Since it is difficult to know when and where these particles will strike and they do not do any physical damage, the malfunctions they cause are very difficult to characterize. As a result, determining the prevalence of SEUs is not easy or straightforward. “When you have a single bit flip, it could have any number of causes. It could be a software bug or a hardware flaw, for example. The only way you can determine that it is a single-event upset is by eliminating all the other possible causes,” Bhuva explained.
There have been a number of incidents that illustrate how serious the problem can be, Bhuva reported. For example, in 2003 in the town of Schaerbeek, Belgium a bit flip in an electronic voting machine added 4,096 extra votes to one candidate. The error was only detected because it gave the candidate more votes than were possible and it was traced to a single bit flip in the machine’s register. In 2008, the avionics system of a Qantus passenger jet flying from Singapore to Perth appeared to suffer from a single-event upset that caused the autopilot to disengage. As a result, the aircraft dove 690 feet in only 23 seconds, injuring about a third of the passengers seriously enough to cause the aircraft to divert to the nearest airstrip. In addition, there have been a number of unexplained glitches in airline computers – some of which experts feel must have been caused by SEUs – that have resulted in cancellation of hundreds of flights resulting in significant economic losses.
An analysis of SEU failure rates for consumer electronic devices performed by Ritesh Mastipuram and Edwin Wee at Cypress Semiconductor on a previous generation of technology shows how prevalent the problem may be. Their results were published in 2004 in Electronic Design News and provided the following estimates:
A simple cell phone with 500 kilobytes of memory should only have one potential error every 28 years.
A router farm like those used by Internet providers with only 25 gigabytes of memory may experience one potential networking error that interrupts their operation every 17 hours.
A person flying in an airplane at 35,000 feet (where radiation levels are considerably higher than they are at sea level) who is working on a laptop with 500 kilobytes of memory may experience one potential error every five hours.
Bhuva is a member of Vanderbilt’s Radiation Effects Research Group, which was established in 1987 and is the largest academic program in the United States that studies the effects of radiation on electronic systems. The group’s primary focus was on military and space applications. Since 2001, the group has also been analyzing radiation effects on consumer electronics in the terrestrial environment. They have studied this phenomenon in the last eight generations of computer chip technology, including the current generation that uses 3D transistors (known as FinFET) that are only 16 nanometers in size. The 16-nanometer study was funded by a group of top microelectronics companies, including Altera, ARM, AMD, Broadcom, Cisco Systems, Marvell, MediaTek, Renesas, Qualcomm, Synopsys, and TSMC
“The semiconductor manufacturers are very concerned about this problem because it is getting more serious as the size of the transistors in computer chips shrink and the power and capacity of our digital systems increase,” Bhuva said. “In addition, microelectronic circuits are everywhere and our society is becoming increasingly dependent on them.”
To determine the rate of SEUs in 16-nanometer chips, the Vanderbilt researchers took samples of the integrated circuits to the Irradiation of Chips and Electronics (ICE) House at Los Alamos National Laboratory. There they exposed them to a neutron beam and analyzed how many SEUs the chips experienced. Experts measure the failure rate of microelectronic circuits in a unit called a FIT, which stands for failure in time. One FIT is one failure per transistor in one billion hours of operation. That may seem infinitesimal but it adds up extremely quickly with billions of transistors in many of our devices and billions of electronic systems in use today (the number of smartphones alone is in the billions). Most electronic components have failure rates measured in 100’s and 1,000’s of FITs.
Trends in single event upset failure rates at the individual transistor, integrated circuit and system or device level for the three most recent manufacturing technologies. (Bharat Bhuva, Radiation Effects Research Group, Vanderbilt University)
“Our study confirms that this is a serious and growing problem,” said Bhuva.“This did not come as a surprise. Through our research on radiation effects on electronic circuits developed for military and space applications, we have been anticipating such effects on electronic systems operating in the terrestrial environment.”
Although the details of the Vanderbilt studies are proprietary, Bhuva described the general trend that they have found in the last three generations of integrated circuit technology: 28-nanometer, 20-nanometer and 16-nanometer.
As transistor sizes have shrunk, they have required less and less electrical charge to represent a logical bit. So the likelihood that one bit will “flip” from 0 to 1 (or 1 to 0) when struck by an energetic particle has been increasing. This has been partially offset by the fact that as the transistors have gotten smaller they have become smaller targets so the rate at which they are struck has decreased.
More significantly, the current generation of 16-nanometer circuits have a 3D architecture that replaced the previous 2D architecture and has proven to be significantly less susceptible to SEUs. Although this improvement has been offset by the increase in the number of transistors in each chip, the failure rate at the chip level has also dropped slightly. However, the increase in the total number of transistors being used in new electronic systems has meant that the SEU failure rate at the device level has continued to rise.
Unfortunately, it is not practical to simply shield microelectronics from these energetic particles. For example, it would take more than 10 feet of concrete to keep a circuit from being zapped by energetic neutrons. However, there are ways to design computer chips to dramatically reduce their vulnerability.
For cases where reliability is absolutely critical, you can simply design the processors in triplicate and have them vote. Bhuva pointed out: “The probability that SEUs will occur in two of the circuits at the same time is vanishingly small. So if two circuits produce the same result it should be correct.” This is the approach that NASA used to maximize the reliability of spacecraft computer systems.
The good news, Bhuva said, is that the aviation, medical equipment, IT, transportation, communications, financial and power industries are all aware of the problem and are taking steps to address it. “It is only the consumer electronics sector that has been lagging behind in addressing this problem.”
The engineer’s bottom line: “This is a major problem for industry and engineers, but it isn’t something that members of the general public need to worry much about.”
That’s fascinating and I hope the consumer electronics industry catches up with this ‘alien invasion’ issue. Finally, the ‘bit flips’ made me think of the 1956 movie ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘.