Tag Archives: Japan

Winter jacket made with ‘brewed protein’ and enabled by synthetic biology

It’s called a ‘Moon Parka’,

[downloaded from https://sp.spiber.jp/en/tnfsp/mp/]

Adele Peters in her October 31, 2019 article for Fast Company describes the technology used to make this jacket,

A typical waterproof winter jacket is made with nylon—a material that, like other plastics, is made from petroleum. But a new limited-edition jacket from The North Face Japan uses something called “brewed protein” instead. It’s a material inspired by spider silk that is fermented in giant vats, the same way that breweries make beer.

It’s one of the first uses of a material produced by the Japanese startup Spiber, a company that has spent more than a decade developing a new process to make high-performance textiles and other products that don’t rely on fossil fuels, animals, or natural fibers like cotton, all of which have environmental issues. …

The company designs genes that code for a specific protein—the first was an exact replica of natural spider silk, known for its extreme strength—and then introduces the genes into microorganisms that can produce the protein efficiently. Inside giant tanks, the microorganisms are fed sugar, grow and multiply, and produce the protein through fermentation. …

Spiber first started collaborating with Goldwin, a Japanese outdoor brand that owns the Japanese rights to The North Face, in 2015, and created an early prototype of a jacket then. But it quickly realized that an exact replica of spider silk wouldn’t work well for the application; the material sucks up water, and the jacket needed to be waterproof.

“We spent the last four years going back to the drawing board, redesigning our protein molecule—the very order of the amino acids in the molecule,” says Meyer [Daniel Meyer, Spiber’s head of corporate global marketing]. “And we created our own hydrophobic [water repellent] version of spider silk. It’s inspired by natural spider silk, but we have made our own design changes such that it would be more hydrophobic and meet the performance requirements of The North Face Japan.”

The jacket is available for purchase but only by a lottery, which has now closed. According to Peters, a large, commercial production facility is being built in Thailand so that at some point a Moon Parka will be affordable. For reference, the lottery jackets were priced at ¥150,000 (about $1,377 US).

You can find Spiber here in mid-March [2020] according to the homepage.

Quantum processor woven from light

Weaving a quantum processor from light is a jaw-dropping event (as far as I’m concerned). An October 17, 2019 news item on phys.org makes the announcement,

An international team of scientists from Australia, Japan and the United States has produced a prototype of a large-scale quantum processor made of laser light.

Based on a design ten years in the making, the processor has built-in scalability that allows the number of quantum components—made out of light—to scale to extreme numbers. The research was published in Science today [October 18, 2019; Note: I cannot explain the discrepancy between the dates]].

Quantum computers promise fast solutions to hard problems, but to do this they require a large number of quantum components and must be relatively error free. Current quantum processors are still small and prone to errors. This new design provides an alternative solution, using light, to reach the scale required to eventually outperform classical computers on important problems.

Caption: The entanglement structure of a large-scale quantum processor made of light. Credit: Shota Yokoyama 2019

An October 18, 2019 RMIT University (Australia) press release (also on EurekAlert but published October 17, 2019), which originated the news time, expands on the theme,

“While today’s quantum processors are impressive, it isn’t clear if the current designs can be scaled up to extremely large sizes,” notes Dr Nicolas Menicucci, Chief Investigator at the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

“Our approach starts with extreme scalability – built in from the very beginning – because the processor, called a cluster state, is made out of light.”

Using light as a quantum processor

A cluster state is a large collection of entangled quantum components that performs quantum computations when measured in a particular way.

“To be useful for real-world problems, a cluster state must be both large enough and have the right entanglement structure. In the two decades since they were proposed, all previous demonstrations of cluster states have failed on one or both of these counts,” says Dr Menicucci. “Ours is the first ever to succeed at both.”

To make the cluster state, specially designed crystals convert ordinary laser light into a type of quantum light called squeezed light, which is then weaved into a cluster state by a network of mirrors, beamsplitters and optical fibres.

The team’s design allows for a relatively small experiment to generate an immense two-dimensional cluster state with scalability built in. Although the levels of squeezing – a measure of quality – are currently too low for solving practical problems, the design is compatible with approaches to achieve state-of-the-art squeezing levels.

The team says their achievement opens up new possibilities for quantum computing with light.

“In this work, for the first time in any system, we have made a large-scale cluster state whose structure enables universal quantum computation.” Says Dr Hidehiro Yonezawa, Chief Investigator, CQC2T at UNSW Canberra. “Our experiment demonstrates that this design is feasible – and scalable.”

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The experiment was an international effort, with the design developed through collaboration by Dr Menicucci at RMIT, Dr Rafael Alexander from the University of New Mexico and UNSW Canberra researchers Dr Hidehiro Yonezawa and Dr Shota Yokoyama. A team of experimentalists at the University of Tokyo, led by Professor Akira Furusawa, performed the ground-breaking experiment.

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

Generation of time-domain-multiplexed two-dimensional cluster state by Warit Asavanant, Yu Shiozawa, Shota Yokoyama, Baramee Charoensombutamon, Hiroki Emura, Rafael N. Alexander, Shuntaro Takeda, Jun-ichi Yoshikawa, Nicolas C. Menicucci, Hidehiro Yonezawa, Akira Furusawa. Science 18 Oct 2019: Vol. 366, Issue 6463, pp. 373-376 DOI: 10.1126/science.aay2645

This paper is behind a paywall.

Gold glue?

If you’re hoping for gold flecks in your glue, this is not going to satisfy you, given that it’s all at the nanoscale. An August 7, 2019 news item on Nanowerk briefly describes this gold glue (Note: A link has been removed),

It has long been known that gold can be used to do things that philosophers have never even dreamed of. The Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Cracow has confirmed the existence of ‘gold glue’: bonds involving gold atoms, capable of permanently bonding protein rings. Skilfully used by an international team of scientists, the bonds have made it possible to construct molecular nanocages with a structure so far unparalleled in nature or even in mathematics (Nature, “An ultra-stable gold-coordinated protein cage displaying reversible assembly”).

Caption: The ‘impossible’ sphere, i.e. a molecular nanocage of 24 protein rings, each of which has an 11-sided structure. The rings are connected by bonds with the participation of gold atoms, here marked in yellow. Depending on their position in the structure, not all gold atoms have to be used to attach adjacent proteins (an unused gold atom is marked in red). Credit: Source: UJ, IFJ PAN

An August 6, 2019 Polish Academy of Sciences press release (also on EurekAlert but published August 7, 2019), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

The world of science has been interested in molecular cages for years. Not without reason. Chemical molecules, including those that would under normal conditions enter into chemical reactions, can be enclosed within their empty interiors. The particles of the enclosed compound, separated by the walls of the cage from the environment, have nothing to bond with. These cages can be therefore be used, for example, to transport drugs safely into a cancer cell, only releasing the drug when they are inside it.

Molecular cages are polyhedra made up of smaller ‘bricks’, usually protein molecules. The bricks can’t be of any shape. For example, if we wanted to build a molecular polyhedron using only objects with the outline of an equilateral triangle, geometry would limit us to only three solid figures: a tetrahedron, an octahedron or an icosahedron. So far, there have been no other structural possibilities.

“Fortunately, Platonic idealism is not a dogma of the physical world. If you accept certain inaccuracies in the solid figure being constructed, you can create structures with shapes that are not found in nature, what’s more, with very interesting properties,” says Dr. Tomasz Wrobel from the Cracow Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IFJ PAN).

Dr. Wrobel is one of the members of an international team of researchers who have recently carried out the ‘impossible’: they built a cage similar in shape to a sphere out of eleven-walled proteins. The main authors of this spectacular success are scientists from the group of Prof. Jonathan Heddle from the Malopolska Biotechnology Centre of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and the Japanese RIKEN Institute in Wako. The work described in Nature magazine took place with the participation of researchers from universities in Osaka and Tsukuba (Japan), Durham (Great Britain), Waterloo (Canada) and other research centres.

Each of the walls of the new nanocages was formed by a protein ring from which eleven cysteine molecules stuck out at regular intervals. It was to the sulphur atom found in each cysteine molecule that the ‘glue’, i.e. the gold atom, was planned to be attached. In the appropriate conditions, it could bind with one more sulphur atom, in the cysteine of a next ring. In this way a permanent chemical bond would be formed between the two rings. But would the gold atom under these conditions really be able to form a bond between the rings?

“In the Spectroscopic Imaging Laboratory of IFJ PAS we used Raman spectroscopy and X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy to show that in the samples provided to us with the test nanocages, the gold really did form bonds with sulphur atoms in cysteines. In other words, in a difficult, direct measurement, we proved that gold ‘glue’ for bonding protein rings in cages really does exist,” explains Dr. Wrobel.

Each gold atom can be treated as a stand-alone clip that makes it possible to attach another ring. The road to the ‘impossible’ begins when we realize that we don’t always have to use all of the clips! So, although all the rings of the new nanocages are physically the same, depending on their place in the structure they connect with their neighbours with a different number of gold atoms, and thus function as polygons with different numbers of vertices. 24 nanocage walls presented by the researchers were held together by 120 gold atoms. The outer diameter of the cages was 22 nanometres and the inner diameter was 16 nm.

Using gold atoms as a binder for nanocages is also important due to its possible applications. In earlier molecular structures, proteins were glued together using many weak chemical bonds. The complexity of the bonds and their similarity to the bonds responsible for the existence of the protein rings themselves did not allow for precise control over the decomposition of the cages. This is not the case in the new structures. On the one hand, gold-bonded nanocages are chemically and thermally stable (for example, they withstand hours of boiling in water). On the other hand, however, gold bonds are sensitive to an increase in acidity. By its increase, the nanocage can be decomposed in a controlled way and the contents can be released into the environment. Since the acidity within cells is greater than outside them, gold-bonded nanocages are ideal for biomedical applications.

The ‘impossible’ nanocage is the presentation of a qualitatively new approach to the construction of molecular cages, with gold atoms in the role of loose clips. The demonstrated flexibility of the gold bonds will make it possible in the future to create nanocages with sizes and features precisely tailored to specific needs.

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

An ultra-stable gold-coordinated protein cage displaying reversible assembly by Ali D. Malay, Naoyuki Miyazaki, Artur Biela, Soumyananda Chakraborti, Karolina Majsterkiewicz, Izabela Stupka, Craig S. Kaplan, Agnieszka Kowalczyk, Bernard M. A. G. Piette, Georg K. A. Hochberg, Di Wu, Tomasz P. Wrobel, Adam Fineberg, Manish S. Kushwah, Mitja Kelemen, Primož Vavpetič, Primož Pelicon, Philipp Kukura, Justin L. P. Benesch, Kenji Iwasaki & Jonathan G. Heddle Nature volume 569, pages438–442 (2019) Issue Date: 16 May 2019 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1185-4 Published online: 08 May 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

A deep look at atomic switches

A July 19, 2019 news item on phys.org describes research that may result in a substantive change for information technology,

A team of researchers from Tokyo Institute of Technology has gained unprecedented insight into the inner workings of an atomic switch. By investigating the composition of the tiny metal ‘bridge’ that forms inside the switch, their findings may spur the design of atomic switches with improved performance.

A July 22, 2019 Tokyo Institute of Technology press release (also on EurekAlert but published July 19, 2019), which originated the news item, explains how this research could have such an important impact,

Atomic switches are hailed as the tiniest of electrochemical switches that could change the face of information technology. Due to their nanoscale dimensions and low power consumption, they hold promise for integration into next-generation circuits that could drive the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Although various designs have emerged, one intriguing question concerns the nature of the metallic filament, or bridge, that is key to the operation of the switch. The bridge forms inside a metal sulfide layer sandwiched between two electrodes [see figure below], and is controlled by applying a voltage that induces an electrochemical reaction. The formation and annihilation of this bridge determines whether the switch is on or off.

Now, a research group including Akira Aiba and Manabu Kiguchi and colleagues at Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Department of Chemistry has found a useful way to examine precisely what the bridge is composed of.

By cooling the atomic switch enough so as to be able to investigate the bridge using a low-temperature measurement technique called point contact spectroscopy (PCS) [2], their study revealed that the bridge is made up of metal atoms from both the electrode and the metal sulfide layer. This surprising finding controverts the prevailing notion that the bridge derives from the electrode only, Kiguchi explains.

The team compared atomic switches with different combinations of electrodes (Pt and Ag, or Pt and Cu) and metal sulfide layers (Cu2S and Ag2S). In both cases, they found that the bridge is mainly composed of Ag.

The reason behind the dominance of Ag in the bridge is likely due to “the higher mobility of Ag ions compared to Cu ions”, the researchers say in their paper published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

They conclude that “it would be better to use metals with low mobility” for designing atomic switches with higher stability.

Much remains to be explored in the advancement of atomic switch technologies, and the team is continuing to investigate which combination of elements would be the most effective in improving performance.

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Technical terms
[1] Atomic switch: The idea behind an atomic switch — one that can be controlled by the motion of a single atom — was introduced by Donald Eigler and colleagues at the IBM Almaden Research Center in 1991. Interest has since focused on how to realize and harness the potential of such extremely small switches for use in logic circuits and memory devices. Over the past two decades, researchers in Japan have taken a world-leading role in the development of atomic switch technologies.
[2] Point contact spectroscopy: A method of measuring the properties or excitations of single atoms at low temperature.

Caption: The ‘bridge’ that forms within the metal sulfide layer, connecting two metal electrodes, results in the atomic switch being turned on. Credit: Manabu Kiguchi

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

Investigation of Ag and Cu Filament Formation Inside the Metal Sulfide Layer of an Atomic Switch Based on Point-Contact Spectroscopy by A. Aiba, R. Koizumi, T. Tsuruoka, K. Terabe, K. Tsukagoshi, S. Kaneko, S. Fujii, T. Nishino, M. Kiguchi. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2019 XXXXXXXXXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.9b05523 Publication Date:July 5, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone who might need a bit of a refresher for the chemical elements, Pt is platinum, Ag is silver, and Cu is copper. So, with regard to the metal sulfide layers Cu2S is copper sulfide and Ag2S is silver sulfide.

Achieving precise control by decorating iron nanocubes with gold

A June 17,2019 news item on phys.org describes a new technique for producing nanoparticles,

One of the major challenges in nanotechnology is the precise control of shape, size and elemental composition of every single nanoparticle. Physical methods are able to produce homogeneous nanoparticles free of surface contamination. However, they offer limited opportunity to control the shape and specific composition of the nanoobjects when they are being built up.

A recent collaboration between the University of Helsinki and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University revealed that hybrid Au/Fe nanoparticles can grow in an unprecedentedly complex structure with a single-step fabrication method. Using a computational modeling framework, the groups of Professor Flyura Djurabekova at the University of Helsinki and Prof. Sowwan at OIST succeeded in deciphering the growth mechanism by a detailed multistage model.

A June 14, 2019 University of Helsinki press release (also on EurekAlert but published June 17, 2019), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Elegantly combined considerations of kinetic and thermodynamic effects explained the formation of embedded gold layers and the site-specific surface gold decoration. These results open up a possibility for engineering a multitude of hybrid nanoparticles for a wide range of emerging applications. Their research was recently published in the highly ranked open access journal Advanced Science.

“When nature surprises us with an unexpectedly beautiful pattern, we must recognize it and explain. This is the way to cooperate with nature that is always ready to teach and expecting us to learn,” says Dr. Junlei Zhao, a postdoctoral researcher in the group of Prof. Djurabekova.

Nowadays, scientists are able to study nano-scale phenomena with great accuracy by using high-performance computational software and modern supercomputing infrastructures. These are of great support, not only for advancing fundamental science but also for finding promising solutions for many challenges of humanity.

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

Site‐Specific Wetting of Iron Nanocubes by Gold Atoms in Gas‐Phase Synthesis by Jerome Vernieres, Stephan Steinhauer, Junlei Zhao, Panagiotis Grammatikopoulos, Riccardo Ferrando, Kai Nordlund, Flyura Djurabekova, Mukhles Sowwan. Advanced Science Volume 6, Issue 13
1900447 uly 3, 2019 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/advs.201900447 First published online: 02 May 2019

This paper is open access.

The latest ‘golden’ age for electronics

I don’t know the dates for the last ‘golden’ age of electronics but I can certainly understand why these Japanese researchers are excited about their work. In any event, I think the ‘golden age’ is more of a play on words. From a June 25, 2019 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

One way that heat damages electronic equipment is it makes components expand at different rates, resulting in forces that cause micro-cracking and distortion. Plastic components and circuit boards are particularly prone to damage due to changes in volume during heating and cooling cycles. But if a material could be incorporated into the components that compensates for the expansion, the stresses would be reduced and their lifetime increased.

Everybody knows one material that behaves like this: liquid water expands when it freezes and ice contracts when it melts. But liquid water and electronics don’t mix well – instead, what’s needed is a solid with “negative thermal expansion” (NTE).

Although such materials have been known since the 1960s, a number of challenges had to be overcome before the concept would be broadly useful and commercially viable. In terms of both materials and function, these efforts have only had limited success.

The experimental materials had been produced under specialized laboratory conditions using expensive equipment; and even then, the temperature and pressure ranges in which they would exhibit NTE were well outside normal everyday conditions.

Moreover, the amount they expanded and contracted depended on the direction, which induced internal stresses that changed their structure, meaning that the NTE property would not last longer than a few heating and cooling cycles.

A research team led by Koshi Takenaka of Nagoya University has succeeded in overcoming these materials-engineering challenges (APL Materials, “Valence fluctuations and giant isotropic negative thermal expansion in Sm1–xRxS (R = Y, La, Ce, Pr, Nd)”).

A June 22, 2019 Nagoya University press release (also on EurekAlert but published on June 25, 2019), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,

Inspired by the series of work by Noriaki Sato, also of Nagoya University – whose discovery last year of superconductivity in quasicrystals was considered one of the top ten physics discoveries of the year by Physics World magazine – Professor Takenaka took the rare earth element samarium and its sulfide, samarium monosulfide (SmS), which is known to change phase from the “black phase” to the smaller-volume “golden phase”. The problem was to tune the range of temperatures at which the phase transition occurs. The team’s solution was to replace a small proportion of samarium atoms with another rare earth element, giving Sm1-xRxS, where “R” is any one of the rare earth elements cerium (Ce), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr) or yttrium (Y). The fraction x the team used was typically 0.2, except for yttrium. These materials showed “giant negative thermal expansion” of up to 8% at ordinary room pressure and a useful range of temperatures (around 150 degrees) including at room temperature and above … . Cerium is the star candidate here because it is relatively cheap.

The nature of the phase transition is such that the materials can be powdered into very small crystal sizes around a micron on a side without losing their negative expansion property. This broadens the industrial applications, particularly within electronics.

While the Nagoya University group’s engineering achievement is impressive, how the negative expansion works is fascinating from a fundamental physics viewpoint. During the black-golden transition, the crystal structure stays the same but the atoms get closer together: the unit cell size becomes smaller because (as is very likely but perhaps not yet 100% certain) the electron structure of the samarium atoms changes and makes them smaller – a process of intra-atomic charge transfer called a “valence transition” or “valence fluctuation” within the samarium atoms … . “My impression,” says Professor Takenaka, “is that the correlation between the lattice volume and the electron structure of samarium is experimentally verified for this class of sulfides.”

More specifically, in the black (lower temperature) phase, the electron configuration of the samarium atoms is (4f)6, meaning that in their outermost shell they have 6 electrons in the f orbitals (with s, p and d orbitals filled); while in the golden phase the electronic configuration is (4f)5(5d)1 -an electron has moved out of a 4f orbital into a 5d orbital. Although a “higher” shell is starting to be occupied, it turns out – through a quirk of the Pauli Exclusion Principle – that the second case gives a smaller atom size, leading to a smaller crystal size and negative expansion.

But this is only part of the fundamental picture. In the black phase, samarium sulfide and its doped offshoots are insulators – they do not conduct electricity; while in the golden phase they turn into conductors (i.e. metals). This is suggesting that during the black-golden phase transition the band structure of the whole crystal is influencing the valance transition within the samarium atoms. Although nobody has done the theoretical calculations for the doped samarium sulfides made by Professor Takenaka’s group, a previous theoretical study has indicated that when electrons leave the samarium atoms’ f orbital, they leave behind a positively charged “hole” which itself interacts repulsively with holes in the crystal’s conduction band, affecting their exchange interaction. This becomes a cooperative effect that then drives the valence transition in the samarium atoms. The exact mechanism, though, is not well understood.

Nevertheless, the Nagoya University-led group’s achievement is one of engineering, not pure physics. “What is important for many engineers is the ability to use the material to reduce device failure due to thermal expansion,” explains Professor Takenaka. “In short, in a certain temperature range – the temperature range in which the intended device operates, typically an interval of dozens of degrees or more – the volume needs to gradually decrease with a rise in temperature and increase as the temperature falls. Of course, I also know that volume expansion on cooling during a phase transition [like water freezing] is a common case for many materials. However, if the volume changes in a very narrow temperature range, there is no engineering value. The present achievement is the result of material engineering, not pure physics.”

Perhaps it even heralds a new “golden” age for electronics.

I worked in a company for a data communications company that produced hardware and network management software. From a hardware perspective, heat was an enemy which distorted your circuit boards and cost you significant money not only for replacements but also when you included fans to keep the equipment cool (or as cool as possible).

Enough with the reminiscences, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Valence fluctuations and giant isotropic negative thermal expansion in Sm1–xRxS (R = Y, La, Ce, Pr, Nd) by D. Asai, Y. Mizuno, H. Hasegawa, Y. Yokoyama, Y. Okamoto, N. Katayama, H. S. Suzuki, Y. Imanaka, and K. Takenaka. Applied Physics Letters > Volume 114, Issue 14 > 10.1063/1.5090546 or Appl. Phys. Lett. 114, 141902 (2019); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.5090546. Published Online: 12 April 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

CARESSES your elders (robots for support)

Culturally sensitive robots for elder care! It’s about time. The European Union has funded the Culture Aware Robots and Environmental Sensor Systems for Elderly Support (CARESSES) project being coordinated in Italy. A December 13, 2018 news item on phys.org describes the project,

Researchers have developed revolutionary new robots that adapt to the culture and customs of the elderly people they assist.

Population ageing has implications for many sectors of society, one of which is the increased demand on a country’s health and social care resources. This burden could be greatly eased through advances in artificial intelligence. Robots have the potential to provide valuable assistance to caregivers in hospitals and care homes. They could also improve home care and help the elderly live more independently. But to do this, they will have to be able to respond to older people’s needs in a way that is more likely to be trusted and accepted.
The EU-funded project CARESSES has set out to build the first ever culturally competent robots to care for the elderly. The groundbreaking idea involved designing these robots to adapt their way of acting and speaking to match the culture and habits of the elderly person they’re assisting.

“The idea is that robots should be capable of adapting to human culture in a broad sense, defined by a person’s belonging to a particular ethnic group. At the same time, robots must be able to adapt to an individual’s personal preferences, so in that sense, it doesn’t matter if you’re Italian or Indian,” explained researcher Alessandro Saffiotti of project partner Örebro University, Sweden, …

A December 13, 2018 (?) CORDIS press release, which originated the news item, adds more detail about the robots and their anticipated relationship to their elderly patients,

Through its communication with an elderly person, the robot will fine-tune its knowledge by adapting it to that person’s cultural identity and individual characteristics. Using this knowledge, it will be able to remind the elderly person to take their prescribed medication, encourage them to eat healthily and be active, or help them stay in touch with family and friends. The robot will also be able to make suggestions about the appropriate clothing for specific occasions and remind people of upcoming religious and other celebrations. It doesn’t replace a care home worker. Nevertheless, it will play a vital role in helping to make elderly people’s lives less lonely and reducing the need to have a caregiver nearby at all times.

Scientists are testing the first CARESSES robots in care homes in the United Kingdom and Japan. They’re being used to assist elderly people from different cultural backgrounds. The aim is to see if people feel more comfortable with robots that interact with them in a culturally sensitive manner. They’re also examining whether such robots improve the elderly’s quality of life. “The testing of robots outside of the laboratory environment and in interaction with the elderly will without a doubt be the most interesting part of our project,” added Saffiotti.

The innovative CARESSES (Culture Aware Robots and Environmental Sensor Systems for Elderly Support) robots may pave the way to more culturally sensitive services beyond the sphere of elderly care, too. “It will add value to robots intended to interact with people. Which is not to say that today’s robots are completely culture-neutral. Instead, they unintentionally reflect the culture of the humans who build and program them.”

Having had a mother who recently died in a care facility, I can testify to the importance of cultural and religious sensitivity on the part of caregivers. As for this type of robot not replacing anyone, I take that with a grain of salt. They always say that and I expect it’s true in the initial stages but once the robots are well established and working well? Why not? After all, they’re cheaper in many, many ways and with the coming tsunami of elders in many countries around the world, it seems to me that displacement by robots is an inevitability.

Chen Qiufan, garbage, and Chinese science fiction stories

Garbage has been dominating Canadian news headlines for a few weeks now. First, it was Canadian garbage in the Philippines and now it’s Canadian garbage in Malaysia. Interestingly, we’re also having problems with China, since December 2018, when we detained a top executive from Huawe, a China-based international telecommunicatons company, in accordance with an official request from the US government and, in accordance, with what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls the ‘rule of law’. All of this provides an interesting backdrop (for Canadians anyway) on the topic of China, garbage, and science fiction.

A May 16, 2019 article by Anjie Zheng for Fast Company explores some of the latest and greatest from China’s science fiction writing community,

Like any good millennial, I think about my smartphone, to the extent that I do at all, in terms of what it does for me. It lets me message friends, buy stuff quickly, and amass likes. I hardly ever think about what it actually is—a mass of copper wires, aluminum alloys, and lithium battery encased in glass—or where it goes when I upgrade.

Chen Qiufan wants us to think about that. His debut novel, Waste Tide, is set in a lightly fictionalized version of Guiyu, the world’s largest electronic waste disposal. First published in Chinese in 2013, the book was recently released in the U.S. with a very readable translation into English by Ken Liu.

Chen, who has been called “China’s William Gibson,” is part of a younger generation of sci-fi writers who have achieved international acclaim in recent years. Liu Cixin became the first Chinese to win the prestigious Hugo Award for his Three Body Problem in 2015. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Liu, became China’s first science-fiction blockbuster when it was released in 2018. It was the highest-grossing film in the fastest-growing film market in the world last year and was recently scooped up by Netflix.

Aynne Kokas in a March 13, 2019 article for the Washington Post describes how the hit film, The Wandering Earth, fits into an overall Chinese-led movie industry focused on the future and Hollywood-like, i. e. like US movie industry, domination,

“The Wandering Earth,” directed by Frant Gwo, takes place in a future where the people of Earth must flee their sun as it swells into a red giant. Thousands of engines — the first of them constructed in Hangzhou, one of China’s tech hubs — propel the entire planet toward a new solar system, while everyone takes refuge from the cold in massive underground cities. On the surface, the only visible reminders of the past are markers of China’s might. The Shanghai Tower, the Oriental Pearl Tower and a stadium for the Shanghai 2044 Olympics all thrust out of the ice, having apparently survived the journey’s tsunamis, deep freeze and cliff-collapsing earthquakes.

The movie is China’s first big-budget sci-fi epic, and its production was ambitious, involving some 7,000 workers and 10,000 specially-built props. Audience excitement was correspondingly huge: Nearly half a million people wrote reviews of the film on Chinese social network site Douban. Having earned over $600 million in domestic sales, “The Wandering Earth” marks a major achievement for the country’s film industry.

It is also a major achievement for the Chinese government.

Since opening up the country’s film market in 2001, the Chinese government has aspired to learn from Hollywood how to make commercially appealing films, as I detail in my book “Hollywood Made in China.” From initial private offerings for state media companies, to foreign investment in films, studios and theme parks, the government allowed outside capital and expertise to grow the domestic commercial film industry — but not at the expense of government oversight. This policy’s underlying aim was to expand China’s cultural clout and political influence.

Until recently, Hollywood films dominated the country’s growing box office. That finally changed in 2015, with the release of major local blockbusters “Monster Hunt” and “Lost in Hong Kong.” The proliferation of homegrown hits signaled that the Chinese box office profits no longer depend on Hollywood studio films — sending an important message to foreign trade negotiators and studios.

Kokas provides some insight into how the Chinese movie industry is designed to further the Chinese government’s vision of the future. As a Canadian, I don’t see that much difference between the US and China industry’s vision. Both tout themselves as the answer to everything, both target various geographic regions for the ‘bad guys’, and both tout their national moral superiority in their films. I suppose the same can be said for most countries’ film industries but both China and the US can back themselves with economic might.

Zheng’s article delves deeper into garbage, and Chen Qiufan’s science fiction while illuminating the process of changing a ‘good guy’ into a ‘bad guy’,

Chen, 37, grew up a few miles from the real Guiyu. Mountains of scrap electronics are shipped there every year from around the world. Thousands of human workers sort through the junk for whatever can be reduced to reusable precious metals. They strip wires and disassemble circuit boards, soaking them in acid baths for bits of copper, tin, platinum, and gold. Whatever can’t be processed is burned. The water in Guiyu has been so contaminated it is undrinkable; the air is toxic. The workers, migrants from poor rural areas in China, have an abnormally high rate of respiratory diseases and cancer.

For the decades China was revving its economic engine, authorities were content to turn a blind eye to the human costs of the recycling business. It was an economic win-win. For developed countries like the U.S., it’s cheaper to ship waste to places like China than trying to recycle it themselves. And these shipments create jobs and profits for the Chinese.

In recent years, however, steps have been taken to protect workers and the environment in China. …

Waste Tide highlights the danger of “throw-away culture,” says Chen, also known in English as Stanley Chan. When our personal electronics stop serving us, whether because they break or our lust for the newest specs get the better of us, we toss them. Hopefully we’re conscientious enough to bring them to local recyclers that claim they’ll dispose of them properly. But that’s likely the end of our engagement with the trash. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fiction, and science fiction in particular, is an apt medium for Chen to probe the consequences of this arrangement. “It’s not journalism,” he says. Instead, the story is an imaginative, action-packed tale of power imbalances, and the individual characters that think they’re doing good. Waste Tide culminates, expectedly, in an insurgency of the workers against their exploitative overlords.

Guiyu has been fictionalized in Waste Tide as “Silicon Isle.” (A homophone of the Chinese character “gui” translates to “Silicon,” and “yu” is an island). The waste hell is ruled by three ruthless family clans, dominated by the Luo clan. They treat workers as slaves and derisively call them “waste people.”

Technology in the near-future has literally become extensions of selves and only exacerbates class inequality. Prosthetic inner ears improve balance; prosthetic limbs respond to mental directives; helmets heighten natural senses. The rich “switch body parts as easily as people used to switch phones.” Those with fewer means hack discarded prosthetics to get the same kick. When they’re no longer needed, synthetic body parts contaminated with blood and bodily fluids are added to the detritus.

At the center of the story is Mimi, a migrant worker who dreams of earning enough money to return home and live a quiet life. She strikes up a relationship with Kaizong, a Chinese-American college graduate trying to rediscover his roots. But the good times are short-lived. The boss of the Luo clan becomes convinced that Mimi holds the key to rousing his son from his coma and soon kidnaps the hapless girl.

For all the advanced science, there is a backwards superstition that animates Silicon Isle. [emphasis mine] The clan bosses subscribe to “a simple form of animism.” They pray to the wind and sea for ample supplies of waste. They sacrifice animals (and some humans) to bring them luck, and use local witches to exorcise evil spirits. Boss Luo has Mimi kidnapped and tortured in an effort to appease the gods in the hopes of waking up his comatose son. The torture of Mimi infects her with a mysterious disease that splits her consciousness. The waste people are enraged by her violation, which eventually sparks a war against the ruling clans. [emphasis mine]

A parallel narrative involves an American, Scott Brandle, who works for an environmental company. While in town trying to set up a recycling facility, he stumbles onto the truth about the virus that may have infected Mimi: a chemical weapon developed and used by the U.S. [emphasis mine] years earlier. Invented by a Japanese researcher [emphasis mine] working in the U.S., the drug is capable of causing mass hallucinations and terror. When Brandle learns that Mimi may have been infected with this virus, he wants a piece of her [emphasis mine] too, so that scientists back home can study its effects.

Despite portraying the future of China in a less-than-positive light, [emphasis mine] Waste Tide has not been banned–a common result for works that displease Beijing; instead, the book won China’s prestigious Nebula award for science fiction, and is about to be reprinted on the mainland. …

An interview with Chen (it’s worthwhile to read his take on what he’s doing) follows the plot description in this intriguing and what seems to be a sometimes disingenuous article.

The animism and the war against the ruling class? It reminds me a little of the tales told about old Chine and Mao’s campaign to overthrow the ruling classes who had kept control of the proletariat, in part, by encouraging ‘superstitious religious belief’.

As far as I’m concerned the interpretation can go either or both ways: a critique of the current government’s policies and where they might lead in the future and/or a reference back to the glorious rising of China’s communist government. Good fiction always contains ambiguity; it’s what fuels courses in literature.

Also, the bad guys are from the US and Japan, countries which have long been allied with each other and with which China has some serious conflicts.

Interesting, non? And, it’s not that different from what you’ll see in US (or any other country’s for that matter) science fiction wiring and movies, except that the heroes are Chinese.

Getting back to the garbage in the Philippines, there are 69 containers on their way back to Canada as of May 30, 2019. As for why all this furor about Canadian garbage in the Philippines and Malaysia, it’s hard to believe that Canada is the only sinner. Of course, we are in China’s bad books due to the Huawei executive’s detention here (she is living in her home in Vancouver and goes out and about as she wishes, albeit under surveillance).

Anyway, I can’t help but wonder if indirect pressure is being exerted by China or if the Philippines and Malaysia have been incentivized in some way by China. The timing has certainly been interesting.

Political speculation aside, it’s probably a good thing that countries are refusing to take our garbage. As I’m sure more than one environmentalist would be happy to point out, it’s about time we took care of our own mess.

Iridescent giant clams could point the way to safety, climatologically speaking

Giant clams in Palau (Cynthia Barnett)

These don’t look like any clams I’ve ever seen but that is the point of Cynthia Barnett’s absorbing Sept. 10, 2018 article for The Atlantic (Note: A link has been removed),

Snorkeling amid the tree-tangled rock islands of Ngermid Bay in the western Pacific nation of Palau, Alison Sweeney lingers at a plunging coral ledge, photographing every giant clam she sees along a 50-meter transect. In Palau, as in few other places in the world, this means she is going to be underwater for a skin-wrinkling long time.

At least the clams are making it easy for Sweeney, a biophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania. The animals plump from their shells like painted lips, shimmering in blues, purples, greens, golds, and even electric browns. The largest are a foot across and radiate from the sea floor, but most are the smallest of the giant clams, five-inch Tridacna crocea, living higher up on the reef. Their fleshy Technicolor smiles beam in all directions from the corals and rocks of Ngermid Bay.

… Some of the corals are bleached from the conditions in Ngermid Bay, where naturally high temperatures and acidity mirror the expected effects of climate change on the global oceans. (Ngermid Bay is more commonly known as “Nikko Bay,” but traditional leaders and government officials are working to revive the indigenous name of Ngermid.)

Even those clams living on bleached corals are pulsing color, like wildflowers in a white-hot desert. Sweeney’s ponytail flows out behind her as she nears them with her camera. They startle back into their fluted shells. Like bashful fairytale creatures cursed with irresistible beauty, they cannot help but draw attention with their sparkly glow.

Barnett makes them seem magical and perhaps they are (Note: A link has been removed),

It’s the glow that drew Sweeney’s attention to giant clams, and to Palau, a tiny republic of more than 300 islands between the Philippines and Guam. Its sun-laden waters are home to seven of the world’s dozen giant-clam species, from the storied Tridacna gigas—which can weigh an estimated 550 pounds and measure over four feet across—to the elegantly fluted Tridacna squamosa. Sweeney first came to the archipelago in 2009, while working on animal iridescence as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Whether shimmering from a blue morpho butterfly’s wings or a squid’s skin, iridescence is almost always associated with a visual signal—one used to attract mates or confuse predators. Giant clams’ luminosity is not such a signal. So, what is it?

In the years since, Sweeney and her colleagues have discovered that the clams’ iridescence is essentially the outer glow of a solar transformer—optimized over millions of years to run on sunlight and algal biofuel. Giant clams reach their cartoonish proportions thanks to an exceptional ability to grow their own photosynthetic algae in vertical farms spread throughout their flesh. Sweeney and other scientists think this evolved expertise may shed light on alternative fuel technologies and other industrial solutions for a warming world.

Barnett goes on to describe Palau’s relationship to the clams and the clams’ environment,

Palau’s islands have been inhabited for at least 3,400 years, and from the start, giant clams were a staple of diet, daily life, and even deity. Many of the islands’ oldest-surviving tools are crafted of thick giant-clam shell: arched-blade adzes, fishhooks, gougers, heavy taro-root pounders. Giant-clam shell makes up more than three-fourths of some of the oldest shell middens in Palau, a percentage that decreases through the centuries. Archaeologists suggest that the earliest islanders depleted the giant clams that crowded the crystalline shallows, then may have self-corrected. Ancient Palauan conservation law, known as bul, prohibited fishing during critical spawning periods, or when a species showed signs of over-harvesting.

Before the Christianity that now dominates Palauan religion sailed in on eighteenth-century mission ships, the culture’s creation lore began with a giant clam called to life in an empty sea. The clam grew bigger and bigger until it sired Latmikaik, the mother of human children, who birthed them with the help of storms and ocean currents.

The legend evokes giant clams in their larval phase, moving with the currents for their first two weeks of life. Before they can settle, the swimming larvae must find and ingest one or two photosynthetic alga, which later multiply, becoming self-replicating fuel cells. After the larvae down the alga and develop a wee shell and a foot, they kick around like undersea farmers, looking for a sunny spot for their crop. When they’ve chosen a well-lit home in a shallow lagoon or reef, they affix to the rock, their shell gaping to the sky. After the sun hits and photosynthesis begins, the microalgae will multiply to millions, or in the case of T. gigas, billions, and clam and algae will live in symbiosis for life.

Giant clam is a beloved staple in Palau and many other Pacific islands, prepared raw with lemon, simmered into coconut soup, baked into a savory pancake, or sliced and sautéed in a dozen other ways. But luxury demand for their ivory-like shells and their adductor muscle, which is coveted as high-end sashimi and an alleged aphrodisiac, has driven T. gigas extinct in China, Taiwan, and other parts of their native habitat. Some of the toughest marine-protection laws in the world, along with giant-clam aquaculture pioneered here, have helped Palau’s wild clams survive. The Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center raises hundreds of thousands of giant clams a year, supplying local clam farmers who sell to restaurants and the aquarium trade and keeping pressure off the wild population. But as other nations have wiped out their clams, Palau’s 230,000-square-mile ocean territory is an increasing target of illegal foreign fishers.

Barnett delves into how the country of Palau is responding to the voracious appetite for the giant clams and other marine life,

Palau, drawing on its ancient conservation tradition of bul, is fighting back. In 2015, President Tommy Remengesau Jr. signed into law the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act, which prohibits fishing in 80 percent of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone and creates a domestic fishing area in the remaining 20 percent, set aside for local fishers selling to local markets. In 2016, the nation received a $6.6 million grant from Japan to launch a major renovation of the Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center. Now under construction at the waterfront on the southern tip of Malakal Island, the new facility will amp up clam-aquaculture research and increase giant-clam production five-fold, to more than a million seedlings a year.

Last year, Palau amended its immigration policy to require that all visitors sign a pledge to behave in an ecologically responsible manner. The pledge, stamped into passports by an immigration officer who watches you sign, is written to the island’s children:

Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home. I vow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully. I shall not take what is not given. I shall not harm what does not harm me. The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away.

The pledge is winning hearts and public-relations awards. But Palau’s existential challenge is still the collective “we,” the world’s rising carbon emissions and the resulting upturns in global temperatures, sea levels, and destructive storms.

F. Umiich Sengebau, Palau’s Minister for Natural Resources, Environment, and Tourism, grew up on Koror and is full of giant-clam proverbs, wisdom and legends from his youth. He tells me a story I also heard from an elder in the state of Airai: that in old times, giant clams were known as “stormy-weather food,” the fresh staple that was easy to collect and have on hand when it was too stormy to go out fishing.

As Palau faces the storms of climate change, Sengebau sees giant clams becoming another sort of stormy-weather food, serving as a secure source of protein; a fishing livelihood; a glowing icon for tourists; and now, an inspiration for alternative energy and other low-carbon technologies. “In the old days, clams saved us,” Sengebau tells me. “I think there’s a lot of power in that, a great power and meaning in the history of clams as food, and now clams as science.”

I highly recommend Barnett’s article, which is one article in a larger series, from a November 6, 2017 The Atlantic press release,

The Atlantic is expanding the global footprint of its science writing today with a multi-year series to investigate life in all of its multitudes. The series, “Life Up Close,” created with support from Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education (HHMI), begins today at TheAtlantic.com. In the first piece for the project, “The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change,” The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer travels to Greenland to report on the potentially dangerous microbes emerging from thawing Arctic permafrost.

The project is ambitious in both scope and geographic reach, and will explore how life is adapting to our changing planet. Journalists will travel the globe to examine these changes as they happen to microbes, plants, and animals in oceans, grasslands, forests, deserts, and the icy poles. The Atlantic will question where humans should look for life next: from the Martian subsurface, to Europa’s oceans, to the atmosphere of nearby stars and beyond. “Life Up Close” will feature at least twenty reported pieces continuing through 2018.

“The Atlantic has been around for 160 years, but that’s a mere pinpoint in history when it comes to questions of life and where it started, and where we’re going,” said Ross Andersen, The Atlantic’s senior editor who oversees science, tech, and health. “The questions that this project will set out to tackle are critical; and this support will allow us to cover new territory in new and more ambitious ways.”

About The Atlantic:
Founded in 1857 and today one of the fastest growing media platforms in the industry, The Atlantic has throughout its history championed the power of big ideas and continues to shape global debate across print, digital, events, and video platforms. With its award-winning digital presence TheAtlantic.com and CityLab.com on cities around the world, The Atlantic is a multimedia forum on the most critical issues of our times—from politics, business, urban affairs, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture. The Atlantic is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. Bob Cohn is president of The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg is editor in chief.

About the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Department of Science Education:
HHMI is the leading private nonprofit supporter of scientific research and science education in the United States. The Department of Science Education’s BioInteractive division produces free, high quality educational media for science educators and millions of students around the globe, its HHMI Tangled Bank Studios unit crafts powerful stories of scientific discovery for television and big screens, and its grants program aims to transform science education in universities and colleges. For more information, visit www.hhmi.org.

Getting back to the giant clams, sometimes all you can do is marvel, eh?

It’s a very ‘carbony’ time: graphene jacket, graphene-skinned airplane, and schwarzite

In August 2018, I been stumbled across several stories about graphene-based products and a new form of carbon.

Graphene jacket

The company producing this jacket has as its goal “… creating bionic clothing that is both bulletproof and intelligent.” Well, ‘bionic‘ means biologically-inspired engineering and ‘intelligent‘ usually means there’s some kind of computing capability in the product. This jacket, which is the first step towards the company’s goal, is not bionic, bulletproof, or intelligent. Nonetheless, it represents a very interesting science experiment in which you, the consumer, are part of step two in the company’s R&D (research and development).

Onto Vollebak’s graphene jacket,

Courtesy: Vollebak

From an August 14, 2018 article by Jesus Diaz for Fast Company,

Graphene is the thinnest possible form of graphite, which you can find in your everyday pencil. It’s purely bi-dimensional, a single layer of carbon atoms that has unbelievable properties that have long threatened to revolutionize everything from aerospace engineering to medicine. …

Despite its immense promise, graphene still hasn’t found much use in consumer products, thanks to the fact that it’s hard to manipulate and manufacture in industrial quantities. The process of developing Vollebak’s jacket, according to the company’s cofounders, brothers Steve and Nick Tidball, took years of intensive research, during which the company worked with the same material scientists who built Michael Phelps’ 2008 Olympic Speedo swimsuit (which was famously banned for shattering records at the event).

The jacket is made out of a two-sided material, which the company invented during the extensive R&D process. The graphene side looks gunmetal gray, while the flipside appears matte black. To create it, the scientists turned raw graphite into something called graphene “nanoplatelets,” which are stacks of graphene that were then blended with polyurethane to create a membrane. That, in turn, is bonded to nylon to form the other side of the material, which Vollebak says alters the properties of the nylon itself. “Adding graphene to the nylon fundamentally changes its mechanical and chemical properties–a nylon fabric that couldn’t naturally conduct heat or energy, for instance, now can,” the company claims.

The company says that it’s reversible so you can enjoy graphene’s properties in different ways as the material interacts with either your skin or the world around you. “As physicists at the Max Planck Institute revealed, graphene challenges the fundamental laws of heat conduction, which means your jacket will not only conduct the heat from your body around itself to equalize your skin temperature and increase it, but the jacket can also theoretically store an unlimited amount of heat, which means it can work like a radiator,” Tidball explains.

He means it literally. You can leave the jacket out in the sun, or on another source of warmth, as it absorbs heat. Then, the company explains on its website, “If you then turn it inside out and wear the graphene next to your skin, it acts like a radiator, retaining its heat and spreading it around your body. The effect can be visibly demonstrated by placing your hand on the fabric, taking it away and then shooting the jacket with a thermal imaging camera. The heat of the handprint stays long after the hand has left.”

There’s a lot more to the article although it does feature some hype and I’m not sure I believe Diaz’s claim (August 14, 2018 article) that ‘graphene-based’ hair dye is perfectly safe ( Note: A link has been removed),

Graphene is the thinnest possible form of graphite, which you can find in your everyday pencil. It’s purely bi-dimensional, a single layer of carbon atoms that has unbelievable properties that will one day revolutionize everything from aerospace engineering to medicine. Its diverse uses are seemingly endless: It can stop a bullet if you add enough layers. It can change the color of your hair with no adverse effects. [emphasis mine] It can turn the walls of your home into a giant fire detector. “It’s so strong and so stretchy that the fibers of a spider web coated in graphene could catch a falling plane,” as Vollebak puts it in its marketing materials.

Not unless things have changed greatly since March 2018. My August 2, 2018 posting featured the graphene-based hair dye announcement from March 2018 and a cautionary note from Dr. Andrew Maynard (scroll down ab out 50% of the way for a longer excerpt of Maynard’s comments),

Northwestern University’s press release proudly announced, “Graphene finds new application as nontoxic, anti-static hair dye.” The announcement spawned headlines like “Enough with the toxic hair dyes. We could use graphene instead,” and “’Miracle material’ graphene used to create the ultimate hair dye.”

From these headlines, you might be forgiven for getting the idea that the safety of graphene-based hair dyes is a done deal. Yet having studied the potential health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials for more years than I care to remember, I find such overly optimistic pronouncements worrying – especially when they’re not backed up by clear evidence.

These studies need to be approached with care, as the precise risks of graphene exposure will depend on how the material is used, how exposure occurs and how much of it is encountered. Yet there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that this substance should be used with caution – especially where there’s a high chance of exposure or that it could be released into the environment.

The full text of Dr. Maynard’s comments about graphene hair dyes and risk can be found here.

Bearing in mind  that graphene-based hair dye is an entirely different class of product from the jacket, I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss risks; I would like to know what kind of risk assessment and safety testing has been done. Due to their understandable enthusiasm, the brothers Tidball have focused all their marketing on the benefits and the opportunity for the consumer to test their product (from graphene jacket product webpage),

While it’s completely invisible and only a single atom thick, graphene is the lightest, strongest, most conductive material ever discovered, and has the same potential to change life on Earth as stone, bronze and iron once did. But it remains difficult to work with, extremely expensive to produce at scale, and lives mostly in pioneering research labs. So following in the footsteps of the scientists who discovered it through their own highly speculative experiments, we’re releasing graphene-coated jackets into the world as experimental prototypes. Our aim is to open up our R&D and accelerate discovery by getting graphene out of the lab and into the field so that we can harness the collective power of early adopters as a test group. No-one yet knows the true limits of what graphene can do, so the first edition of the Graphene Jacket is fully reversible with one side coated in graphene and the other side not. If you’d like to take part in the next stage of this supermaterial’s history, the experiment is now open. You can now buy it, test it and tell us about it. [emphasis mine]

How maverick experiments won the Nobel Prize

While graphene’s existence was first theorised in the 1940s, it wasn’t until 2004 that two maverick scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, were able to isolate and test it. Through highly speculative and unfunded experimentation known as their ‘Friday night experiments,’ they peeled layer after layer off a shaving of graphite using Scotch tape until they produced a sample of graphene just one atom thick. After similarly leftfield thinking won Geim the 2000 Ig Nobel prize for levitating frogs using magnets, the pair won the Nobel prize in 2010 for the isolation of graphene.

Should you be interested, in beta-testing the jacket, it will cost you $695 (presumably USD); order here. One last thing, Vollebak is based in the UK.

Graphene skinned plane

An August 14, 2018 news item (also published as an August 1, 2018 Haydale press release) by Sue Keighley on Azonano heralds a new technology for airplans,

Haydale, (AIM: HAYD), the global advanced materials group, notes the announcement made yesterday from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) about the recent unveiling of the world’s first graphene skinned plane at the internationally renowned Farnborough air show.

The prepreg material, developed by Haydale, has potential value for fuselage and wing surfaces in larger scale aero and space applications especially for the rapidly expanding drone market and, in the longer term, the commercial aerospace sector. By incorporating functionalised nanoparticles into epoxy resins, the electrical conductivity of fibre-reinforced composites has been significantly improved for lightning-strike protection, thereby achieving substantial weight saving and removing some manufacturing complexities.

Before getting to the photo, here’s a definition for pre-preg from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Pre-preg is “pre-impregnated” composite fibers where a thermoset polymer matrix material, such as epoxy, or a thermoplastic resin is already present. The fibers often take the form of a weave and the matrix is used to bond them together and to other components during manufacture.

Haydale has supplied graphene enhanced prepreg material for Juno, a three-metre wide graphene-enhanced composite skinned aircraft, that was revealed as part of the ‘Futures Day’ at Farnborough Air Show 2018. [downloaded from https://www.azonano.com/news.aspx?newsID=36298]

A July 31, 2018 University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) press release provides a tiny bit more (pun intended) detail,

The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has unveiled the world’s first graphene skinned plane at an internationally renowned air show.

Juno, a three-and-a-half-metre wide graphene skinned aircraft, was revealed on the North West Aerospace Alliance (NWAA) stand as part of the ‘Futures Day’ at Farnborough Air Show 2018.

The University’s aerospace engineering team has worked in partnership with the Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the University of Manchester’s National Graphene Institute (NGI), Haydale Graphene Industries (Haydale) and a range of other businesses to develop the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which also includes graphene batteries and 3D printed parts.

Billy Beggs, UCLan’s Engineering Innovation Manager, said: “The industry reaction to Juno at Farnborough was superb with many positive comments about the work we’re doing. Having Juno at one the world’s biggest air shows demonstrates the great strides we’re making in leading a programme to accelerate the uptake of graphene and other nano-materials into industry.

“The programme supports the objectives of the UK Industrial Strategy and the University’s Engineering Innovation Centre (EIC) to increase industry relevant research and applications linked to key local specialisms. Given that Lancashire represents the fourth largest aerospace cluster in the world, there is perhaps no better place to be developing next generation technologies for the UK aerospace industry.”

Previous graphene developments at UCLan have included the world’s first flight of a graphene skinned wing and the launch of a specially designed graphene-enhanced capsule into near space using high altitude balloons.

UCLan engineering students have been involved in the hands-on project, helping build Juno on the Preston Campus.

Haydale supplied much of the material and all the graphene used in the aircraft. Ray Gibbs, Chief Executive Officer, said: “We are delighted to be part of the project team. Juno has highlighted the capability and benefit of using graphene to meet key issues faced by the market, such as reducing weight to increase range and payload, defeating lightning strike and protecting aircraft skins against ice build-up.”

David Bailey Chief Executive of the North West Aerospace Alliance added: “The North West aerospace cluster contributes over £7 billion to the UK economy, accounting for one quarter of the UK aerospace turnover. It is essential that the sector continues to develop next generation technologies so that it can help the UK retain its competitive advantage. It has been a pleasure to support the Engineering Innovation Centre team at the University in developing the world’s first full graphene skinned aircraft.”

The Juno project team represents the latest phase in a long-term strategic partnership between the University and a range of organisations. The partnership is expected to go from strength to strength following the opening of the £32m EIC facility in February 2019.

The next step is to fly Juno and conduct further tests over the next two months.

Next item, a new carbon material.

Schwarzite

I love watching this gif of a schwarzite,

The three-dimensional cage structure of a schwarzite that was formed inside the pores of a zeolite. (Graphics by Yongjin Lee and Efrem Braun)

An August 13, 2018 news item on Nanowerk announces the new carbon structure,

The discovery of buckyballs [also known as fullerenes, C60, or buckminsterfullerenes] surprised and delighted chemists in the 1980s, nanotubes jazzed physicists in the 1990s, and graphene charged up materials scientists in the 2000s, but one nanoscale carbon structure – a negatively curved surface called a schwarzite – has eluded everyone. Until now.

University of California, Berkeley [UC Berkeley], chemists have proved that three carbon structures recently created by scientists in South Korea and Japan are in fact the long-sought schwarzites, which researchers predict will have unique electrical and storage properties like those now being discovered in buckminsterfullerenes (buckyballs or fullerenes for short), nanotubes and graphene.

An August 13, 2018 UC Berkeley news release by Robert Sanders, which originated the news item, describes how the Berkeley scientists and the members of their international  collaboration from Germany, Switzerland, Russia, and Italy, have contributed to the current state of schwarzite research,

The new structures were built inside the pores of zeolites, crystalline forms of silicon dioxide – sand – more commonly used as water softeners in laundry detergents and to catalytically crack petroleum into gasoline. Called zeolite-templated carbons (ZTC), the structures were being investigated for possible interesting properties, though the creators were unaware of their identity as schwarzites, which theoretical chemists have worked on for decades.

Based on this theoretical work, chemists predict that schwarzites will have unique electronic, magnetic and optical properties that would make them useful as supercapacitors, battery electrodes and catalysts, and with large internal spaces ideal for gas storage and separation.

UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Efrem Braun and his colleagues identified these ZTC materials as schwarzites based of their negative curvature, and developed a way to predict which zeolites can be used to make schwarzites and which can’t.

“We now have the recipe for how to make these structures, which is important because, if we can make them, we can explore their behavior, which we are working hard to do now,” said Berend Smit, an adjunct professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UC Berkeley and an expert on porous materials such as zeolites and metal-organic frameworks.

Smit, the paper’s corresponding author, Braun and their colleagues in Switzerland, China, Germany, Italy and Russia will report their discovery this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Smit is also a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Playing with carbon

Diamond and graphite are well-known three-dimensional crystalline arrangements of pure carbon, but carbon atoms can also form two-dimensional “crystals” — hexagonal arrangements patterned like chicken wire. Graphene is one such arrangement: a flat sheet of carbon atoms that is not only the strongest material on Earth, but also has a high electrical conductivity that makes it a promising component of electronic devices.

schwarzite carbon cage

The cage structure of a schwarzite that was formed inside the pores of a zeolite. The zeolite is subsequently dissolved to release the new material. (Graphics by Yongjin Lee and Efrem Braun)

Graphene sheets can be wadded up to form soccer ball-shaped fullerenes – spherical carbon cages that can store molecules and are being used today to deliver drugs and genes into the body. Rolling graphene into a cylinder yields fullerenes called nanotubes, which are being explored today as highly conductive wires in electronics and storage vessels for gases like hydrogen and carbon dioxide. All of these are submicroscopic, 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

To date, however, only positively curved fullerenes and graphene, which has zero curvature, have been synthesized, feats rewarded by Nobel Prizes in 1996 and 2010, respectively.

In the 1880s, German physicist Hermann Schwarz investigated negatively curved structures that resemble soap-bubble surfaces, and when theoretical work on carbon cage molecules ramped up in the 1990s, Schwarz’s name became attached to the hypothetical negatively curved carbon sheets.

“The experimental validation of schwarzites thus completes the triumvirate of possible curvatures to graphene; positively curved, flat, and now negatively curved,” Braun added.

Minimize me

Like soap bubbles on wire frames, schwarzites are topologically minimal surfaces. When made inside a zeolite, a vapor of carbon-containing molecules is injected, allowing the carbon to assemble into a two-dimensional graphene-like sheet lining the walls of the pores in the zeolite. The surface is stretched tautly to minimize its area, which makes all the surfaces curve negatively, like a saddle. The zeolite is then dissolved, leaving behind the schwarzite.

soap bubble schwarzite structure

A computer-rendered negatively curved soap bubble that exhibits the geometry of a carbon schwarzite. (Felix Knöppel image)

“These negatively-curved carbons have been very hard to synthesize on their own, but it turns out that you can grow the carbon film catalytically at the surface of a zeolite,” Braun said. “But the schwarzites synthesized to date have been made by choosing zeolite templates through trial and error. We provide very simple instructions you can follow to rationally make schwarzites and we show that, by choosing the right zeolite, you can tune schwarzites to optimize the properties you want.”

Researchers should be able to pack unusually large amounts of electrical charge into schwarzites, which would make them better capacitors than conventional ones used today in electronics. Their large interior volume would also allow storage of atoms and molecules, which is also being explored with fullerenes and nanotubes. And their large surface area, equivalent to the surface areas of the zeolites they’re grown in, could make them as versatile as zeolites for catalyzing reactions in the petroleum and natural gas industries.

Braun modeled ZTC structures computationally using the known structures of zeolites, and worked with topological mathematician Senja Barthel of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Sion, Switzerland, to determine which of the minimal surfaces the structures resembled.

The team determined that, of the approximately 200 zeolites created to date, only 15 can be used as a template to make schwarzites, and only three of them have been used to date to produce schwarzite ZTCs. Over a million zeolite structures have been predicted, however, so there could be many more possible schwarzite carbon structures made using the zeolite-templating method.

Other co-authors of the paper are Yongjin Lee, Seyed Mohamad Moosavi and Barthel of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Rocio Mercado of UC Berkeley, Igor Baburin of the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany and Davide Proserpio of the Università degli Studi di Milano in Italy and Samara State Technical University in Russia.

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

Generating carbon schwarzites via zeolite-templating by Efrem Braun, Yongjin Lee, Seyed Mohamad Moosavi, Senja Barthel, Rocio Mercado, Igor A. Baburin, Davide M. Proserpio, and Berend Smit. PNAS August 14, 2018. 201805062; published ahead of print August 14, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805062115

This paper appears to be open access.