Tag Archives: Lancaster University

Metallic nanoparticles inside heart tissue mitochondria can cause damage

With all the focus on COVID-19, viruses , and aerosols, it’s easy to forget that there are other kinds of contaminated air too. The last time I featured work on nanoparticles and air pollution was in a May 31, 2017 posting, “Explaining the link between air pollution and heart disease?” where scientists announced they may have discovered how air pollution (nanoparticles) were making their way from lungs to the heart. Answer: the bloodstream.

A July 3, 2020 Lancaster University press release (also on EurekAlert) announces research into how air made toxic by metallic nanoparticles affects the heart in very specific ways (Note: A link has been removed),

Toxic metallic air pollution nanoparticles are getting inside the crucial, energy-producing structures within the hearts of people living in polluted cities, causing cardiac stress – a new study confirms.

The research team, led by Professors Barbara Maher of Lancaster University and Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas of The University of Montana and the Universidad del Valle de Mexico, found the metallic nanoparticles, which included iron-rich nanoparticles and other pollution-derived metals such as titanium, inside the damaged heart cells of a 26-year-old and even a three-year-old toddler.

The hearts had belonged to people who had died in accidents and who had lived in highly-polluted Mexico City.

The findings shed new light on how air pollution can cause the development of heart disease, as the iron-rich particles were associated with damage to the cells, and increased cardiac oxidative stress, even in these very young hearts.

The repeated inhalation of these iron-rich nanoparticles, and their circulation by the bloodstream to the heart, may account for the well-established associations between exposure to particulate air pollution and increased cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks. The study indicates that heart disease can start in very early age, before progressing to full-blown cardiovascular illness later in life. This type of air pollution may thus be responsible for the ‘silent epidemic’ of heart disease, internationally. By causing pre-existing heart conditions, it may also account for some of the increased death rates from Covid-19 seen in areas with high levels of particulate air pollution.

Professor Maher said: “It’s been known for a long time that people with high exposure to particulate air pollution experience increased levels and severity of heart disease. Our new work shows that iron-rich nanoparticles from air pollution can get right inside the millions of mitochondria inside our hearts…the structures which generate the energy needed for our hearts to pump properly.

“That we found these metal particles inside the heart of even a three-year old indicates that we’re setting heart disease in train right from the earliest days, but only seeing its full, clinical effects in later life. It’s really urgent to reduce emissions of ultrafine particles from our vehicles and from industry, before we give heart disease to the next generation too.”

The researchers, using high-resolution transmission electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-ray analysis, found that the mitochondria containing the iron-rich nanoparticles appeared to be damaged, with some cells showing deformities and others with ruptured membranes. Professor Calderón-Garcidueñas stated that increased levels of markers of cardiac oxidative stress are present in the very young cases examined.

The iron-rich nanoparticles found inside the heart cells are identical in size, shape and composition to those emitted from sources such as the exhausts, tyres and brakes of vehicles. These air pollution nanoparticles are also emitted by industrial sources as well as open fires in homes.

Some of the iron-rich nanoparticles are also strongly magnetic. This raises concerns about what might happen when people with millions of these nanoparticles in their hearts are using appliances with associated magnetic fields, such as hair dryers and mobile phones. People who work in industries that mean they are exposed to magnetic fields such as welders and power line engineers may also be at risk. This kind of exposure could potentially lead to heart electrical dysfunction and cell damage.

The findings builds on the researchers’ previous findings that show that the hearts of city dwellers contain billions of these nanoparticles and can be up to ten times more polluted than the hearts of people living in less polluted places.

The researchers say their study underlines the need for governments across the world to tackle ultrafine particulate pollution in their cities.

Professor Calderón-Garcidueñas said: “Exposure to such air pollution is a modifiable risk factor for cardiovascular disease, on a global scale, reinforcing the urgent need for individual and government actions not just to reduce PM2.5 but to monitor, regulate and reduce emissions of these specific, ultrafine components of the urban air pollution ‘cocktail’.”

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

Iron-rich air pollution nanoparticles: An unrecognised environmental risk factor for myocardial mitochondrial dysfunction and cardiac oxidative stress by B.A.Maher, A.González-Maciel, R.Reynoso-Robles, R.Torres-Jardón, L.Calderón-Garcidueñas. Environmental Research Volume 188, September 2020, 109816 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2020.109816 Available online 21 June 2020

This paper appears to be open access (just keep scrolling down).

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

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

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

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

From a December 23, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This paper is open access.

Finally, Joyeux Noël et Bonne année 2020!

Blockchain made physical: BlocKit

Caption: Parts of BlocKit Credit: Irni Khairuddin

I’m always on the lookout for something that helps make blockchain and cryptocurrency more understandable. (For the uninitiated or anyone like me who needed to refresh their memories, I have links to good essays on the topic further down in this posting.)

A July 10, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announces a new approach to understanding blockchain technology,

A kit made from everyday objects is bringing the blockchain into the physical world.

The ‘BlocKit’, which includes items such as plastic tubs, clay discs, padlocks, envelopes, sticky notes and battery-powered candles, is aimed to help people understand how digital blockchains work and can also be used by innovators designing new systems and services around blockchain.

A team of computer scientists from Lancaster University, the University of Edinburgh in the UK, and the Universiti Teknologi MARA, in Malaysia, created the prototype BlocKit because blockchain — the decentralised digital infrastructure that is used to organise the cryptocurrency Bitcoin and holds promise to revolutionise many other sectors from finance, supply-chain and healthcare — is so difficult for people to comprehend.

A July 10, 2019 Lancaster University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Despite growing interest in its potential, the blockchain is so novel, disruptive and complex, it is hard for most people to understand how these systems work,” said Professor Corina Sas of Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications. “We have created a prototype kit consisting of physical objects that fulfil the roles of different parts of the blockchain. The kit really helps people visualise the different component parts of blockchain, and how they all interact.

“Having tangible physical objects, such as a transparent plastic box for a Bitcoin wallet, clay discs for Bitcoins, padlocks for passwords and candles representing miners’ computational power, makes thinking around processes and systems much easier to comprehend.”

The BlocKit consisted of physical items that represented 11 key aspects of blockchain infrastructure and it was used to explore key characteristics of blockchain, such as trust – an important challenge for Bitcoin users. The kit was evaluated as part of a study involving 15 experienced Bitcoin users.

“We received very positive feedback from the people who used the kit in our study and, interestingly, we found that the BlocKit can also be used by designers looking to develop new services based around blockchain – such as managing patients’ health records for example.”

I will be providing a link to and a citation for the paper but first, I’m excerpting a few bits,

We report on a workshop with 15 bitcoin experts, [emphasis mine] 12 males, 3 females, (mean age 29, range 21-39). All participants had at least 2 years of engaging in bitcoin transactions: 9 had between 2 and 3 years, 4 had between 4 and 5 years, 2had more than 6 years. All participants have at least graduate education, i.e., 6 BSc, 7 MScs, and 2 Ph.D. Participants were recruited through the mailing lists of two universities,and through a local Bitcoins meetup group. [p. 3]

A striking finding was the overwhelmingly positive experience supported by BlocKit. Findings show that 10 participants deeply enjoyed physically touching [emphasis mine] its objects and enacting their movement in space while talking about blockchain processes: “there is going to be other transactions from other people essentially, so let’s put a few bitcoins in that box. I love this stuff, this is amazing” [P12]. Participants suggested that BlocKit could be a valuable tool for learning about blockchain: “I think this all makes sense and would be fine to explain to the novices. It is cool, this is really an interesting kit”[P7]. Other participants suggested leveraging gamification principles for learning about blockchain: “It’s almost like you could turn this into some kind of cool game like a monopoly”[P5] [p. 5]

A significant finding is the value of the kit in supporting experts to materialize and reflect on their understanding of blockchain infrastructure and its inner working. We argue that through its materiality, the kit allows bringing the mental models into question, which in turn helps experts confirm their understandings, develop more nuanced understandings, or even revise some previously held, less accurate assumptions. [emphasis mine]

Even experts are still learning about bitcoin and blockchain according to this research sample. it’s also interesting to note that the workshop participants enjoyed the physicality. I don’t see too many mentions of it in my wanderings but I can’t help wondering if all this digitization is going to leave people starved for touch.

Getting back to blockchain, here’s the link and citation I promised,

BlocKit: A Physical Kit for Materializing and Designing for Blockchain Infrastructure by Irni Eliana Khairuddin, Corina Sas, and Chris Speed.presented at Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) 2019
ACM International Conference Series [downloaded from https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/132467/1/Design_Kit_DIS_28.pdf]

This paper is open access, as for BlocKit, it exists only as a prototype according to the July 10, 2019 Lancaster University press release.

Introductory essays for blockchain and cryptocurrency

Here are two of my favourites. First, there’s this February 6, 2018 essay (part ii of a series) by Tim Schneider on artnet.com explaining it all by using the art world and art market as examples,

… the fraught relationship between art and value lies at the molten core of several pieces made using blockchain technology. Part one of this series addressed how, in theory, the blockchain strengthens the markets for new media by introducing the concept of digital scarcity. This innovation means that works as simple as an “original” JPG or GIF could be made as rare as Francis Bacon paintings. (This fact leads to a host of business implications that will be covered in Part III.

However, a handful of forward-looking artists is using the blockchain to do more than reset the market’s perception of supply and demand. The technology, their work proves, is more than new software—it’s also a new medium.

The description of how artists using blockchain as a medium provides some of the best descriptions of cryptocurrency and blockchain that I’ve been able to find.

The other essay, a January 5, 2018 article for Slate.com by Joshua Oliver, provides some detail I haven’t seen anywhere else (Note: A link has been removed),

Already, blockchain has been hailed as likely to revolutionize … well … everything. Banks, health care, voting, supply chains, fantasy football, Airbnb, coffee: Nothing is beyond the hypothetical reach of blockchain as a revolutionary force. These predictions are easy to sell because blockchain is still little-understood. If you don’t quite know what blockchain is, it’s easier to imagine that it is whatever you want it to be. But before we can begin to search for the real potential amid the mass of blockchain conjecture and hype, we need to clear up what exactly we mean when we say blockchain.

One cause of confusion is the phrase the blockchain, which makes it sound like blockchain is one specific thing. In reality, the word blockchain is commonly used to describe two broad types of computer systems. [emphases mine] Both use similar underlying protocols, but they have other important differences. Bitcoin represents one approach to using blockchain, one wedded to principles of radical decentralization. The second approach—pioneered by more business-minded players—puts blockchain to use without adopting bitcoin’s revolutionary, decentralized governance. Both of these designs are short-handed as blockchains, so it’s easy to miss the crucial differences. Without grasping these differences, it’s hard to understand where we are today in the development of this promising technology, which blockchain ventures are worth your attention, and what might happen next.

That’s all I’ve got for now.

Quantum back action and devil’s play

I always appreciate a reference to James Clerk Maxwell’s demon thought experiment (you can find out about it in the Maxwell’s demon Wikipedia entry). This time it comes from physicist  Kater Murch in a July 23, 2018 Washington University in st. Louis (WUSTL) news release (published July 25, 2018 on EurekAlert) written by Brandie Jefferson (offering a good explanation of the thought experiment and more),

Thermodynamics is one of the most human of scientific enterprises, according to Kater Murch, associate professor of physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It has to do with our fascination of fire and our laziness,” he said. “How can we get fire” — or heat — “to do work for us?”

Now, Murch and colleagues have taken that most human enterprise down to the intangible quantum scale — that of ultra low temperatures and microscopic systems — and discovered that, as in the macroscopic world, it is possible to use information to extract work.

There is a catch, though: Some information may be lost in the process.

“We’ve experimentally confirmed the connection between information in the classical case and the quantum case,” Murch said, “and we’re seeing this new effect of information loss.”

The results were published in the July 20 [2018] issue of Physical Review Letters.

The international team included Eric Lutz of the University of Stuttgart; J. J. Alonzo of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg; Alessandro Romito of Lancaster University; and Mahdi Naghiloo, a Washington University graduate research assistant in physics.

That we can get energy from information on a macroscopic scale was most famously illustrated in a thought experiment known as Maxwell’s Demon. [emphasis mine] The “demon” presides over a box filled with molecules. The box is divided in half by a wall with a door. If the demon knows the speed and direction of all of the molecules, it can open the door when a fast-moving molecule is moving from the left half of the box to the right side, allowing it to pass. It can do the same for slow particles moving in the opposite direction, opening the door when a slow-moving molecule is approaching from the right, headed left. ­

After a while, all of the quickly-moving molecules are on the right side of the box. Faster motion corresponds to higher temperature. In this way, the demon has created a temperature imbalance, where one side of the box is hotter. That temperature imbalance can be turned into work — to push on a piston as in a steam engine, for instance. At first the thought experiment seemed to show that it was possible create a temperature difference without doing any work, and since temperature differences allow you to extract work, one could build a perpetual motion machine — a violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

“Eventually, scientists realized that there’s something about the information that the demon has about the molecules,” Murch said. “It has a physical quality like heat and work and energy.”

His team wanted to know if it would be possible to use information to extract work in this way on a quantum scale, too, but not by sorting fast and slow molecules. If a particle is in an excited state, they could extract work by moving it to a ground state. (If it was in a ground state, they wouldn’t do anything and wouldn’t expend any work).

But they wanted to know what would happen if the quantum particles were in an excited state and a ground state at the same time, analogous to being fast and slow at the same time. In quantum physics, this is known as a superposition.

“Can you get work from information about a superposition of energy states?” Murch asked. “That’s what we wanted to find out.”

There’s a problem, though. On a quantum scale, getting information about particles can be a bit … tricky.

“Every time you measure the system, it changes that system,” Murch said. And if they measured the particle to find out exactly what state it was in, it would revert to one of two states: excited, or ground.

This effect is called quantum backaction. To get around it, when looking at the system, researchers (who were the “demons”) didn’t take a long, hard look at their particle. Instead, they took what was called a “weak observation.” It still influenced the state of the superposition, but not enough to move it all the way to an excited state or a ground state; it was still in a superposition of energy states. This observation was enough, though, to allow the researchers track with fairly high accuracy, exactly what superposition the particle was in — and this is important, because the way the work is extracted from the particle depends on what superposition state it is in.

To get information, even using the weak observation method, the researchers still had to take a peek at the particle, which meant they needed light. So they sent some photons in, and observed the photons that came back.

“But the demon misses some photons,” Murch said. “It only gets about half. The other half are lost.” But — and this is the key — even though the researchers didn’t see the other half of the photons, those photons still interacted with the system, which means they still had an effect on it. The researchers had no way of knowing what that effect was.

They took a weak measurement and got some information, but because of quantum backaction, they might end up knowing less than they did before the measurement. On the balance, that’s negative information.

And that’s weird.

“Do the rules of thermodynamics for a macroscopic, classical world still apply when we talk about quantum superposition?” Murch asked. “We found that yes, they hold, except there’s this weird thing. The information can be negative.

“I think this research highlights how difficult it is to build a quantum computer,” Murch said.

“For a normal computer, it just gets hot and we need to cool it. In the quantum computer you are always at risk of losing information.”

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

Information Gain and Loss for a Quantum Maxwell’s Demon by M. Naghiloo, J. J. Alonso, A. Romito, E. Lutz, and K. W. Murch. Phys. Rev. Lett. 121, 030604 (Vol. 121, Iss. 3 — 20 July 2018) DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.121.030604 Published 17 July 2018

© 2018 American Physical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

My name is Steve and I’m a sub auroral ion drift

Photo: The Aurora Named STEVE Couresty: NASA Goddard

That stunning image is one of a series, many of which were taken by amateur photographers as noted in a March 14, 2018 US National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)/Goddard Space Flight Center news release (also on EurekAlert) by Kasha Patel about how STEVE was discovered,

Notanee Bourassa knew that what he was seeing in the night sky was not normal. Bourassa, an IT technician in Regina, Canada, trekked outside of his home on July 25, 2016, around midnight with his two younger children to show them a beautiful moving light display in the sky — an aurora borealis. He often sky gazes until the early hours of the morning to photograph the aurora with his Nikon camera, but this was his first expedition with his children. When a thin purple ribbon of light appeared and starting glowing, Bourassa immediately snapped pictures until the light particles disappeared 20 minutes later. Having watched the northern lights for almost 30 years since he was a teenager, he knew this wasn’t an aurora. It was something else.

From 2015 to 2016, citizen scientists — people like Bourassa who are excited about a science field but don’t necessarily have a formal educational background — shared 30 reports of these mysterious lights in online forums and with a team of scientists that run a project called Aurorasaurus. The citizen science project, funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, tracks the aurora borealis through user-submitted reports and tweets.

The Aurorasaurus team, led by Liz MacDonald, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, conferred to determine the identity of this mysterious phenomenon. MacDonald and her colleague Eric Donovan at the University of Calgary in Canada talked with the main contributors of these images, amateur photographers in a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers, which included Bourassa and lead administrator Chris Ratzlaff. Ratzlaff gave the phenomenon a fun, new name, Steve, and it stuck.

But people still didn’t know what it was.

Scientists’ understanding of Steve changed that night Bourassa snapped his pictures. Bourassa wasn’t the only one observing Steve. Ground-based cameras called all-sky cameras, run by the University of Calgary and University of California, Berkeley, took pictures of large areas of the sky and captured Steve and the auroral display far to the north. From space, ESA’s (the European Space Agency) Swarm satellite just happened to be passing over the exact area at the same time and documented Steve.

For the first time, scientists had ground and satellite views of Steve. Scientists have now learned, despite its ordinary name, that Steve may be an extraordinary puzzle piece in painting a better picture of how Earth’s magnetic fields function and interact with charged particles in space. The findings are published in a study released today in Science Advances.

“This is a light display that we can observe over thousands of kilometers from the ground,” said MacDonald. “It corresponds to something happening way out in space. Gathering more data points on STEVE will help us understand more about its behavior and its influence on space weather.”

The study highlights one key quality of Steve: Steve is not a normal aurora. Auroras occur globally in an oval shape, last hours and appear primarily in greens, blues and reds. Citizen science reports showed Steve is purple with a green picket fence structure that waves. It is a line with a beginning and end. People have observed Steve for 20 minutes to 1 hour before it disappears.

If anything, auroras and Steve are different flavors of an ice cream, said MacDonald. They are both created in generally the same way: Charged particles from the Sun interact with Earth’s magnetic field lines.

The uniqueness of Steve is in the details. While Steve goes through the same large-scale creation process as an aurora, it travels along different magnetic field lines than the aurora. All-sky cameras showed that Steve appears at much lower latitudes. That means the charged particles that create Steve connect to magnetic field lines that are closer to Earth’s equator, hence why Steve is often seen in southern Canada.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Steve appeared in the satellite data. The data showed that Steve comprises a fast moving stream of extremely hot particles called a sub auroral ion drift, or SAID. Scientists have studied SAIDs since the 1970s but never knew there was an accompanying visual effect. The Swarm satellite recorded information on the charged particles’ speeds and temperatures, but does not have an imager aboard.

“People have studied a lot of SAIDs, but we never knew it had a visible light. Now our cameras are sensitive enough to pick it up and people’s eyes and intellect were critical in noticing its importance,” said Donovan, a co-author of the study. Donovan led the all-sky camera network and his Calgary colleagues lead the electric field instruments on the Swarm satellite.

Steve is an important discovery because of its location in the sub auroral zone, an area of lower latitude than where most auroras appear that is not well researched. For one, with this discovery, scientists now know there are unknown chemical processes taking place in the sub auroral zone that can lead to this light emission.

Second, Steve consistently appears in the presence of auroras, which usually occur at a higher latitude area called the auroral zone. That means there is something happening in near-Earth space that leads to both an aurora and Steve. Steve might be the only visual clue that exists to show a chemical or physical connection between the higher latitude auroral zone and lower latitude sub auroral zone, said MacDonald.

“Steve can help us understand how the chemical and physical processes in Earth’s upper atmosphere can sometimes have local noticeable effects in lower parts of Earth’s atmosphere,” said MacDonald. “This provides good insight on how Earth’s system works as a whole.”

The team can learn a lot about Steve with additional ground and satellite reports, but recording Steve from the ground and space simultaneously is a rare occurrence. Each Swarm satellite orbits Earth every 90 minutes and Steve only lasts up to an hour in a specific area. If the satellite misses Steve as it circles Earth, Steve will probably be gone by the time that same satellite crosses the spot again.

In the end, capturing Steve becomes a game of perseverance and probability.

“It is my hope that with our timely reporting of sightings, researchers can study the data so we can together unravel the mystery of Steve’s origin, creation, physics and sporadic nature,” said Bourassa. “This is exciting because the more I learn about it, the more questions I have.”

As for the name “Steve” given by the citizen scientists? The team is keeping it as an homage to its initial name and discoverers. But now it is STEVE, short for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

Other collaborators on this work are: the University of Calgary, New Mexico Consortium, Boston University, Lancaster University, Athabasca University, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group.

If you live in an area where you may see STEVE or an aurora, submit your pictures and reports to Aurorasaurus through aurorasaurus.org or the free iOS and Android mobile apps. To learn how to spot STEVE, click here.

There is a video with MacDonald describing the work and featuring more images,

Katherine Kornei’s March 14, 2018 article for sciencemag.org adds more detail about the work,

Citizen scientists first began posting about Steve on social media several years ago. Across New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, they reported an unusual sight in the night sky: a purplish line that arced across the heavens for about an hour at a time, visible at lower latitudes than classical aurorae, mostly in the spring and fall. … “It’s similar to a contrail but doesn’t disperse,” says Notanee Bourassa, an aurora photographer in Saskatchewan province in Canada [Regina as mentioned in the news release is the capital of the province of Saskatchewan].

Traditional aurorae are often green, because oxygen atoms present in Earth’s atmosphere emit that color light when they’re bombarded by charged particles trapped in Earth’s magnetic field. They also appear as a diffuse glow—rather than a distinct line—on the northern or southern horizon. Without a scientific theory to explain the new sight, a group of citizen scientists led by aurora enthusiast Chris Ratzlaff of Canada’s Alberta province [usually referred to as Canada’s province of Alberta or simply, the province of Alberta] playfully dubbed it Steve, after a line in the 2006 children’s movie Over the Hedge.

Aurorae have been studied for decades, but people may have missed Steve because their cameras weren’t sensitive enough, says Elizabeth MacDonald, a space physicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and leader of the new research. MacDonald and her team have used data from a European satellite called Swarm-A to study Steve in its native environment, about 200 kilometers up in the atmosphere. Swarm-A’s instruments revealed that the charged particles in Steve had a temperature of about 6000°C, “impressively hot” compared with the nearby atmosphere, MacDonald says. And those ions were flowing from east to west at nearly 6 kilometers per second, …

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

New science in plain sight: Citizen scientists lead to the discovery of optical structure in the upper atmosphere by Elizabeth A. MacDonald, Eric Donovan, Yukitoshi Nishimura, Nathan A. Case, D. Megan Gillies, Bea Gallardo-Lacourt, William E. Archer, Emma L. Spanswick, Notanee Bourassa, Martin Connors, Matthew Heavner, Brian Jackel, Burcu Kosar, David J. Knudsen, Chris Ratzlaff, and Ian Schofield. Science Advances 14 Mar 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 3, eaaq0030 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaq0030

This paper is open access. You’ll note that Notanee Bourassa is listed as an author. For more about Bourassa, there’s his Twitter feed (@DJHardwired) and his YouTube Channel. BTW, his Twitter bio notes that he’s “Recently heartbroken,” as well as, “Seasoned human male. Expert storm chaser, aurora photographer, drone flyer and on-air FM radio DJ.” Make of that what you will.

Breathing nanoparticles into your brain

Thanks to Dexter Johnson and his Sept. 8, 2016 posting (on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers]) for bringing this news about nanoparticles in the brain to my attention (Note: Links have been removed),

An international team of researchers, led by Barbara Maher, a professor at Lancaster University, in England, has found evidence that suggests that the nanoparticles that were first detected in the human brain over 20 years ago may have an external rather an internal source.

These magnetite nanoparticles are an airborne particulate that are abundant in urban environments and formed by combustion or friction-derived heating. In other words, they have been part of the pollution in the air of our cities since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

However, according to Andrew Maynard, a professor at Arizona State University, and a noted expert on the risks associated with nanomaterials,  the research indicates that this finding extends beyond magnetite to any airborne nanoscale particles—including those deliberately manufactured.

“The findings further support the possibility of these particles entering the brain via the olfactory nerve if inhaled.  In this respect, they are certainly relevant to our understanding of the possible risks presented by engineered nanomaterials—especially those that are iron-based and have magnetic properties,” said Maynard in an e-mail interview with IEEE Spectrum. “However, ambient exposures to airborne nanoparticles will typically be much higher than those associated with engineered nanoparticles, simply because engineered nanoparticles will usually be manufactured and handled under conditions designed to avoid release and exposure.”

A Sept. 5, 2016 University of Lancaster press release made the research announcement,

Researchers at Lancaster University found abundant magnetite nanoparticles in the brain tissue from 37 individuals aged three to 92-years-old who lived in Mexico City and Manchester. This strongly magnetic mineral is toxic and has been implicated in the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) in the human brain, which are associated with neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Barbara Maher, from Lancaster Environment Centre, and colleagues (from Oxford, Glasgow, Manchester and Mexico City) used spectroscopic analysis to identify the particles as magnetite. Unlike angular magnetite particles that are believed to form naturally within the brain, most of the observed particles were spherical, with diameters up to 150 nm, some with fused surfaces, all characteristic of high-temperature formation – such as from vehicle (particularly diesel) engines or open fires.

The spherical particles are often accompanied by nanoparticles containing other metals, such as platinum, nickel, and cobalt.

Professor Maher said: “The particles we found are strikingly similar to the magnetite nanospheres that are abundant in the airborne pollution found in urban settings, especially next to busy roads, and which are formed by combustion or frictional heating from vehicle engines or brakes.”

Other sources of magnetite nanoparticles include open fires and poorly sealed stoves within homes. Particles smaller than 200 nm are small enough to enter the brain directly through the olfactory nerve after breathing air pollution through the nose.

“Our results indicate that magnetite nanoparticles in the atmosphere can enter the human brain, where they might pose a risk to human health, including conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease,” added Professor Maher.

Leading Alzheimer’s researcher Professor David Allsop, of Lancaster University’s Faculty of Health and Medicine, said: “This finding opens up a whole new avenue for research into a possible environmental risk factor for a range of different brain diseases.”

Damian Carrington’s Sept. 5, 2016 article for the Guardian provides a few more details,

“They [the troubling magnetite particles] are abundant,” she [Maher] said. “For every one of [the crystal shaped particles] we saw about 100 of the pollution particles. The thing about magnetite is it is everywhere.” An analysis of roadside air in Lancaster found 200m magnetite particles per cubic metre.

Other scientists told the Guardian the new work provided strong evidence that most of the magnetite in the brain samples come from air pollution but that the link to Alzheimer’s disease remained speculative.

For anyone who might be concerned about health risks, there’s this from Andrew Maynard’s comments in Dexter Johnson’s Sept. 8, 2016 posting,

“In most workplaces, exposure to intentionally made nanoparticles is likely be small compared to ambient nanoparticles, and so it’s reasonable to assume—at least without further data—that this isn’t a priority concern for engineered nanomaterial production,” said Maynard.

While deliberate nanoscale manufacturing may not carry much risk, Maynard does believe that the research raises serious questions about other manufacturing processes where exposure to high concentrations of airborne nanoscale iron particles is common—such as welding, gouging, or working with molten ore and steel.

It seems everyone is agreed that the findings are concerning but I think it might be good to remember that the percentage of people who develop Alzheimer’s Disease is much smaller than the population of people who have crystals in their brains. In other words, these crystals might (they don’t know) be a factor and likely there would have to be one or more factors to create the condition for developing Alzheimer’s.

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

Magnetite pollution nanoparticles in the human brain by Barbara A. Maher, Imad A. M. Ahmed, Vassil Karloukovski, Donald A. MacLaren, Penelope G. Fouldsd, David Allsop, David M. A. Mann, Ricardo Torres-Jardón, and Lilian Calderon-Garciduenas. PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605941113

This paper is behind a paywall but Dexter’s posting offers more detail for those who are still curious.

Canada and some graphene scene tidbits

For a long time It seemed as if every country in the world, except Canada, had some some sort of graphene event. According to a July 16, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now, Canada has now stepped up, albeit, in a peculiarly Canadian fashion. First the news,

Mid October [Oct. 14 -16, 2015], the Graphene & 2D Materials Canada 2015 International Conference & Exhibition (www.graphenecanada2015.com) will take place in Montreal (Canada).

I found a July 16, 2015 news release (PDF) announcing the Canadian event on the lead organizer’s (Phantoms Foundation located in Spain) website,

On the second day of the event (15th October, 2015), an Industrial Forum will bring together top industry leaders to discuss recent advances in technology developments and business opportunities in graphene commercialization.
At this stage, the event unveils 38 keynote & invited speakers. On the Industrial Forum 19 of them will present the latest in terms of Energy, Applications, Production and Worldwide Initiatives & Priorities.

Gary Economo (Grafoid Inc., Canada)
Khasha Ghaffarzadeh (IDTechEx, UK)
Shu-Jen Han (IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, USA)
Bor Z. Jang (Angstron Materials, USA)
Seongjun Park (Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), Korea)
Chun-Yun Sung (Lockheed Martin, USA)

Parallel Sessions:
Gordon Chiu (Grafoid Inc., Canada)
Jesus de la Fuente (Graphenea, Spain)
Mark Gallerneault (ALCERECO Inc., Canada)
Ray Gibbs (Haydale Graphene Industries, UK)
Masataka Hasegawa (AIST, Japan)
Byung Hee Hong (SNU & Graphene Square, Korea)
Tony Ling (Jestico + Whiles, UK)
Carla Miner (SDTC, Canada)
Gregory Pognon (THALES Research & Technology, France)
Elena Polyakova (Graphene Laboratories Inc, USA)
Federico Rosei (INRS–EMT, Université du Québec, Canada)
Aiping Yu (University of Waterloo, Canada)
Hua Zhang (MSE-NTU, Singapore)

Apart from the industrial forum, several industry-related activities will be organized:
– Extensive thematic workshops in parallel (Standardization, Materials & Devices Characterization, Bio & Health and Electronic Devices)
– An exhibition carried out with the latest graphene trends (Grafoid, RAYMOR NanoIntegris, Nanomagnetics Instruments, ICEX and Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) already confirmed)
– B2B meetings to foster technical cooperation in the field of Graphene

It’s still possible to contribute to the event with an oral presentation. The call for abstracts is open until July, 20 [2015]. [emphasis mine]

Graphene Canada 2015 is already supported by Canada’s leading graphene applications developer, Grafoid Inc., Tourisme Montréal and Université de Montréal.

This is what makes the event peculiarly Canadian: multiculturalism, anyone? From the news release,

Organisers: Phantoms Foundation www.phantomsnet.net & Grafoid Foundation (lead organizers)

CEMES/CNRS (France) | Grafoid (Canada) | Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology – ICN2 (Spain) | IIT (Italy) | McGill University, Canada | Texas Instruments (USA) | Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium) | Université de Montreal, Canada

It’s billed as a ‘Canada Graphene 2015’ and, as I recall, these types of events don’t usually have so many other countries listed as organizers. For example, UK Graphene 2015 would have mostly or all of its organizers (especially the leads) located in the UK.

Getting to the Canadian content, I wrote about Grafoid at length tracking some of its relationships to companies it owns, a business deal with Hydro Québec, and a partnership with the University of Waterloo, and a nonrepayable grant from the Canadian federal government (Sustainable Development Technology Canada [SDTC]) in a Feb. 23, 2015 posting. Do take a look at the post if you’re curious about the heavily interlinked nature of the Canadian graphene scene and take another look at the list of speakers and their agencies (Mark Gallerneault of ALCERECO [partially owned by Grafoid], Carla Miner of SDTC [Grafoid received monies from the Canadian federal department],  Federico Rosei of INRS–EMT, Université du Québec [another Quebec link], Aiping Yu, University of Waterloo [an academic partner to Grafoid]). The Canadian graphene community is a small one so it’s not surprising there are links between the Canadian speakers but it does seem odd that Lomiko Metals is not represented here. Still, new speakers have been announced since the news release (e.g., Frank Koppens of ICFO, Spain, and Vladimir Falko of Lancaster University, UK) so  time remains.

Meanwhile, Lomiko Metals has announced in a July 17, 2015 news item on Azonano that Graphene 3D labs has changed the percentage of its outstanding shares affecting the percentage that Lomiko owns, amid some production and distribution announcements. The bit about launching commercial sales of its graphene filament seems more interesting to me,

On March 16, 2015 Graphene 3D Lab (TSXV:GGG) (OTCQB:GPHBF) announced that it launched commercial sales of its Conductive Graphene Filament for 3D printing. The filament incorporates highly conductive proprietary nano-carbon materials to enhance the properties of PLA, a widely used thermoplastic material for 3D printing; therefore, the filament is compatible with most commercially available 3D printers. The conductive filament can be used to print conductive traces (similar to as used in circuit boards) within 3D printed parts for electronics.

So, that’s all I’ve got for Canada’s graphene scene.

Feel the vibe on Nanophonics Day

Officially, Nanophonics Day was held on May 26, 2014 but it’s never too late to appreciate good vibrations. Here’s more about the ‘day’ and nanophonics from a May 27, 2014 news item on Azonano (Note: A link has been removed),

The Nanophononics Day, collocated with the European Materials Research Society Spring Meeting (Lille, 26-30 May), aims to raise awareness about this emergent research area and the EUPHONON Project. ICREA Prof Dr Clivia Sotomayor, Group Leader at ICN2, coordinates this initiative.

A phonon is a collective excitation of atoms or molecules, a vibration of matter which plays a major role in physical properties of solids and liquids. Nanophononics is the science and engineering of these vibrations at the nanometre scale. Applications of the knowledge generated in the field might include novel devices aiming to decrease the power consumption for a low-power information society. It also includes phonon lasers and phenomena involving ultra-fast acoustic processes, or exceeding the limits of mass and pressure detections in membranes which might have an impact in safety and technology standards. Nanophononics links classical and quantum physics and translates this knowledge into everyday applications.

A May 26, 2014 Institut Català de Nanociència i Nanotecnologia (ICN2) news release, which originated the news item, provides more details about European research into nanophonics,

The EUPHONON project aims to amalgamate the activities on phonon science and technology in Europe to establish a strong community in this emerging research field. It started in November 2013, coordinated by Prof. Sebastian Volz from CNRS – École Central Paris. ICREA Prof Dr Clivia M Sotomayor Torres, Phononic and Photonic Nanostructures (P2N) Group Leader at the Institut Català de Nanociència i Nanotecnologia (ICN2), is among the 7 members of the consortium. She is the coordinator of the Nanophononics Day, intended to raise awareness about this emergent research area and the EUPHONON Project.

The Nanophononics Day is celebrated in May 26th 2014, collocated with Symposium D of the European Materials Research Society (E-MRS) Spring Meeting 2014 in Lille, entitled “Phonons and Fluctuation in Low Dimensional Structures” and with ICREA Prof Dr Clivia M Sotomayor Torres again among its organizers. It is probably the largest nanophononic event in Europe and a perfect context for a lively discussion about the most recent theoretical and experimental findings.

The Nanophononics Day includes conferences by leading scientists about recent breakthroughs in nano-scale thermal transport and how the recent achievements constitute solid base for nanophononics. Prof Gang Chen (MIT, USA) and Prof Olivier Bourgeois (CNRS Inst. Neel) will cover phonons in solid materials while phonons in biological matter will be addressed by Prof Thomas Dehoux (University of Bordeaux). Experimental methods using scanning probes will be illustrated by Prof Oleg Kolosov (Lancaster University) and Prof Severine Gomez (University of Lyon).

I wish you a belated Happy Nanophonics Day!

Another day, another graphene centre in the UK as the Graphene flagship consortium’s countdown begins

The University of Cambridge has announced a Cambridge Graphene Centre due to open by the end of 2013 according to a Jan. 24, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

The Cambridge Graphene Centre will start its activities on February 1st 2013, with a dedicated facility due to open at the end of the year. Its objective is to take graphene to the next level, bridging the gap between academia and industry. It will also be a shared research facility with state-of-the-art equipment, which any scientist researching graphene will have the opportunity to use.

The University of Cambridge Jan. 24, 2013 news release, which originated the news item, describes the plans for graphene research and commercialization,

The first job for those working in the Cambridge Graphene Centre will be to find ways of manufacturing and optimising graphene films, dispersions and inks so that it can be used to good effect.

Professor Andrea Ferrari, who will be the Centre’s Director, said: “We are now in the second phase of graphene research, following the award of the Nobel Prize to Geim and Novoselov. That means we are targeting applications and manufacturing processes, and broadening research to other two-dimensional materials and hybrid systems. The integration of these new materials could bring a new dimension to future technologies, creating faster, thinner, stronger, more flexible broadband devices.”

One such project, led by Dr Stephan Hofmann, a Reader and specialist in nanotechnology, will look specifically at the manufacturability of graphene and other, layered, 2D materials. At the moment, sheets of graphene that are just one atom thick are difficult to grow in a controllable manner, manipulate, or connect with other materials.

Dr Hofmann’s research team will focus on a growth method called chemical vapour deposition (CVD), which has already opened up other materials, such as diamond, carbon nanotubes and gallium nitride, to industrial scale production.

“The process technology will open up new horizons for nanomaterials, built layer by layer, which means that it could lead to an amazing range of future devices and applications,” Dr Hofmann said.

The Government funding for the Centre is complemented by strong industrial support, worth an additional £13 million, from over 20 partners, including Nokia, Dyson, Plastic Logic, Philips and BaE systems. A further £11M of European Research Council funding will support activities with the Graphene Institute in Manchester, and Lancaster University. [emphasis mine]

Its work will focus on taking graphene from a state of raw potential to a point where it can revolutionise flexible, wearable and transparent electronics. The Centre will target the manufacture of graphene on an industrial scale, and applications in the areas of flexible electronics, energy, connectivity and optoelectronics.

Professor Yang Hao, of Queen Mary, University of London, will lead Centre activities targeting connectivity, so that graphene can be integrated into networked devices, with the ultimate vision of creating an “internet of things”.

Professor Clare Grey, from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, will lead the activities targeting the use of graphene in super-capacitors and batteries for energy storage. The research could, ultimately, provide a more effective energy storage for electric vehicles, storage on the grid, as well as boosting the energy storage possibilities of personal devices such as MP3 players and mobile phones.

The announcement of a National Graphene Institute in Manchester was mentioned in my Jan. 14, 2013 posting and both the University of Manchester and the Lancaster University are part of the Graphene Flagship consortium along with the University of Cambridge and Sweden’s Chalmers University, which is the lead institution, and others competing against three other Flagship projects for one of two 1B Euro prizes.

These two announcements (Cambridge Graphene Centre and National Graphene Institute come at an interesting time, the decision as to which two projects will receive 1B Euros for research is being announced Jan. 28, 2013 in Brussels, Belgium. The Jan. 15, 2013 article by Frank Jordans on the R&D website provides a few more details,

Teams of scientists from across the continent [Europe] are vying for a funding bonanza that could see two of them receive up to €1 billion ($1.33 billion) over 10 years to keep Europe at the cutting edge of technology.

The contest began with 26 proposals that were whittled down to six last year. Just four have made it to the final round.

They include a plan to develop digital guardian angels that would keep people safe from harm; a massive data-crunching machine to simulate social, economic and technological change on our planet; an effort to craft the most accurate computer model of the human brain to date; and a team working to find better ways to produce and employ graphene—an ultra-thin material that could revolutionize manufacturing of everything from airplanes to computer chips.

Jordans’ article goes on to further explain the reasoning for this extraordinary contest. All four groups must be highly focused on Monday’s (Jan. 28, 2013) announcement from EU (European Union) officials, after all, two prizes and four competitors means that the odds of winning are 50/50. Good luck!

UK rolls dice on glamourous graphene

These days, graphene is the glamourpuss (a US slang term from the 1940s for which I have great affection) of the nanoscience/nanotechnology research world and is an international ‘object of desire’. For example, the UK government just announced a GBP 50 M investment in graphene research. From the Feb. 2, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, said: “This significant investment in graphene will drive growth and innovation, create high-tech jobs and keep the UK at the very forefront of this rapidly evolving area of science. With a Nobel Prize and hundreds of published papers under their belts, scientists in the UK have already demonstrated that we have real strengths in this area. The graphene hub will build on this by taking this research through to commercial success.”

A key element of the graphene hub will be a national institute of graphene research and commercialisation activities. The University of Manchester has been confirmed as the single supplier invited to submit a proposal for funding a new £45 million national institute, £38 million of which will be provided by the UK Government. This world-class shared facility for graphene research and commercialisation activities will be accessible by both researchers and business.

I’d never really heard about graphene until 2010 when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in graphene. (In 2012, both scientists were knighted and I could have referred to them as Sir Geim and Sir Novoselov.) Since that time money has been flowing towards graphene research. As far as I can tell this GBP 50 M is the tip of the iceberg.

The University of Manchester and other institutions in the UK are part of an international consortium competing for a 1 billion Euro research prize through the European Union’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) programme. (I have a bit more about the FET competition in my June 13, 2011 posting.)

There does seem to be some jockeying for position. First, the graphene consortium is currently competing for the FET money as the Graphene Flagship. Only two of six competing flagships will receive money for further research. Should the consortium’s flagship be successful, there will be six member countries competing for a share of that 1 billion Euro prize. The UK is represented by three research institutions (University of Manchester, Lancaster University, and the University of Cambridge) while every other country in the graphene consortium is represented by one research institution.

The decision as to which two FET flagship projects receive the funding will be made public in late 2012. Meanwhile, the UK not only announces this latest funding but last fall also launched a big graphene exhibition, anchored by the three UK universities in the consortium,  in Warsaw. I wrote about that development in my Nov. 25, 2011 posting and questioned the communication strategy. It’s taken me a while but I’m beginning to realize that this was likely part of a larger political machination designed to ensure UK dominance in graphene research and, I imagine they dearly hope this will be true, commercialization.

ETA Feb. 6, 2012: Dexter Johnson at the Nanoclast blog (on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers [IEEE] website) noted this about the UK and commercializing graphene in the electronics industry in his Feb. 3, 2012 posting,

The press release emphasizes how “The graphene hub will build on this [investment] by taking this research through to commercial success.” So I was wondering if there would be any discussion of how they intended to build up an electronics industry that it never really had in the first place to exploit the material.