Tag Archives: Making Stuff

Coatings that shake off bacteria and biological photocopying

The American Vacuum Society (AVS) is holding its 58th International Symposium and Exhibition from Oct. 30 – Nov. 4, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. Presentations are not focused on vacuuming (hoovering) floors but rather on something called vacuum science and they span from a presentation on bacteria and coatings to another on photocopying DNA to more.

From the Oct. 31, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

“Sea water is a very aggressive biological system,” says Gabriel Lopez, whose lab at Duke University studies the interface of marine bacterial films with submerged surfaces. While the teeming abundance of ocean life makes coral reefs and tide pools attractive tourist destinations, for ships whose hulls become covered with slime, all this life can, quite literally, be a big drag. On just one class of U.S. Navy destroyer, biological build-up is estimated to cost more than $50 million a year, mostly in extra fuel, according to a 2010 study performed by researchers from the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland. Marine biofouling can also disrupt the operation of ocean sensors, heat-exchangers that suck in water to cool mechanical systems, and other underwater equipment.

I think rather than describing sea water as ‘aggressive’  which suggests intent, I’d use ‘active’ as Lopez does later in another context (excerpted from the news item),

Lopez and his group focus on a class of materials called stimuli-responsive surfaces. As the name implies, the materials will alter their physical or chemical properties in response to a stimulus, such as a temperature change. The coatings being tested in Lopez’s lab wrinkle on the micro- or nano-scale, shaking off slimy colonies of marine bacteria in a manner similar to how a horse might twitch its skin to shoo away flies. The researchers also consider how a stimulus might alter the chemical properties of a surface in a way that could decrease a marine organism’s ability to stick.

At the AVS Symposium, held Oct. 30 – Nov. 4 in Nashville, Tenn., Lopez will present results from experiments on two different types of stimuli-responsive surfaces: one that changes its texture in response to temperature and the other in response to an applied voltage. The voltage-responsive surfaces are being developed in collaboration with the laboratory of Xuanhe Zhao, also a Duke researcher, who found that insulating cables can fail if they deform under voltages. “Surprisingly, the same failure mechanism can be made useful in deforming surfaces of coatings and detaching biofouling,” Zhao said.

“The idea of an active surface is inspired by nature,” adds Lopez, who remembers being intrigued by the question of how a sea anemone’s waving tentacles are able to clean themselves. [emphasis mine] Other biological surfaces, such as shark skin, have already been copied by engineers seeking to learn from nature’s own successful anti-fouling systems.

(I did profile some biomimicry work being done with shark skin in my comments on part 4 of the Making Stuff programmes broadcast as part of the Nova series on PBS (US Public Broadcasting Stations) in my Feb. 10, 2011 posting.)

This next presentation is in the area of synthetic biology. From the Oct. 31, 2011 news item (DNA origami from inkjet synthesis produced strands) on Nanowerk,

In the emerging field of synthetic biology, engineers use biological building blocks, such as snippets of DNA, to construct novel technologies. One of the key challenges in the field is finding a way to quickly and economically synthesize the desired DNA strands. Now scientists from Duke University have fabricated a reusable DNA chip that may help address this problem by acting as a template from which multiple batches of DNA building blocks can be photocopied. The researchers have used the device to create strands of DNA which they then folded into unique nanoscale structures.

“We found that we had an “immortal” DNA chip in our hands,” says Ishtiaq Saaem, a biomedical engineering researcher at Duke and member of the team. [emphasis mine] “Essentially, we were able to do the biological copying process to release material off the chip tens of times. [emphasis mine] The process seems to work even using a chip that we made, used, stored in -20C for a while, and brought out and used again.”

After releasing the DNA from the chip, the team “cooked” it together with a piece of long viral DNA. “In the cooking process, the viral DNA is stapled into a desired shape by the smaller chip-derived DNA,” explains Saaem. One of the team’s first examples of DNA origami was a rectangle shape with a triangle attached on one side, which the researchers dubbed a “nano-house.” The structure could be used to spatially orient organic and inorganic materials, serve as a scaffold for drug delivery, or act as a nanoscale ruler, Saaem says.

I’m not very comfortable with the notion of an “immortal DNA chip” but then I have many reservations about synthetic biology. Still, I think it’s important to pay attention and consider the possibility that my fears about synthetic biology might make as much sense as the fears many had about electricity in the 19th century.

Thoughts on part 4 of (PBS) Nova’s Making Stuff series

Last night (Feb.9.11) PBS aired the final part of the Making Stuff  series as part of its Nova tv programming. It was titled Making Stuff Smarter and did not feature a single bot of any kind or any nanoscale computers or labs on chips thereby frustrating (not in a bad way) some of my expectations but I should have become accustomed to that by now.

There was a focus on something called biomimicry, a term I did not hear used while I was watching (confession: I didn’t watch every single minute of the show), where researchers try to make materials that mimic a process or ability observed in nature. They used sharkskin as an example for making a ‘smarter’ material. Scientists have observed that nanoscale structures on a shark’s skin have antibacterial properties. This is especially important when we have a growing problem with bacteria that are antibiotic resistant. David Pogue’s (the program host) interviewed scientists at Sharklet and highlighted their work producing a plastic with nanostructures similar to those found on sharkskin for use in hospitals, restaurants, etc.  I found this on the Sharklet website (from a rotating graphic on the home page),

The World Health Organization calls antibiotic resistance a leading threat to human health.

Sharkjet provides a non-toxic approach to bacterial control and doesn’t create resistance.

The reason that the material does not create resistance is that it doesn’t kill the bacteria (antibiotics kill most bacteria but cannot kill all of them with the consequence that only the resistant survive and reproduce). Excerpted from Sharklet’s technology page,

While the Sharklet pattern holds great promise to improve the way humans co-exist with microorganisms, the pattern was developed far outside of a laboratory. In fact, Sharklet was discovered via a seemingly unrelated problem: how to keep algae from coating the hulls of submarines and ships. In 2002, Dr. Anthony Brennan, a materials science and engineering professor at the University of Florida, was visiting the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Oahu as part of Navy-sponsored research. The U.S. Office of Naval Research solicited Dr. Brennan to find new antifouling strategies to reduce use of toxic antifouling paints and trim costs associated with dry dock and drag.

Dr. Brennan was convinced that using an engineered topography could be a key to new antifouling technologies. Clarity struck as he and several colleagues watched an algae-coated nuclear submarine return to port. Dr. Brennan remarked that the submarine looked like a whale lumbering into the harbor. In turn, he asked which slow moving marine animals don’t foul. The only one? The shark.

Dr. Brennan was inspired to take an actual impression of shark skin, or more specifically, its dermal denticles. Examining the impression with scanning electron microscopy, Dr. Brennan confirmed his theory. Shark skin denticles are arranged in a distinct diamond pattern with tiny riblets. Dr. Brennan measured the ribs’ width-to-height ratios which corresponded to his mathematical model for roughness – one that would discourage microorganisms from settling. The first test of Sharklet yielded impressive results. Sharklet reduced green algae settlement by 85 percent compared to smooth surfaces.

There’s more to the story so I encourage you to take a look at the page. What I find compelling about biomimicry is that we are learning from nature and mimicking it rather than try to control or destroy what we view as dangerous to us or, in some cases, not valuable. Interestingly, this program featured the military quite prominently in other segments while, as far as I’m aware, failing to mention biomimcry  which suggests (I’m putting on my semiotic hat) that our ideas about controlling nature and using warlike metaphors to describe scientific and medical efforts are still dominant socially and being reproduced.

I enjoyed (with qualifications regarding some of the subtext) the program series (all three of the shows I managed to watch) but, as I’ve noted previously, I’m not the target market so some of it was a bit too fluffy for me.

I found this fourth installment the most interesting and I was delighted to see that they featured climbing robots (based on geckos and mentioned in my Aug. 2, 2010 posting) and invisibility (mentioned most recently in my Jan. 26, 2011 posting although that features a different approach than the one mentioned in the program) along with a few items that were new to me.

Coincidentally the National Film Board of Canada is featuring a film short titled, Magic Molecule in its Feb. 9, 2011 newsletter. Produced in 1964, it introduces us to the fabulous world of plastics. In some ways, it’s very similar to the Making Stuff series. The tone is upbeat and very much pro plastics and its wonders.

Science outreach and Nova’s Making Stuff series on PBS

The February 2011 NISE (Nanoscale Informal Science Education) Net newsletter pointed me towards a video interview with Amy Moll, a materials scientist (Boise State University) being interviewed by Joe McEntee, group editor IOP Publishing, for the physicsworld.com video series,

Interesting discussion, yes? The Making Stuff series on PBS is just part of their (materials scientists’ working through their professional association, the Materials Research Society) science outreach effort. The series itself has been several years in the planning but is just one piece of a much larger effort.

All of which puts another news item into perspective. From the Feb. 7, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

The Arizona Science Center is enlisting the expertise of professors in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering in showcasing the latest advances in materials science and engineering.

The engineering schools are among organizations collaborating with the science center to present the Making Stuff Festival Feb. 18-20. [emphasis mine]

The event will explore how new kinds of materials are shaping the future of technology – in medicine, computers, energy, space travel, transportation and an array of personal electronic devices.

No one is making a secret of the connection,

The festival is being presented in conjunction with the broadcast of “Making Stuff”, a multi-part television series of the Public Broadcasting Service program NOVA that focuses on advances in materials technologies. It’s airing locally on KAET-Channel 8.

Channel 8 is another collaborator on the Making Stuff Festival, along with ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, the Arizona Technology Council, Medtronic, Intel and Science Foundation Arizona.

I highlight these items to point out how much thought, planning, and effort can go into science outreach.

Nano haikus (from the Feb. 2011 issue of the NISE Net Newsletter,

We received two Haikus from Michael Flynn expressing his hopes and fears for nanotechnology:

Miracle fibers
Weave a new reality
Built from the ground up

Too Small to be seen
This toxin is nanoscale
Can’t tell if it spilled

Can governments keep pace with science and technology?

Later this week (Feb. 3 & 4, 2011), an imaginative discussion about society, emerging technologies, and the role of government, Here Be Dragons: Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future, will take place at Google’s Washington, DC, headquarters.  The event (one of a series dubbed ‘Future Tense’) is the result of a partnership between Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate magazine. Not surprisingly Slate has an article about the event but it’s written by Robert J. Sawyer, a Canadian science fiction novelist and it’s not about the event per se. From the Slate article, The Purpose of Science Fiction; How it teaches governments—and citizens—how to understand the future of technology,

… science-fiction writers explore these issues in ways that working scientists simply can’t. Some years ago, for a documentary for Discovery Channel Canada, I interviewed neurobiologist Joe Tsien, who had created superintelligent mice in his lab at Princeton—something he freely spoke about when the cameras were off. But as soon as we started rolling, and I asked him about the creation of smarter mice, he made a “cut” gesture. “We can talk about the mice having better memories but not about them being smarter. The public will be all over me if they think we’re making animals more intelligent.”

But science-fiction writers do get to talk about the real meaning of research. We’re not beholden to skittish funding bodies and so are free to speculate about the full range of impacts that new technologies might have—not just the upsides but the downsides, too. And we always look at the human impact rather than couching research in vague, nonthreatening terms.

That bit about ‘smarter mice’ is related to the issue I was discussing in regard to PBS’s Nova Series: Making Stuff and their approach to transgenic goats (my Jan. 21, 2011 posting). Many people are distressed by this notion of crossing boundaries and ‘playing God’ to the point where discussion is rendered difficult if not impossible.The ‘smarter mice’ issue points to a related problem in that people find some boundaries more acceptable to cross than others.

Sawyer’s point about science fiction being a means of holding the discussion is well taken. He will be presenting at this week’s ‘Dragons’ event. Here’s more about it,

Maps in the old days often included depictions of sea dragons or lions to connote unknown or dangerous terrain. Unfortunately, when it comes to a future that will be altered in unimaginable ways by emerging technologies, society and government cannot simply lay down a “Here Be Dragons” marker with a fanciful illustration to signal that most of us have no clue.

How does a democratic society both nurture and regulate — and find the right balance between those two imperatives — fast-evolving technologies poised to radically alter life?

Synthetic biology, with its potential to engineer and manipulate living organisms, and the Internet, which continues to alter how we live and relate to each other, offer two compelling cases in point.

Future Tense is convening at Google DC a number of leading scientists, Internet thinkers, governance experts and science fiction writers to grapple with the challenge of governing an unchartered future.

Related but tangential: The Canadian Army has shown an interest in science fiction as they have commissioned at least two novels by Karl Schroeder as I noted in my Feb. 16, 2009 posting.

One last thought, I am curious about the fact that the ‘Dragons’ event is being held at a Google headquarters yet Google is not a sponsor, a host, or a partner.

Making Stuff (nanotechnology) on PBS’s Nova tonight

Tonight, PBS’s Nova tv series will broadcast part one of its four-part series on nanotechnology. I first mentioned the programme in my Jan. 7, 2011 posting where I noted that Andrew Maynard (2020 Science blog) had seen a preview and had some reservations about one item in the four-part series. (The host, David Pogue, in a bit intended to be amusing, drinks some milk from a goat that has been injected with spider genes.) I will be watching eagerly tonight (and subsequent nights) to see if the producers have made any changes after receiving some feedback about the ‘humourous’ bit. You can read more about the PBS nanotechnology series here on their Making Stuff page.

Since this seem to be my week for television, I did watch Chuck on Monday night (as per my Jan. 17, 2011 posting) and the nanotechnology part of the story was unexceptional largely because it had very little to do with the story. The nanochip everyone was chasing was a ‘McGuffin’ (from the Wikipedia essay),

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is “a plot element that catches the viewers’ attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction”. The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot.

Bumper crop of nano news from NISE Net

The January issue of the NISE Net (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) newsletter features information about a new resource for scientists who need to talk or communicate about their work, Mastering Science and Public Presentations is a video. This talk was given by Tim Masters of Spoken Science at Duke University in the summer of 2010.

Larry Bell on his NISE Net blog discusses some of the meetings (National Science Foundation and National Nanotechnology Initiative) he attended in Washington, DC. I found the one about a Periodic Table of Nanoparticles particularly interesting as it includes an image which features the particles in 3 dimensions representing shape, size, and composition.

There’s a very good nanotechnology article by Corinna Wu in the American Association for Engineering Education (ASEE) magazine, PRISM, Peril in Small Places; What dangers lurk in our expanding use of nanotechnology? It does have an ominous title but the writer does a good job of covering the positive and exciting aspects as well as the risks. From the article,

The wonder of nanotechnology is the abundance of materials, devices, and systems made possible by controlling and manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular levels. But with that wonder comes concern that these now ubiquitous nanoparticles could spread new hazardous pollutants that threaten health and the environment. “We’re trying to say, ‘These are new materials. We don’t know if there’s a problem, so let’s ask now,’” says Sally Tinkle, senior science adviser at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health. With prodding from the National Research Council and other institutions, inquiry into the health and environmental effects of nanotechnology has gone hand in hand with research on potential applications. The work is interdisciplinary, and engineers play a critical role. By helping to figure out what makes a nanoparticle toxic, they can, for instance, design nanoparticles that kill cancer cells yet don’t harm healthy tissues, or that remove pollutants from soil without poisoning wildlife.

It’s focused on the US scene and, one quibble, I’m not sure about some of the numbers. (For example, Wu gives a value for the number of nanotechnology products on the market but offers no details as to how this number was derived or where it came from.)

There’s a four-part series, Making Stuff, that’s going to be broadcast as part of the NOVA program on PBS. It starts Jan. 19, 2010. From the website,

Invisibility cloaks. Spider silk that is stronger than steel. Plastics made of sugar that dissolve in landfills. Self-healing military vehicles. Smart pills and micro-robots that zap diseases. Clothes that monitor your mood. What will the future bring, and what will it be made of? In NOVA’s four-hour series, “Making Stuff,” popular New York Times technology reporter David Pogue takes viewers on a fun-filled tour of the material world we live in, and the one that may lie ahead. Get a behind-the-scenes look at scientific innovations ushering in a new generation of materials that are stronger, smaller, cleaner, and smarter than anything we’ve ever seen.

Beginning January 19, 2011, NOVA will premiere the new four-hour series on consecutive Wednesday nights at 9 pm ET/PT on PBS (check local listings): “Making Stuff: Stronger, Smaller, Cleaner, Smarter.”

I wonder if they’ve made any changes to the series. After previewing it a few months ago, Andrew Maynard at 2020 Science featured the program in his Nov. 2, 2010 posting and it provoked a bit of a discussion about how to present science. From the posting,

Last week while at the NISE Net network-wide meeting, I was fortunate enough to see a preview of part of NOVA’s forthcoming series Making Stuff. The series focuses on the wonders of modern materials science. But rather than coming away enthralled by the ingenuity of scientists, I found myself breaking out in a cold sweat as I watched something that set my science-engagement alarm-bells ringing: New York Times tech reporter and host David Pogue enthusing about splicing spider genes into a goat so it produces silk protein-containing milk, then glibly drinking the milk while joking about transforming into Spider Man.

I was sitting there thinking, “You start with a spider – not everyone’s favorite creature. And you genetically cross it with a goat – dangerous territory at the best of times. Then you show a middle aged dude drinking the modified milk from a transgenic animal and having a laugh about it. And all this without any hint of a question over the wisdom or ramifications of what’s going on? Man, this is going to go down well!”

Andrew goes on to ask if his reaction was justified. Comments ensued including one from the producer of the series, Chris Schmidt.

Now, the nano haiku. Again this month there are two:

Asian hornets are
powered by nano solar
at the sun’s zenith.

by Frank Kusiak of the Lawrence Hall of Science. This Haiku relates to the BBC article Oriental hornets powered by ‘solar energy’.

After reading about the use of cinnamon in the production of gold nanoparticles, Vrylena Olney got hungry – and creative:

Cinnamon: good for
pumpkin pie, Moroccan stew,

Research and the 2010 Canadian federal budget; nanotechnology, hype, markets, and medicine; Visionaries in Banagalore; materials science and PBS offer a grant opportunity; To Think To Write To Publish for emerging science writers

It’s time for quiet appreciation as Rob Annan (Don’t leave Canada behind blog) points out in his breakdown of the 2010 Canadian federal budget’s allocation for research.  From the posting (Budget 2010 – A Qualified Success),

Last year’s cuts to the research granting councils, though relatively small, were magnified by their inclusion in a so-called “stimulus budget” full of spending increases in other areas.

This year, the opposite is true. Funding increases, though relatively small, are made more significant by the context of spending restraint evidenced elsewhere in the budget.

Rob goes through the budget allocations for each of the research funding agencies and provides a comparison with previous funding amounts. As he points out, it’s not time to pop the champagne corks as this is a modest success albeit at a time when many were expecting deep cuts. One comment from me, this increase is not a good reason to get complacent and run back to the research facilities effectively disappearing from the public discourse. After all, there’s another budget next year.

Pallab Chatterjee of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) recently made some comments (on EDN [Electronics Design, Strategy, News] about nanotechnology and commercialization focusing (somewhat) on nanomedicine. It caught my eye because Andrew Maynard (2020 Science blog) has written a piece on cancer and nanomedicine which poses some questions about nanomedicine hype. First, the comments from Chatterjee,

The Nanosys announcement heralds the arrival of nanotechnology products from other companies that will soon be entering the market and shows that the typical eight- to 10-year gestation period for breakthrough technologies to reach commercialization is now reaching an end. For example, nanomedicine is now emerging as a major topic of investigation. To help solidify the topics in this area and to determine the best direction for commercialization, the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) held the First Global Congress on NEMB (nanoengineering for medicine and biology), a three-day event that took place last month in Houston.

As nanomedicine products hit the commercial marketplace, you can expect hype. According to Andrew (Nanotechnology and cancer treatment: Do we need a reality check?), government agencies have already been on a ‘hype’ trail of sorts (from 2020 Science),

Cancer treatment has been a poster-child for nanotechnology for almost as long as I’ve been involved with the field. As far back as in 1999, a brochure on nanotechnology published by the US government described future “synthetic anti-body-like nanoscale drugs or devices that might seek out and destroy malignant cells wherever they might be in the body.” Over the intervening decade, nanotechnology has become a cornerstone of the National Cancer Institute’s fight against cancer, and has featured prominently in the US government’s support for nanotechnology research and development.

Andrew goes on to quote various experts in the field discussing what they believe can be accomplished. These comments are hopeful and measured and stand in stark contrast to what I imagine will occur once nanomedicine products seriously enter the marketplace. Take for example, Michael Berger’s (Nanowerk) comments about the wildly overhyped nanotechnology market valuations. From Berger’s 2007 article (Debunking the trillion dollar nanotechnology market size hype),

There seems to be an arms race going on among nanotechnology investment and consulting firms as to who can come up with the highest figure for the size of the “nanotechnology market”. The current record stands at $2.95 trillion by 2015. The granddaddy of the trillion-dollar forecasts of course is the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) “$1 trillion by 2015”, which inevitably gets quoted in many articles, business plans and funding applications.

The problem with these forecasts is that they are based on a highly inflationary data collection and compilation methodology. The result is that the headline figures – $1 trillion!, $2 trillion!, $3 trillion! – are more reminiscent of supermarket tabloids than serious market research. Some would call it pure hype. This type of market size forecast leads to misguided expectations because few people read the entire report and in the end only the misleading trillion-dollar headline figure gets quoted out of context, even by people who should now better, and finally achieves a life by itself.

The comments and the figures that Berger cites are still being used ensuring commentary is still relevant. In fact, if you apply the psychology of how these claims become embedded, these comments can be applied to nanomedicine as well.

On a not entirely unrelated note, MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review Journal has organised a meeting in Bangalore which starts on Monday, March 8, 2010. From the news item on Business Standard,

Nearly a hundred of the world’s leading business and tech visionaries will discuss next generation technologies that are ready for the market in the annual Emerging Technologies Conference (Emtech) in Bangalore next week.

The two-day conference begining March 8 is being held in India for the second year in succession in association with CyberMedia.

The conference, organised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review journal, will cover a variety of cutting edge topics ranging from green computing techniques, clean transport alternatives and smarter energy grid to the role that wireless can play in connecting India.

Special sessions on innovative diagnostics and neglected diseases will draw attention towards unheralded health care fields. A session on the future of nanotechnology will touch on new capabilities, giving people new ways to make things and heal bodies.

Finally, I got my monthly NISENet (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) newsletter and found a couple of opportunities (from the newsletter), one for materials scientists,

Making Stuff Grant Opportunity
The Materials Research Society and WGBH will be premiering Making Stuff, a four-part PBS series about materials science, in fall 2010 and are looking for outreach partners to organize and host events, demos, workshops, and science cafes in connection with the premiere.  They’ll provide outreach partners with a stipend as well as a resource toolkit.  One of the four episodes is focused on nanotechnology, and nano will be a common thread throughout the episodes. You can find lots more information, as well as the application form, here.  Applications are due April 1st.

and one for emerging science writers,

Calling all “next generation” science and tech writers!

Our partners at ASU asked us to pass along this writing and publishing fellowship opportunity to all of you. They’re now accepting applications for To Think-To Write-To Publish, an intensive two-day workshop followed by a three-day conference in Arizona for early career writers of any genre with an interest in science and technology. The deadline is March 15th, click here to download the flier.

If you are interested in NISENet or want to submit a haiku about nanotechnology (sadly the newsletter doesn’t feature one this month), their website is here.