What I find most exciting about this conference is the range of countries being represented. At first glance, I’ve found Argentina, Thailand, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Costa Rica and more in a science meeting being held in Canada. Thank you to the organizers and to the organization International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA)
As I’ve noted many times here in discussing the science advice we (Canadians) get through the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), there’s far too much dependence on the same old, same old countries for international expertise. Let’s hope this meeting changes things.
The conference (with the theme Build Back Wiser: Knowledge, Policy and Publics in Dialogue) started on Monday, August 30, 2021 and is set to run for four days in Montréal, Québec. and as an online event The Premier of Québec, François Legault, and Mayor of Montréal, Valérie Plante (along with Peter Gluckman, Chair of INGSA and Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist of Québec; this is the only province with a chief scientist) are there to welcome those who are present in person.
You can find a PDF of the four day programme here or go to the INGSA 2021 website for the programme and more. Here’s a sample from the programme of what excited me, from Day 1 (August 30, 2021),
8:45 | Plenary | Roundtable: Reflections from Covid-19: Where to from here?
Moderator: Mona Nemer – Chief Science Advisor of Canada
Speakers: Joanne Liu – Professor, School of Population and Global Health, McGill University, Quebec, Canada Chor Pharn Lee – Principal Foresight Strategist at Centre for Strategic Futures, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore Andrea Ammon – Director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Sweden Rafael Radi – President of the National Academy of Sciences; Coordinator of Scientific Honorary Advisory Group to the President on Covid-19, Uruguay
9:45 | Panel: Science advice during COVID-19: What factors made the difference?
Romain Murenzi – Executive Director, The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), Italy
Stephen Quest – Director-General, European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), Belgium Yuxi Zhang – Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, United Kingdom Amadou Sall – Director, Pasteur Institute of Dakar, Senegal Inaya Rakhmani – Director, Asia Research Centre, Universitas Indonesia
One last excerpt, from Day 2 (August 31, 2021),
Studio Session | Panel: Science advice for complex risk assessment: dealing with complex, new, and interacting threats
Moderator: Eeva Hellström – Senior Lead, Strategy and Foresight, Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, Finland
Speakers: Albert van Jaarsveld – Director General and Chief Executive Officer, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria Abdoulaye Gounou – Head, Benin’s Office for the Evaluation of Public Policies and Analysis of Government Action Catherine Mei Ling Wong – Sociologist, LRF Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk, National University of Singapore Andria Grosvenor – Deputy Executive Director (Ag), Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, Barbados
Studio Session | Innovations in Science Advice – Science Diplomacy driving evidence for policymaking
Moderator: Mehrdad Hariri – CEO and President of the Canadian Science Policy Centre, Canada
Speakers: Primal Silva – Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Chief Science Operating Officer, Canada Zakri bin Abdul Hamid – Chair of the South-East Asia Science Advice Network (SEA SAN); Pro-Chancellor of Multimedia University in Malaysia Christian Arnault Emini – Senior Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office in Cameroon Florence Gauzy Krieger and Sebastian Goers – RLS-Sciences Network [See more about RLS-Sciences below] Elke Dall and Angela Schindler-Daniels – European Union Science Diplomacy Alliance Alexis Roig – CEO, SciTech DiploHub – Barcelona Science and Technology Diplomacy Hub, Spain
RLS-Sciences works under the framework of the Regional Leaders Summit. The Regional Leaders Summit (RLS) is a forum comprising seven regional governments (state, federal state, or provincial), which together represent approximately one hundred eighty million people across five continents, and a collective GDP of three trillion USD. The regions are: Bavaria (Germany), Georgia (USA), Québec (Canada), São Paulo (Brazil), Shandong (China), Upper Austria (Austria), and Western Cape (South Africa). Since 2002, the heads of government for these regions have met every two years for a political summit. These summits offer the RLS regions an opportunity for political dialogue.
Getting back to the main topic of this post, INGSA has some satellite events on offer, including this on Open Science,
Open Science: Science for the 21st century |
Science ouverte : la science au XXIe siècle
Thursday September 9, 2021; 11am-2pm EST | Jeudi 9 septembre 2021, 11 h à 14 h (HNE).
This event will be in English and French (using simultaneous translation) | Cet événement se déroulera en anglais et en français (traduction simultanée)
In the past 18 months we have seen an unprecedented level of sharing as medical scientists worked collaboratively and shared data to find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has accelerated the ongoing cultural shift in research practices towards open science.
This acceleration of the discovery/research process presents opportunities for institutions and governments to develop infrastructure, tools, funding, policies, and training to support, promote, and reward open science efforts. It also presents new opportunities to accelerate progress towards the UN Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals through international scientific cooperation.
At the same time, it presents new challenges: rapid developments in open science often outpace national open science policies, funding, and infrastructure frameworks. Moreover, the development of international standard setting instruments, such as the future UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, requires international harmonization of national policies, the establishment of frameworks to ensure equitable participation, and education, training, and professional development.
This 3-hour satellite event brings together international and national policy makers, funders, and experts in open science infrastructure to discuss these issues.
The outcome of the satellite event will be a summary report with recommendations for open science policy alignment at institutional, national, and international levels.
The event will be hosted on an events platform, with simultaneous interpretation in English and French. Participants will be able to choose which concurrent session they participate in upon registration. Registration is free but will be closed when capacity is reached.
This satellite event takes place in time for an interesting anniversary. The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI), also known as Montreal Neuro, declared itself as Open Science in 2016, the first academic research institute (as far as we know) to do so in the world (see my January 22, 2016 posting for details about their open science initiative and my December 19, 2016 posting for more about their open science and their decision to not pursue patents for a five year period).
There’s a lot of arsenic in the world and it’s often a factor in making water undrinkable. When that water is used in farming It also pollutes soil and enters food-producing plants. A December 11, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces research into arsenic detectors in plants,
Researchers have developed a living plant-based sensor that can in real-time detect and monitor levels of arsenic, a highly toxic heavy metal, in the soil. Arsenic pollution is a major threat to humans and ecosystems in many Asia Pacific countries.
Scientists from the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) research group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, have engineered a novel type of plant nanobionic optical sensor that can detect and monitor, in real time, levels of the highly toxic heavy metal arsenic in the underground environment. This development provides significant advantages over conventional methods used to measure arsenic in the environment and will be important for both environmental monitoring and agricultural applications to safeguard food safety, as arsenic is a contaminant in many common agricultural products such as rice, vegetables, and tea leaves.
Arsenic and its compounds are a serious threat to humans and ecosystems. Long-term exposure to arsenic in humans can cause a wide range of detrimental health effects, including cardiovascular disease such as heart attack, diabetes, birth defects, severe skin lesions, and numerous cancers including those of the skin, bladder, and lung. Elevated levels of soil arsenic as a result of anthropogenic activities such as mining and smelting are also harmful to plants, inhibiting growth and resulting in substantial crop losses.
Food crops can absorb arsenic from the soil, leading to contamination of food and produce consumed by humans. Arsenic in underground environments can also contaminate groundwater and other underground water sources, the long-term consumption of which can cause severe health issues. As such, developing accurate, effective, and easy-to-deploy arsenic sensors is important to protect both the agriculture industry and wider environmental safety.
The novel optical nanosensors exhibit changes in their fluorescence intensity upon detecting arsenic. Embedded in plant tissues, with no detrimental effects on the plant, these sensors provide a nondestructive way to monitor the internal dynamics of arsenic taken up by plants from the soil. This integration of optical nanosensors within living plants enables the conversion of plants into self-powered detectors of arsenic from their natural environment, marking a significant upgrade from the time- and equipment-intensive arsenic sampling methods of current conventional methods.
“Our plant-based nanosensor is notable not only for being the first of its kind, but also for the significant advantages it confers over conventional methods of measuring arsenic levels in the below-ground environment, requiring less time, equipment, and manpower,” says Lew. “We envision that this innovation will eventually see wide use in the agriculture industry and beyond. I am grateful to SMART DiSTAP and the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL), both of which were instrumental in idea generation and scientific discussion as well as research funding for this work.”
Besides detecting arsenic in rice and spinach, the team also used a species of fern, Pteris cretica, which can hyperaccumulate arsenic. This fern species can absorb and tolerate high levels of arsenic with no detrimental effect — engineering an ultrasensitive plant-based arsenic detector, capable of detecting very low concentrations of arsenic, as low as 0.2 parts per billion. In contrast, the regulatory limit for arsenic detectors is 10 parts per billion. Notably, the novel nanosensors can also be integrated into other species of plants. The researchers say this is the first successful demonstration of living plant-based sensors for arsenic and represents a groundbreaking advancement that could prove highly useful in both agricultural research (e.g., to monitor arsenic taken up by edible crops for food safety) and general environmental monitoring.
Previously, conventional methods of measuring arsenic levels included regular field sampling, plant tissue digestion, extraction, and analysis using mass spectrometry. These methods are time-consuming, require extensive sample treatment, and often involve the use of bulky and expensive instrumentation. The new approach couples nanoparticle sensors with plants’ natural ability to efficiently extract analytes via the roots and transport them. This allows for the detection of arsenic uptake in living plants in real time, with portable, inexpensive electronics such as a portable Raspberry Pi platform equipped with a charge-coupled device camera akin to a smartphone camera.
Co-author, DiSTAP co-lead principal investigator, and MIT Professor Michael Strano adds, “This is a hugely exciting development, as, for the first time, we have developed a nanobionic sensor that can detect arsenic — a serious environmental contaminant and potential public health threat. With its myriad advantages over older methods of arsenic detection, this novel sensor could be a game-changer, as it is not only more time-efficient, but also more accurate and easier to deploy than older methods. It will also help plant scientists in organizations such as TLL to further produce crops that resist uptake of toxic elements. Inspired by TLL’s recent efforts to create rice crops which take up less arsenic, this work is a parallel effort to further support SMART DiSTAP’s efforts in food security research, constantly innovating and developing new technological capabilities to improve Singapore’s food quality and safety.”
The research is carried out by SMART and supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program.
Led by MIT’s Strano and Singapore co-lead principal investigator Professor Chua Nam Hai, DiSTAP is one of the five Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs) in SMART. The DiSTAP program addresses deep problems in food production in Singapore and the world by developing a suite of impactful and novel analytical genetic and biosynthetic technologies. The goal is to fundamentally change how plant biosynthetic pathways are discovered, monitored, engineered, and ultimately translated to meet the global demand for food and nutrients. Scientists from MIT, TTL, Nanyang Technological University, and National University of Singapore are collaboratively developing new tools for the continuous measurement of important plant metabolites and hormones for novel discovery, deeper understanding and control of plant biosynthetic pathways in ways not yet possible, especially in the context of green leafy vegetables; leveraging these new techniques to engineer plants with highly desirable properties for global food security, including high yield density production, drought and pathogen resistance and biosynthesis of high-value commercial products; developing tools for producing hydrophobic food components in industry-relevant microbes; developing novel microbial and enzymatic technologies to produce volatile organic compounds that can protect and/or promote growth of leafy vegetables; and applying these technologies to improve urban farming.
This news comes from the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Quantum Technologies according to a May 4, 2020 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),
Here’s a new chapter in the story of the miniaturisation of machines: researchers in a laboratory in Singapore have shown that a single atom can function as either an engine or a fridge. Such a device could be engineered into future computers and fuel cells to control energy flows.
“Think about how your computer or laptop has a lot of things inside it that heat up. Today you cool that with a fan that blows air. In nanomachines or quantum computers, small devices that do cooling could be something useful,” says Dario Poletti from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).
This work gives new insight into the mechanics of such devices. The work is a collaboration involving researchers at the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) and Department of Physics at the National University of Singapore (NUS), SUTD and at the University of Augsburg in Germany. The results were published in the peer-reviewed journal npj Quantum Information (“Single-atom energy-conversion device with a quantum load”).
The researchers have included an exceptionally pretty illustration with the press release,
Engines and refrigerators are both machines described by thermodynamics, a branch of science that tells us how energy moves within a system and how we can extract useful work. A classical engine turns energy into useful work. A refrigerator does work to transfer heat, reducing the local temperature. They are, in some sense, opposites.
People have made small heat engines before using a single atom, a single molecule and defects in diamond. A key difference about this device is that it shows quantumness in its action. “We want to understand how we can build thermodynamic devices with just a few atoms. The physics is not well understood so our work is important to know what is possible,” says Manas Mukherjee, a Principal Investigator at CQT, NUS, who led the experimental work.
The researchers studied the thermodynamics of a single barium atom. They devised a scheme in which lasers move one of the atom’s electrons between two energy levels as part of a cycle, causing some energy to be pushed into the atom’s vibrations. Like a car engine consumes petrol to both move pistons and charge up its battery, the atom uses energy from lasers as fuel to increase its vibrating motion. The atom’s vibrations act like a battery, storing energy that can be extracted later. Rearrange the cycle and the atom acts like a fridge, removing energy from the vibrations.
In either mode of operation, quantum effects show up in correlations between the atom’s electronic states and vibrations. “At this scale, the energy transfer between the engine and the load is a bit fuzzy. It is no longer possible to simply do work on the load, you are bound to transfer some heat,” says Poletti. He worked out the theory with collaborators Jiangbin Gong at NUS Physics and Peter Hänggi in Augsburg. The fuzziness makes the process less efficient, but the experimentalists could still make it work.
Mukherjee and colleagues Noah Van Horne, Dahyun Yum and Tarun Dutta used a barium atom from which an electron (a negative charge) is removed. This makes the atom positively charged, so it can be more easily held still inside a metal chamber by electrical fields. All other air is removed from around it. The atom is then zapped with lasers to move it through a four-stage cycle.
The researchers measured the atom’s vibration after applying 2 to 15 cycles. They repeated a given number of cycles up to 150 times, measuring on average how much vibrational energy was present at the end. They could see the vibrational energy increasing when the atom was zapped with an engine cycle, and decreasing when the zaps followed the fridge cycle.
Understanding the atom-sized machine involved both complicated calculations and observations. The team needed to track two thermodynamic quantities known as ergotropy, which is the energy that can be converted to useful work, and entropy, which is related to disorder in the system. Both ergotropy and entropy increase as the atom-machine runs. There’s still a simple way of looking at it, says first author and PhD student Van Horne, “Loosely speaking, we’ve designed a little machine that creates entropy as it is filled up with free energy, much like kids when they are given too much sugar.”
I have briefly speculated about the importance of touch elsewhere (see my July 19, 2019 posting regarding BlocKit and blockchain; scroll down about 50% of the way) but this upcoming news bit and the one following it put a different spin on the importance of touch.
Robots and prosthetic devices may soon have a sense of touch equivalent to, or better than, the human skin with the Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES), an artificial nervous system developed by a team of researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
The new electronic skin system achieved ultra-high responsiveness and robustness to damage, and can be paired with any kind of sensor skin layers to function effectively as an electronic skin.
The innovation, achieved by Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee and his team from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the NUS Faculty of Engineering, was first reported in prestigious scientific journal Science Robotics on 18 July 2019.
Faster than the human sensory nervous system
“Humans use our sense of touch to accomplish almost every daily task, such as picking up a cup of coffee or making a handshake. Without it, we will even lose our sense of balance when walking. Similarly, robots need to have a sense of touch in order to interact better with humans, but robots today still cannot feel objects very well,” explained Asst Prof Tee, who has been working on electronic skin technologies for over a decade in hope of giving robots and prosthetic devices a better sense of touch.
Drawing inspiration from the human sensory nervous system, the NUS team spent a year and a half developing a sensor system that could potentially perform better. While the ACES electronic nervous system detects signals like the human sensor nervous system, it is made up of a network of sensors connected via a single electrical conductor, unlike the nerve bundles in the human skin. It is also unlike existing electronic skins which have interlinked wiring systems that can make them sensitive to damage and difficult to scale up.
Elaborating on the inspiration, Asst Prof Tee, who also holds appointments in the NUS Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, NUS Institute for Health Innovation & Technology (iHealthTech), N.1 Institute for Health and the Hybrid Integrated Flexible Electronic Systems (HiFES) programme, said, “The human sensory nervous system is extremely efficient, and it works all the time to the extent that we often take it for granted. It is also very robust to damage. Our sense of touch, for example, does not get affected when we suffer a cut. If we can mimic how our biological system works and make it even better, we can bring about tremendous advancements in the field of robotics where electronic skins are predominantly applied.”
ACES can detect touches more than 1,000 times faster than the human sensory nervous system. For example, it is capable of differentiating physical contacts between different sensors in less than 60 nanoseconds – the fastest ever achieved for an electronic skin technology – even with large numbers of sensors. ACES-enabled skin can also accurately identify the shape, texture and hardness of objects within 10 milliseconds, ten times faster than the blinking of an eye. This is enabled by the high fidelity and capture speed of the ACES system.
The ACES platform can also be designed to achieve high robustness to physical damage, an important property for electronic skins because they come into the frequent physical contact with the environment. Unlike the current system used to interconnect sensors in existing electronic skins, all the sensors in ACES can be connected to a common electrical conductor with each sensor operating independently. This allows ACES-enabled electronic skins to continue functioning as long as there is one connection between the sensor and the conductor, making them less vulnerable to damage.
Smart electronic skins for robots and prosthetics
ACES’ simple wiring system and remarkable responsiveness even with increasing numbers of sensors are key characteristics that will facilitate the scale-up of intelligent electronic skins for Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications in robots, prosthetic devices and other human machine interfaces.
“Scalability is a critical consideration as big pieces of high performing electronic skins are required to cover the relatively large surface areas of robots and prosthetic devices,” explained Asst Prof Tee. “ACES can be easily paired with any kind of sensor skin layers, for example, those designed to sense temperatures and humidity, to create high performance ACES-enabled electronic skin with an exceptional sense of touch that can be used for a wide range of purposes,” he added.
For instance, pairing ACES with the transparent, self-healing and water-resistant sensor skin layer also recently developed by Asst Prof Tee’s team, creates an electronic skin that can self-repair, like the human skin. This type of electronic skin can be used to develop more realistic prosthetic limbs that will help disabled individuals restore their sense of touch.
Other potential applications include developing more intelligent robots that can perform disaster recovery tasks or take over mundane operations such as packing of items in warehouses. The NUS team is therefore looking to further apply the ACES platform on advanced robots and prosthetic devices in the next phase of their research.
For those who like videos, the researchers have prepared this,
The West Valley City, Utah, real estate agent [Keven Walgamott] lost his left hand in an electrical accident 17 years ago. Since then, he’s tried out a few different prosthetic limbs, but always found them too clunky and uncomfortable.
Then he decided to work with the University of Utah in 2016 to test out new prosthetic technology that mimics the sensation of human touch, allowing Walgamott to perform delicate tasks with precision — including shaking his wife’s hand.
“I extended my left hand, she came and extended hers, and we were able to feel each other with the left hand for the first time in 13 years, and it was just a marvellous and wonderful experience,” Walgamott told As It Happens guest host Megan Williams.
Walgamott, one of seven participants in the University of Utah study, was able to use an advanced prosthetic hand called the LUKE Arm to pick up an egg without cracking it, pluck a single grape from a bunch, hammer a nail, take a ring on and off his finger, fit a pillowcase over a pillow and more.
While performing the tasks, Walgamott was able to actually feel the items he was holding and correctly gauge the amount of pressure he needed to exert — mimicking a process the human brain does automatically.
“I was able to feel something in each of my fingers,” he said. “What I feel, I guess the easiest way to explain it, is little electrical shocks.”
Those shocks — which he describes as a kind of a tingling sensation — intensify as he tightens his grip.
“Different variations of the intensity of the electricity as I move my fingers around and as I touch things,” he said.
To make that [sense of touch] happen, the researchers implanted electrodes into the nerves on Walgamott’s forearm, allowing his brain to communicate with his prosthetic through a computer outside his body. That means he can move the hand just by thinking about it.
But those signals also work in reverse.
The team attached sensors to the hand of a LUKE Arm. Those sensors detect touch and positioning, and send that information to the electrodes so it can be interpreted by the brain.
For Walgamott, performing a series of menial tasks as a team of scientists recorded his progress was “fun to do.”
“I’d forgotten how well two hands work,” he said. “That was pretty cool.”
But it was also a huge relief from the phantom limb pain he has experienced since the accident, which he describes as a “burning sensation” in the place where his hand used to be.
Keven Walgamott had a good “feeling” about picking up the egg without crushing it.
What seems simple for nearly everyone else can be more of a Herculean task for Walgamott, who lost his left hand and part of his arm in an electrical accident 17 years ago. But he was testing out the prototype of a high-tech prosthetic arm with fingers that not only can move, they can move with his thoughts. And thanks to a biomedical engineering team at the University of Utah, he “felt” the egg well enough so his brain could tell the prosthetic hand not to squeeze too hard.
That’s because the team, led by U biomedical engineering associate professor Gregory Clark, has developed a way for the “LUKE Arm” (so named after the robotic hand that Luke Skywalker got in “The Empire Strikes Back”) to mimic the way a human hand feels objects by sending the appropriate signals to the brain. Their findings were published in a new paper co-authored by U biomedical engineering doctoral student Jacob George, former doctoral student David Kluger, Clark and other colleagues in the latest edition of the journal Science Robotics. A copy of the paper may be obtained by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We changed the way we are sending that information to the brain so that it matches the human body. And by matching the human body, we were able to see improved benefits,” George says. “We’re making more biologically realistic signals.”
That means an amputee wearing the prosthetic arm can sense the touch of something soft or hard, understand better how to pick it up and perform delicate tasks that would otherwise be impossible with a standard prosthetic with metal hooks or claws for hands.
“It almost put me to tears,” Walgamott says about using the LUKE Arm for the first time during clinical tests in 2017. “It was really amazing. I never thought I would be able to feel in that hand again.”
Walgamott, a real estate agent from West Valley City, Utah, and one of seven test subjects at the U, was able to pluck grapes without crushing them, pick up an egg without cracking it and hold his wife’s hand with a sensation in the fingers similar to that of an able-bodied person.
“One of the first things he wanted to do was put on his wedding ring. That’s hard to do with one hand,” says Clark. “It was very moving.”
Those things are accomplished through a complex series of mathematical calculations and modeling.
The LUKE Arm
The LUKE Arm has been in development for some 15 years. The arm itself is made of mostly metal motors and parts with a clear silicon “skin” over the hand. It is powered by an external battery and wired to a computer. It was developed by DEKA Research & Development Corp., a New Hampshire-based company founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen.
Meanwhile, the U’s team has been developing a system that allows the prosthetic arm to tap into the wearer’s nerves, which are like biological wires that send signals to the arm to move. It does that thanks to an invention by U biomedical engineering Emeritus Distinguished Professor Richard A. Normann called the Utah Slanted Electrode Array. The array is a bundle of 100 microelectrodes and wires that are implanted into the amputee’s nerves in the forearm and connected to a computer outside the body. The array interprets the signals from the still-remaining arm nerves, and the computer translates them to digital signals that tell the arm to move.
But it also works the other way. To perform tasks such as picking up objects requires more than just the brain telling the hand to move. The prosthetic hand must also learn how to “feel” the object in order to know how much pressure to exert because you can’t figure that out just by looking at it.
First, the prosthetic arm has sensors in its hand that send signals to the nerves via the array to mimic the feeling the hand gets upon grabbing something. But equally important is how those signals are sent. It involves understanding how your brain deals with transitions in information when it first touches something. Upon first contact of an object, a burst of impulses runs up the nerves to the brain and then tapers off. Recreating this was a big step.
“Just providing sensation is a big deal, but the way you send that information is also critically important, and if you make it more biologically realistic, the brain will understand it better and the performance of this sensation will also be better,” says Clark.
To achieve that, Clark’s team used mathematical calculations along with recorded impulses from a primate’s arm to create an approximate model of how humans receive these different signal patterns. That model was then implemented into the LUKE Arm system.
In addition to creating a prototype of the LUKE Arm with a sense of touch, the overall team is already developing a version that is completely portable and does not need to be wired to a computer outside the body. Instead, everything would be connected wirelessly, giving the wearer complete freedom.
Clark says the Utah Slanted Electrode Array is also capable of sending signals to the brain for more than just the sense of touch, such as pain and temperature, though the paper primarily addresses touch. And while their work currently has only involved amputees who lost their extremities below the elbow, where the muscles to move the hand are located, Clark says their research could also be applied to those who lost their arms above the elbow.
Clark hopes that in 2020 or 2021, three test subjects will be able to take the arm home to use, pending federal regulatory approval.
The research involves a number of institutions including the U’s Department of Neurosurgery, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Department of Orthopedics, the University of Chicago’s Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Utah neurotechnology companies Ripple Neuro LLC and Blackrock Microsystems. The project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation.
“This is an incredible interdisciplinary effort,” says Clark. “We could not have done this without the substantial efforts of everybody on that team.”
Researchers from Yale [University]-NUS College and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland have discovered a novel colour-generation mechanism in nature, which if harnessed, has the potential to create cosmetics and paints with purer and more vivid hues, screen displays that project the same true image when viewed from any angle, and even reduce the signal loss in optical fibres.
Yale-NUS College Assistant Professor of Science (Life Science) Vinodkumar Saranathan led the study with Dr Bodo D Wilts from the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg. Dr Saranathan examined the rainbow-coloured patterns in the elytra (wing casings) of a snout weevil from the Philippines, Pachyrrhynchus congestus pavonius, using high-energy X-rays, while Dr Wilts performed detailed scanning electron microscopy and optical modelling.
They discovered that to produce the rainbow palette of colours, the weevil utilised a colour-generation mechanism that is so far found only in squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses, which are renowned for their colour-shifting camouflage.
P. c. pavonius, or the “Rainbow” Weevil, is distinctive for its rainbow-coloured spots on its thorax and elytra (see attached image). These spots are made up of nearly-circular scales arranged in concentric rings of different hues, ranging from blue in the centre to red at the outside, just like a rainbow. While many insects have the ability to produce one or two colours, it is rare that a single insect can produce such a vast spectrum of colours. Researchers are interested to figure out the mechanism behind the natural formation of these colour-generating structures, as current technology is unable to synthesise structures of this size.
“The ultimate aim of research in this field is to figure out how the weevil self-assembles these structures, because with our current technology we are unable to do so,” Dr Saranathan said. “The ability to produce these structures, which are able to provide a high colour fidelity regardless of the angle you view it from, will have applications in any industry which deals with colour production. We can use these structures in cosmetics and other pigmentations to ensure high-fidelity hues, or in digital displays in your phone or tablet which will allow you to view it from any angle and see the same true image without any colour distortion. We can even use them to make reflective cladding for optical fibres to minimise signal loss during transmission.”
Dr Saranathan and Dr Wilts examined these scales to determine that the scales were composed of a three-dimensional crystalline structure made from chitin (the main ingredient in insect exoskeletons). They discovered that the vibrant rainbow colours on this weevil’s scales are determined by two factors: the size of the crystal structure which makes up each scale, as well as the volume of chitin used to make up the crystal structure. Larger scales have a larger crystalline structure and use a larger volume of chitin to reflect red light; smaller scales have a smaller crystalline structure and use a smaller volume of chitin to reflect blue light. According to Dr Saranathan, who previously examined over 100 species of insects and spiders and catalogued their colour-generation mechanisms, this ability to simultaneously control both size and volume factors to fine-tune the colour produced has never before been shown in insects, and given its complexity, is quite remarkable. “It is different from the usual strategy employed by nature to produce various different hues on the same animal, where the chitin structures are of fixed size and volume, and different colours are generated by orienting the structure at different angles, which reflects different wavelengths of light,” Dr Saranathan explained.
The research was partly supported though the National Centre of Competence in Research “Bio-Inspired Materials” and the Ambizione program of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) to Dr Wilts, and partly through a UK Royal Society Newton Fellowship, a Linacre College EPA Cephalosporin Junior Research Fellowship, and Yale-NUS College funds to Dr Saranathan. Dr Saranathan is currently part of a research team led by Yale-NUS College Associate Professor of Science Antonia Monteiro, which has recently been awarded a separate Competitive Research Programme (CRP) grant by Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) to examine the genetic basis of the colour-generation mechanism in butterflies. Dr Saranathan and Dr Monteiro are both also from the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Science. In addition, Dr Saranathan is affiliated with the NUS Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Initiative.
I’m starting to have a collection of postings related to plastic nanoparticles and aquatic life (I have a listing below). The latest originates in Singapore (from a May 31, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily),
Plastic nanoparticles — these are tiny pieces of plastic less than 1 micrometre in size — could potentially contaminate food chains, and ultimately affect human health, according to a recent study by scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS). They discovered that nanoplastics are easily ingested by marine organisms, and they accumulate in the organisms over time, with a risk of being transferred up the food chain, threatening food safety and posing health risks.
Ocean plastic pollution is a huge and growing global problem. It is estimated that the oceans may already contain over 150 million tonnes of plastic, and each year, about eight million tonnes of plastic will end up in the ocean. Plastics do not degrade easily. In the marine environment, plastics are usually broken down into smaller pieces by the sun, waves, wind and microbial action. These micro- and nanoplastic particles in the water may be ingested by filter-feeding marine organisms such as barnacles, tube worms and sea-squirts.
Using the acorn barnacle Amphibalanus amphitrite as a model organism, the NUS research team demonstrated for the first time that nanoplastics consumed during the larval stage are retained and accumulated inside the barnacle larvae until they reach adulthood.
“We opted to study acorn barnacles as their short life cycle and transparent bodies made it easy to track and visualise the movement of nanoplastics in their bodies within a short span of time,” said Mr Samarth Bhargava, a PhD student from the Department of Chemistry at the NUS Faculty of Science, who is the first author of the research paper.
“Barnacles can be found in all of the world’s oceans. This accumulation of nanoplastics within the barnacles is of concern. Further work is needed to better understand how they may contribute to longer term effects on marine ecosystems,” said Dr Serena Teo, Senior Research Fellow from the Tropical Marine Science Institute at NUS, who co-supervised the research.
Studying the fate of nanoplastics in marine organisms
The NUS research team incubated the barnacle larvae in solutions of their regular feed coupled with plastics that are about 200 nanometres in size with green fluorescent tags. The larvae were exposed to two different treatments: ‘acute’ and ‘chronic’.
Under the ‘acute’ treatment, the barnacle larvae were kept for three hours in a solution that contained 25 times more nanoplastics than current estimates of what is present in the oceans. On the other hand, under the ‘chronic’ treatment, the barnacle larvae were exposed to a solution containing low concentrations of nanoplastics for up to four days.
The larvae were subsequently filtered from the solution, and examined under the microscope. The distribution and movement of the nanoplastics were monitored by examining the fluorescence from the particles present within the larvae over time.
“Our results showed that after exposing the barnacle larvae to nanoplastics in both treatments, the larvae had not only ingested the plastic particles, but the tiny particles were found to be distributed throughout the bodies of the larvae,” said Ms Serina Lee from the Tropical Marine Science Institute at NUS, who is the second author of the paper.
Even though the barnacles’ natural waste removal pathways of moulting and excretion resulted in some removal of the nanoplastics, the team detected the continued presence of nanoplastics inside the barnacles throughout their growth until they reached adulthood.
“Barnacles may be at the lower levels of the food chain, but what they consume will be transferred to the organisms that eat them. In addition, plastics are capable of absorbing pollutants and chemicals from the water. These toxins may be transferred to the organisms if the particles of plastics are consumed, and can cause further damage to marine ecosystems and human health,” said marine biologist Dr Neo Mei Lin from the Tropical Marine Science Institute at NUS, who is one of the authors of the paper.
The team’s research findings were first published online in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering in March 2018. The study was funded under the Marine Science Research and Development Programme of the National Research Foundation Singapore.
The NUS research team seeks to further their understanding of the translocation of nanoparticles within the marine organisms and potential pathways of transfer in the marine ecosystem.
“The life span and fate of plastic waste materials in marine environment is a big concern at the moment owing to the large amounts of plastic waste and its potential impact on marine ecosystem and food security around the world. The team would like to explore such topics in the near future and possibly to come up with pathways to address such problems,” explained Associate Professor Suresh Valiyaveettil from the Department of Chemistry at the NUS Faculty of Science, who co-supervised the research.
The team is currently examining how nanoplastics affect other invertebrate model organisms to understand the impact of plastics on marine ecosystems.
A team at the National University of Singapore (NUS) is looking for industry partners to help take their air-conditioning technology from the laboratory to the marketplace. First, here’s more about the technology from a January 8, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,
A team of researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has pioneered a new water-based air-conditioning system that cools air to as low as 18 degrees Celsius without the use of energy-intensive compressors and environmentally harmful chemical refrigerants. This game-changing technology could potentially replace the century-old air-cooling principle that is still being used in our modern-day air-conditioners. Suitable for both indoor and outdoor use, the novel system is portable and it can also be customised for all types of weather conditions.
NUS Engineering researchers developed a novel air cooling technology that could redefine the future of air-conditioning.
Led by Associate Professor Ernest Chua from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at NUS Faculty of Engineering, the team’s novel air-conditioning system is cost-effective to produce, and it is also more eco-friendly and sustainable. The system consumes about 40 per cent less electricity than current compressor-based air-conditioners used in homes and commercial buildings. This translates into more than 40 per cent reduction in carbon emissions. In addition, it adopts a water-based cooling technology instead of using chemical refrigerants such as chlorofluorocarbon and hydrochlorofluorocarbon for cooling, thus making it safer and more environmentally-friendly.
To add another feather to its eco-friendliness cap, the novel system generates potable drinking water while it cools ambient air.
Assoc Prof Chua said, “For buildings located in the tropics, more than 40 per cent of the building’s energy consumption is attributed to air-conditioning. We expect this rate to increase dramatically, adding an extra punch to global warming. First invented by Willis Carrier in 1902, vapour compression air-conditioning is the most widely used air-conditioning technology today. This approach is very energy-intensive and environmentally harmful. In contrast, our novel membrane and water-based cooling technology is very eco-friendly – it can provide cool and dry air without using a compressor and chemical refrigerants. This is a new starting point for the next generation of air-conditioners, and our technology has immense potential to disrupt how air-conditioning has traditionally been provided.”
Innovative membrane and water-based cooling technology
Current air-conditioning systems require a large amount of energy to remove moisture and to cool the dehumidified air. By developing two systems to perform these two processes separately, the NUS Engineering team can better control each process and hence achieve greater energy efficiency.
The novel air-conditioning system first uses an innovative membrane technology – a paper-like material – to remove moisture from humid outdoor air. The dehumidified air is then cooled via a dew-point cooling system that uses water as the cooling medium instead of harmful chemical refrigerants. Unlike vapour compression air-conditioners, the novel system does not release hot air to the environment. Instead, a cool air stream that is comparatively less humid than environmental humidity is discharged – negating the effect of micro-climate. About 12 to 15 litres of potable drinking water can also be harvested after operating the air-conditioning system for a day.
“Our cooling technology can be easily tailored for all types of weather conditions, from humid climate in the tropics to arid climate in the deserts. While it can be used for indoor living and commercial spaces, it can also be easily scaled up to provide air-conditioning for clusters of buildings in an energy-efficient manner. This novel technology is also highly suitable for confined spaces such as bomb shelters or bunkers, where removing moisture from the air is critical for human comfort, as well as for sustainable operation of delicate equipment in areas such as field hospitals, armoured personnel carriers, and operation decks of navy ships as well as aircrafts,” explained Assoc Prof Chua.
The research team is currently refining the design of the air-conditioning system to further improve its user-friendliness. The NUS researchers are also working to incorporate smart features such as pre-programmed thermal settings based on human occupancy and real-time tracking of its energy efficiency. The team hopes to work with industry partners to commercialise the technology. [emphasis mine]
This project is supported by the Building and Construction Authority and National Research Foundation Singapore.
I’m sorry they didn’t include a link to a published paper but I gather that at this time there’s more focus on commercializing the technology than on published papers. I wish the researchers good luck as this cooling technology affords some exciting possibilities in a world that is heating and growing more parched as the NUS press release.notes
A team of scientists led by Associate Professor Yang Hyunsoo from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Engineering has invented a novel ultra-thin multilayer film which could harness the properties of tiny magnetic whirls, known as skyrmions, as information carriers for storing and processing data on magnetic media.
The nano-sized thin film, which was developed in collaboration with researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory, Stony Brook University, and Louisiana State University, is a critical step towards the design of data storage devices that use less power and work faster than existing memory technologies. The invention was reported in prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications on 10 March 2017.
Tiny magnetic whirls with huge potential as information carriers
The digital transformation has resulted in ever-increasing demands for better processing and storing of large amounts of data, as well as improvements in hard drive technology. Since their discovery in magnetic materials in 2009, skyrmions, which are tiny swirling magnetic textures only a few nanometres in size, have been extensively studied as possible information carriers in next-generation data storage and logic devices.
Skyrmions have been shown to exist in layered systems, with a heavy metal placed beneath a ferromagnetic material. Due to the interaction between the different materials, an interfacial symmetry breaking interaction, known as the Dzyaloshinskii-Moriya interaction (DMI), is formed, and this helps to stabilise a skyrmion. However, without an out-of-plane magnetic field present, the stability of the skyrmion is compromised. In addition, due to its tiny size, it is difficult to image the nano-sized materials.
To address these limitations, the researchers worked towards creating stable magnetic skyrmions at room temperature without the need for a biasing magnetic field.
Unique material for data storage
The NUS team, which also comprises Dr Shawn Pollard and Ms Yu Jiawei from the NUS Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, found that a large DMI could be maintained in multilayer films composed of cobalt and palladium, and this is large enough to stabilise skyrmion spin textures.
In order to image the magnetic structure of these films, the NUS researchers, in collaboration with Brookhaven National Laboratory in the United States, employed Lorentz transmission electron microscopy (L-TEM). L-TEM has the ability to image magnetic structures below 10 nanometres, but it has not been used to observe skyrmions in multilayer geometries previously as it was predicted to exhibit zero signal. However, when conducting the experiments, the researchers found that by tilting the films with respect to the electron beam, they found that they could obtain clear contrast consistent with that expected for skyrmions, with sizes below 100 nanometres.
Dr Pollard explained, “It has long been assumed that there is no DMI in a symmetric structure like the one present in our work, hence, there will be no skyrmion. It is really unexpected for us to find both large DMI and skyrmions in the multilayer film we engineered. What’s more, these nanoscale skyrmions persisted even after the removal of an external biasing magnetic field, which are the first of their kind.”
Assoc Prof Yang added, “This experiment not only demonstrates the usefulness of L-TEM in studying these systems, but also opens up a completely new material in which skyrmions can be created. Without the need for a biasing field, the design and implementation of skyrmion based devices are significantly simplified. The small size of the skyrmions, combined with the incredible stability generated here, could be potentially useful for the design of next-generation spintronic devices that are energy efficient and can outperform current memory technologies.”
Assoc Prof Yang and his team are currently looking at how nanoscale skyrmions interact with each other and with electrical currents, to further the development of skyrmion based electronics.
Malaysia is getting ready to host a graphene conference according to an Oct. 10, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,
The Graphene Malaysia 2016 [Nov. 8 – 9, 2016] (www.graphenemalaysiaconf.com) is jointly organized by NanoMalaysia Berhad and Phantoms Foundation. The conference will be centered on graphene industry interaction and collaborative innovation. The event will be launched under the National Graphene Action Plan 2020 (NGAP 2020), which will generate about 9,000 jobs and RM20 (US$4.86) billion GNI impact by the year 2020.
First speakers announced:
Murni Ali (Nanomalaysia, Malaysia) | Francesco Bonaccorso (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Italy) | Antonio Castro Neto (NUS, Singapore) | Antonio Correia (Phantoms Foundation, Spain)| Pedro Gomez-Romero (ICN2 (CSIC-BIST), Spain) | Shu-Jen Han (Nanoscale Science & Technology IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, USA) | Kuan-Tsae Huang (AzTrong, USA/Taiwan) | Krzysztof Koziol (FGV Cambridge Nanosystems, UK) | Taavi Madiberk (Skeleton Technologies, Estonia) | Richard Mckie (BAE Systems, UK) | Pontus Nordin (Saab AB, Saab Aeronautics, Sweden) | Elena Polyakova (Graphene Laboratories Inc., USA) | Ahmad Khairuddin Abdul Rahim (Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA), Malaysia) | Adisorn Tuantranont (Thailand Organic and Printed Electronics Innovation Center, Thailand) |Archana Venugopal (Texas Instruments, USA) | Won Jong Yoo (Samsung-SKKU Graphene-2D Center (SSGC), South Korea) | Hongwei Zhu (Tsinghua University, China)
The Graphene Malalysia 2016 conference website can be found here and Malaysia’s National Graphene Action Plan 2020, which is well written, can be found here (PDF). This portion from the executive summary offers some insight into Malyasia’s plans to launch itself into the world of high income nations,
Malaysia’s aspiration to become a high-income nation by 2020 with improved jobs and better outputs is driving the country’s shift away from “business as usual,” and towards more innovative and high value add products. Within this context, and in accordance with National policies and guidelines, Graphene, an emerging, highly versatile carbon-based nanomaterial, presents a unique opportunity for Malaysia to develop a high value economic ecosystem within its industries. Isolated only in 2004, Graphene’s superior physical properties such as electrical/ thermal conductivity, high strength and high optical transparency, combined with its manufacturability have raised tremendous possibilities for its application across several functions and make it highly interesting for several applications and industries. Currently, Graphene is still early in its development cycle, affording Malaysian companies time to develop their own applications instead of relying on international intellectual property and licenses.
Considering the potential, several leading countries are investing heavily in associated R&D. Approaches to Graphene research range from an expansive R&D focus (e.g., U.S. and the EU) to more focused approaches aimed at enhancing specific downstream applications with Graphene (e.g., South Korea). Faced with the need to push forward a multitude of development priorities, Malaysia must be targeted in its efforts to capture Graphene’s potential, both in terms of “how to compete” and “where to compete”. This National Graphene Action Plan 2020 lays out a set of priority applications that will be beneficial to the country as a whole and what the government will do to support these efforts.
Globally, much of the Graphene-related commercial innovation to date has been upstream, with producers developing techniques to manufacture Graphene at scale. There has also been some development in downstream sectors, as companies like Samsung, Bayer MaterialScience, BASF and Siemens explore product enhancement with Graphene in lithium-ion battery anodes and flexible displays, and specialty plastic and rubber composites. However the speed of development has been uneven, offering Malaysian industries willing to invest in innovation an opportunity to capture the value at stake. Since any innovation action plan has to be tailored to the needs and ambitions of local industry, Malaysia will focus its Graphene action plan initially on larger domestic industries (e.g., rubber) and areas already being targeted by the government for innovation such as energy storage for electric vehicles and conductive inks.
In addition to benefiting from the physical properties of Graphene, Malaysian downstream application providers may also capture the benefits of a modest input cost advantage for the domestic production of Graphene. One commonly used Graphene manufacturing technique, the chemical vapour deposition (CVD) production method, requires methane as an input, which can be sourced economically from local biomass. While Graphene is available commercially from various producers around the world, downstream players may be able to enjoy some cost advantage from local Graphene supply. In addition, co-locating with a local producer for joint product development has the added benefit of speeding up the R&D lifecycle.
That business about finding downstream applications could also to the Canadian situation where we typically offer our resources (upstream) but don’t have an active downstream business focus. For example, we have graphite mines in Ontario and Québec which supply graphite flakes for graphene production which is all upstream. Less well developed are any plans for Canadian downstream applications.
Finally, it was interesting to note that the Phantoms Foundation is organizing this Malaysian conference since the same organization is organizing the ‘2nd edition of Graphene & 2D Materials Canada 2016 International Conference & Exhibition’ (you can find out more about the Oct. 18 – 20, 2016 event in my Sept. 23, 2016 posting). I think the Malaysians have a better title for their conference, far less unwieldy.
This work on quantum networks comes from a joint Singapore/UK research project, from a June 2, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,
You can’t sign up for the quantum internet just yet, but researchers have reported a major experimental milestone towards building a global quantum network — and it’s happening in space.
With a network that carries information in the quantum properties of single particles, you can create secure keys for secret messaging and potentially connect powerful quantum computers in the future. But scientists think you will need equipment in space to get global reach.
Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the University of Strathclyde, UK, have become the first to test in orbit technology for satellite-based quantum network nodes.
They have put a compact device carrying components used in quantum communication and computing into orbit. And it works: the team report first data in a paper published 31 May 2016 in the journal Physical Review Applied.
The team’s device, dubbed SPEQS, creates and measures pairs of light particles, called photons. Results from space show that SPEQS is making pairs of photons with correlated properties – an indicator of performance.
Team-leader Alexander Ling, an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) at NUS said, “This is the first time anyone has tested this kind of quantum technology in space.”
The team had to be inventive to redesign a delicate, table-top quantum setup to be small and robust enough to fly inside a nanosatellite only the size of a shoebox. The whole satellite weighs just 1.65-kilogramme.
Making correlated photons is a precursor to creating entangled photons. Described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”, entanglement is a connection between quantum particles that lends security to communication and power to computing.
Professor Artur Ekert, Director of CQT, invented the idea of using entangled particles for cryptography. He said, “Alex and his team are taking entanglement, literally, to a new level. Their experiments will pave the road to secure quantum communication and distributed quantum computation on a global scale. I am happy to see that Singapore is one of the world leaders in this area.”
Local quantum networks already exist [emphasis mine]. The problem Ling’s team aims to solve is a distance limit. Losses limit quantum signals sent through air at ground level or optical fibre to a few hundred kilometers – but we might ultimately use entangled photons beamed from satellites to connect points on opposite sides of the planet. Although photons from satellites still have to travel through the atmosphere, going top-to-bottom is roughly equivalent to going only 10 kilometres at ground level.
The group’s first device is a technology pathfinder. It takes photons from a BluRay laser and splits them into two, then measures the pair’s properties, all on board the satellite. To do this it contains a laser diode, crystals, mirrors and photon detectors carefully aligned inside an aluminum block. This sits on top of a 10 centimetres by 10 centimetres printed circuit board packed with control electronics.
Through a series of pre-launch tests – and one unfortunate incident – the team became more confident that their design could survive a rocket launch and space conditions. The team had a device in the October 2014 Orbital-3 rocket which exploded on the launch pad. The satellite containing that first device was later found on a beach intact and still in working order.
Even with the success of the more recent mission, a global network is still a few milestones away. The team’s roadmap calls for a series of launches, with the next space-bound SPEQS slated to produce entangled photons. SPEQS stands for Small Photon-Entangling Quantum System.
With later satellites, the researchers will try sending entangled photons to Earth and to other satellites. The team are working with standard “CubeSat” nanosatellites, which can get relatively cheap rides into space as rocket ballast. Ultimately, completing a global network would mean having a fleet of satellites in orbit and an array of ground stations.
In the meantime, quantum satellites could also carry out fundamental experiments – for example, testing entanglement over distances bigger than Earth-bound scientists can manage. “We are reaching the limits of how precisely we can test quantum theory on Earth,” said co-author Dr Daniel Oi at the University of Strathclyde.