Tag Archives: Rutgers University

Finishing Beethoven’s unfinished 10th Symphony

Throughout the project, Beethoven’s genius loomed. Circe Denyer

This is an artificial intelligence (AI) story set to music. Professor Ahmed Elgammal (Director of the Art & AI Lab at Rutgers University located in New Jersey, US) has a September 24, 2021 essay posted on The Conversation (and, then, in the Smithsonian Magazine online) describing the AI project and upcoming album release and performance (Note: A link has been removed),

When Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827, he was three years removed from the completion of his Ninth Symphony, a work heralded by many as his magnum opus. He had started work on his 10th Symphony but, due to deteriorating health, wasn’t able to make much headway: All he left behind were some musical sketches.

A full recording of Beethoven’s 10th Symphony is set to be released on Oct. 9, 2021, the same day as the world premiere performance scheduled to take place in Bonn, Germany – the culmination of a two-year-plus effort.

These excerpts from the Elgammal’s September 24, 2021 essay on the The Conversation provide a summarized view of events. By the way, this isn’t the first time an attempt has been made to finish Beethoven’s 10th Symphony (Note: Links have been removed),

Around 1817, the Royal Philharmonic Society in London commissioned Beethoven to write his Ninth and 10th symphonies. Written for an orchestra, symphonies often contain four movements: the first is performed at a fast tempo, the second at a slower one, the third at a medium or fast tempo, and the last at a fast tempo.

Beethoven completed his Ninth Symphony in 1824, which concludes with the timeless “Ode to Joy.”

But when it came to the 10th Symphony, Beethoven didn’t leave much behind, other than some musical notes and a handful of ideas he had jotted down.

There have been some past attempts to reconstruct parts of Beethoven’s 10th Symphony. Most famously, in 1988, musicologist Barry Cooper ventured to complete the first and second movements. He wove together 250 bars of music from the sketches to create what was, in his view, a production of the first movement that was faithful to Beethoven’s vision.

Yet the sparseness of Beethoven’s sketches made it impossible for symphony experts to go beyond that first movement.

In early 2019, Dr. Matthias Röder, the director of the Karajan Institute, an organization in Salzburg, Austria, that promotes music technology, contacted me. He explained that he was putting together a team to complete Beethoven’s 10th Symphony in celebration of the composer’s 250th birthday. Aware of my work on AI-generated art, he wanted to know if AI would be able to help fill in the blanks left by Beethoven.

Röder then compiled a team that included Austrian composer Walter Werzowa. Famous for writing Intel’s signature bong jingle, Werzowa was tasked with putting together a new kind of composition that would integrate what Beethoven left behind with what the AI would generate. Mark Gotham, a computational music expert, led the effort to transcribe Beethoven’s sketches and process his entire body of work so the AI could be properly trained.

The team also included Robert Levin, a musicologist at Harvard University who also happens to be an incredible pianist. Levin had previously finished a number of incomplete 18th-century works by Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach.

… We didn’t have a machine that we could feed sketches to, push a button and have it spit out a symphony. Most AI available at the time couldn’t continue an uncompleted piece of music beyond a few additional seconds.

We would need to push the boundaries of what creative AI could do by teaching the machine Beethoven’s creative process – how he would take a few bars of music and painstakingly develop them into stirring symphonies, quartets and sonatas.

Here’s Elgammal’s description of the difficulties from an AI perspective, from the September 24, 2021 essay (Note: Links have been removed),

First, and most fundamentally, we needed to figure out how to take a short phrase, or even just a motif, and use it to develop a longer, more complicated musical structure, just as Beethoven would have done. For example, the machine had to learn how Beethoven constructed the Fifth Symphony out of a basic four-note motif.

Next, because the continuation of a phrase also needs to follow a certain musical form, whether it’s a scherzo, trio or fugue, the AI needed to learn Beethoven’s process for developing these forms.

The to-do list grew: We had to teach the AI how to take a melodic line and harmonize it. The AI needed to learn how to bridge two sections of music together. And we realized the AI had to be able to compose a coda, which is a segment that brings a section of a piece of music to its conclusion.

Finally, once we had a full composition, the AI was going to have to figure out how to orchestrate it, which involves assigning different instruments for different parts.

And it had to pull off these tasks in the way Beethoven might do so.

The team tested its work, from the September 24, 2021 essay, Note: A link has been removed,

In November 2019, the team met in person again – this time, in Bonn, at the Beethoven House Museum, where the composer was born and raised.

This meeting was the litmus test for determining whether AI could complete this project. We printed musical scores that had been developed by AI and built off the sketches from Beethoven’s 10th. A pianist performed in a small concert hall in the museum before a group of journalists, music scholars and Beethoven experts.

We challenged the audience to determine where Beethoven’s phrases ended and where the AI extrapolation began. They couldn’t.

A few days later, one of these AI-generated scores was played by a string quartet in a news conference. Only those who intimately knew Beethoven’s sketches for the 10th Symphony could determine when the AI-generated parts came in.

The success of these tests told us we were on the right track. But these were just a couple of minutes of music. There was still much more work to do.

There is a preview of the finished 10th symphony,

Beethoven X: The AI Project: III Scherzo. Allegro – Trio (Official Video) | Beethoven Orchestra Bonn

Modern Recordings / BMG present as a foretaste of the album “Beethoven X – The AI Project” (release: 8.10.) the edit of the 3rd movement “Scherzo. Allegro – Trio” as a classical music video. Listen now: https://lnk.to/BeethovenX-Scherzo

Album pre-order link: https://lnk.to/BeethovenX

The Beethoven Orchestra Bonn performing with Dirk Kaftan and Walter Werzowa a great recording of world-premiere Beethoven pieces. Developed by AI and music scientists as well as composers, Beethoven’s once unfinished 10th symphony now surprises with beautiful Beethoven-like harmonics and dynamics.

For anyone who’d like to hear the October 9, 2021 performance, Sharon Kelly included some details in her August 16, 2021 article for DiscoverMusic,

The world premiere of Beethoven’s 10th Symphony on 9 October 2021 at the Telekom Forum in Bonn, performed by the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn conducted by Dirk Kaftan, will be broadcast live and free of charge on MagentaMusik 360.

Sadly, the time is not listed but MagentaMusik 360 is fairly easy to find online.

You can find out more about Professor Elgammal on his Rutgers University profile page. Elgammal has graced this blog before in an August 16, 2019 posting “AI (artificial intelligence) artist got a show at a New York City art gallery“. He’s mentioned in an excerpt about 20% of the way down the page,

Ahmed Elgammal thinks AI art can be much more than that. A Rutgers University professor of computer science, Elgammal runs an art-and-artificial-intelligence lab, where he and his colleagues develop technologies that try to understand and generate new “art” (the scare quotes are Elgammal’s) with AI—not just credible copies of existing work, like GANs do. “That’s not art, that’s just repainting,” Elgammal says of GAN-made images. “It’s what a bad artist would do.”

Elgammal calls his approach a “creative adversarial network,” or CAN. It swaps a GAN’s discerner—the part that ensures similarity—for one that introduces novelty instead. The system amounts to a theory of how art evolves: through small alterations to a known style that produce a new one. That’s a convenient take, given that any machine-learning technique has to base its work on a specific training set.

Finally, thank you to @winsontang whose tweet led me to this story.

Converting carbon dioxide into fuel with blinking nanocrystals

A July 16, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces some work from Rutgers University (New Jersey, US) where carbon dioxide could one day be converted into fuel or perhaps be used in quantum computers,

Imagine tiny crystals that “blink” like fireflies and can convert carbon dioxide, a key cause of climate change, into fuels.

A Rutgers-led team has created ultra-small titanium dioxide crystals that exhibit unusual “blinking” behavior and may help to produce methane and other fuels, according to a study in the journal Angewandte Chemie (“A Blinking Mesoporous TiO2-x Composed of Nanosized Anatase with Unusually Long-Lived Trapped Charge Carriers”).

The crystals, also known as nanoparticles, stay charged for a long time and could benefit efforts to develop quantum computers.

I don’t think I have the imagination necessary for this image, which illustrates the work according to the researchers,

The arrows point to titanium dioxide nanocrystals lighting up and blinking (left) and then fading (right). Images: Tewodros Asefa and Eliska Mikmekova

A July 16, 2020 Rutgers University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the topic,

“Our findings are quite important and intriguing in a number of ways, and more research is needed to understand how these exotic crystals work and to fulfill their potential,” said senior author Tewodros (Teddy) Asefa, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick [in New Jersey]. He’s also a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering in the School of Engineering.

More than 10 million metric tons of titanium dioxide are produced annually, making it one of the most widely used materials, the study notes. It is used in sunscreens, paints, cosmetics and varnishes, for example. It’s also used in the paper and pulp, plastic, fiber, rubber, food, glass and ceramic industries.

The team of scientists and engineers discovered a new way to make extremely small titanium dioxide crystals. While it’s still unclear why the engineered crystals blink and research is ongoing, the “blinking” is believed to arise from single electrons trapped on titanium dioxide nanoparticles. At room temperature, electrons – surprisingly – stay trapped on nanoparticles for tens of seconds before escaping and then become trapped again and again in a continuous cycle.

The crystals, which blink when exposed to a beam of electrons, could be useful for environmental cleanups, sensors, electronic devices and solar cells, and the research team will further explore their capabilities.

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

A Blinking Mesoporous TiO2−x Composed of Nanosized Anatase with Unusually Long‐Lived Trapped Charge Carriers by Dr. Tao Zhang, Dr. Jingxiang Low, Prof. Jiaguo Yu, Dr. Alexei M. Tyryshkin, Dr. Eliška Mikmeková, Prof. Tewodros Asefa. Angewandte Chemie DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/anie.202005143 First published [online]: 22 May 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Extinction of Experience (EOE)

‘Extinction of experience’ is a bit of an attention getter isn’t it? Well, it worked for me when I first saw it and it seems particularly apt after putting together my August 9, 2018 posting about the 2018 SIGGRAPH conference, in particular, the ‘Previews’ where I featured a synthetic sound project. Here’s a little more about EOE from a July 3, 2018 news item on phys.org,

Opportunities for people to interact with nature have declined over the past century, as most people now live in urban areas and spend much of their time indoors. And while adults are not only experiencing nature less, they are also less likely to take their children outdoors and shape their attitudes toward nature, creating a negative cycle. In 1978, ecologist Robert Pyle coined the phrase “extinction of experience” (EOE) to describe this alienation from nature, and argued that this process is one of the greatest causes of the biodiversity crisis. Four decades later, the question arises: How can we break the cycle and begin to reverse EOE?

A July 3, 2018 North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences news release, which originated the news item, delves further,

In citizen science programs, people participate in real research, helping scientists conduct studies on local, regional and even global scales. In a study released today, researchers from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, North Carolina State University, Rutgers University, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology propose nature-based citizen science as a means to reconnect people to nature. For people to take the next step and develop a desire to preserve nature, they need to not only go outdoors or learn about nature, but to develop emotional connections to and empathy for nature. Because citizen science programs usually involve data collection, they encourage participants to search for, observe and investigate natural elements around them. According to co-author Caren Cooper, assistant head of the Biodiversity Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, “Nature-based citizen science provides a structure and purpose that might help people notice nature around them and appreciate it in their daily lives.”

To search for evidence of these patterns across programs and the ability of citizen science to reach non-scientific audiences, the researchers studied the participants of citizen science programs. They reviewed 975 papers, analyzed results from studies that included participants’ motivations and/or outcomes in nature-oriented programs, and found that nature-based citizen science fosters cognitive and emotional aspects of experiences in nature, giving it the potential to reverse EOE.

The eMammal citizen science programs offer children opportunities to use technology to observe nature in new ways. Photo: Matt Zeher. The eMammal citizen science programs offer children opportunities to use technology to observe nature in new ways. Photo: Matt Zeher.

The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Stephanie Schuttler, lead author on the study and scientist on the eMammal citizen science camera trapping program, saw anecdotal evidence of this reversal through her work incorporating camera trap research into K-12 classrooms. “Teachers would tell me how excited and surprised students were about the wildlife in their school yards,” Schuttler says. “They had no idea their campus flourished with coyotes, foxes and deer.” The study Schuttler headed shows citizen science increased participants’ knowledge, skills, interest in and curiosity about nature, and even produced positive behavioral changes. For example, one study revealed that participants in the Garden Butterfly Watch program changed gardening practices to make their yards more hospitable to wildlife. Another study found that participants in the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team program started cleaning up beaches during surveys, even though this was never suggested by the facilitators.

While these results are promising, the EOE study also revealed that this work has only just begun and that most programs do not reach audiences who are not already engaged in science or nature. Only 26 of the 975 papers evaluated participants’ motivations and/or outcomes, and only one of these papers studied children, the most important demographic in reversing EOE. “Many studies were full of amazing stories on how citizen science awakened participants to the nature around them, however, most did not study outcomes,” Schuttler notes. “To fully evaluate the ability for nature-based citizen science to affect people, we encourage citizen science programs to formally study their participants and not just study the system in question.”

Additionally, most citizen science programs attracted or even recruited environmentally mindful participants who likely already spend more time outside than the average person. “If we really want to reconnect people to nature, we need to preach beyond the choir, and attract people who are not already interested in science and/or nature,” Schuttler adds. And as co-author Assaf Shwartz of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology asserts, “The best way to avert the extinction of experience is to create meaningful experiences of nature in the places where we all live and work – cities. Participating in citizen science is an excellent way to achieve this goal, as participation can enhance the sense of commitment people have to protect nature.”

Luckily, some other factors appear to influence participants’ involvement in citizen science. Desire for wellbeing, stewardship and community may provide a gateway for people to participate, an important first step in connecting people to nature. Though nature-based citizen science programs provide opportunities for people to interact with nature, further research on the mechanisms that drive this relationship is needed to strengthen our understanding of various outcomes of citizen science.

And, I because I love dragonflies,

Nature-based citizen science programs, like Dragonfly Pond Watch, offer participants opportunities to observe nature more closely. Credit: Lea Shell.

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

Bridging the nature gap: can citizen science reverse the extinction of experience? by Stephanie G Schuttler, Amanda E Sorensen, Rebecca C Jordan, Caren Cooper, Assaf Shwartz. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1826 First published: 03 July 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Organismic learning—learning to forget

This approach to mimicking the human brain differs from the memristor. (You can find several pieces about memrisors here including this August 24, 2017 post about a derivative, a neuristor).  This approach comes from scientists at Purdue University and employs a quantum material. From an Aug. 15, 2017 news item on phys.org,

A new computing technology called “organismoids” mimics some aspects of human thought by learning how to forget unimportant memories while retaining more vital ones.

“The human brain is capable of continuous lifelong learning,” said Kaushik Roy, Purdue University’s Edward G. Tiedemann Jr. Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “And it does this partially by forgetting some information that is not critical. I learn slowly, but I keep forgetting other things along the way, so there is a graceful degradation in my accuracy of detecting things that are old. What we are trying to do is mimic that behavior of the brain to a certain extent, to create computers that not only learn new information but that also learn what to forget.”

The work was performed by researchers at Purdue, Rutgers University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory.

Central to the research is a ceramic “quantum material” called samarium nickelate, which was used to create devices called organismoids, said Shriram Ramanathan, a Purdue professor of materials engineering.

A video describing the work has been produced,

An August 14, 2017 Purdue University news release by Emil Venere, which originated the news item,  details the work,

“These devices possess certain characteristics of living beings and enable us to advance new learning algorithms that mimic some aspects of the human brain,” Roy said. “The results have far reaching implications for the fields of quantum materials as well as brain-inspired computing.”

When exposed to hydrogen gas, the material undergoes a massive resistance change, as its crystal lattice is “doped” by hydrogen atoms. The material is said to breathe, expanding when hydrogen is added and contracting when the hydrogen is removed.

“The main thing about the material is that when this breathes in hydrogen there is a spectacular quantum mechanical effect that allows the resistance to change by orders of magnitude,” Ramanathan said. “This is very unusual, and the effect is reversible because this dopant can be weakly attached to the lattice, so if you remove the hydrogen from the environment you can change the electrical resistance.”

When hydrogen is exposed to the material, it splits into a proton and an electron, and the electron attaches to the nickel, temporarily causing the material to become an insulator.

“Then, when the hydrogen comes out, this material becomes conducting again,” Ramanathan said. “What we show in this paper is the extent of conduction and insulation can be very carefully tuned.”

This changing conductance and the “decay of that conductance over time” is similar to a key animal behavior called habituation.

“Many animals, even organisms that don’t have a brain, possess this fundamental survival skill,” Roy said. “And that’s why we call this organismic behavior. If I see certain information on a regular basis, I get habituated, retaining memory of it. But if I haven’t seen such information over a long time, then it slowly starts decaying. So, the behavior of conductance going up and down in exponential fashion can be used to create a new computing model that will incrementally learn and at same time forget things in a proper way.”

The researchers have developed a “neural learning model” they have termed adaptive synaptic plasticity.

“This could be really important because it’s one of the first examples of using quantum materials directly for solving a major problem in neural learning,” Ramanathan said.

The researchers used the organismoids to implement the new model for synaptic plasticity.

“Using this effect we are able to model something that is a real problem in neuromorphic computing,” Roy said. “For example, if I have learned your facial features I can still go out and learn someone else’s features without really forgetting yours. However, this is difficult for computing models to do. When learning your features, they can forget the features of the original person, a problem called catastrophic forgetting.”

Neuromorphic computing is not intended to replace conventional general-purpose computer hardware, based on complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor transistors, or CMOS. Instead, it is expected to work in conjunction with CMOS-based computing. Whereas CMOS technology is especially adept at performing complex mathematical computations, neuromorphic computing might be able to perform roles such as facial recognition, reasoning and human-like decision making.

Roy’s team performed the research work on the plasticity model, and other collaborators concentrated on the physics of how to explain the process of doping-driven change in conductance central to the paper. The multidisciplinary team includes experts in materials, electrical engineering, physics, and algorithms.

“It’s not often that a materials science person can talk to a circuits person like professor Roy and come up with something meaningful,” Ramanathan said.

Organismoids might have applications in the emerging field of spintronics. Conventional computers use the presence and absence of an electric charge to represent ones and zeroes in a binary code needed to carry out computations. Spintronics, however, uses the “spin state” of electrons to represent ones and zeros.

It could bring circuits that resemble biological neurons and synapses in a compact design not possible with CMOS circuits. Whereas it would take many CMOS devices to mimic a neuron or synapse, it might take only a single spintronic device.

In future work, the researchers may demonstrate how to achieve habituation in an integrated circuit instead of exposing the material to hydrogen gas.

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

Habituation based synaptic plasticity and organismic learning in a quantum perovskite by Fan Zuo, Priyadarshini Panda, Michele Kotiuga, Jiarui Li, Mingu Kang, Claudio Mazzoli, Hua Zhou, Andi Barbour, Stuart Wilkins, Badri Narayanan, Mathew Cherukara, Zhen Zhang, Subramanian K. R. S. Sankaranarayanan, Riccardo Comin, Karin M. Rabe, Kaushik Roy, & Shriram Ramanathan. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 240 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-00248-6 Published online: 14 August 2017

This paper is open access.

3D microtopographic scaffolds for transplantation and generation of reprogrammed human neurons

Should this technology prove successful once they start testing on people, the stated goal is to use it for the treatment of human neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.  But, I can’t help wondering if they might also consider constructing an artificial brain.

Getting back to the 3D scaffolds for neurons, a March 17, 2016 US National Institutes of Health (NIH) news release (also on EurekAlert), makes the announcement,

National Institutes of Health-funded scientists have developed a 3D micro-scaffold technology that promotes reprogramming of stem cells into neurons, and supports growth of neuronal connections capable of transmitting electrical signals. The injection of these networks of functioning human neural cells — compared to injecting individual cells — dramatically improved their survival following transplantation into mouse brains. This is a promising new platform that could make transplantation of neurons a viable treatment for a broad range of human neurodegenerative disorders.

Previously, transplantation of neurons to treat neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, had very limited success due to poor survival of neurons that were injected as a solution of individual cells. The new research is supported by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), part of NIH.

“Working together, the stem cell biologists and the biomaterials experts developed a system capable of shuttling neural cells through the demanding journey of transplantation and engraftment into host brain tissue,” said Rosemarie Hunziker, Ph.D., director of the NIBIB Program in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine. “This exciting work was made possible by the close collaboration of experts in a wide range of disciplines.”

The research was performed by researchers from Rutgers University, Piscataway, New Jersey, departments of Biomedical Engineering, Neuroscience and Cell Biology, Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, and the Child Health Institute; Stanford University School of Medicine’s Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Stanford, California; the Human Genetics Institute of New Jersey, Piscataway; and the New Jersey Center for Biomaterials, Piscataway. The results are reported in the March 17, 2016 issue of Nature Communications.

The researchers experimented in creating scaffolds made of different types of polymer fibers, and of varying thickness and density. They ultimately created a web of relatively thick fibers using a polymer that stem cells successfully adhered to. The stem cells used were human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which can be readily generated from adult cell types such as skin cells. The iPSCs were induced to differentiate into neural cells by introducing the protein NeuroD1 into the cells.

The space between the polymer fibers turned out to be critical. “If the scaffolds were too dense, the stem cell-derived neurons were unable to integrate into the scaffold, whereas if they are too sparse then the network organization tends to be poor,” explained Prabhas Moghe, Ph.D., distinguished professor of biomedical engineering & chemical engineering at Rutgers University and co-senior author of the paper. “The optimal pore size was one that was large enough for the cells to populate the scaffold but small enough that the differentiating neurons sensed the presence of their neighbors and produced outgrowths resulting in cell-to-cell contact. This contact enhances cell survival and development into functional neurons able to transmit an electrical signal across the developing neural network.”

To test the viability of neuron-seeded scaffolds when transplanted, the researchers created micro-scaffolds that were small enough for injection into mouse brain tissue using a standard hypodermic needle. They injected scaffolds carrying the human neurons into brain slices from mice and compared them to human neurons injected as individual, dissociated cells.

The neurons on the scaffolds had dramatically increased cell-survival compared with the individual cell suspensions. The scaffolds also promoted improved neuronal outgrowth and electrical activity. Neurons injected individually in suspension resulted in very few cells surviving the transplant procedure.

Human neurons on scaffolds compared to neurons in solution were then tested when injected into the brains of live mice. Similar to the results in the brain slices, the survival rate of neurons on the scaffold network was increased nearly 40-fold compared to injected isolated cells. A critical finding was that the neurons on the micro-scaffolds expressed proteins that are involved in the growth and maturation of neural synapses–a good indication that the transplanted neurons were capable of functionally integrating into the host brain tissue.

The success of the study gives this interdisciplinary group reason to believe that their combined areas of expertise have resulted in a system with much promise for eventual treatment of human neurodegenerative disorders. In fact, they are now refining their system for specific use as an eventual transplant therapy for Parkinson’s disease. The plan is to develop methods to differentiate the stem cells into neurons that produce dopamine, the specific neuron type that degenerates in individuals with Parkinson’s disease. The work also will include fine-tuning the scaffold materials, mechanics and dimensions to optimize the survival and function of dopamine-producing neurons, and finding the best mouse models of the disease to test this Parkinson’s-specific therapy.

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

Generation and transplantation of reprogrammed human neurons in the brain using 3D microtopographic scaffolds by Aaron L. Carlson, Neal K. Bennett, Nicola L. Francis, Apoorva Halikere, Stephen Clarke, Jennifer C. Moore, Ronald P. Hart, Kenneth Paradiso, Marius Wernig, Joachim Kohn, Zhiping P. Pang, & Prabhas V. Moghe. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10862  doi:10.1038/ncomms10862 Published 17 March 2016

This paper is open access.

US Dept. of Agriculture awards $3.8M for nanotechnology research grants

I wonder just how much funding the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) is devoting to nanotechnology this year (2015). I first came across an announcement of $23M in the body of a news item about Zinkicide (my April 7, 2015 posting),

Found in Florida orchards in 2005, a citrus canker, citrus greening, poses a serious threat to the US state’s fruit industry. An April 2, 2105 news item on phys.org describes a possible solution to the problem,

Since it was discovered in South Florida in 2005, the plague of citrus greening has spread to nearly every grove in the state, stoking fears among growers that the $10.7 billion-a-year industry may someday disappear.

Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded the University of Florida a $4.6 million grant aimed at testing a potential new weapon in the fight against citrus greening: Zinkicide, a bactericide invented by a nanoparticle researcher at the University of Central Florida.

An April 29, 2015 article by Diego Flammini for Farm.com describes the latest USDA nanotechnology funding announcement,

In an effort to increase America’s food security, nutrition, food safety and environmental protection, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced $3.8 million in nanotechnology research grants.

Flammini lists three of the eight recipients,

University of Georgia
With $496,192, the research team will develop different sensors that are able to detect fungal pathogens in crops. The project will also develop a smartphone app for farmers to have so they can access their information whenever necessary.

Rutgers University
The school will use its $450,000 to conduct a nationwide survey about nanotechnology and gauge consumer beliefs about it and its relationship to health. Among the specifics it will touch on is the use of visuals to communicate nanotechnology.

University of Massachusetts
The researchers will concentrate their $444,200 on developing a platform to detect pathogens in food that is better than the current methods.

A full list of the recipients can be found in the April 27, 2015 USDA news release featuring the $3.8M in awards,

  • The University of Georgia, Athens, Ga., $496,192
  • University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa., $496,180
  • University of Kentucky Research Foundation, Lexington, Ky., $450,000
  • University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass., $444,200
  • North Dakota State University, Fargo, N.D., $149,714
  • Rutgers University, New Brunswick. N.J., $450,000
  • Pennsylvania State University, University Park, University Park, Pa., $447,788
  • West Virginia University, Morgantown, W. Va., $496,168
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wis., $450,100

You can find more details about the awards in this leaflet featuring the USDA project descriptions for the eight recipients.

Nano and stem cell differentiation at Rutgers University (US)

A Nov. 14, 2014 news item on Azonano features a nanoparticle-based platform for differentiating stem cells,

Rutgers University Chemistry Associate Professor Ki-Bum Lee has developed patent-pending technology that may overcome one of the critical barriers to harnessing the full therapeutic potential of stem cells.

A Nov. 1, 2104 Rutgers University news release, which originated the news item, describes the challenge in more detail,

One of the major challenges facing researchers interested in regenerating cells and growing new tissue to treat debilitating injuries and diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and spinal cord trauma, is creating an easy, effective, and non-toxic methodology to control differentiation into specific cell lineages. Lee and colleagues at Rutgers and Kyoto University in Japan have invented a platform they call NanoScript, an important breakthrough for researchers in the area of gene expression. Gene expression is the way information encoded in a gene is used to direct the assembly of a protein molecule, which is integral to the process of tissue development through stem cell therapeutics.

Stem cells hold great promise for a wide range of medical therapeutics as they have the ability to grow tissue throughout the body. In many tissues, stem cells have an almost limitless ability to divide and replenish other cells, serving as an internal repair system.

Transcription factor (TF) proteins are master regulators of gene expression. TF proteins play a pivotal role in regulating stem cell differentiation. Although some have tried to make synthetic molecules that perform the functions of natural transcription factors, NanoScript is the first nanomaterial TF protein that can interact with endogenous DNA. …

“Our motivation was to develop a highly robust, efficient nanoparticle-based platform that can regulate gene expression and eventually stem cell differentiation,” said Lee, who leads a Rutgers research group primarily focused on developing and integrating nanotechnology with chemical biology to modulate signaling pathways in cancer and stem cells. “Because NanoScript is a functional replica of TF proteins and a tunable gene-regulating platform, it has great potential to do exactly that. The field of stem cell biology now has another platform to regulate differentiation while the field of nanotechnology has demonstrated for the first time that we can regulate gene expression at the transcriptional level.”

Here’s an image illustrating NanoScript and gold nanoparticles,

Courtesy Rutgers University

Courtesy Rutgers University

The news release goes on to describe the platform’s use of gold nanoparticles,

NanoScript was constructed by tethering functional peptides and small molecules called synthetic transcription factors, which mimic the individual TF domains, onto gold nanoparticles.

“NanoScript localizes within the nucleus and initiates transcription of a reporter plasmid by up to 30-fold,” said Sahishnu Patel, Rutgers Chemistry graduate student and co-author of the ACS Nano publication. “NanoScript can effectively transcribe targeted genes on endogenous DNA in a nonviral manner.”

Lee said the next step for his research is to study what happens to the gold nanoparticles after NanoScript is utilized, to ensure no toxic effects arise, and to ensure the effectiveness of NanoScript over long periods of time.

“Due to the unique tunable properties of NanoScript, we are highly confident this platform not only will serve as a desirable alternative to conventional gene-regulating methods,” Lee said, “but also has direct employment for applications involving gene manipulation such as stem cell differentiation, cancer therapy, and cellular reprogramming. Our research will continue to evaluate the long-term implications for the technology.”

Lee, originally from South Korea, joined the Rutgers faculty in 2008 and has earned many honors including the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. Lee received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Northwestern University where he studied with Professor Chad. A. Mirkin, a pioneer in the coupling of nanotechnology and biomolecules. Lee completed his postdoctoral training at The Scripps Research Institute with Professor Peter G. Schultz. Lee has served as a Visiting Scholar at both Princeton University and UCLA Medical School.

The primary interest of Lee’s group is to develop and integrate nanotechnologies and chemical functional genomics to modulate signaling pathways in mammalian cells towards specific cell lineages or behaviors. He has published more than 50 articles and filed for 17 corresponding patents.

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

NanoScript: A Nanoparticle-Based Artificial Transcription Factor for Effective Gene Regulation by Sahishnu Patel, Dongju Jung, Perry T. Yin, Peter Carlton, Makoto Yamamoto, Toshikazu Bando, Hiroshi Sugiyama, and Ki-Bum Lee. ACS Nano, 2014, 8 (9), pp 8959–8967 DOI: 10.1021/nn501589f Publication Date (Web): August 18, 2014
Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Smart suits for US soldiers—an update of sorts from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The US military has funded a program named: ‘Dynamic Multifunctional Material for a Second Skin Program’ through its Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Chemical and Biological Technologies Department and Sharon Gaudin’s Feb. 20,  2014 article for Computer World offers a bit of an update on this project,which was first reported in 2012,

A U.S. soldier is on patrol with his squad when he kneels to check something out, unknowingly putting his knee into a puddle of contaminants.

The soldier isn’t harmed, though, because he or she is wearing a smart suit that immediately senses the threat and transforms the material covering his knee into a protective state that repels the potential deadly bacteria.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federal government research facility in Livermore, Calif., are using nanotechnology to create clothing designed to protect U.S. soldiers from chemical and biological attacks.

“The threat is nanoscale so we need to work in the nano realm, which helps to keep it light and breathable,” said Francesco Fornasiero, a staff scientist at the lab. “If you have a nano-size threat, you need a nano-sized defense.”

Fornasiero said the task is a difficult one, and the suits may not be ready for the field for another 10 to 20 years. [emphasis mine]

One option is to use carbon nanotubes in a layer of the suit’s fabric. Sweat and air would be able to easily move through the nanotubes. However, the diameter of the nanotubes is smaller than the diameter of bacteria and viruses. That means they would not be able to pass through the tubes and reach the person wearing the suit.

However, chemicals that might be used in a chemical attack are small enough to fit through the nanotubes. To block them, researchers are adding a layer of polymer threads that extend up from the top of the nanotubes, like stalks of grass coming up from the ground.

The threads are designed to recognize the presence of chemical agents. When that happens, they swell and collapse on top of the nanotubes, blocking anything from entering them.

A second option that the Lawrence Livermore scientists are working on involves similar carbon nanotubes but with catalytic components in a polymer mesh that sits on top of the nanotubes. The components would destroy any chemical agents they come in contact with. After the chemicals are destroyed, they are shed off, enabling the suit to handle multiple attacks.

An October 6, 2012 (NR-12-10-06) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) news release details the -project and the proponents,

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists and collaborators are developing a new military uniform material that repels chemical and biological agents using a novel carbon nanotube fabric.

The material will be designed to undergo a rapid transition from a breathable state to a protective state. The highly breathable membranes would have pores made of a few-nanometer-wide vertically aligned carbon nanotubes that are surface modified with a chemical warfare agent-responsive functional layer. Response to the threat would be triggered by direct chemical warfare agent attack to the membrane surface, at which time the fabric would switch to a protective state by closing the CNT pore entrance or by shedding the contaminated surface layer.

High breathability is a critical requirement for protective clothing to prevent heat-stress and exhaustion when military personnel are engaged in missions in contaminated environments. Current protective military uniforms are based on heavyweight full-barrier protection or permeable adsorptive protective overgarments that cannot meet the critical demand of simultaneous high comfort and protection, and provide a passive rather than active response to an environmental threat.

To provide high breathability, the new composite material will take advantage of the unique transport properties of carbon nanotube pores, which have two orders of magnitude faster gas transport rates when compared with any other pore of similar size.

“We have demonstrated that our small-size prototype carbon nanotube membranes can provide outstanding breathability in spite of the very small pore sizes and porosity,” said Sangil Kim, another LLNL scientist in the Biosciences and Biotechnology Division. “With our collaborators, we will develop large area functionalized CNT membranes.”

Biological agents, such as bacteria or viruses, are close to 10 nanometers in size. Because the membrane pores on the uniform are only a few nanometers wide, these membranes will easily block biological agents.

However, chemical agents are much smaller in size and require the membrane pores to be able to react to block the threat. To create a multifunctional membrane, the team will surface modify the original prototype carbon nanotube membranes with chemical threat responsive functional groups. The functional groups on the membrane will sense and block the threat like gatekeepers on entrance. A second response scheme also will be developed: Similar to how a living skin peels off when challenged with dangerous external factors, the fabric will exfoliate upon reaction with the chemical agent. In this way, the fabric will be able to block chemical agents such as sulfur mustard (blister agent), GD and VX nerve agents, toxins such as staphylococcal enterotoxin and biological spores such as anthrax.

The project is funded for $13 million over five years with LLNL as the lead institution. The Livermore team is made up of Fornasiero [Francesco Fornasiero], Kim and Kuang Jen Wu. Other collaborators and institutions involved in the project include Timothy Swager at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jerry Shan at Rutgers University, Ken Carter, James Watkins, and Jeffrey Morse at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Heidi Schreuder-Gibson at Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, and Robert Praino at Chasm Technologies Inc.

“Development of chemical threat responsive carbon nanotube membranes is a great example of novel material’s potential to provide innovative solutions for the Department of Defense CB needs,” said Tracee Harris, the DTRA science and technology manager for the Dynamic Multifunctional Material for a Second Skin Program. “This futuristic uniform would allow our military forces to operate safely for extended time periods and successfully complete their missions in environments contaminated with chemical and biological warfare agents.”

The Laboratory has a history in developing carbon nanotubes for a wide range of applications including desalination. “We have an advanced carbon nanotube platform to build and expand to make advancements in the protective fabric material for this new project,” Wu said.

The new uniforms could be deployed in the field in less than 10 years. [emphasis mine]

Since Gaudin’s 2014 article quotes one of the LLNL’s scientists, Francesco Fornasiero, with an estimate for the suit’s deployment into the field as 10 – 20 years as opposed to the “less than 10 years” estimated in the news release, I’m guessing the problem has proved more complex than was first anticipated.

For anyone who’s interested in more details about  US soldiers and nanotechnology,

  • May 1, 2013 article by Max Cacas for Signal Online provides more details about the overall Smart Skin programme and its goals.
  • Nov. 15, 2013 article by Kris Walker for Azonano.com describes the Smart Skin project along with others including the intriguingly titled: ‘Warrior Web’.
  • website for MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies Note: The MIT researcher mentioned in the LLNL news release is a faculty member of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.
  • website for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency

Materials research and nanotechnology for clean energy at Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia)

Getting to the bottom line of a complex set of  interlinked programs and initiatives, it’s safe to say that a group of US students went to study with research Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia) in the first Materials Research School which was held Dec. 9 -21, 2012.

Rutgers University (New Jersey, US)  student Aleksandra Biedron attended the Materials Research School as a member of a joint Rutgers University-Princeton University Nanotechnology for Clean Energy graduate training program (one of the US National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship [IGERT] programs).

In a Summer 2013 (volume 14) issue of Rutgers University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology News, Biedron describes the experience,

The program brought together approximately 50 graduate students and early-career materials researchers from across the United States and East Africa, as well as 15 internationally recognized instructors, for two weeks of lectures, problem solving, and cultural exchange. “I was interested in meeting young African scientists to discuss energy materials, a universal concern, which is relevant to my research in ionic liquids,” said Biedron, a graduate of Livingston High School [Berkeley Heights, New Jersey]. “I was also excited to see Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and experience the culture and historical attractions.”

A cornerstone of the Nanotechnology for Clean Energy IGERT program is having the students apply their training in a dynamic educational exchange program with African institutions, promoting development of the students’ global awareness and understanding of the challenges involved in global scientific and economic development. In Addis Ababa, Biedron quickly noticed how different the scope of research was between the African scientists and their international counterparts.

“The African scientists’ research was really solution-based,” said Biedron. “They were looking at how they could use their natural resources to solve some of their region’s most pressing issues, not only for energy, but also health, clean water, and housing. You don’t really see that as much in the U.S. because we are already thinking about the future, 10 or 20 years from now.”

H/T centraljerseycentral.com, Aug. 1, 2013 news item.

I found a little more information about the first Materials Research School on this Columbia University JUAMI (Joint US-Africa Materials Initiative) webpage,

The Joint US-Africa Materials Initiative
Announces its first Materials Research School
To be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, December 9-21, 2012

Theme of the school:

The first school will concentrate on materials research for sustainable energy. Tutorials and seminar topics will range from photocatalysis and photovoltaics to fuel cells and batteries.

Goals of the school:

The initiative aims to build materials science research and collaborations between the United States and Africa, with an initial focus on East Africa, and to develop ties between young materials researchers in both regions in a school taught by top materials researchers. The school will bring together approximately 50 PhD and early career materials researchers from across the US and East Africa, and 15 internationally recognized instructors, for two weeks of lectures, problem solving and cultural exchange in historic Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Topics include photocatalysis, photovoltaics, thermoelectrics, fuel cells, and batteries.

I also found this on the IGERT homepage,

IGERT Trainees participate in:
  • Interdisciplinary courses in the fundamentals of energy technology, nanotechnology and energy policy.
  • Dissertation research emphasizing nanotechnology and energy.
  • Dynamic educational exchange between U.S. and select African institutions.

A ‘graphite today, graphene tomorrow’ philosophy from Focus Graphite

Focus Graphite, a Canadian company with the tag line ‘Think Graphite today, Think Graphene tomorrow’, is making a bit of splash this month (April 2013) with its announcement of three deals (two joint ventures and the commissioning of their pilot plant) and it’s only April 17.

The most recent is the pilot plant announcement, from Focus Graphite’s Apr. 17, 2013 press release,

Focus Graphite Inc. (TSX-V:FMS)(OTCQX:FCSMF)(FRANKFURT:FKC) (“Focus” or the “Company”) is pleased to report the commissioning of its pilot plant and the start-up of circuit testing for the production of high-grade graphite concentrates from the Company’s wholly-owned Lac Knife, Québec graphite project.

The principal objectives of the pilot plant testwork are to confirm the results from Phase II bench scale Locked Cycle Tests (LCT)*; to assess the technical viability and operational performance of the processing plant design; to generate tailings for environmental testing, and; to produce a range of graphite raw materials for customer assessments and for further upgrading.

The Lac Knife project pilot plant was designed and built and is being operated by SGS Canada Inc. (“SGS”) in Lakefield, Ontario. The testing is expected to last 4-6 weeks.

….

The highlights of those tests conducted by SGS confirmed:-       The average amount of graphite flake recovered from the core samples in the Phase II LCT increased to 92.2% compared with a recovery of 84.7% graphite flake in the Phase I LCT;

–       The proportion of large flakes (+80 mesh) in the graphite concentrates ranged between 35% and 58%;

–       The carbon content of graphite concentrates produced from the four (4) composites averaged 96.6 %C, including the fine flake fraction (-200 mesh), a 4.6% increase over Phase I LCT completed in mid-2012.

Final results for Phase II LCT including for the two composite drill core samples of massive graphite mineralisation are pending.

* A locked cycle test is a repetitive batch flotation test conducted to assess flow sheet design. It is the preferred method for arriving at a metallurgical projection from laboratory testing. The final cycles of the test are designed to simulate a continuous, stable flotation circuit.

There’s also the announcement of a joint venture between Grafoid (a company where, I believe, 40% is owned by Focus Graphite) with the University of Waterloo, from the Apr. 17, 2013 news item on Azonano,

Focus Graphite Inc. on behalf of Grafoid Inc. (“Grafoid”) is pleased to announce the signing of a two-year R&D agreement between Grafoid Inc. and the University of Waterloo to investigate and develop a graphene-based composite for electrochemical energy storage for the automotive and/or portable electronics sectors.

Gary Economo, President and CEO of Focus Graphite Inc. and Grafoid Inc., said the objective of the agreement is to research and develop patentable applications using Grafoid’s unique investment which derives graphene from raw, graphite ore to target specialty high value graphene derivatives ranging from sulfur graphene to nanoporous graphene foam.

“Today’s announcement marks Grafoid’s fifth publicly declared graphene development project with a major academic or corporate institution, and the third related directly to a next generation green technology or renewable energy development project,” Mr. Economo said.

It follows R&D partnering projects announced with Rutgers University’s AMIPP, CVD Equipment Corporation, with Hydro-Quebec’s research institute, IREQ, and with British Columbia-based CapTherm Systems, an advanced thermal management technologies developer and producer.

Focus Graphite’s Apr. 16, 2013 press release, which originated the news item on Azonano, provides some context for the intense worldwide interest in graphene and the business imperatives,

Alternative Energy & Graphene:

The quest for alternative energy sources is one of the most important and exciting challenges facing science and technology in the 21st century. Environmentally-friendly, efficient and sustainable energy generation and usage have become large efforts for advancing human societal needs.  Graphene is a pure form of carbon with powerful characteristics which can bring about success in portable, stationary and transportation applications in high energy demanding areas in which electrochemical energy storage and conversion devices such as batteries, fuel cells and electrochemical supercapacitors  are the necessary devices.

Electrochemical Supercapacitors:

Supercapacitors, a zero-emission energy storage system, have a number of high-impact characteristics, such as fast charging, long charge-discharge cycles and broad operating temperature ranges, currently used or heavily researched in hybrid or electrical vehicles, electronics, aircrafts, and smart grids for energy storage. The US Department of Energy has assigned the same importance to supercapacitors and batteries. There is much research looking at combining electrochemical supercapacitors with battery systems or fuel cells.

Fuel Cells:

A fuel cell is a zero-emission source of power, and the only byproduct of a fuel cell is water. Some fuel cells use natural gas or hydrocarbons as fuel, but even those produce far less emissions than conventional sources. As a result, fuel cells eliminate or at least vastly reduce the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning fossil fuels, and since they are also quiet in operation, they also reduce noise pollution. Fuel cells are more efficient than combustion engines as they generate electricity electrochemically. Since they can produce electricity onsite, the waste heat produced can also be used for heating purposes. Small fuel cells are already replacing batteries in portable products.

Toyota is planning to launch fuel cell cars in 2015, and has licensed its fuel cell vehicle technology to Germany’s BMW AG. BMW will use the technology to build a prototype vehicle by 2015, with plans for a market release around 2020.

By 2020, market penetration could rise as high as 1.2 million fuel cell vehicles, which would represent 7.6% of the total U.S. automotive market. Other fuel cell end users are fork lift and mining industries which continuously add profits to this growing industry.

Proton or polymer exchange membranes (PEM) have become the dominant fuel cell technology in the automotive market.

The U.S. Department of Energy has set fuel cell performance standards for 2015. As of today, no technologies under development have been able to meet the DOE’s  targets for performance and cost.

As I am from British Columbia and it was where* the first joint venture deal signed in April, here’s a bit more from Focus Graphite’s Apr. 9, 2013 press release,

Focus Graphite Inc. (TSX-V:FMS)(OTCQX:FCSMF)(FRANKFURT:FKC) on behalf of Grafoid Inc., announced today Grafoid’s joint venture development agreement with Coquitlam, British Columbia-based CapTherm Systems Inc. to develop and commercialize next generation, multiphase thermal management systems for electric vehicle (EV) battery and light emitting diode (LED) technologies.

CapTherm Systems Inc – Progressive Thermal Management is a thermal management/cooling company specializing in personal computer, server, LED, and electric vehicle cooling systems. It develops and commercializes proprietary, next-generation high-power electronics cooling technologies.

Its multiphase cooling technologies represent the core of its products that harness the power of latent heat from vaporization.

Under the terms of the agreement, Grafoid Inc., a company invested in the production of high-energy graphene and the development of graphene industrial applications will supply both materials and its science for adapting graphene to CapTherm’s existing EV and LED cooling systems.

Focus Graphite is a Canadian company, you can find more information on their website and the same for Grafoid and SGS Canada, and CapTherm Systems.

I have previously mentioned Focus Graphite in a Nov. 27, 2012 posting about their deal with Hydro Québec’s research institute, IREQ. I have also mentioned graphite mining in Canada with regard to the Northern Graphite Corporation and its Bissett Creek mine (my July 25, 2011 posting and my Feb. 6, 2012 posting). Apparently, Canada has high quality, large graphic flakes.

* ‘where’ added to sentence on Feb. 23, 2015.