Tag Archives: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

Be a citizen scientist: join the ‘Wild river battle’

I got this invitation from a professor at the University of Montpellier (Université de Montpellier, France) in a February 1, 2024 email (the project ‘Wild river battle’ is being run by scientists at ETH Zurich [Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich]) ,

Dear all,

I hope this message finds you well. I am reaching out to share an exciting opportunity for all of us to contribute to the safeguarding of wild rivers worldwide.

We are launching a Citizen Science project in collaboration with Citizen Science Zurich, utilizing AI and satellite imagery to assess and protect the natural state of rivers on a global scale. Whether you have a passion for river conservation or simply wish to contribute to a meaningful cause, we invite you to join us in this impactful game.

To access the game, please follow this link https://lab.citizenscience.ch/en/project/769

It only takes 3-5 minutes, and the rules are simple: click on the riverscape that you find the wildest (you can also use the buttons under the images).

Thank you very much for your time in advance, and I look forward to witnessing our collective efforts make a positive impact for the conservation of our precious rivers. And we are open to receive any feedback by mail (shzong@ethz.ch) and willing to provide more information for those who are interested (https://ele.ethz.ch/research/technology-modelling/citizen-river.html).

Best regards and have fun!

Nicolas Mouquet

Scientific director of the Centre for the Synthesis
and Analysis of Biodiversity (CESAB)
5 Rue de l’École de Médecine
34000, Montpellier

I went looking for more information as per Mouquet`s email (https://ele.ethz.ch/research/technology-modelling/citizen-river.html) and found this,

Finding wild rivers with AI

A citizen science project combining AI and satellite images to evaluate rivers’ wildness.

Wild rivers are an invaluable resource that play a vital role in maintaining healthy ecosystems and supporting biodiversity. Rivers of high ecological integrity provide habitat for a wide variety of plant and animal species, and their free-​flowing waters provide a large number of services such as freshwater, supporting the needs of local communities. Protecting wild rivers is essential to ensure long-​term global health, and it is our responsibility to develop management schemes to preserve these precious habitats for future generations.  

Wild stretches, supporting the highest levels of biodiversity, are disappearing globally at an extremely fast rate. Deforestation, mining, pollution, booming hydropower dams and other human infrastructures are built or planned on large rivers. The increasing pressure of human activities has been causing a rapid decline of biodiversity and ecological function. We should act now to protect the rivers and be guided by the current state of rivers to identify unprotected areas that are worth being included in conservation plans. However, there is still no map of global wild river segments which could support such global conservation planning, nor a tool to monitor the wilderness of rivers over time under global changes.

How we find wild rivers, evaluate their wildness, and why we need your help

We will evaluate the level of wildness of river sections from satellite images. Remote sensing is the most efficient method for monitoring the landscape on a global and dynamic scale. Satellite images contain valuable information about the river’s course, width, depth, shape and surrounding landscape, which allow us to assess how wild they are visually.

You and other citizen scientists can help us score the wildest river sections from satellite images. Using the ranking from citizen scientists, we will run a ranking algorithm to give each image a wildness score depending on the many pairwise comparisons. These images with a wilderness score will act as a training dataset for a machine learning algorithm which will be trained to automatically score any large river segment, globally. With an accurate river wildness model, we will be able to quickly assess the wildness of the global river sections. Using such a tool, we can for instance find the river sections that are still worth protecting. This pristine river map will provide invaluable insights for conservation initiatives and enable targeted actions to safeguard and restore the remaining pristine rivers and monitor the trajectories of rivers around the world.

How to do it?

Rivers will first be segmented into river sections with the surrounding environment as a whole landscape bounding box. The river sections will be identified by citizen scientists and your interpretation to form a reference dataset. The game (you can click the corresponding language to access it with different language versions. English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese) is easy (thanks to Citizen Science Zurich); you just have to click on the riverscape you find more wild, or click the button under the rivers. For mobile users, please use the buttons.

Before you get started there will be this,

Your participation in the study is voluntary.

Statement of consent

By participating in the study, I confirm that I:

* have heard/read and understood the study information.
* had enough time to decide on my participation in the study.
* voluntarily participate in the study and agree to my personal data being used as described below.

Participants’ information will be handled with the utmost confidentiality. All data collected, including but not limited to demographic details, responses to survey questions, and any other pertinent information, will be securely stored and accessible only to authorized personnel involved in the research. Your personal identity will be kept strictly confidential, and any published results will be presented in aggregate form, ensuring that individual participants cannot be identified. Furthermore, your data will not be shared with any third parties and will only be used for the specific research purposes outlined in the introduction page prior to participating in the study.

I fund this description of the researchers and contributors (from https://lab.citizenscience.ch/en/project/769 or ‘Wild river battle’)

Who is behind

We are ecologists at ETH Zurich that are foucusing on biodiversity monitoring in the large river corridors. Learn more about us from our homepage. Chair of Ecosystems and Landscape Evolution

Who contributes

All the people that have interest in protecting wild rivers can participate this project, and of course non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and river management bureau like CNR (Compagnie Nationale du Rhône) also showed great interests in this project.

Should you be inspired to do more, Citizen Science Zurich lists a number of projects (ranging from the Hair SALON project to FELIDAE: Finding Elusive Links by Tracking Diet of Cats in Environment to more) on this page. It’s a mixed listing of those that are completed or looking for participants and/or looking for financial resources.

There is also a Citizen Science Portal (a Canadian federal government project) that was last updated January 15, 2024. Some of the projects are national in scope while others are provincial in scope.

Unraveling carbyne (one-dimensional carbon)

An international group of researchers has developed a technique for producing a record-breaking length of one-dimensional carbon (carbon chain) according to an April 4, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Elemental carbon appears in many different modifications, including diamond, fullerenes and graphene. Their unique structural, electronic, mechanical, transport and optical properties have a broad range of applications in physics, chemistry and materials science, including composite materials, nanoscale light emitting devices and energy harvesting materials. Within the “carbon family”, only carbyne, the truly one-dimensional form of carbon, has not yet been synthesized despite having been studied for more than 50 years. Its extreme instability in ambient conditions rendered the final experimental proof of its existence elusive.

An international collaboration of researchers now succeeded in developing a novel route for the bulk production of carbon chains composed of more than 6,400 carbon atoms by using thin double-walled carbon nanotubes as protective hosts for the chains.

An April 4, 2016 University of Vienna press release (also on EurekAlert) provides another perspective on the research,

Even in its elemental form, the high bond versatility of carbon allows for many different well-known materials, including diamond and graphite. A single layer of graphite, termed graphene, can then be rolled or folded into carbon nanotubes or fullerenes, respectively. To date, Nobel prizes have been awarded for both graphene (2010) and fullerenes (1996). Although the existence of carbyne, an infinitely long carbon chain, was proposed in 1885 by Adolf von Baeyer (Nobel laureate for his overall contributions in organic chemistry, 1905), scientists have not yet been able to synthesize this material. Von Baeyer even suggested that carbyne would remain elusive as its high reactivity would always lead to its immediate destruction. Nevertheless, carbon chains of increasing length have been successfully synthesized over the last 50 years, with a record of around 100 carbon atoms (2003). This record has now been broken by more than one order of magnitude, with the demonstration of micrometer length-scale chains.

The new record

Researchers from the University of Vienna, led by Thomas Pichler, have presented a novel approach to grow and stabilize carbon chains with a record length of 6,000 carbon atoms, improving the previous record by more than one order of magnitude. They use the confined space inside a double-walled carbon nanotube as a nano-reactor to grow ultra-long carbon chains on a bulk scale. In collaboration with the groups of Kazu Suenaga at the AIST Tsukuba [National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology] in Japan, Lukas Novotny at the ETH Zürich [Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] in Switzerland and Angel Rubio at the MPI [Max Planck Institute] Hamburg in Germany and UPV/EHU [University of the Basque Country] San Sebastian in Spain, the existence of the chains has been unambiguously confirmed by using a multitude of sophisticated, complementary methods. These are temperature dependent near- and far-field Raman spectroscopy with different lasers (for the investigation of electronic and vibrational properties), high resolution transmission electron spectroscopy (for the direct observation of carbyne inside the carbon nanotubes) and x-ray scattering (for the confirmation of bulk chain growth).

The researchers present their study in the latest edition of Nature Materials. “The direct experimental proof of confined ultra-long linear carbon chains, which are more than an order of magnitude longer than the longest proven chains so far, can be seen as a promising step towards the final goal of unraveling the “holy grail” of carbon allotropes, carbyne”, explains the lead author, Lei Shi.

Application potential

Carbyne is very stable inside double-walled carbon nanotubes. This property is crucial for its eventual application in future materials and devices. According to theoretical models, carbyne’s mechanical properties exceed all known materials, outperforming both graphene and diamond. Carbyne’s electrical properties suggest novel nanoelectronic applications in quantum spin transport and magnetic semiconductors.

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

Confined linear carbon chains as a route to bulk carbyne by Lei Shi, Philip Rohringer, Kazu Suenaga, Yoshiko Niimi, Jani Kotakoski, Jannik C. Meyer, Herwig Peterlik, Marius Wanko, Seymur Cahangirov, Angel Rubio, Zachary J. Lapin, Lukas Novotny, Paola Ayala, & Thomas Pichler. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4617 Published online 04 April 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

But, there is this earlier and open access version on arXiv.org,

Confined linear carbon chains: A route to bulk carbyne
Lei Shi, Philip Rohringer, Kazu Suenaga, Yoshiko Niimi, Jani Kotakoski, Jannik C. Meyer, Herwig Peterlik, Paola Ayala, Thomas Pichler (Submitted on 17 Jul 2015 (v1), last revised 20 Jul 2015 (this version, v2))

Nanobionic plant materials

This is a bioinspired story with a bit of a twist. From a March 30, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Humans have been inspired by nature since the beginning of time. We mimic nature to develop new technologies, with examples ranging from machinery to pharmaceuticals to new materials. Planes are modelled on birds and many drugs have their origins in plants. Researchers at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering [ETH Zurich; Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] have taken it a step further: in order to develop an extremely sensitive temperature sensor they took a close look at temperature-sensitive plants. However, they did not mimic the properties of the plants; instead, they developed a hybrid material that contains, in addition to synthetic components, the plant cells themselves (“Plant nanobionic materials with a giant temperature response mediated by pectin-Ca2+”). [emphasis mine] “We let nature do the job for us,” explains Chiara Daraio, Professor of Mechanics and Materials.

The scientists were able to develop by far the most sensitive temperature sensor: an electronic module that changes its conductivity as a function of temperature. “No other sensor can respond to such small temperature fluctuations with such large changes in conductivity. Our sensor reacts with a responsivity at least 100 times higher compared to the best existing sensors,” says Raffaele Di Giacomo, a post-doc in Daraio’s group.

The scientists have provided an illustration of their concept using a tobacco leaf as the backdrop,

ETH scientists used cells form the tobacco plant to build the by far most sensitive temperature sensor. (Illustration: Daniele Flo / ETH Zurich)

ETH scientists used cells form the tobacco plant to build the by far most sensitive temperature sensor. (Illustration: Daniele Flo / ETH Zurich)

A March 31, 2015 ETH Zurich press release, which despite the release date originated the news item, describes the concept in more detail,

It has been known for decades that plants have the extraordinary ability to register extremely fine temperature differences and respond to them through changes in the conductivity of their cells. In doing so, plants are better than any man-made sensor so far.

Di Giacomo experimented with tobacco cells in a cell culture. “We asked ourselves how we might transfer these cells into a lifeless, dry material in such a way that their temperature-sensitive properties are preserved,” he recounts. The scientists achieved their objective by growing the cells in a medium containing tiny tubes of carbon. These electrically conductive carbon nanotubes formed a network between the tobacco cells and were also able to penetrate the cell walls. When Di Giacomo dried the nanotube-cultivated cells, he discovered a woody, firm material that he calls ‘cyberwood’. In contrast to wood, this material is electrically conductive thanks to the nanotubes, and interestingly the conductivity is temperature-dependent and extremely sensitive, just like in living tobacco cells.

The scientists considered  the new material’s (cyberwood) properties and possible future applications (from the news release),

As demonstrated by experiments, the cyberwood sensor can identify warm bodies even at distance; for example, a hand approaching the sensor from a distance of a few dozen centimetres. The sensor’s conductivity depends directly on the hand’s distance from the sensor.

According to the scientists, cyberwood could be used in a wide range of applications; for instance, in the development of a ‘touchless touchscreen’ that reacts to gestures, with the gestures recorded by multiple sensors. Equally conceivable might be heat-sensitive cameras or night-vision devices.

The Swiss researchers along with a collaborator at the University of Salerno (Italy) did further research into the origins of the material’s behaviour (from the news release),

The ETH scientists, together with a collaborator at the University of Salerno, Italy, not only subjected their new material’s properties to a detailed examination, they also analysed the origins of their extraordinary behaviour. They discovered that pectins and charged atoms (ions) play a key role in the temperature sensitivity of both living plant cells and the dry cyberwood. Pectins are sugar molecules found in plant cell walls that can be cross-linked, depending on temperature, to form a gel. Calcium and magnesium ions are both present in this gel. “As the temperature rises, the links of the pectin break apart, the gel becomes softer, and the ions can move about more freely,” explains Di Giacomo. As a result, the material conducts electricity better when temperature increases.

The news release goes on to mention a patent and future plans,

The scientists submitted a patent application for their sensor. In ongoing work, they are now further developing it such that it functions without plant cells, essentially with only pectin and ions. Their goal is to create a flexible, transparent and even biocompatible sensor with the same ultrahigh temperature sensitivity. Such a sensor could be moulded into arbitrary shapes and produced at extremely low cost. This will open the door to new applications for thermal sensors in biomedical devices, consumer products and low cost thermal cameras.

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

Plant nanobionic materials with a giant temperature response mediated by pectin-Ca2+ by Raffaele Di Giacomo, Chiara Daraio, and Bruno Maresca. Published online before print March 30, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421020112 PNAS March 30, 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Biocompatible cellulose sheaths for implants

Strictly speaking this is not my usual scale which is nano but the topic is of some interest to me so here goes a micro scale story.

It’s well known the body rejects foreign objects no matter how helpful or necessary to our continued existence. A Jan. 19, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes research into developing more biocompatible implants (Note: A link has been removed),

The human immune system distinguishes between endogenous and foreign bodies. This is highly useful when defending the body against pathogens, but can become a problem if a patient requires an artificial implant like a pacemaker or a heart assist device. In some cases the body responds with an inflammation, and it may even reject the device altogether. Researchers at ETH Zurich [Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] are now introducing a promising method to ameliorate this process –fabricating pre-structured cellulose materials that cover or coat devices with three-dimensional micro-structures and thus make them exceptionally biocompatible (“Surface-Structured Bacterial Cellulose with Guided Assembly-Based Biolithography (GAB)”).

A Jan. 19, 2015 ETH Zurich press written by Angelika Jacobs, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Researchers had already discovered that cells interact better with rough or structured surfaces than with smooth ones and can cling to them more effectively. However, until now it has not been possible to apply these surface structures to one of the most promising materials in the field of medicine: cellulose produced by bacteria. Bacterial cellulose has received major attention in research in recent years due to the fact that it is durable, adaptable and well tolerated by the human body. For example, practical tests are already being carried out on artificial blood vessels and cartilage made using bacterial cellulose. The versatile material is also an effective option for use as wound dressings.

A research team led by ETH Professor Dimos Poulikakos and Aldo Ferrari at the Laboratory of Thermodynamics in Emerging Technologies, has now succeeded in creating bacterial cellulose with a controlled surface structure. This is produced using a silicon mould with a three-dimensional, optimised geometry (such as a line grid) on a micrometre scale, which is then floated on the surface of a nutrient solution in which the cellulose-producing bacteria grow. The bacteria create a dense network of cellulose strands at the interface between liquid and air. The researchers observed that when the mould was present the bacteria conformed to it, producing a cellulose layer together with a negative replica of the line grid.

Surface structure conveys signals to cells

The line grid also enabled the bacteria to produce an increased number of cellulose strands in approximate alignment with the grid. “In principle, human cells have the ability to identify fibres, such as endogenous collagen, as part of the connective tissue,” explains Aldo Ferrari. The cellulose strands and the grid pattern provide cells with an orientation along predetermined paths that they can sense. “This is of major benefit to wound dressings. Skin cells could grow over a wound more effectively if they moved in accordance with structured cellulose.” The material also has a sort of memory: the structure is even retained when the cellulose is dried for storage purposes and moistened again just before use.

Poulikakos explains that in the production of cellulose surfaces, it is now possible to provide them with a message for the cells that will grow there in the future. “Think of it as a form of Braille.” This enables the right ‘message’ intended for later use to be written on the surface.

Less inflammation due to a structured surface

Such structures serve not only as means of orientation for cells, but also help to minimise the body’s rejection reaction to an artificial implant. In studies using mice, researchers compared smooth and structured cellulose and discovered that the mice with structured cellulose inserted under their skin showed significantly fewer signs of inflammation.

The researchers are now looking to follow up on these initial promising results by testing the material under more complex conditions. They could, for example, structure the cellulose surface of artificial blood vessels in a way that optimises the flow of blood, thereby ensuring that these vessels do not become blocked as easily.

As is often the case these days, there the researchers will be attempting to commercialize this work (from the news release; Note: A link has been removed),

In addition, researchers working with Poulikakos and Ferrari have founded the spin-off Hylomorph to make the method market-ready. “We are planning to apply the structured cellulose as part of the “Zurich Heart” project at the new Wyss Translational Center [founded jointly by ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich; it is not related to the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University],” reveals Poulikakos. The aim of this project is to develop artificial cardiac pump devices that help patients with serious heart problems in the period before a heart donor becomes available – they could even be used as a permanent alternative to a donor heart. Although cardiac pumps are already available, the options that they provide have been limited until now as they are not particularly durable and can cause complications. “Our aim is for artificial implants to be accepted by the patient’s body without inflammation or rejection,” explains Ferrari. As part of the Zurich Heart project, the researchers are, in effect, helping to design the packaging and internal coating for the optimised cardiac pumps. The aim is to minimise the number of complications in the future.

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

Surface-Structured Bacterial Cellulose with Guided Assembly-Based Biolithography (GAB) by Simone Bottan, Francesco Robotti, Prageeth Jayathissa, Alicia Hegglin, Nicolas Bahamonde, José A. Heredia-Guerrero, Ilker S. Bayer, Alice Scarpellini, Hannes Merker, Nicole Lindenblatt, Dimos Poulikakos, and Aldo Ferrari. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nn5036125
Publication Date (Web): December 19, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

The paper is behind a paywall.

I can’t find a Hylomorph website or one for the Wyss Translational Center (there is a Dec. 12, 2014 ETH media release announcing its existence).

How do you know that’s extra virgin olive oil?

Who guarantees that expensive olive oil isn’t counterfeit or adulterated? An invisible label, developed by ETH researchers, could perform this task. The tag consists of tiny magnetic DNA particles encapsulated in a silica casing and mixed with the oil.

So starts Barbara Vonarburg’s April 24, 2014 ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology or Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich) news release (also on EurekAlert). She goes on to describe the scope of the situation regarding counterfeit foods,

The worldwide need for anti-counterfeiting labels for food is substantial. In a joint operation in December 2013 and January 2014, Interpol and Europol confiscated more than 1,200 tonnes of counterfeit or substandard food and almost 430,000 litres of counterfeit beverages. The illegal trade is run by organised criminal groups that generate millions in profits, say the authorities. The confiscated goods also included more than 131,000 litres of oil and vinegar.

Jon Henley’s Jan. 4, 2012 article for the UK’s Guardian provides more insight into the specifics of counterfeit olive oil (Note: A link has been removed),

Last month [December 2011], the Olive Oil Times reported that two Spanish businessmen had been sentenced to two years in prison in Cordoba for selling hundreds of thousands of litres of supposedly extra virgin olive oil that was, in fact, a mixture of 70-80% sunflower oil and 20-30% olive.

… So with a litre of supermarket extra virgin costing up to £4, and connoisseurs willing to pay 10 times that sum for a far smaller bottle of seasonal, first cold stone pressed, single estate, artisan-milled oil from Italy or Greece, can we be sure of getting what we’re paying for?

The answer, according to Tom Mueller in a book out this month [January 2012], is very often not. In Extra Virginity: the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Mueller, an American who lives in Italy, lays bare the workings of an industry prey, he argues, to hi-tech, industrial-scale fraud. The problem, he says, is that good olive oil is difficult, time-consuming and expensive to make, but easy, quick and cheap to doctor.

Most commonly, it seems, extra virgin oil is mixed with a lower grade olive oil, often not from the same country. Sometimes, another vegetable oil such as colza or canola is used. The resulting blend is then chemically coloured, flavoured and deodorised, and sold as extra-virgin to a producer. Almost any brand can, in theory, be susceptible: major names such as Bertolli (then owned by Unilever [see Henley’s article for details about the 2008 Italian olive oil scandal]) have found themselves in court having to argue, successfully in this instance, that they had themselves been defrauded by their supplier.

Meanwhile, the chemical tests that should by law be performed by exporters of extra virgin oil before it can be labelled and sold as such can often fail to detect adulterated oil, particularly when it has been mixed with products such as deodorised, lower-grade olive oil in a sophisticated modern refinery.

Given the benefits claimed for olive oil, I imagine lower grade olive oil which is more highly processed or, worse yet, a completely different kind of oil would diminish or, possibly, eliminate any potential health benefit.

Getting back to the ETH Zurich news release, here’s more about the anti-counterfeiting ‘label’,

Just a few grams of the new substance are enough to tag [label] the entire olive oil production of Italy. If counterfeiting were suspected, the particles added at the place of origin could be extracted from the oil and analysed, enabling a definitive identification of the producer. “The method is equivalent to a label that cannot be removed,” says Robert Grass, lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences at ETH Zurich.

A forgery-proof label should not only be invisible but also safe, robust, cheap and easy to detect. To fulfil these criteria ETH researchers used nanotechnology and nature’s information storehouse, DNA. A piece of artificial genetic material is the heart of the mini-label. “With DNA, there are millions of options that can be used as codes,” says Grass. Moreover, the material has an extremely low detection limit, so tiny amounts are sufficient for labelling purposes.

However, DNA also has some disadvantages. If the material is used as an information carrier outside a living organism, it cannot repair itself and is susceptible to light, temperature fluctuations and chemicals. Thus, the researchers used a silica coating to protect the DNA, creating a kind of synthetic fossil. The casing represents a physical barrier that protects the DNA against chemical attacks and completely isolates it from the external environment – a situation that mimics that of natural fossils, write the researchers in their paper, which has been published in the journal ACS Nano. To ensure that the particles can be fished out of the oil as quickly and simply as possible, Grass and his team employed another trick: they magnetised the tag by attaching iron oxide nanoparticles.

Experiments in the lab showed that the tiny tags dispersed well in the oil and did not result in any visual changes. They also remained stable when heated and weathered an ageing trial unscathed. The magnetic iron oxide, meanwhile, made it easy to extract the particles from the oil. The DNA was recovered using a fluoride-based solution and analysed by PCR, a standard method that can be carried out today by any medical lab at minimal expense. “Unbelievably small quantities of particles down to a millionth of a gram per litre and a tiny volume of a thousandth of a litre were enough to carry out the authenticity tests for the oil products,” write the researchers. The method also made it possible to detect adulteration: if the concentration of nanoparticles does not match the original value, other oil – presumably substandard – must have been added. The cost of label manufacture should be approximately 0.02 cents per litre.

The researchers have plans for other products that could benefit from this technology and answers to questions about whether or not people would be willing to ingest a label/tag along with their olive oil,

Petrol could also be tagged using this method and the technology could be used in the cosmetics industry as well. In trials the researchers also successfully tagged expensive Bergamot essential oil, which is used as a raw material in perfumes. Nevertheless, Grass sees the greatest potential for the use of invisible labels in the food industry. But will consumers buy expensive ‘extra-virgin’ olive oil when synthetic DNA nanoparticles are floating around in it? “These are things that we already ingest today,” says Grass. Silica particles are present in ketchup and orange juice, among other products, and iron oxide is permitted as a food additive E172.

To promote acceptance, natural genetic material could be used in place of synthetic DNA; for instance, from exotic tomatoes or pineapples, of which there are a great variety – but also from any other fruit or vegetable that is a part of our diet. Of course, the new technology must yield benefits that far outweigh any risks, says Grass. He concedes that as the inventor of the method, he might not be entirely impartial. “But I need to know where food comes from and how pure it is.” In the case of adulterated goods, there is no way of knowing what’s inside. “So I prefer to know which particles have been intentionally added.”

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

Magnetically Recoverable, Thermostable, Hydrophobic DNA/Silica Encapsulates and Their Application as Invisible Oil Tags by Michela Puddu , Daniela Paunescu , Wendelin J. Stark , and Robert N. Grass. ACS Nano, 2014, 8 (3), pp 2677–2685 DOI: 10.1021/nn4063853 Publication Date (Web): February 25, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This article is behind a paywall.

The Swiss aren’t the only ones interested in tagging petrol (gas), they’re already tagging petrol with nanoparticles in Malaysia with as per my Oct. 7, 2011 posting on the topic.

Violating the 2nd law of thermodynamics—temporarily—at the nanoscale

For anyone unfamiliar with the laws of thermodynamics or anyone who enjoys some satire with their music, here’s the duo of Flanders & Swann with the ‘First and Second Law’ in a 1964 performance,

According to a March 31, 2014 news item on Nanowerk, it seems, contrary to scientific thought and Flanders & Swann, the 2nd law can be violated, for a time, albeit at the nanoscale,

Objects with sizes in the nanometer range, such as the molecular building blocks of living cells or nanotechnological devices, are continuously exposed to random collisions with surrounding molecules. In such fluctuating environments the fundamental laws of thermodynamics that govern our macroscopic world need to be rewritten. An international team of researchers from Barcelona, Zurich and Vienna found that a nanoparticle trapped with laser light temporarily violates the famous second law of thermodynamics, something that is impossible on human time and length scale.

A March 31, 2014 University of Vienna news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the 2nd law and gives details about the research,

Watching a movie played in reverse often makes us laugh because unexpected and mysterious things seem to happen: glass shards lying on the floor slowly start to move towards each other, magically assemble and suddenly an intact glass jumps on the table where it gently gets to a halt. Or snow starts to from a water puddle in the sun, steadily growing until an entire snowman appears as if molded by an invisible hand. When we see such scenes, we immediately realize that according to our everyday experience something is out of the ordinary. Indeed, there are many processes in nature that can never be reversed. The physical law that captures this behavior is the celebrated second law of thermodynamics, which posits that the entropy of a system – a measure for the disorder of a system – never decreases spontaneously, thus favoring disorder (high entropy) over order (low entropy).

However, when we zoom into the microscopic world of atoms and molecules, this law softens up and looses its absolute strictness. Indeed, at the nanoscale the second law can be fleetingly violated. On rare occasions, one may observe events that never happen on the macroscopic scale such as, for example heat transfer from cold to hot which is unheard of in our daily lives. Although on average the second law of thermodynamics remains valid even in nanoscale systems, scientists are intrigued by these rare events and are investigating the meaning of irreversibility at the nanoscale.

Recently, a team of physicists of the University of Vienna, the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich succeeded in accurately predicting the likelihood of events transiently violating the second law of thermodynamics. They immediately put the mathematical fluctuation theorem they derived to the test using a tiny glass sphere with a diameter of less than 100 nm levitated in a trap of laser light. Their experimental set-up allowed the research team to capture the nano-sphere and hold it in place, and, furthermore, to measure its position in all three spatial directions with exquisite precision. In the trap, the nano-sphere rattles around due to collisions with surrounding gas molecules. By a clever manipulation of the laser trap the scientists cooled the nano-sphere below the temperature of the surrounding gas and, thereby, put it into a non-equilibrium state. They then turned off the cooling and watched the particle relaxing to the higher temperature through energy transfer from the gas molecules. The researchers observed that the tiny glass sphere sometimes, although rarely, does not behave as one would expect according to the second law: the nano-sphere effectively releases heat to the hotter surroundings rather than absorbing the heat. The theory derived by the researchers to analyze the experiment confirms the emerging picture on the limitations of the second law on the nanoscale.

Given the theoretical descriptions of the applications mentioned in the news release, it sounds like at least one of them might be a ‘quantum computing project’,

The experimental and theoretical framework presented by the international research team in the renowned scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology has a wide range of applications. Objects with sizes in the nanometer range, such as the molecular building blocks of living cells or nanotechnological devices, are continuously exposed to a random buffeting due to the thermal motion of the molecules around them. As miniaturization proceeds to smaller and smaller scales nanomachines will experience increasingly random conditions. Further studies will be carried out to illuminate the fundamental physics of nanoscale systems out of equilibrium. The planned research will be fundamental to help us understand how nanomachines perform under these fluctuating conditions.

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

Dynamic Relaxation of a Levitated Nanoparticle from a Non-Equilibrium Steady State by Jan Gieseler, Romain Quidant, Christoph Dellago, and Lukas Novotny. Nature Nanotechnology AOP, February 28, 2014. DOI: 10.1038/NNANO.2014.40

The paper is behind a paywall but a free preview is available via ReadCube access.

Controlling crystal growth for plastic electronics

A July 4, 2013 news item on Nanowerk highlights research into plastic electronics taking place at Imperial College London (ICL), Note: A link has been removed,

Scientists have discovered a way to better exploit a process that could revolutionise the way that electronic products are made.

The scientists from Imperial College London say improving the industrial process, which is called crystallisation, could revolutionise the way we produce electronic products, leading to advances across a whole range of fields; including reducing the cost and improving the design of plastic solar cells.

The process of making many well-known products from plastics involves controlling the way that microscopic crystals are formed within the material. By controlling the way that these crystals are grown engineers can determine the properties they want such as transparency and toughness. Controlling the growth of these crystals involves engineers adding small amounts of chemical additives to plastic formulations. This approach is used in making food boxes and other transparent plastic containers, but up until now it has not been used in the electronics industry.

The team from Imperial have now demonstrated that these additives can also be used to improve how an advanced type of flexible circuitry called plastic electronics is made.

The team found that when the additives were included in the formulation of plastic electronic circuitry they could be printed more reliably and over larger areas, which would reduce fabrication costs in the industry.

The team reported their findings this month in the journal Nature Materials (“Microstructure formation in molecular and polymer semiconductors assisted by nucleation agents”).

The June 7, 2013 Imperial College London news release by Joshua Howgego, which originated the news item, describes the researchers and the process in more detail,

Dr Natalie Stingelin, the leader of the study from the Department of Materials and Centre of Plastic Electronics at Imperial, says:

“Essentially, we have demonstrated a simple way to gain control over how crystals grow in electrically conducting ‘plastic’ semiconductors. Not only will this help industry fabricate plastic electronic devices like solar cells and sensors more efficiently. I believe it will also help scientists experimenting in other areas, such as protein crystallisation, an important part of the drug development process.”

Dr Stingelin and research associate Neil Treat looked at two additives, sold under the names IrgaclearÒ XT 386 and MilladÒ 3988, which are commonly used in industry. These chemicals are, for example, some of the ingredients used to improve the transparency of plastic drinking bottles. The researchers experimented with adding tiny amounts of these chemicals to the formulas of several different electrically conducting plastics, which are used in technologies such as security key cards, solar cells and displays.

The researchers found the additives gave them precise control over where crystals would form, meaning they could also control which parts of the printed material would conduct electricity. In addition, the crystallisations happened faster than normal. Usually plastic electronics are exposed to high temperatures to speed up the crystallisation process, but this can degrade the materials. This heat treatment treatment is no longer necessary if the additives are used.

Another industrially important advantage of using small amounts of the additives was that the crystallisation process happened more uniformly throughout the plastics, giving a consistent distribution of crystals.  The team say this could enable circuits in plastic electronics to be produced quickly and easily with roll-to-roll printing procedures similar to those used in the newspaper industry. This has been very challenging to achieve previously.

Dr Treat says: “Our work clearly shows that these additives are really good at controlling how materials crystallise. We have shown that printed electronics can be fabricated more reliably using this strategy. But what’s particularly exciting about all this is that the additives showed fantastic performance in many different types of conducting plastics. So I’m excited about the possibilities that this strategy could have in a wide range of materials.”

Dr Stingelin and Dr Treat collaborated with scientists from the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, US, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology on this study. The team are planning to continue working together to see if subtle chemical changes to the additives improve their effects – and design new additives.

There are some big plans for this discovery, from the news release,

They [the multinational team from ICL, UCSB, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology]  will be working with the new Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)-funded Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Large Area Electronics in order to drive the industrial exploitation of their process. The £5.6 million of funding for this centre, to be led by researchers from Cambridge University, was announced earlier this year [2013]. They are also exploring collaborations with printing companies with a view to further developing their circuit printing technique.

For the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the published paper,

Microstructure formation in molecular and polymer semiconductors assisted by nucleation agents by Neil D. Treat, Jennifer A. Nekuda Malik, Obadiah Reid, Liyang Yu, Christopher G. Shuttle, Garry Rumbles, Craig J. Hawker, Michael L. Chabinyc, Paul Smith, & Natalie Stingelin. Nature Materials 12, 628–633 (2013) doi:10.1038/nmat3655 Published online 02 June 2013

This article is open access (at least for now).

RoboEarth’s Rapyuta, a cloud engine for the robot internet

Described in a 2011 BBC news item as an internet/wikipedia for robots only, RobotEarth was last mentioned here in a Feb. 14, 2011 posting (scroll down about 1/3 of the way) where I featured both the aforementioned BBC news item and a first person account of the project on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering) Spectrum’s Automaton Robotics blog.

Today, Mar. 12, 2013, there’s a news release on EurekAlert about a new RoboEarth development,

Researchers of five European universities have developed a cloud-computing platform for robots. The platform allows robots connected to the Internet to directly access the powerful computational, storage, and communications infrastructure of modern data centers – the giant server farms behind the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon – for robotics tasks and robot learning.

With the development of the RoboEarth Cloud Engine the team continues their work towards creating an Internet for robots. The new platform extends earlier work on allowing robots to share knowledge with other robots via a WWW-style database, greatly speeding up robot learning and adaptation in complex tasks.

Here’s how the cloud engine is described,

The developed Platform as a Service (PaaS) for robots allows to perform complex functions like mapping, navigation, or processing of human voice commands in the cloud, at a fraction of the time required by robots’ on-board computers. By making enterprise-scale computing infrastructure available to any robot with a wireless connection, the researchers believe that the new computing platform will help pave the way towards lighter, cheaper, more intelligent robots.

“The RoboEarth Cloud Engine is particularly useful for mobile robots, such as drones or autonomous cars, which require lots of computation for navigation. It also offers significant benefits for robot co-workers, such as factory robots working alongside humans, which require large knowledge databases, and for the deployment of robot teams.” says Mohanarajah Gajamohan, researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and Technical Lead of the project.

“On-board computation reduces mobility and increases cost.”, says Dr. Heico Sandee, RoboEarth’s Program Manager at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, “With the rapid increase in wireless data rates caused by the booming demand of mobile communications devices, more and more of a robot’s computational tasks can be moved into the cloud.”

Oddly, there’s never any mention of the name for the cloud engine project in the news release. I found the name (Rapyuta) on the RoboEarth website, from the home page,

Update: Join (or remotely watch) the Cloud Robotics Workshop at the EU Robotics Forum on Wednesday 20. March, 4-6pm CET. Details: http://www.roboearth.org/eurobotics2013

It is our pleasure to announce the first public release of Rapyuta: The RoboEarth Cloud Engine. Rapyuta is an open source cloud robotics platform for robots. It implements a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) framework designed specifically for robotics applications.

Rapyuta helps robots to offload heavy computation by providing secured customizable computing environments in the cloud. Robots can start their own computational environment, launch any computational node uploaded by the developer, and communicate with the launched nodes using the WebSockets protocol.

Interestingly, the final paragraph of today’s (Mar. 12, 2011) news release includes a statement about jobs,

While high-tech companies that heavily rely on data centers have been criticized for creating fewer jobs than traditional companies (e.g., Google or Facebook employ less than half the number of workers of General Electric or Hewlett-Packard per dollar in revenue), the researchers don’t believe that this new robotics platform should be cause for alarm. According to a recent study by the International Federation of Robotics and Metra Martech entitled “Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment”, robots don’t kill jobs but rather tend to lead to an overall growth in jobs.

I’d like to see some more data about this business of robots creating jobs. In the meantime, there’s  more information about RoboEarth and the Rapyuta cloud engine in the links the news release provides to materials such as this video,

Unexpectedly, the narrator sounds like she might have been educated in Canada or the US.

God from the machine: Deus ex machina and augmentation

Wherever you go, there it is: ancient Greece. Deus Ex, a game series from Eidos Montréal, is likely referencing ‘deus ex machina’, a term applied to a theatrical device (in both senses of the word) attributed to  playwrights of ancient Greece. (For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the term, at the end of a play, all of the conflicts would be resolved by a god descending from the heavens. The term refers both to the plot device itself and to the mechanical device used to lower the ‘god’.)

The latest game in the series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a role-playing shooter, will be released August 23, 2011. From the August 16, 2011 article by Susan Karlin for Fast Company,

The result—Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a role-playing shooter that comes out August 23–extrapolates MicroTransponder, prosthetics, robotics, and other current augmentation technology into a vision of how technologically enhanced people might gain superhuman abilities and at what cost.

… “We built a timeline that traces the history of augmentation, creating new things, and predicting how would it get out into society. We wanted to ground it in today, and make something where everyone could say, ‘I can see the world going that way.'” [Mary DeMarle, Human Revolution’s lead writer]

Human Revolution, although the third in the series, is a prequel to the original Deus Ex which took place 25 years after Human Revolution.

I’m glad to see games that bring up interesting philosophical questions and possible social impacts of emerging technologies along with the action. In a February 3, 2011 interview with Mary DeMarle, Quintin Smith of Rock, Paper, Shotgun posed these questions,

RPS: Finally, with anti-augmentation groups featuring in Human Revolution, I was just wondering what your own opinions are on human augmentation and human bioengineering are.

MD: Oh, gosh. Well I have to tell you that the joke on the team is that for the duration of this story I’d be supporting the anti-technology view, because most people on the team wouldn’t be anti-technology, and it’d help me make the game more human, you know? And now that the project’s over I bought my first iPad, and I have to admit I’m suddenly like “You know, if I could get one of those InfoLinks in my head, it’d be really useful.”

But you know, all of this stuff is already out there. We already have people putting cameras in their eyes to improve their vision. [emphasis mine] The technology’s there, we’re just not aware of it. As far as our team’s technology expert is concerned, human augmentation’s been going on for decades. If you look at all the sports controversy regarding drugs, that is augmentation. It’s already happening.

RPS: But you have no qualms with our using technology to make ourselves more than we can be?

MD: From my perspective, I think mankind will always try to be more than he is. That’s part of being human. But I do admit we have to be careful about how we do it.

In my February 2, 2010 posting (scroll down about 1/2 way), I featured a quote that resonates with DeMarle’s comments about humans trying to be more,

“I don’t think I would have said this if it had never happened,” says Bailey, referring to the accident that tore off his pinkie, ring, and middle fingers. “But I told Touch Bionics I’d cut the rest of my hand off if I could make all five of my fingers robotic.”

Bailey went on to say that having machinery incorporated into his body made him feel “above human”.

As for cameras being implanted in eyes to improve vision, I would be delighted to hear from anyone who has information about this. The only project I could find in my search was EyeBorg, a project with a one-eyed Canadian filmmaker who was planning to have a video camera implanted into his eye socket to record images. From the About the Project page,

Take a one eyed film maker, an unemployed engineer, and a vision for something that’s never been done before and you have yourself the EyeBorg Project. Rob Spence and Kosta Grammatis are trying to make history by embedding a video camera and a transmitter in a prosthetic eye. That eye is going in Robs eye socket, and will record the world from a perspective that’s never been seen before.

There are more details about the EyeBorg project in a June 11, 2010 posting by Tim Hornyak for the Automaton blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website),

When Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence was a kid, he would peer through the bionic eye of his Six Million Dollar action figure. After a shooting accident left him partially blind, he decided to create his own electronic eye. Now he calls himself Eyeborg.

Spence’s bionic eye contains a battery-powered, wireless video camera. Not only can he record everything he sees just by looking around, but soon people will be able to log on to his video feed and view the world through his right eye.

I don’t know how the Eyeborg project is proceeding as there haven’t been any updates on the site since August 25, 2010.

While I wish Quintin Smith had asked for more details about the science information DeMarle was passing on in the February 3, 2011 interview, I think it’s interesting to note that information about science and technology comes to us in many ways: advertisements, popular television programmes, comic books, interviews, and games, as well as, formal public science outreach programmes through museums and educational institutions.

ETA August 19, 2011: I found some information about visual prosthetics at the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) website, We can rebuild you page featuring a TEDxVienna November 2010 talk by electrical engineer, Grégoire Cosendai, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He doesn’t mention the prosthetics until approximately 13 minutes, 25 seconds into the talk. The work is being done to help people with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that is incurable at this time but it may have implications for others. There are 30 people worldwide in a clinical trial testing a retinal implant that requires the person wear special glasses containing a camera and an antenna. For Star Trek fans, this seems similar to Geordi LaForge‘s special glasses.

ETA Sept. 13, 2011: Better late than never, here’s an excerpt from Dexter Johnson’s Sept. 2, 2011 posting (on his Nanoclast blog at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers [IEEE] website) about a nano retina project,

The Israel-based company [Nano Retina] is a joint venture between Rainbow Medical and Zyvex Labs, the latter being well known for its work in nanotechnology and its founder Jim Von Ehr, who has been a strong proponent of molecular mechanosynthesis.

It’s well worth contrasting the information in the company video that Dexter provides and the information in the FET video mentioned in the Aug. 19, 2011 update preceding this one. The company presents a vastly more optimistic claim for the vision these implants will provide than one would expect after viewing the information in the FET video about clinical trials, for another similar (to me) system, currently taking place.