Tag Archives: University of Edinburgh

Blockchain made physical: BlocKit

Caption: Parts of BlocKit Credit: Irni Khairuddin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introductory essays for blockchain and cryptocurrency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all I’ve got for now.

What helps you may hurt you (titanium dioxide nanoparticles and orthopedic implants)

From a Sept. 16, 2017 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic have proposed that negative cellular responses to titanium-based nanoparticles released from metal implants interfere in bone formation and resorption at the site of repair, resulting in implant loosening and joint pain. [emphasis mine]Their review of recent scientific evidence and call for further research to characterize the biological, physical, and chemical interactions between titanium dioxide nanoparticles and bone-forming cells is published in BioResearch Open Access, a peer-reviewed open access journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers. The article is available free on theBioResearch Open Access website.

A Sept. 14, 2017 Mary Anne Liebert (Publishing) news release, which originated the news item,  mentions the authors,

Jie Yao, Eric Lewallen, PhD, David Lewallen, MD, Andre van Wijnen, PhD, and colleagues from the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN and Second Affiliated Hospital of Soochow University, China, coauthored the article entitled “Local Cellular Responses to Titanium Dioxide from Orthopedic Implants The authors examined the results of recently published studies of titanium-based implants, focusing on the direct and indirect effects of titanium dioxide nanoparticles on the viability and behavior of multiple bone-related cell types. They discuss the impact of particle size, aggregation, structure, and the specific extracellular and intracellular (if taken up by the cells) effects of titanium particle exposure.

“The adverse effects of metallic orthopedic particles generated from implants are of significant clinical interest given the large number of procedures carried out each year. This article reviews our current understanding of the clinical issues and highlights areas for future research,” says BioResearch Open Access Editor Jane Taylor, PhD, MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Before getting to the abstract, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Local Cellular Responses to Titanium Dioxide from Orthopedic Implants by Yao, Jie J.; Lewallen, Eric A.; Trousdale, William H.; Xu, Wei; Thaler, Roman; Salib, Christopher G.; Reina, Nicolas; Abdel, Matthew P.; Lewallen, David G.; and van Wijnenm, Andre J.. BioResearch Open Access. July 2017, 6(1): 94-103. https://doi.org/10.1089/biores.2017.0017 Published July 1, 2017

This paper is open access.

Explaining the link between air pollution and heart disease?

An April 26, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces research that may explain the link between heart disease and air pollution (Note: A link has been removed),

Tiny particles in air pollution have been associated with cardiovascular disease, which can lead to premature death. But how particles inhaled into the lungs can affect blood vessels and the heart has remained a mystery.

Now, scientists have found evidence in human and animal studies that inhaled nanoparticles can travel from the lungs into the bloodstream, potentially explaining the link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease. Their results appear in the journal ACS Nano (“Inhaled Nanoparticles Accumulate at Sites of Vascular Disease”).

An April 26, 2017 American Chemical Society news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item,  expands on the theme,

The World Health Organization estimates that in 2012, about 72 percent of premature deaths related to outdoor air pollution were due to ischemic heart disease and strokes. Pulmonary disease, respiratory infections and lung cancer were linked to the other 28 percent. Many scientists have suspected that fine particles travel from the lungs into the bloodstream, but evidence supporting this assumption in humans has been challenging to collect. So Mark Miller and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands used a selection of specialized techniques to track the fate of inhaled gold nanoparticles.

In the new study, 14 healthy volunteers, 12 surgical patients and several mouse models inhaled gold nanoparticles, which have been safely used in medical imaging and drug delivery. Soon after exposure, the nanoparticles were detected in blood and urine. Importantly, the nanoparticles appeared to preferentially accumulate at inflamed vascular sites, including carotid plaques in patients at risk of a stroke. The findings suggest that nanoparticles can travel from the lungs into the bloodstream and reach susceptible areas of the cardiovascular system where they could possibly increase the likelihood of a heart attack or stroke, the researchers say.

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

Inhaled Nanoparticles Accumulate at Sites of Vascular Disease by Mark R. Miller, Jennifer B. Raftis, Jeremy P. Langrish, Steven G. McLean, Pawitrabhorn Samutrtai, Shea P. Connell, Simon Wilson, Alex T. Vesey, Paul H. B. Fokkens, A. John F. Boere, Petra Krystek, Colin J. Campbell, Patrick W. F. Hadoke, Ken Donaldson, Flemming R. Cassee, David E. Newby, Rodger Duffin, and Nicholas L. Mills. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b08551 Publication Date (Web): April 26, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Water’s liquid-vapour interface

The UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), along with IBM and the University of Edinburgh, has developed a new quantum model for understanding water’s liquid-vapour interface according to an April 20, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK’s National Measurement Institute in collaboration with IBM and the University of Edinburgh, has used a new quantum model to reveal the molecular structure of water’s liquid surface.

The liquid-vapour interface of water is one of the most common of all heterogeneous (or non-uniform) environments. Understanding its molecular structure will provide insight into complex biochemical interactions underpinning many biological processes. But experimental measurements of the molecular structure of water’s surface are challenging, and currently competing models predict various different arrangements.

An April 20, 2015 NPL press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the model and research in more detail,

The model is based on a single charged particle, the quantum Drude oscillator (QDO), which mimics the way the electrons of a real water molecule fluctuate and respond to their environment. This simplified representation retains interactions not normally accessible in classical models and accurately captures the properties of liquid water.

In new research, published in a featured article in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics, the team used the QDO model to determine the molecular structure of water’s liquid surface. The results provide new insight into the hydrogen-bonding topology at the interface, which is responsible for the unusually high surface tension of water.

This is the first time the QDO model of water has been applied to the liquid-vapour interface. The results enabled the researchers to identify the intrinsic asymmetry of hydrogen bonds as the mechanism responsible for the surface’s molecular orientation. The model was also capable of predicting the temperature dependence of the surface tension with remarkable accuracy – to within 1 % of experimental values.

Coupled with earlier work on bulk water, this result demonstrates the exceptional transferability of the QDO approach and offers a promising new platform for molecular exploration of condensed matter.

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

Hydrogen bonding and molecular orientation at the liquid–vapour interface of water by Flaviu S. Cipcigan, Vlad P. Sokhan, Andrew P. Jones, Jason Crain and Glenn J. Martyna.  Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 2015,17, 8660-8669 DOI: 10.1039/C4CP05506C First published online 17 Feb 2015

The paper is open access although you do need to register on the site provided you don’t have some other means of accessing the paper.

Biosensing devices from Scotland

The timing for Deborah Rowe’s article in the Guardian newspaper is fascinating. Rowe is writing about nanoscale biosensors developed at the University of Edinburgh, research published in Dec. 2013, while her piece, published Sept. 9, 2014, appears less than 10 days before Scotland’s vote (Sept. 18, 2014) on the question of whether or not it should be independent. Also interesting, the published paper is available as open access until the end of Sept. 2014, which seems like a strategic time period to give open access to your paper.

That said, this is an exciting piece of research if you’re particularly interested in biosensors and ways to produce them more cheaply and at a higher volume (from Rowe’s Sept. 9, 2014 article),

An interdisciplinary research team from the Schools of Engineering and Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh (in association with Nanoflex Ltd), has overcome some of the constraints associated with conventional nano-scale electrode arrays, to develop the first precision-engineered nanoelectrode array system with the promise of high-volume and low-cost.*

Such miniaturised electrode arrays have the potential to provide a faster and more sensitive response to, for example, biomolecules than current biosensors. This would make them invaluable components in the increasingly sensitive devices being developed for biomedical sensing and electrochemical applications.

Rowe goes on to describe the researchers’ Microsquare Nanoband Edge Electrode (MNEE) array technology in lucid and brief detail. For those who want more, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Nanoscale electrode arrays produced with microscale lithographic techniques for use in biomedical sensing applications by Jonathan G. Terry, Ilka Schmüser, Ian Underwood, Damion K. Corrigan, Neville J. Freeman, Andrew S. Bunting, Andrew R. Mount, Anthony J. Walton. IET Nanobiotechnology, Volume 7, Issue 4, December 2013, p. 125 – 134
DOI:  10.1049/iet-nbt.2013.0049 , Print ISSN 1751-8741, Online ISSN 1751-875X Published Oct. 29, 2013

Given the timing of the Guardian article and the availability of the paper for free access, I was moved to find information about the funding agencies, from the researchers’ IET paper,

Support from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) is acknowledged through the Edinburgh Research Partnership in engineering and mathematics (ERPem) and the Edinburgh and St Andrews Chemistry (EaStCHEM) initiatives, along with knowledge transfer funding. Support from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) of the UK through the IeMRC (Smart Microsystems – FS/01/02/10) Grant is acknowledged. Ilka Schmüser thanks the EPSRC and the University of Edinburgh for financial support.

And, there was this from Rowe’s article,

The work is part of a larger R&D programme on the development of smart sensors at the University of Edinburgh. It involves staff and students from the Schools of Engineering and Chemistry thus providing the required broad set of skills and experience. The resulting MNEE technology is currently being commercialised by Nanoflex Ltd.

So, the funding comes from Scottish and UK sources and the company which is commercializing the MNEE is located in the North West of England in the  Sci-Tech Daresbury Campus (from the company’s LinkedIn page). This certainly illustrates how entwined the Scottish and UK science scenes are entwined as is the commercialization process.

I last mentioned Scotland, science, and the independence vote in a July 8, 2014 posting which covers some of the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ thinking at the time.

Peter Higgs and François Englert to receive 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics and TRIUMF name changes?

After all the foofaraw about finding/confirming the existence of the Higgs Boson or ‘god’ particle (featured in my July 4, 2012 posting amongst many others), the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the 2013 Nobel prize for Physics to two of the individuals responsible for much of the current thinking about subatomic particles and mass (from the Oct. 8, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily),

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2013 to François Englert of Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium, and Peter W. Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, UK, “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

François Englert and Peter W. Higgs are jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 for the theory of how particles acquire mass. In 1964, they proposed the theory independently of each other (Englert together with his now deceased colleague Robert Brout). In 2012, their ideas were confirmed by the discovery of a so called Higgs particle at the CERN laboratory outside Geneva in Switzerland.

TRIUMF, sometimes known as Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, has issued an Oct. 8, 2013 news release,

HIGGS, ENGLERT SHARE 2013 NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSICS

Canadians Key Part of Historical Nobel Prize to “Godfathers” of the “God Particle”

(Vancouver, BC) — The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today awarded the Nobel Prize in physics to Professor Peter W. Higgs (Univ. of Edinburgh) and Professor François Englert (Univ. Libre de Bruxelles) to recognize their work developing the theory of what is now known as the Higgs field, which gives elementary particles mass.  Canadians have played critical roles in all stages of the breakthrough discovery Higgs boson particle that validates the original theoretical framework.  Throngs across Canada are celebrating.

More than 150 Canadian scientists and students at 10 different institutions are presently involved in the global ATLAS experiment at CERN.  Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, TRIUMF, has been a focal point for much of the Canadian involvement that has ranged from assisting with the construction of the LHC accelerator to building key elements of the ATLAS detector and hosting one of the ten global Tier-1 Data Centres that stores and processes the physics for the team of thousands.

“The observation of a Higgs Boson at about 125 GeV, or 130 times the mass of the proton, by both the ATLAS and CMS groups is a tremendous achievement,” said Rob McPherson, spokesperson of the ATLAS Canada collaboration, a professor of physics at the University of Victoria and Institute of Particle Physics scientist. “Its existence was predicted in 1964 when theorists reconciled how massive particles came into being.  It took almost half a century to confirm the detailed predictions of the theories in a succession of experiments, and finally to discover the Higgs Boson itself using our 2012 data.”

The Brout-Englert-Higgs (BEH) mechanism was first proposed in 1964 in two papers published independently, the first by Belgian physicists Robert Brout and François Englert, and the second by British physicist Peter Higgs. It explains how the force responsible for beta decay is much weaker than electromagnetism, but is better known as the mechanism that endows fundamental particles with mass. A third paper, published by Americans Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen with their British colleague Tom Kibble further contributed to the development of the new idea, which now forms an essential part of the Standard Model of particle physics. As was pointed out by Higgs, a key prediction of the idea is the existence of a massive boson of a new type, which was discovered by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN in 2012.

The next step will be to determine the precise nature of the Higgs particle and its significance for our understanding of the universe. Are its properties as expected for the Higgs boson predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics? Or is it something more exotic? The Standard Model describes the fundamental particles from which we, and every visible thing
in the universe, are made, and the forces acting between them. All the matter that we can see, however, appears to be no more than about 4% of the total. A more exotic version of the Higgs particle could be a bridge to understanding the 96% of the universe that remains obscure.

TRIUMF salutes Peter Higgs and François Englert for their groundbreaking work recognized by today’s Nobel Prize and congratulates the international team of tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, students, and many more from around the world who helped make the discovery.

For spokespeople at the major Canadian universities involved in the Higgs discovery, please see the list below:

CANADIAN CONTACTS

U of Alberta: Doug Gingrich, gingrich@ualberta.ca, 780-492-9501
UBC:  Colin Gay, cgay@physics.ubc.ca, 604-822-2753
Carleton U: Gerald Oakham (& TRIUMF), oakham@physics.carleton.ca, 613-520-7539
McGill U: Brigitte Vachon (also able to interview in French), vachon@physics.mcgill.ca, 514-398-6478
U of Montreal: Claude Leroy (also able to interview in French),leroy@lps.uontreal.ca, 514-343-6722
Simon Fraser U: Mike Vetterli (& TRIUMF, also able to interview in French), vetm@triumf.ca, 778-782-5488
TRIUMF: Isabel Trigger (also able to interview in French), itrigger@triumf.ca, 604-222-7651
U of Toronto: Robert Orr, orr@physics.utoronto.ca, 416-978-6029
U of Victoria: Rob McPherson, rmcphers@triumf.ca, 604-222-7654
York U: Wendy Taylor, taylorw@yorku.ca, 416-736-2100 ext 77758

While I know Canadians have been part of the multi-year, multi-country effort to determine the existence or non-existence of the Higgs Boson and much more in the field of particle physics, I would prefer we were not described as “… Key Part of Historical Nobel Prize … .” The question that springs to mind is: how were Canadian efforts key to this work? The answer is not revealed in the news release, which suggests that the claim may be a little overstated. On the other hand, I do like the bit about ‘saluting Higgs and Englert for their groundbreaking work’.

As for TRIUMF and what appears to be a series of name changes, I’m left somewhat puzzled, This Oct. 8, 2013 news release bears the name (or perhaps it’s a motto or tagline of some sort?): TRIUMF — Accelerating Science for Canada, meanwhile the website still sports this: TRIUMF Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics while a July 17, 2013 TRIUMF news release gloried in this name: TRIUMF Accelerators, Inc., (noted in my July 18, 2013 posting). Perhaps TRIUMF is trying to follow in CERN’s footsteps. CERN was once known as the ‘European particle physics laboratory’ but is now known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research and seems to also have the tagline: ‘Accelerating science’.

Phytoremediation, clearing pollutants from industrial lands, could also be called phyto-mining

The University of Edinburgh (along with the Universities of Warwick and Birmingham, Newcastle University and Cranfield University) according to its Mar. 4, 2013 news release on EurekAlert is involved in a phytoremediation project,

Common garden plants are to be used to clean polluted land, with the extracted poisons being used to produce car parts and aid medical research.

Scientists will use plants such as alyssum, pteridaceae and a type of mustard called sinapi to soak up metals from land previously occupied by factories, mines and landfill sites.

Dangerous levels of metals such as arsenic and platinum, which can lurk in the ground and can cause harm to people and animals, will be extracted using a natural process known as phytoremediation.

A Mar. 4, 2013 news item on the BBC News Edinburgh, Fife and East Scotland site offers more details about the project and the technology,

A team of researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh, Warwick, Birmingham, Newcastle and Cranfield has developed a way of extracting the chemicals through a process called phytoremediation, and are testing its effectiveness.

Once the plants have drawn contaminated material out of the soil, they will be harvested and processed in a bio-refinery.

A specially designed bacteria will be added to the waste to transform the toxic metal ions into metallic nanoparticles.

The team said these tiny particles could then be used to develop cancer treatments, and could also be used to make catalytic converters for cars.

Dr Louise Horsfall, of Edinburgh’s University’s school of biological sciences, said: “Land is a finite resource. As the world’s population grows along with the associated demand for food and shelter, we believe that it is worth decontaminating land to unlock vast areas for better food security and housing.

“I hope to use synthetic biology to enable bacteria to produce high value nanoparticles and thereby help make land decontamination financially viable.”

The research team said the land where phytoremediation was used would also be cleared of chemicals, meaning it could be reused for new building projects.

In my Sept. 28, 2012 posting I featured an international collaboration between universities in the UK, US, Canada, and New Zealand in a ‘phyto-mining’ project bearing some resemblance to this newly announced project. In that project, announced in Fall 2012, scientists were studying how they might remove platinum for reuse from plants near the tailings of mines.

I do have one other posting about phytoremediation. I featured a previously published piece by Joe Martin in a two-part series on the topic plant (phyto) and nano soil remediation. The March 30, 2012 posting is part one, which focuses on the role of plants in soil remediation.

Phyto-mining and environmental remediation flower in the United Kingdom

Researchers on a £3 million research programme called “Cleaning Land for Wealth” (CL4W) are confident they’ll be able to use flowers and plants to clean soil of poisonous materials (environmental remediation) and to recover platinum (phyto-mining). From the Nov. 21, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

A consortium of researchers led by WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group) at the University of Warwick are to embark on a £3 million research programme called “Cleaning Land for Wealth” (CL4W), that will use a common class of flower to restore poisoned soils while at the same time producing perfectly sized and shaped nano sized platinum and arsenic nanoparticles for use in catalytic convertors, cancer treatments and a range of other applications.

The Nov. 20, 2012 University of Warwick news release, which originated the news item, describes both how CL4W came together and how it produced an unintended project benefit,

A “Sandpit” exercise organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) allowed researchers from WMG (Warwick Manufacturing group) at the University of Warwick, Newcastle University, The University of Birmingham, Cranfield University and the University of Edinburgh to come together and share technologies and skills to come up with an innovative multidisciplinary research project that could help solve major technological and environmental challenges.

The researchers pooled their knowledge of how to use plants and bacteria to soak up particular elements and chemicals and how to subsequently harvest, process and collect that material. They have devised an approach to demonstrate the feasibility in which they are confident that they can use common classes of flower and plants (such as Alyssum), to remove poisonous chemicals such as arsenic and platinum from polluted land and water courses potentially allowing that land to be reclaimed and reused.

That in itself would be a significant achievement, but as the sandpit progressed the researchers found that jointly they had the knowledge to achieve much more than just cleaning up the land.

As lead researcher on the project Professor Kerry Kirwan from WMG at the University of Warwick explained:

“The processes we are developing will not only remove poisons such as arsenic and platinum from contaminated land and water courses, we are also confident that we can develop suitable biology and biorefining processes (or biofactories as we are calling them) that can tailor the shapes and sizes of the metallic nanoparticles they will make. This would give manufacturers of catalytic convertors, developers of cancer treatments and other applicable technologies exactly the right shape, size and functionality they need without subsequent refinement. We are also expecting to recover other high value materials such as fine chemicals, pharmaceuticals, anti-oxidants etc. from the crops during the same biorefining process.”

I last mentioned phyto-mining in my Sept. 26, 2012 post with regard to an international project being led by researchers at the University of York (UK).  The biorefining processes (biofactories) mentioned by Kirwan takes the idea of recovering platinum, etc. one step beyond phyto-mining recovery.

Here’s a picture of the flower (Alyssum) mentioned in the news release,

Alyssum montanum photographed by myself in 1988, Unterfranken, Germany [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alyssum]

From the Wikipedia essay (Note: I have removed links],

Alyssum is a genus of about 100–170 species of flowering plants in the family Brassicaceae, native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa, with the highest species diversity in the Mediterranean region. The genus comprises annual and perennial herbaceous plants or (rarely) small shrubs, growing to 10–100 cm tall, with oblong-oval leaves and yellow or white flowers (pink to purple in a few species).

Health science writing? Australian writer accuses gym equipment of killing you through nanotechnology

Toby McCasker’s Sept. 30, 2012 article for news.com.au  is one of the more peculiar pieces I’ve seen about nanotechnology and its dangers. From the article,

Is gym equipment killing you?

THE nanofibres that make up sports and gym equipment just might be doing you more harm than good.

McCasker then blesses us with this wonderful, wonderful passage where he explains his concern,

Why is this (maybe) bad? Nanotechnology sounds awesome, after all. Very cyberpunk. Inject them into your dude piston and become a thrumming love-machine, all that. [emphases mine] They’re maybe bad because researchers from the University of Edinburgh in the UK have just discovered that some nanofibres bear a resemblance to asbestos fibres, which can cause lung cancer.

You can’t inject nanotechnology. Since it’s a field of study,  it would be the equivalent of injecting biology or quantum mechanics.

As for nanotechnology being cyberpunk, here’s how Cyberpunk is defined  in The Free Dictionary,

Noun   1.         cyberpunk – a programmer who breaks into computer systems in order to steal or change or destroy information as a form of cyber-terrorism

cyber-terrorist, hacker

act of terrorism, terrorism, terrorist act – the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear

coder, computer programmer, programmer, software engineer – a person who designs and writes and tests computer programs

terrorist – a radical who employs terror as a political weapon; usually organizes with other terrorists in small cells; often uses religion as a cover for terrorist activities

2.         cyberpunk – a writer of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology

author, writer – writes (books or stories or articles or the like) professionally (for pay)

3.         cyberpunk – a genre of fast-paced science fiction involving oppressive futuristic computerized societies

science fiction – literary fantasy involving the imagined impact of science on society

The closest definition that fits McCasker’s usage is this description (the passage by Lawrence Person) of cyberpunk, a post-modern science fiction genre, in Wikipedia,

Cyberpunk plots often center on a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligences, and megacorporations, and tend to be set in a near-future Earth, rather than the far-future settings or galactic vistas found in novels such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Frank Herbert’s Dune. The settings are usually post-industrial dystopias but tend to be marked by extraordinary cultural ferment and the use of technology in ways never anticipated by its creators (“the street finds its own uses for things”). Much of the genre’s atmosphere echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.

“Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.” – Lawrence Person

It’s the part about “invasive modification of the human body” which seems closest to McCasker’s ” inject them into your dude piston”  (dude piston is my new favourite phrase).

As for the reference to nanofibres, McCasker is correct. There are carbon nanotubes that resemble asbestos fibres and there is concern for anyone who may ingest them. As far as I know, the people at greatest risk would be workers who are exposed to the carbon nanotubes directly. I have not heard of anyone getting sick because of their golf clubs where carbon nanotubes are often used to make them lighter and stronger.

The research (mentioned in my Aug. 22, 2012 posting)  at the University of Edinburgh that McCasker cites is important because it adds to a body of substantive research work on this issue regarding carbon nanotubes, asbestos, and the possibility of mesothelioma and bears no mention of gym equipment.