Tag Archives: University of Texas at Austin

Portable and non-invasive (?) mind-reading AI (artificial intelligence) turns thoughts into text and some thoughts about the near future

First, here’s some of the latest research and if by ‘non-invasive,’ you mean that electrodes are not being planted in your brain, then this December 12, 2023 University of Technology Sydney (UTS) press release (also on EurekAlert) highlights non-invasive mind-reading AI via a brain-computer interface (BCI), Note: Links have been removed,

In a world-first, researchers from the GrapheneX-UTS Human-centric Artificial Intelligence Centre at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) have developed a portable, non-invasive system that can decode silent thoughts and turn them into text. 

The technology could aid communication for people who are unable to speak due to illness or injury, including stroke or paralysis. It could also enable seamless communication between humans and machines, such as the operation of a bionic arm or robot.

The study has been selected as the spotlight paper at the NeurIPS conference, a top-tier annual meeting that showcases world-leading research on artificial intelligence and machine learning, held in New Orleans on 12 December 2023.

The research was led by Distinguished Professor CT Lin, Director of the GrapheneX-UTS HAI Centre, together with first author Yiqun Duan and fellow PhD candidate Jinzhou Zhou from the UTS Faculty of Engineering and IT.

In the study participants silently read passages of text while wearing a cap that recorded electrical brain activity through their scalp using an electroencephalogram (EEG). A demonstration of the technology can be seen in this video [See UTS press release].

The EEG wave is segmented into distinct units that capture specific characteristics and patterns from the human brain. This is done by an AI model called DeWave developed by the researchers. DeWave translates EEG signals into words and sentences by learning from large quantities of EEG data. 

“This research represents a pioneering effort in translating raw EEG waves directly into language, marking a significant breakthrough in the field,” said Distinguished Professor Lin.

“It is the first to incorporate discrete encoding techniques in the brain-to-text translation process, introducing an innovative approach to neural decoding. The integration with large language models is also opening new frontiers in neuroscience and AI,” he said.

Previous technology to translate brain signals to language has either required surgery to implant electrodes in the brain, such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink [emphasis mine], or scanning in an MRI machine, which is large, expensive, and difficult to use in daily life.

These methods also struggle to transform brain signals into word level segments without additional aids such as eye-tracking, which restrict the practical application of these systems. The new technology is able to be used either with or without eye-tracking.

The UTS research was carried out with 29 participants. This means it is likely to be more robust and adaptable than previous decoding technology that has only been tested on one or two individuals, because EEG waves differ between individuals. 

The use of EEG signals received through a cap, rather than from electrodes implanted in the brain, means that the signal is noisier. In terms of EEG translation however, the study reported state-of the art performance, surpassing previous benchmarks.

“The model is more adept at matching verbs than nouns. However, when it comes to nouns, we saw a tendency towards synonymous pairs rather than precise translations, such as ‘the man’ instead of ‘the author’,” said Duan. [emphases mine; synonymous, eh? what about ‘woman’ or ‘child’ instead of the ‘man’?]

“We think this is because when the brain processes these words, semantically similar words might produce similar brain wave patterns. Despite the challenges, our model yields meaningful results, aligning keywords and forming similar sentence structures,” he said.

The translation accuracy score is currently around 40% on BLEU-1. The BLEU score is a number between zero and one that measures the similarity of the machine-translated text to a set of high-quality reference translations. The researchers hope to see this improve to a level that is comparable to traditional language translation or speech recognition programs, which is closer to 90%.

The research follows on from previous brain-computer interface technology developed by UTS in association with the Australian Defence Force [ADF] that uses brainwaves to command a quadruped robot, which is demonstrated in this ADF video [See my June 13, 2023 posting, “Mind-controlled robots based on graphene: an Australian research story” for the story and embedded video].

About one month after the research announcement regarding the University of Technology Sydney’s ‘non-invasive’ brain-computer interface (BCI), I stumbled across an in-depth piece about the field of ‘non-invasive’ mind-reading research.

Neurotechnology and neurorights

Fletcher Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article on salon.com (originally published January 3, 2024 on Undark) shows how quickly the field is developing and raises concerns, Note: Links have been removed,

One afternoon in May 2020, Jerry Tang, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Texas at Austin, sat staring at a cryptic string of words scrawled across his computer screen:

“I am not finished yet to start my career at twenty without having gotten my license I never have to pull out and run back to my parents to take me home.”

The sentence was jumbled and agrammatical. But to Tang, it represented a remarkable feat: A computer pulling a thought, however disjointed, from a person’s mind.

For weeks, ever since the pandemic had shuttered his university and forced his lab work online, Tang had been at home tweaking a semantic decoder — a brain-computer interface, or BCI, that generates text from brain scans. Prior to the university’s closure, study participants had been providing data to train the decoder for months, listening to hours of storytelling podcasts while a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine logged their brain responses. Then, the participants had listened to a new story — one that had not been used to train the algorithm — and those fMRI scans were fed into the decoder, which used GPT1, a predecessor to the ubiquitous AI chatbot ChatGPT, to spit out a text prediction of what it thought the participant had heard. For this snippet, Tang compared it to the original story:

“Although I’m twenty-three years old I don’t have my driver’s license yet and I just jumped out right when I needed to and she says well why don’t you come back to my house and I’ll give you a ride.”

The decoder was not only capturing the gist of the original, but also producing exact matches of specific words — twenty, license. When Tang shared the results with his adviser, a UT Austin neuroscientist named Alexander Huth who had been working towards building such a decoder for nearly a decade, Huth was floored. “Holy shit,” Huth recalled saying. “This is actually working.” By the fall of 2021, the scientists were testing the device with no external stimuli at all — participants simply imagined a story and the decoder spat out a recognizable, albeit somewhat hazy, description of it. “What both of those experiments kind of point to,” said Huth, “is the fact that what we’re able to read out here was really like the thoughts, like the idea.”

The scientists brimmed with excitement over the potentially life-altering medical applications of such a device — restoring communication to people with locked-in syndrome, for instance, whose near full-body paralysis made talking impossible. But just as the potential benefits of the decoder snapped into focus, so too did the thorny ethical questions posed by its use. Huth himself had been one of the three primary test subjects in the experiments, and the privacy implications of the device now seemed visceral: “Oh my god,” he recalled thinking. “We can look inside my brain.”

Huth’s reaction mirrored a longstanding concern in neuroscience and beyond: that machines might someday read people’s minds. And as BCI technology advances at a dizzying clip, that possibility and others like it — that computers of the future could alter human identities, for example, or hinder free will — have begun to seem less remote. “The loss of mental privacy, this is a fight we have to fight today,” said Rafael Yuste, a Columbia University neuroscientist. “That could be irreversible. If we lose our mental privacy, what else is there to lose? That’s it, we lose the essence of who we are.”

Spurred by these concerns, Yuste and several colleagues have launched an international movement advocating for “neurorights” — a set of five principles Yuste argues should be enshrined in law as a bulwark against potential misuse and abuse of neurotechnology. But he may be running out of time.

Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article provides fascinating context and is well worth reading if you have the time.

For my purposes, I’m focusing on ethics, Note: Links have been removed,

… as these and other advances propelled the field forward, and as his own research revealed the discomfiting vulnerability of the brain to external manipulation, Yuste found himself increasingly concerned by the scarce attention being paid to the ethics of these technologies. Even Obama’s multi-billion-dollar BRAIN Initiative, a government program designed to advance brain research, which Yuste had helped launch in 2013 and supported heartily, seemed to mostly ignore the ethical and societal consequences of the research it funded. “There was zero effort on the ethical side,” Yuste recalled.

Yuste was appointed to the rotating advisory group of the BRAIN Initiative in 2015, where he began to voice his concerns. That fall, he joined an informal working group to consider the issue. “We started to meet, and it became very evident to me that the situation was a complete disaster,” Yuste said. “There was no guidelines, no work done.” Yuste said he tried to get the group to generate a set of ethical guidelines for novel BCI technologies, but the effort soon became bogged down in bureaucracy. Frustrated, he stepped down from the committee and, together with a University of Washington bioethicist named Sara Goering, decided to independently pursue the issue. “Our aim here is not to contribute to or feed fear for doomsday scenarios,” the pair wrote in a 2016 article in Cell, “but to ensure that we are reflective and intentional as we prepare ourselves for the neurotechnological future.”

In the fall of 2017, Yuste and Goering called a meeting at the Morningside Campus of Columbia, inviting nearly 30 experts from all over the world in such fields as neurotechnology, artificial intelligence, medical ethics, and the law. By then, several other countries had launched their own versions of the BRAIN Initiative, and representatives from Australia, Canada [emphasis mine], China, Europe, Israel, South Korea, and Japan joined the Morningside gathering, along with veteran neuroethicists and prominent researchers. “We holed ourselves up for three days to study the ethical and societal consequences of neurotechnology,” Yuste said. “And we came to the conclusion that this is a human rights issue. These methods are going to be so powerful, that enable to access and manipulate mental activity, and they have to be regulated from the angle of human rights. That’s when we coined the term ‘neurorights.’”

The Morningside group, as it became known, identified four principal ethical priorities, which were later expanded by Yuste into five clearly defined neurorights: The right to mental privacy, which would ensure that brain data would be kept private and its use, sale, and commercial transfer would be strictly regulated; the right to personal identity, which would set boundaries on technologies that could disrupt one’s sense of self; the right to fair access to mental augmentation, which would ensure equality of access to mental enhancement neurotechnologies; the right of protection from bias in the development of neurotechnology algorithms; and the right to free will, which would protect an individual’s agency from manipulation by external neurotechnologies. The group published their findings in an often-cited paper in Nature.

But while Yuste and the others were focused on the ethical implications of these emerging technologies, the technologies themselves continued to barrel ahead at a feverish speed. In 2014, the first kick of the World Cup was made by a paraplegic man using a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton. In 2016, a man fist bumped Obama using a robotic arm that allowed him to “feel” the gesture. The following year, scientists showed that electrical stimulation of the hippocampus could improve memory, paving the way for cognitive augmentation technologies. The military, long interested in BCI technologies, built a system that allowed operators to pilot three drones simultaneously, partially with their minds. Meanwhile, a confusing maelstrom of science, science-fiction, hype, innovation, and speculation swept the private sector. By 2020, over $33 billion had been invested in hundreds of neurotech companies — about seven times what the NIH [US National Institutes of Health] had envisioned for the 12-year span of the BRAIN Initiative itself.

Now back to Tang and Huth (from Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article), Note: Links have been removed,

Central to the ethical questions Huth and Tang grappled with was the fact that their decoder, unlike other language decoders developed around the same time, was non-invasive — it didn’t require its users to undergo surgery. Because of that, their technology was free from the strict regulatory oversight that governs the medical domain. (Yuste, for his part, said he believes non-invasive BCIs pose a far greater ethical challenge than invasive systems: “The non-invasive, the commercial, that’s where the battle is going to get fought.”) Huth and Tang’s decoder faced other hurdles to widespread use — namely that fMRI machines are enormous, expensive, and stationary. But perhaps, the researchers thought, there was a way to overcome that hurdle too.

The information measured by fMRI machines — blood oxygenation levels, which indicate where blood is flowing in the brain — can also be measured with another technology, functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, or fNIRS. Although lower resolution than fMRI, several expensive, research-grade, wearable fNIRS headsets do approach the resolution required to work with Huth and Tang’s decoder. In fact, the scientists were able to test whether their decoder would work with such devices by simply blurring their fMRI data to simulate the resolution of research-grade fNIRS. The decoded result “doesn’t get that much worse,” Huth said.

And while such research-grade devices are currently cost-prohibitive for the average consumer, more rudimentary fNIRS headsets have already hit the market. Although these devices provide far lower resolution than would be required for Huth and Tang’s decoder to work effectively, the technology is continually improving, and Huth believes it is likely that an affordable, wearable fNIRS device will someday provide high enough resolution to be used with the decoder. In fact, he is currently teaming up with scientists at Washington University to research the development of such a device.

Even comparatively primitive BCI headsets can raise pointed ethical questions when released to the public. Devices that rely on electroencephalography, or EEG, a commonplace method of measuring brain activity by detecting electrical signals, have now become widely available — and in some cases have raised alarm. In 2019, a school in Jinhua, China, drew criticism after trialing EEG headbands that monitored the concentration levels of its pupils. (The students were encouraged to compete to see who concentrated most effectively, and reports were sent to their parents.) Similarly, in 2018 the South China Morning Post reported that dozens of factories and businesses had begun using “brain surveillance devices” to monitor workers’ emotions, in the hopes of increasing productivity and improving safety. The devices “caused some discomfort and resistance in the beginning,” Jin Jia, then a brain scientist at Ningbo University, told the reporter. “After a while, they got used to the device.”

But the primary problem with even low-resolution devices is that scientists are only just beginning to understand how information is actually encoded in brain data. In the future, powerful new decoding algorithms could discover that even raw, low-resolution EEG data contains a wealth of information about a person’s mental state at the time of collection. Consequently, nobody can definitively know what they are giving away when they allow companies to collect information from their brains.

Huth and Tang concluded that brain data, therefore, should be closely guarded, especially in the realm of consumer products. In an article on Medium from last April, Tang wrote that “decoding technology is continually improving, and the information that could be decoded from a brain scan a year from now may be very different from what can be decoded today. It is crucial that companies are transparent about what they intend to do with brain data and take measures to ensure that brain data is carefully protected.” (Yuste said the Neurorights Foundation recently surveyed the user agreements of 30 neurotech companies and found that all of them claim ownership of users’ brain data — and most assert the right to sell that data to third parties. [emphases mine]) Despite these concerns, however, Huth and Tang maintained that the potential benefits of these technologies outweighed their risks, provided the proper guardrails [emphasis mine] were put in place.

It would seem the first guardrails are being set up in South America (from Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article), Note: Links have been removed,

On a hot summer night in 2019, Yuste sat in the courtyard of an adobe hotel in the north of Chile with his close friend, the prominent Chilean doctor and then-senator Guido Girardi, observing the vast, luminous skies of the Atacama Desert and discussing, as they often did, the world of tomorrow. Girardi, who every year organizes the Congreso Futuro, Latin America’s preeminent science and technology event, had long been intrigued by the accelerating advance of technology and its paradigm-shifting impact on society — “living in the world at the speed of light,” as he called it. Yuste had been a frequent speaker at the conference, and the two men shared a conviction that scientists were birthing technologies powerful enough to disrupt the very notion of what it meant to be human.

Around midnight, as Yuste finished his pisco sour, Girardi made an intriguing proposal: What if they worked together to pass an amendment to Chile’s constitution, one that would enshrine protections for mental privacy as an inviolable right of every Chilean? It was an ambitious idea, but Girardi had experience moving bold pieces of legislation through the senate; years earlier he had spearheaded Chile’s famous Food Labeling and Advertising Law, which required companies to affix health warning labels on junk food. (The law has since inspired dozens of countries to pursue similar legislation.) With BCI, here was another chance to be a trailblazer. “I said to Rafael, ‘Well, why don’t we create the first neuro data protection law?’” Girardi recalled. Yuste readily agreed.

… Girardi led the political push, promoting a piece of legislation that would amend Chile’s constitution to protect mental privacy. The effort found surprising purchase across the political spectrum, a remarkable feat in a country famous for its political polarization. In 2021, Chile’s congress unanimously passed the constitutional amendment, which Piñera [Sebastián Piñera] swiftly signed into law. (A second piece of legislation, which would establish a regulatory framework for neurotechnology, is currently under consideration by Chile’s congress.) “There was no divide between the left or right,” recalled Girardi. “This was maybe the only law in Chile that was approved by unanimous vote.” Chile, then, had become the first country in the world to enshrine “neurorights” in its legal code.

Even before the passage of the Chilean constitutional amendment, Yuste had begun meeting regularly with Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer who had represented such high-profile clients as Desmond Tutu, Liu Xiaobo, and Aung San Suu Kyi. (The New York Times Magazine once referred to Genser as “the extractor” for his work with political prisoners.) Yuste was seeking guidance on how to develop an international legal framework to protect neurorights, and Genser, though he had just a cursory knowledge of neurotechnology, was immediately captivated by the topic. “It’s fair to say he blew my mind in the first hour of discussion,” recalled Genser. Soon thereafter, Yuste, Genser, and a private-sector entrepreneur named Jamie Daves launched the Neurorights Foundation, a nonprofit whose first goal, according to its website, is “to protect the human rights of all people from the potential misuse or abuse of neurotechnology.”

To accomplish this, the organization has sought to engage all levels of society, from the United Nations and regional governing bodies like the Organization of American States, down to national governments, the tech industry, scientists, and the public at large. Such a wide-ranging approach, said Genser, “is perhaps insanity on our part, or grandiosity. But nonetheless, you know, it’s definitely the Wild West as it comes to talking about these issues globally, because so few people know about where things are, where they’re heading, and what is necessary.”

This general lack of knowledge about neurotech, in all strata of society, has largely placed Yuste in the role of global educator — he has met several times with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, for example, to discuss the potential dangers of emerging neurotech. And these efforts are starting to yield results. Guterres’s 2021 report, “Our Common Agenda,” which sets forth goals for future international cooperation, urges “updating or clarifying our application of human rights frameworks and standards to address frontier issues,” such as “neuro-technology.” Genser attributes the inclusion of this language in the report to Yuste’s advocacy efforts.

But updating international human rights law is difficult, and even within the Neurorights Foundation there are differences of opinion regarding the most effective approach. For Yuste, the ideal solution would be the creation of a new international agency, akin to the International Atomic Energy Agency — but for neurorights. “My dream would be to have an international convention about neurotechnology, just like we had one about atomic energy and about certain things, with its own treaty,” he said. “And maybe an agency that would essentially supervise the world’s efforts in neurotechnology.”

Genser, however, believes that a new treaty is unnecessary, and that neurorights can be codified most effectively by extending interpretation of existing international human rights law to include them. The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, for example, already ensures the general right to privacy, and an updated interpretation of the law could conceivably clarify that that clause extends to mental privacy as well.

There is no need for immediate panic (from Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article),

… while Yuste and the others continue to grapple with the complexities of international and national law, Huth and Tang have found that, for their decoder at least, the greatest privacy guardrails come not from external institutions but rather from something much closer to home — the human mind itself. Following the initial success of their decoder, as the pair read widely about the ethical implications of such a technology, they began to think of ways to assess the boundaries of the decoder’s capabilities. “We wanted to test a couple kind of principles of mental privacy,” said Huth. Simply put, they wanted to know if the decoder could be resisted.

In late 2021, the scientists began to run new experiments. First, they were curious if an algorithm trained on one person could be used on another. They found that it could not — the decoder’s efficacy depended on many hours of individualized training. Next, they tested whether the decoder could be thrown off simply by refusing to cooperate with it. Instead of focusing on the story that was playing through their headphones while inside the fMRI machine, participants were asked to complete other mental tasks, such as naming random animals, or telling a different story in their head. “Both of those rendered it completely unusable,” Huth said. “We didn’t decode the story they were listening to, and we couldn’t decode anything about what they were thinking either.”

Given how quickly this field of research is progressing, it seems like a good idea to increase efforts to establish neurorights (from Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article),

For Yuste, however, technologies like Huth and Tang’s decoder may only mark the beginning of a mind-boggling new chapter in human history, one in which the line between human brains and computers will be radically redrawn — or erased completely. A future is conceivable, he said, where humans and computers fuse permanently, leading to the emergence of technologically augmented cyborgs. “When this tsunami hits us I would say it’s not likely it’s for sure that humans will end up transforming themselves — ourselves — into maybe a hybrid species,” Yuste said. He is now focused on preparing for this future.

In the last several years, Yuste has traveled to multiple countries, meeting with a wide assortment of politicians, supreme court justices, U.N. committee members, and heads of state. And his advocacy is beginning to yield results. In August, Mexico began considering a constitutional reform that would establish the right to mental privacy. Brazil is currently considering a similar proposal, while Spain, Argentina, and Uruguay have also expressed interest, as has the European Union. In September [2023], neurorights were officially incorporated into Mexico’s digital rights charter, while in Chile, a landmark Supreme Court ruling found that Emotiv Inc, a company that makes a wearable EEG headset, violated Chile’s newly minted mental privacy law. That suit was brought by Yuste’s friend and collaborator, Guido Girardi.

“This is something that we should take seriously,” he [Huth] said. “Because even if it’s rudimentary right now, where is that going to be in five years? What was possible five years ago? What’s possible now? Where’s it gonna be in five years? Where’s it gonna be in 10 years? I think the range of reasonable possibilities includes things that are — I don’t want to say like scary enough — but like dystopian enough that I think it’s certainly a time for us to think about this.”

You can find The Neurorights Foundation here and/or read Reveley’s January 18, 2024 article on salon.com or as originally published January 3, 2024 on Undark. Finally, thank you for the article, Fletcher Reveley!

The cost of building ChatGPT

After seeing the description for Laura U. Marks’s recent work ‘Streaming Carbon Footprint’ (in my October 13, 2023 posting about upcoming ArtSci Salon events in Toronto), where she focuses on the environmental impact of streaming media and digital art, I was reminded of some September 2023 news.

A September 9, 2023 news item (an Associated Press article by Matt O’Brien and Hannah Fingerhut) on phys.org and also published September 12, 2023 on the Iowa Public Radio website, describe an unexpected cost for building ChatGPT and other AI agents, Note: Links have been removed,

The cost of building an artificial intelligence product like ChatGPT can be hard to measure.

But one thing Microsoft-backed OpenAI needed for its technology was plenty of water [emphases mine], pulled from the watershed of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers in central Iowa to cool a powerful supercomputer as it helped teach its AI systems how to mimic human writing.

As they race to capitalize on a craze for generative AI, leading tech developers including Microsoft, OpenAI and Google have acknowledged that growing demand for their AI tools carries hefty costs, from expensive semiconductors to an increase in water consumption.

But they’re often secretive about the specifics. Few people in Iowa knew about its status as a birthplace of OpenAI’s most advanced large language model, GPT-4, before a top Microsoft executive said in a speech it “was literally made next to cornfields west of Des Moines.”

In its latest environmental report, Microsoft disclosed that its global water consumption spiked 34% from 2021 to 2022 (to nearly 1.7 billion gallons , or more than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools), a sharp increase compared to previous years that outside researchers tie to its AI research. [emphases mine]

“It’s fair to say the majority of the growth is due to AI,” including “its heavy investment in generative AI and partnership with OpenAI,” said Shaolei Ren, [emphasis mine] a researcher at the University of California, Riverside who has been trying to calculate the environmental impact of generative AI products such as ChatGPT.

If you have the time, do read the O’Brien and Fingerhut article in it entirety. (Later in this post, I have a citation for and a link to a paper by Ren.)

Jason Clayworth’s September 18, 2023 article for AXIOS describes the issue from the Iowan perspective, Note: Links have been removed,

Future data center projects in West Des Moines will only be considered if Microsoft can implement technology that can “significantly reduce peak water usage,” the Associated Press reports.

Why it matters: Microsoft’s five WDM data centers — the “epicenter for advancing AI” — represent more than $5 billion in investments in the last 15 years.

Yes, but: They consumed as much as 11.5 million gallons of water a month for cooling, or about 6% of WDM’s total usage during peak summer usage during the last two years, according to information from West Des Moines Water Works.

This information becomes more intriguing (and disturbing) after reading a February 10, 2023 article for the World Economic Forum titled ‘This is why we can’t dismiss water scarcity in the US‘ by James Rees and/or an August 11, 2020 article ‘Why is America running out of water?‘ by Jon Heggie published by the National Geographic, which is a piece of paid content. Note: Despite the fact that it’s sponsored by Finish Dish Detergent, the research in Heggie’s article looks solid.

From Heggie’s article, Note: Links have been removed,

In March 2019, storm clouds rolled across Oklahoma; rain swept down the gutters of New York; hail pummeled northern Florida; floodwaters forced evacuations in Missouri; and a blizzard brought travel to a stop in South Dakota. Across much of America, it can be easy to assume that we have more than enough water. But that same a month, as storms battered the country, a government-backed report issued a stark warning: America is running out of water.

As the U.S. water supply decreases, demand is set to increase. On average, each American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water every day, with the nation’s estimated total daily usage topping 345 billion gallons—enough to sink the state of Rhode Island under a foot of water. By 2100 the U.S. population will have increased by nearly 200 million, with a total population of some 514 million people. Given that we use water for everything, the simple math is that more people mean more water stress across the country.

And we are already tapping into our reserves. Aquifers, porous rocks and sediment that store vast volumes of water underground, are being drained. Nearly 165 million Americans rely on groundwater for drinking water, farmers use it for irrigation―37 percent of our total water usage is for agriculture—and industry needs it for manufacturing. Groundwater is being pumped faster than it can be naturally replenished. The Central Valley Aquifer in California underlies one of the nation’s most agriculturally productive regions, but it is in drastic decline and has lost about ten cubic miles of water in just four years.

Decreasing supply and increasing demand are creating a perfect water storm, the effects of which are already being felt. The Colorado River carved its way 1,450 miles from the Rockies to the Gulf of California for millions of years, but now no longer reaches the sea. In 2018, parts of the Rio Grande recorded their lowest water levels ever; Arizona essentially lives under permanent drought conditions; and in South Florida’s freshwater aquifers are increasingly susceptible to salt water intrusion due to over-extraction.

The focus is on individual use of water and Heggie ends his article by suggesting we use less,

… And every American can save more water at home in multiple ways, from taking shorter showers to not rinsing dishes under a running faucet before loading them into a dishwasher, a practice that wastes around 20 gallons of water for each load. …

As an advertising pitch goes, this is fairly subtle as there’s no branding in the article itself and it is almost wholly informational.

Attempts to stave off water shortages as noted in Heggie’s and other articles include groundwater pumping both for individual use and industrial use. This practice has had an unexpected impact according to a June 16, 2023 article by Warren Cornwall for Science (magazine),

While spinning on its axis, Earth wobbles like an off-kilter top. Sloshing molten iron in Earth’s core, melting ice, ocean currents, and even hurricanes can all cause the poles to wander. Now, scientists have found that a significant amount of the polar drift results from human activity: pumping groundwater for drinking and irrigation.

“The very way the planet wobbles is impacted by our activities,” says Surendra Adhikari, a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an expert on Earth’s rotation who was not involved in the study. “It is, in a way, mind boggling.”

Clark R. Wilson, a geophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin, and his colleagues thought the removal of tens of gigatons of groundwater each year might affect the drift. But they knew it could not be the only factor. “There’s a lot of pieces that go into the final budget for causing polar drift,” Wilson says.

The scientists built a model of the polar wander, accounting for factors such as reservoirs filling because of new dams and ice sheets melting, to see how well they explained the polar movements observed between 1993 and 2010. During that time, satellite measurements were precise enough to detect a shift in the poles as small as a few millimeters.

Dams and ice changes were not enough to match the observed polar motion. But when the researchers also put in 2150 gigatons of groundwater that hydrologic models estimate were pumped between 1993 and 2010, the predicted polar motion aligned much more closely with observations. Wilson and his colleagues conclude that the redistribution of that water weight to the world’s oceans has caused Earth’s poles to shift nearly 80 centimeters during that time. In fact, groundwater removal appears to have played a bigger role in that period than the release of meltwater from ice in either Greenland or Antarctica, the scientists reported Thursday [June 15, 2023] in Geophysical Research Letters.

The new paper helps confirm that groundwater depletion added approximately 6 millimeters to global sea level rise between 1993 and 2010. “I was very happy” that this new method matched other estimates, Seo [Ki-Weon Seo geophysicist at Seoul National University and the study’s lead author] says. Because detailed astronomical measurements of the polar axis location go back to the end of the 19th century, polar drift could enable Seo to trace the human impact on the planet’s water over the past century.

Two papers: environmental impact from AI and groundwater pumping wobbles poles

I have two links and citations for Ren’s paper on AI and its environmental impact,

Towards Environmentally Equitable AI via Geographical Load Balancing by Pengfei Li, Jianyi Yang, Adam Wierman, Shaolei Ren. Subjects: Artificial Intelligence (cs.AI); Computers and Society (cs.CY) Cite as: arXiv:2307.05494 [cs.AI] (or arXiv:2307.05494v1 [cs.AI] for this version) DOI: https://doi.org/10.48550/arXiv.2307.05494 Submitted June 20, 2023

Towards Environmentally Equitable AI via Geographical Load Balancing by Li, Pengfei; Yang, Jianyi; Wierman, Adam; Ren, Shaolei. UC Riverside. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/79c880vf Publication date: 2023-06-27

Both links offer open access to the paper. Should you be interested in more, you can find Shaolei Ren’s website here.

Now for the wobbling poles,

Drift of Earth’s Pole Confirms Groundwater Depletion as a Significant Contributor to Global Sea Level Rise 1993–2010 by Ki-Weon Seo, Dongryeol Ryu, Jooyoung Eom, Taewhan Jeon, Jae-Seung Kim, Kookhyoun Youm, Jianli Chen, Clark R. Wilson. Geophysical Research Letters Volume 50, Issue 12, 28 June 2023 e2023GL103509 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1029/2023GL103509 First published online: 15 June 2023

This paper too is open access.

Anti-dust technology paves way for self-cleaning windows and more

I’m always interested in a ‘self-cleaning window’ story’. From a February 22, 2023 news item on phys.org,

Dust is a common fact of life, and it’s more than just a daily nuisance—it can get into machinery and equipment, causing loss of efficiency or breakdowns.

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin partnered with North Carolina-based company Smart Material Solutions Inc. to develop a new method to keep dust from sticking to surfaces. The result is the ability to make many types of materials dust resistant, from spacecraft to solar panels to household windows.

A February 22, 2023 University of Texas at Austin news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describe the research in more detail,

“What we’ve demonstrated here is a surface that can clean itself,” said Chih-Hao Chang, an associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and a lead author of the study. “Particulates aren’t able to stick to the surface, so they come off using just the force of gravity.”

In tests, the researchers piled lunar dust on top of their engineered surfaces and then turned each surface on its side. The result: Only about 2% of the surface remained dusty, compared with more than 35% of a similarly smooth surface.

The researchers said the discovery boils down to things the human eye can’t detect. In the experiments, the team altered the geometry of flat surfaces to create a tightly packed nanoscale network of pyramid-shaped structures. These sharp, angular structures make it difficult for the dust particles to stick to the material, instead sticking to one another and rolling off the material via gravity.

These structures provide a passive solution, meaning they don’t require any extra energy or materials to remove dust. Compare that with more active solutions such as a car windshield that requires the use of windshield wipers and wiper fluid to clean off dust.

The research was funded via a grant from NASA’s [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Small Business Innovation Research program, so the first applications focus on space technology. Space dust is especially pesky because of how high-risk everything becomes in that environment, and the conditions make cleaning off dust challenging. Dust wreaked havoc on the Apollo missions and has caused Mars rovers to fail.

“There’s not much you can do about lunar dust in space – it sticks to everything and there’s no real way to wipe it off or spray it off,” said Samuel Lee, a lead author who was an undergraduate researcher in Chang’s group. “Dust on solar panels of Mars rovers can cause them to fail.”

This technology also could have tremendous impact on Earth. It could prevent solar panels from collecting dust and losing efficiency over time. It could protect glass windows and someday even digital screens such as phones and TVs.

Anti-dust technology has been around for decades, but it has not gained much traction outside of the lab because of scaling challenges. The researchers used fabrication concepts called nanocoining and nanoimprinting, which prints patterns on objects in a modernized version of the way newspapers and photographs were mass produced during the 1800s.

Chang and Lee led the work for UT Austin, along with Stephen Furst, founder and CEO of Smart Material Solutions, which is working to commercial the technology. Other members of the team are Andrew Tunell, Kun-Chieh Chien and Saurav Mohanty of UT Austin; and Lauren Micklow and Nichole Cates of Smart Material Solutions.

There’s no indication this self-cleaning glass is coming to a window near me or you soon but we can always dream about this video,

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

Engineering Large-Area Antidust Surfaces by Harnessing Interparticle Forces by Samuel S. Lee, Lauren Micklow, Andrew Tunell, Kun-Chieh Chien, Saurav Mohanty, Nichole Cates, Stephen Furst, and Chih-Hao Chang. CS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2023, 15, 10, 13678–13688 SOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.2c19211 Publication Date:February 22, 2023 Copyright © 2023 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

You can find the North Carolina company mentioned in the news item, Smart Material Solutions, here.

Treating cardiac arrhythmia with light: a graphene tattoo

An April 17, 2023 news item on Nanowerk announced research into a graphene cardiac implant/tattoo,

Researchers led by Northwestern University and the University of Texas at Austin (UT) have developed the first cardiac implant made from graphene, a two-dimensional super material with ultra-strong, lightweight and conductive properties.

Similar in appearance to a child’s temporary tattoo, the new graphene “tattoo” implant is thinner than a single strand of hair yet still functions like a classical pacemaker. But unlike current pacemakers and implanted defibrillators, which require hard, rigid materials that are mechanically incompatible with the body, the new device softly melds to the heart to simultaneously sense and treat irregular heartbeats. The implant is thin and flexible enough to conform to the heart’s delicate contours as well as stretchy and strong enough to withstand the dynamic motions of a beating heart.

Caption: Graphene implant on tattoo paper. Credit: Ning Liu/University of Texas at Austin

An April 17, 2023 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research, graphene, and the difficulties of monitoring a beating heart, Note: Links have been removed,

After implanting the device into a rat model, the researchers demonstrated that the graphene tattoo could successfully sense irregular heart rhythms and then deliver electrical stimulation through a series of pulses without constraining or altering the heart’s natural motions. Even better: The technology also is optically transparent, allowing the researchers to use an external source of optical light to record and stimulate the heart through the device.

The study will be published on Thursday (April 20 [2023]) in the journal Advanced Materials. It marks the thinnest known cardiac implant to date.

“One of the challenges for current pacemakers and defibrillators is that they are difficult to affix onto the surface of the heart,” said Northwestern’s Igor Efimov, the study’s senior author. “Defibrillator electrodes, for example, are essentially coils made of very thick wires. These wires are not flexible, and they break. Rigid interfaces with soft tissues, like the heart, can cause various complications. By contrast, our soft, flexible device is not only unobtrusive but also intimately and seamlessly conforms directly onto the heart to deliver more precise measurements.”

An experimental cardiologist, Efimov is a professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He co-led the study with Dmitry Kireev, a research associate at UT. Zexu Lin, a Ph.D. candidate in Efimov’s laboratory, is the paper’s first author.

Miracle material

Known as cardiac arrhythmias, heart rhythm disorders occur when the heart beats either too quickly or too slowly. While some cases of arrhythmia are not serious, many cases can lead to heart failure, stroke and even sudden death. In fact, complications related to arrythmia claim about 300,000 lives annually in the United States. Physicians commonly treat arrhythmia with implantable pacemakers and defibrillators that detect abnormal heartbeats and then correct rhythm with electrical stimulation. While these devices are lifesaving, their rigid nature may constrain the heart’s natural motions, injure soft tissues, cause temporary discomfort and induce complications, such as painful swelling, perforations, blood clots, infection and more.

With these challenges in mind, Efimov and his team sought to develop a bio-compatible device ideal for conforming to soft, dynamic tissues. After reviewing multiple materials, the researchers settled on graphene, an atomically thin form of carbon. With its ultra-strong, lightweight structure and superior conductivity, graphene has potential for many applications in high-performance electronics, high-strength materials and energy devices.

“For bio-compatibility reasons, graphene is particularly attractive,” Efimov said. “Carbon is the basis of life, so it’s a safe material that is already used in different clinical applications. It also is flexible and soft, which works well as an interface between electronics and a soft, mechanically active organ.”

Hitting a beating target

At UT, study co-authors Dimitry Kireev and Deji Akinwande were already developing graphene electronic tattoos (GETs) with sensing capabilities. Flexible and weightless, their team’s e-tattoos adhere to the skin to continuously monitor the body’s vital signs, including blood pressure and the electrical activity of the brain, heart and muscles.

But, while the e-tattoos work well on the skin’s surface, Efimov’s team needed to investigate new methods to use these devices inside the body — directly onto the surface of the heart.

“It’s a completely different application scheme,” Efimov said. “Skin is relatively dry and easily accessible. Obviously, the heart is inside the chest, so it’s difficult to access and in a wet environment.”

The researchers developed an entirely new technique to encase the graphene tattoo and adhere it to the surface of a beating heart. First, they encapsulated the graphene inside a flexible, elastic silicone membrane — with a hole punched in it to give access to the interior graphene electrode. Then, they gently placed gold tape (with a thickness of 10 microns) onto the encapsulating layer to serve as an electrical interconnect between the graphene and the external electronics used to measure and stimulate the heart. Finally, they placed it onto the heart. The entire thickness of all layers together measures about 100 microns in total.

The resulting device was stable for 60 days on an actively beating heart at body temperature, which is comparable to the duration of temporary pacemakers used as bridges to permanent pacemakers or rhythm management after surgery or other therapies.

Optical opportunities

Leveraging the device’s transparent nature, Efimov and his team performed optocardiography — using light to track and modulate heart rhythm — in the animal study. Not only does this offer a new way to diagnose and treat heart ailments, the approach also opens new possibilities for optogenetics, a method to control and monitor single cells with light. 

While electrical stimulation can correct a heart’s abnormal rhythm, optical stimulation is more precise. With light, researchers can track specific enzymes as well as interrogate specific heart, muscle or nerve cells.

“We can essentially combine electrical and optical functions into one biointerface,” Efimov said. “Because graphene is optically transparent, we can actually read through it, which gives us a much higher density of readout.”

The University of Texas at Austin issued an April 18, 2023 news release and as you would expect the focus is on their researchers, Note 1: I’ve removed many but not all of the redundancies between the two news releases; Note 2: A link has been removed,

A new cardiac implant made from graphene, a two-dimensional super material with ultra-strong, lightweight and conductive properties, functions like a classic pacemaker with some major improvements.

A team led by researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and Northwestern University developed the implantable derivative from wearable graphene-based electronic tattoo, or e-tattoo – graphene biointerface. The device, detailed in the journal Advanced Materials, marks the thinnest known cardiac implant to date.

“It’s very exciting to take our e-tattoo technology and use it as an implantable device inside the body,” said Dmitry Kireev, a postdoctoral research associate in the lab of professor Deji Akinwande’s lab at UT Austin who co-led the research. “The fact that is much more compatible with the human body, lightweight, and transparent, makes this a more natural solution for people dealing with heart problems.”

Hitting a beating target

At UT Austin, Akinwande and his team had been developing e-tattoos using graphene for several years, with a variety of functions, including monitoring body signals. Flexible and weightless, their team’s e-tattoos adhere to the skin to continuously monitor the body’s vital signs, including blood pressure and the electrical activity of the brain, heart and muscles.

But, while the e-tattoos work well on the skin’s surface, the researchers needed to find new ways to deploy these devices inside the body — directly onto the surface of the heart.

“The conditions inside the body are very different compared to affixing a device to the skin, so we had to re-imagine how we package our e-tattoo technology,” said Akinwande, a professor in the Chandra Family Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.  

The researchers developed an entirely new technique to encase the graphene tattoo and adhere it to the surface of a beating heart. …

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

Graphene Biointerface for Cardiac Arrhythmia Diagnosis and Treatment by Zexu Lin, Dmitry Kireev, Ning Liu, Shubham Gupta, Jessica LaPiano, Sofian N. Obaid, Zhiyuan Chen, Deji Akinwande, Igor R. Efimov. Advanced Materials Volume 35, Issue 22 June 1, 2023 2212190 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202212190 First published online: 25 March 2023

This paper is open access.

Bioinspired ‘smart’ materials a step towards soft robotics and electronics

An October 13, 2022 news item on Nanowerk describes some new work from the University of Texas at Austin,

Inspired by living things from trees to shellfish, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin set out to create a plastic much like many life forms that are hard and rigid in some places and soft and stretchy in others.

Their success — a first, using only light and a catalyst to change properties such as hardness and elasticity in molecules of the same type — has brought about a new material that is 10 times as tough as natural rubber and could lead to more flexible electronics and robotics.

An October 13, 2022 University of Texas at Austin news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

“This is the first material of its type,” said Zachariah Page, assistant professor of chemistry and corresponding author on the paper. “The ability to control crystallization, and therefore the physical properties of the material, with the application of light is potentially transformative for wearable electronics or actuators in soft robotics.”

Scientists have long sought to mimic the properties of living structures, like skin and muscle, with synthetic materials. In living organisms, structures often combine attributes such as strength and flexibility with ease. When using a mix of different synthetic materials to mimic these attributes, materials often fail, coming apart and ripping at the junctures between different materials.

Oftentimes, when bringing materials together, particularly if they have very different mechanical properties, they want to come apart,” Page said. Page and his team were able to control and change the structure of a plastic-like material, using light to alter how firm or stretchy the material would be.

Chemists started with a monomer, a small molecule that binds with others like it to form the building blocks for larger structures called polymers that were similar to the polymer found in the most commonly used plastic. After testing a dozen catalysts, they found one that, when added to their monomer and shown visible light, resulted in a semicrystalline polymer similar to those found in existing synthetic rubber. A harder and more rigid material was formed in the areas the light touched, while the unlit areas retained their soft, stretchy properties.

Because the substance is made of one material with different properties, it was stronger and could be stretched farther than most mixed materials.

The reaction takes place at room temperature, the monomer and catalyst are commercially available, and researchers used inexpensive blue LEDs as the light source in the experiment. The reaction also takes less than an hour and minimizes use of any hazardous waste, which makes the process rapid, inexpensive, energy efficient and environmentally benign.

The researchers will next seek to develop more objects with the material to continue to test its usability.

“We are looking forward to exploring methods of applying this chemistry towards making 3D objects containing both hard and soft components,” said first author Adrian Rylski, a doctoral student at UT Austin.

The team envisions the material could be used as a flexible foundation to anchor electronic components in medical devices or wearable tech. In robotics, strong and flexible materials are desirable to improve movement and durability.

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

Polymeric multimaterials by photochemical patterning of crystallinity by Adrian K. Rylski, Henry L. Cater, Keldy S. Mason, Marshall J. Allen, Anthony J. Arrowood, Benny D. Freeman, Gabriel E. Sanoja, and Zachariah A. Page. Science 13 Oct 2022 Vol 378, Issue 6616 pp. 211-215 DOI: 10.1126/science.add6975

This paper is behind a paywall.

Synaptic transistors for brainlike computers based on (more environmentally friendly) graphene

An August 9, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily describes research investigating materials other than silicon for neuromorphic (brainlike) computing purposes,

Computers that think more like human brains are inching closer to mainstream adoption. But many unanswered questions remain. Among the most pressing, what types of materials can serve as the best building blocks to unlock the potential of this new style of computing.

For most traditional computing devices, silicon remains the gold standard. However, there is a movement to use more flexible, efficient and environmentally friendly materials for these brain-like devices.

In a new paper, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin developed synaptic transistors for brain-like computers using the thin, flexible material graphene. These transistors are similar to synapses in the brain, that connect neurons to each other.

An August 8, 2022 University of Texas at Austin news release (also on EurekAlert but published August 9, 2022), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

“Computers that think like brains can do so much more than today’s devices,” said Jean Anne Incorvia, an assistant professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineer and the lead author on the paper published today in Nature Communications. “And by mimicking synapses, we can teach these devices to learn on the fly, without requiring huge training methods that take up so much power.”

The Research: A combination of graphene and nafion, a polymer membrane material, make up the backbone of the synaptic transistor. Together, these materials demonstrate key synaptic-like behaviors — most importantly, the ability for the pathways to strengthen over time as they are used more often, a type of neural muscle memory. In computing, this means that devices will be able to get better at tasks like recognizing and interpreting images over time and do it faster.

Another important finding is that these transistors are biocompatible, which means they can interact with living cells and tissue. That is key for potential applications in medical devices that come into contact with the human body. Most materials used for these early brain-like devices are toxic, so they would not be able to contact living cells in any way.

Why It Matters: With new high-tech concepts like self-driving cars, drones and robots, we are reaching the limits of what silicon chips can efficiently do in terms of data processing and storage. For these next-generation technologies, a new computing paradigm is needed. Neuromorphic devices mimic processing capabilities of the brain, a powerful computer for immersive tasks.

“Biocompatibility, flexibility, and softness of our artificial synapses is essential,” said Dmitry Kireev, a post-doctoral researcher who co-led the project. “In the future, we envision their direct integration with the human brain, paving the way for futuristic brain prosthesis.”

Will It Really Happen: Neuromorphic platforms are starting to become more common. Leading chipmakers such as Intel and Samsung have either produced neuromorphic chips already or are in the process of developing them. However, current chip materials place limitations on what neuromorphic devices can do, so academic researchers are working hard to find the perfect materials for soft brain-like computers.

“It’s still a big open space when it comes to materials; it hasn’t been narrowed down to the next big solution to try,” Incorvia said. “And it might not be narrowed down to just one solution, with different materials making more sense for different applications.”

The Team: The research was led by Incorvia and Deji Akinwande, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The two have collaborated many times together in the past, and Akinwande is a leading expert in graphene, using it in multiple research breakthroughs, most recently as part of a wearable electronic tattoo for blood pressure monitoring.

The idea for the project was conceived by Samuel Liu, a Ph.D. student and first author on the paper, in a class taught by Akinwande. Kireev then suggested the specific project. Harrison Jin, an undergraduate electrical and computer engineering student, measured the devices and analyzed data.

The team collaborated with T. Patrick Xiao and Christopher Bennett of Sandia National Laboratories, who ran neural network simulations and analyzed the resulting data.

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

Metaplastic and energy-efficient biocompatible graphene artificial synaptic transistors for enhanced accuracy neuromorphic computing by Dmitry Kireev, Samuel Liu, Harrison Jin, T. Patrick Xiao, Christopher H. Bennett, Deji Akinwande & Jean Anne C. Incorvia. Nature Communications volume 13, Article number: 4386 (2022) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-32078-6 Published: 28 July 2022

This paper is open access.

Pulling water from the air

Adele Peters’ May 27, 2022 article for Fast Company describes some research into harvesting water from the air (Note: Links have been removed),

In Ethiopia, where an ongoing drought is the worst in 40 years, getting drinking water for the day can involve walking for eight hours. Some wells are drying up. As climate change progresses, water scarcity keeps getting worse. But new technology in development at the University of Texas at Austin could help: Using simple, low-cost materials, it harvests water from the air, even in the driest climates.

“The advantage of taking water moisture from the air is that it’s not limited geographically,” says Youhong “Nancy” Guo, lead author of a new study in Nature Communications that describes the technology.

It’s a little surprising that Peters doesn’t mention the megadrought in the US Southwest, which has made quite a splash in the news, from a February 15, 2022 article by Denise Chow for NBC [{US} National Broadcasting Corporation] news online, Note: Links have been removed,

The megadrought that has gripped the southwestern United States for the past 22 years is the worst since at least 800 A.D., according to a new study that examined shifts in water availability and soil moisture over the past 12 centuries.

The research, which suggests that the past two decades in the American Southwest have been the driest period in 1,200 years, pointed to human-caused climate change as a major reason for the current drought’s severity. The findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Jason Smerdon, one of the study’s authors and a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said global warming has made the megadrought more extreme because it creates a “thirstier” atmosphere that is better able to pull moisture out of forests, vegetation and soil.

Over the past two decades, temperatures in the Southwest were around 1.64 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average from 1950 to 1999, according to the researchers. Globally, the world has warmed by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 1800s.

It’s getting drier even here in the Pacific Northwest. Maybe it’s time to start looking at drought and water shortages as a global issue rather than as a regional issue.

Caption: An example of a different shape the water-capturing film can take. Credit: The University of Texas at Austin / Cockrell School of Engineering

Getting back to the topic, a May 23, 2022 University of Texas at Austin news release (also on EurkeAlert), which originated the Peters’ article, announces the work,

More than a third of the world’s population lives in drylands, areas that experience significant water shortages. Scientists and engineers at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a solution that could help people in these areas access clean drinking water.

The team developed a low-cost gel film made of abundant materials that can pull water from the air in even the driest climates. The materials that facilitate this reaction cost a mere $2 per kilogram, and a single kilogram can produce more than 6 liters of water per day in areas with less than 15% relative humidity and 13 liters in areas with up to 30% relative humidity.

The research builds on previous breakthroughs from the team, including the ability to pull water out of the atmosphere and the application of that technology to create self-watering soil. However, these technologies were designed for relatively high-humidity environments.

“This new work is about practical solutions that people can use to get water in the hottest, driest places on Earth,” said Guihua Yu, professor of materials science and mechanical engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering. “This could allow millions of people without consistent access to drinking water to have simple, water generating devices at home that they can easily operate.”

The researchers used renewable cellulose and a common kitchen ingredient, konjac gum, as a main hydrophilic (attracted to water) skeleton. The open-pore structure of gum speeds the moisture-capturing process. Another designed component, thermo-responsive cellulose with hydrophobic (resistant to water) interaction when heated, helps release the collected water immediately so that overall energy input to produce water is minimized.

Other attempts at pulling water from desert air are typically energy-intensive and do not produce much. And although 6 liters does not sound like much, the researchers say that creating thicker films or absorbent beds or arrays with optimization could drastically increase the amount of water they yield.

The reaction itself is a simple one, the researchers said, which reduces the challenges of scaling it up and achieving mass usage.

“This is not something you need an advanced degree to use,” said Youhong “Nancy” Guo, the lead author on the paper and a former doctoral student in Yu’s lab, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s straightforward enough that anyone can make it at home if they have the materials.”

The film is flexible and can be molded into a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the need of the user. Making the film requires only the gel precursor, which includes all the relevant ingredients poured into a mold.

“The gel takes 2 minutes to set simply. Then, it just needs to be freeze-dried, and it can be peeled off the mold and used immediately after that,” said Weixin Guan, a doctoral student on Yu’s team and a lead researcher of the work.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and drinking water for soldiers in arid climates is a big part of the project. However, the researchers also envision this as something that people could someday buy at a hardware store and use in their homes because of the simplicity.

Yu directed the project. Guo and Guan co-led experimental efforts on synthesis, characterization of the samples and device demonstration. Other team members are Chuxin Lei, Hengyi Lu and Wen Shi.

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

Scalable super hygroscopic polymer films for sustainable moisture harvesting in arid environments by Youhong Guo, Weixin Guan, Chuxin Lei, Hengyi Lu, Wen Shi & Guihua Yu. Nature Communications volume 13, Article number: 2761 (2022) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-30505-2 Published: 19 May 2022

This paper is open access.

Harvest fresh water from dry air with hydrogels

Turning Air Into Drinking Water from University of Texas at Austin on Vimeo. Video by Thomas Swafford. Written by Sara Robberson Lentz.

Seems almost magical but it takes years to do this research. That video was posted in September 2019 and the latest research is being announced in a February 28, 2022 news item on phys.org,

Hydrogels have an astonishing ability to swell and take on water. In daily life, they are used in dressings, nappies, and more to lock moisture away. A team of researchers has now found another use: quickly extracting large amounts of freshwater from air using a specially developed hydrogel containing a hygroscopic salt. The study, published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, shows that the salt enhances the moisture uptake of the gel, making it suitable for water harvesting in dry regions.

A February 28, 2022 Wiley Publishing news release on EurekAlert delves further into hydrogels and the research into how they might be used to harvest water from the air,

Hydrogels can absorb and store many times their weight in water. In so doing, the underlying polymer swells considerably by incorporating water. However, to date, use of this property to produce freshwater from atmospheric water has not been feasible, since collecting moisture from the air is still too slow and inefficient.

On the other hand, moisture absorption could be enhanced by adding hygroscopic salts that can rapidly remove large amounts of moisture from the air. However, hygroscopic salts and hydrogels are usually not compatible, as a large amount of salt influences the swelling capability of the hydrogel and thus degrades its properties. In addition, the salt ions are not tightly coordinated within the gel and are easily washed away.

The materials scientist Guihua Yu and his team at the University of Texas at Austin, USA, have now overcome these issues by developing a particularly “salt-friendly” hydrogel. As their study shows, this gel gains the ability to absorb and retain water when combined with a hygroscopic salt. Using their hydrogel, the team were able to extract almost six liters of pure water per kilo of material in 24 hours, from air with 30% relative humidity.

The basis for the new hydrogel was a polymer constructed from zwitterionic molecules. Polyzwitterions carry both positive and negative charged functional groups, which helped the polymer to become more responsive to the salt in this case. Initially, the molecular strands in the polymer were tightly intermingled, but when the researchers added the lithium chloride salt, the strands relaxed and a porous, spongy hydrogel was formed. This hydrogel loaded with the hygroscopic salt was able to incorporate water molecules quickly and easily.

In fact, water incorporation was so quick and easy that the team were able to set up a cyclical system for continuous water separation. They left the hydrogel for an hour each time to absorb atmospheric moisture, then dried the gel in a condenser to collect the condensed water. They repeated this procedure multiple times without it resulting in any substantial loss of the amount of water absorbed, condensed, or collected.

Yu and the team say that the as-prepared hydrogel “should be optimal for efficient moisture harvesting for the potential daily water yield”. They add that polyzwitterionic hydrogels could play a fundamental role in the future for recovering atmospheric water in arid, drought-stricken regions.

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

Polyzwitterionic Hydrogels for Efficient Atmospheric Water Harvesting by Chuxin Lei, Youhong Guo, Weixin Guan, Hengyi Lu, Wen Shi, Guihua Yu. Angewandte Chemie International Edition Volume 61, Issue1 3 March 21, 2022 e202200271 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/anie.202200271 First published: 28 January 2022

This paper is behind a paywall.

Loop quantum cosmology connects the tiniest with the biggest in a cosmic tango

Caption: Tiny quantum fluctuations in the early universe explain two major mysteries about the large-scale structure of the universe, in a cosmic tango of the very small and the very large. A new study by researchers at Penn State used the theory of quantum loop gravity to account for these mysteries, which Einstein’s theory of general relativity considers anomalous.. Credit: Dani Zemba, Penn State

A July 29, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces a study showing that quantum loop cosmology can account for some large-scale mysteries,

While [1] Einstein’s theory of general relativity can explain a large array of fascinating astrophysical and cosmological phenomena, some aspects of the properties of the universe at the largest-scales remain a mystery. A new study using loop quantum cosmology — a theory that uses quantum mechanics to extend gravitational physics beyond Einstein’s theory of general relativity — accounts for two major mysteries. While the differences in the theories occur at the tiniest of scales — much smaller than even a proton — they have consequences at the largest of accessible scales in the universe. The study, which appears online July 29 [2020] in the journal Physical Review Letters, also provides new predictions about the universe that future satellite missions could test.

A July 29, 2020 Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Gail McCormick, which originated the news item, describes how this work helped us avoid a crisis in cosmology,

While [2] a zoomed-out picture of the universe looks fairly uniform, it does have a large-scale structure, for example because galaxies and dark matter are not uniformly distributed throughout the universe. The origin of this structure has been traced back to the tiny inhomogeneities observed in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB)–radiation that was emitted when the universe was 380 thousand years young that we can still see today. But the CMB itself has three puzzling features that are considered anomalies because they are difficult to explain using known physics.

“While [3] seeing one of these anomalies may not be that statistically remarkable, seeing two or more together suggests we live in an exceptional universe,” said Donghui Jeong, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and an author of the paper. “A recent study in the journal Nature Astronomy proposed an explanation for one of these anomalies that raised so many additional concerns, they flagged a ‘possible crisis in cosmology‘ [emphasis mine].’ Using quantum loop cosmology, however, we have resolved two of these anomalies naturally, avoiding that potential crisis.”

Research over the last three decades has greatly improved our understanding of the early universe, including how the inhomogeneities in the CMB were produced in the first place. These inhomogeneities are a result of inevitable quantum fluctuations in the early universe. During a highly accelerated phase of expansion at very early times–known as inflation–these primordial, miniscule fluctuations were stretched under gravity’s influence and seeded the observed inhomogeneities in the CMB.

“To understand how primordial seeds arose, we need a closer look at the early universe, where Einstein’s theory of general relativity breaks down,” said Abhay Ashtekar, Evan Pugh Professor of Physics, holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Physics, and director of the Penn State Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos. “The standard inflationary paradigm based on general relativity treats space time as a smooth continuum. Consider a shirt that appears like a two-dimensional surface, but on closer inspection you can see that it is woven by densely packed one-dimensional threads. In this way, the fabric of space time is really woven by quantum threads. In accounting for these threads, loop quantum cosmology allows us to go beyond the continuum described by general relativity where Einstein’s physics breaks down–for example beyond the Big Bang.”

The researchers’ previous investigation into the early universe replaced the idea of a Big Bang singularity, where the universe emerged from nothing, with the Big Bounce, where the current expanding universe emerged from a super-compressed mass that was created when the universe contracted in its preceding phase. They found that all of the large-scale structures of the universe accounted for by general relativity are equally explained by inflation after this Big Bounce using equations of loop quantum cosmology.

In the new study, the researchers determined that inflation under loop quantum cosmology also resolves two of the major anomalies that appear under general relativity.

“The primordial fluctuations we are talking about occur at the incredibly small Planck scale,” said Brajesh Gupt, a postdoctoral researcher at Penn State at the time of the research and currently at the Texas Advanced Computing Center of the University of Texas at Austin. “A Planck length is about 20 orders of magnitude smaller than the radius of a proton. But corrections to inflation at this unimaginably small scale simultaneously explain two of the anomalies at the largest scales in the universe, in a cosmic tango of the very small and the very large.”

The researchers also produced new predictions about a fundamental cosmological parameter and primordial gravitational waves that could be tested during future satellite missions, including LiteBird and Cosmic Origins Explorer, which will continue improve our understanding of the early universe.

That’s a lot of ‘while’. I’ve done this sort of thing, too, and whenever I come across it later; it’s painful.

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

Alleviating the Tension in the Cosmic Microwave Background Using Planck-Scale Physics by Abhay Ashtekar, Brajesh Gupt, Donghui Jeong, and V. Sreenath. Phys. Rev. Lett. 125, 051302 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.125.051302 Published 29 July 2020 © 2020 American Physical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.