Tag Archives: US National Research Council

Cement and concrete festival

Over the last week or so there’ve been a number of articles and publications about cement and concrete and nanotechnology. The Dec. 17, 2012 Nanowerk Spotlight article by (Mohammed) Shakeel Iqbal and Yashwant Mahajan for India’s Centre for Knowledge Management of Nanoscience & Technology (CKMNT, an ARCI [International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials] project, Dept.of Science & Technology) seemed to kick off the trend with a patent analysis of nanotechnology-enabled cement innovations,

China is the world leader of patent filings, their 154 patent applications contributing 41% of overall filings, representing the major and active R&D player in the area of nano-based cementitious materials. South Korea is the second leading country with 55 patents (15% of patent filings) on nano-enabled cement, closely followed by United States with 51 patents. Russia, Germany, Japan, France and India are the other leading patent filing countries with 37, 18, 11, 9 and 5 patents respectively, while the remaining patents represent a minor contribution from rest of the world.


Dagestan State University (Russia) is the leading assignee with 15-patents to its credit, which are mainly focussed on the development of heat resistant and high compression strength concrete materials. Halliburton Energy Services Inc (USA) comes second with 14-patents that are directed towards well bore cementing for the gas, oil or water wells using nano-cementitious materials.

This is another teaser article from the CKMNT (see my Dec. 13, 2012 posting about their bio-pharmaceutical teaser article) that highlights the findings from a forthcoming report,

A comprehensive Market Research Report on “Nanotechnology in Cement Industry” is proposed to be released by CKMNT in the near future. Interested readers may please contact Dr. Y. R. Mahajan, Technical Adviser and Editor, Nanotech Insights or Mr. H. Purushotham, Team Leader purushotham@ckmnt.com.

Regardless of one’s feelings about patents and patent systems, the article also provides a  good technology overview of the various nanomaterials used as fillers in cement, courtesy of the information in the filed patents.

A December 20, 2012 news item on Azonano points to at least of the reasons cement is occasioning research interest,

Cement production is responsible for 5% of carbon dioxide emissions. If we are to invent a “green” cement, we need to understand in more detail the legendary qualities of traditional Portland cement. A research group partly financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) is tackling this task.

The Dec. 20, 2012 Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) news release, which originated the news item on Azonano, goes on to describe the research into exactly how Portland cement’s qualities are derived,

The researchers first developed a packing model of hydrated calcium silicate nanoparticles. They then devised a method for observing their precipitation based on numerical simulations. This approach has proven successful (*). “We were able to show that the different densities on the nano scale can be explained by the packing of nanoparticles of varying sizes. At this crucial level, the result is greater material hardness than if the particles were of the same size and it corresponds to the established knowledge that, at macroscopic level, aggregates of different sizes form a harder concrete.” [said Emanuela Del Gado, SNSF professor at the Institute for Building Materials of the ETH Zurich]

Until today, all attempts to reduce or partially replace burnt calcium carbonate in the production of cement have resulted in less material hardness. By gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms at the nano level, it is possible to identify physical and chemical parameters and to improve the carbon footprint of concrete without reducing its hardness.

For those of a more technical turn of mind, here’s a citation for the paper (from the SNSF press release),

E. Masoero, E. Del Gado, R. J.-M. Pellenq, F.-J. Ulm, and S. Yip (2012). Nanostructure and Nanomechanics of Cement: Polydisperse Colloidal Packing. Physical Review Letters. DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.109.155503

Meanwhile, there’s a technical group in Spain working on ‘biological’ concrete. From the Dec. 20, 2012 news item on ScienceDaily,

In studying this concrete, the researchers at the Structural Technology Group of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya • BarcelonaTech (UPC) have focused on two cement-based materials. The first of these is conventional carbonated concrete (based on Portland cement), with which they can obtain a material with a pH of around 8. The second material is manufactured with a magnesium phosphate cement (MPC), a hydraulic conglomerate that does not require any treatment to reduce its pH, since it is slightly acidic.

On account of its quick setting properties, magnesium phosphate cement has been used in the past as a repair material. It has also been employed as a biocement in the field of medicine and dentistry, indicating that it does not have an additional environmental impact.

The innovative feature of this new (vertical multilayer) concrete is that it acts as a natural biological support for the growth and development of certain biological organisms, to be specific, certain families of microalgae, fungi, lichens and mosses.

Here’s a description of the ‘biological’ concrete and its layers,

In order to obtain the biological concrete, besides the pH, other parameters that influence the bioreceptivity of the material have been modified, such as porosity and surface roughness. The result obtained is a multilayer element in the form of a panel which, in addition to a structural layer, consists of three other layers: the first of these is a waterproofing layer situated on top of the structural layer, protecting the latter from possible damage caused by water seeping through.

The next layer is the biological layer, which supports colonisation and allows water to accumulate inside it. It acts as an internal microstructure, aiding retention and expelling moisture; since it has the capacity to capture and store rainwater, this layer facilitates the development of biological organisms.

The final layer is a discontinuous coating layer with a reverse waterproofing function. [emphasis mine] This layer permits the entry of rainwater and prevents it from escaping; in this way, the outflow of water is redirected to where it is aimed to obtain biological growth

This work is designed for a Mediterranean climate and definitely not for rain forests such as the Pacific Northwest which, climatologically, is a temperate rainforest.

The ScienceDaily news item ends with this information about future research and commercialization,

The research has led to a doctoral thesis, which Sandra Manso is writing. At present, the experimental campaign corresponding to the phase of biological growth is being conducted, and this will be completed at the UPC and the University of Ghent (Belgium). This research has received support from Antonio Gómez Bolea, a lecturer in the Faculty of Biology at the University of Barcelona, who has made contributions in the field of biological growth on construction materials.

At present, a patent is in the process of being obtained for this innovative product, and the Catalan company ESCOFET 1886 S.A., a manufacturer of concrete panels for architectural and urban furniture purposes, has already shown an interest in commercialising the material.

Almost at the same time, the US Transport Research Board (a division of the US National Research Council) released this Dec. 19, 2012 announcement about their latest circular,

TRB Transportation Research Circular E-C170: Nanotechnology in Concrete Materials: A Synopsis explore promising new research and innovations using nanotechnology that have the potential to result in improved mechanical properties, volume change properties, durability, and sustainability in concrete materials.

The report is 44 pp (PDF version) and provides an in-depth look (featuring some case studies) at the research not just of nanomaterials but also nanoelectronics and sensors as features in nanotechoology-enabled concrete and cement products.

There you have it, a festival of cement and concrete.

Symposium on United States-China Comparative Government Organization and Operation in Science & Technology Innovation in Washington, DC

In a few weeks the 2012 London Summer Olympics will begin and I expect the US and China medal counts will reflect current geopolitics as China ascends and the US (along with everybody else) adapts to the new realities. Coincident (or not) with the athletic competition is increasing discussion about US and China relative to their science and technology efforts.

The Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, The Program for America and the Global Economy, and The Counsellors’ Office of the State Council (COSC), People’s Republic of China are hosting a symposium on June 19, 2012 (tomorrow) from 9 am to 5 pm EDT at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.  Here’s the agenda,

Opening Remarks


J. Stapleton Roy, Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

Wang Weimin, Vice Chairman, Counsellors’ Office of the State Council (COSC)

Panel 1: U.S. and PRC Innovation Overview

Chair: J. Stapleton Roy, Director, Kissinger Institute

Kent Hughes, Director, Program on America and the Global Economy

09:10-09:35AM               U.S. Government’s Approach to Encouraging Innovation

Liu Yanhua, COSC/Former Vice Minister of Science & Technology

09:35-10:00AM               PRC Government’s Approach to Encouraging Innovation





Panel 2: U.S.-China S & T Cooperation

Chair:  Marco De Capua, Former S & T Counselor, U.S. Embassy, Beijing

Richard P. Suttmeier, University of Oregon

11:00-11:25AM               U.S.-China Cooperation on Innovation

Qiao Zonghuai, COSC/Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

11:25-11:50AM               Sino-U.S. Cooperation on Innovation




(A light lunch will be served outside of the conference room)


Panel 3: Educating & Training for Innovation

Chair:  Qiao Zonghuai, COSC/Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs 

Joan Ferrini-Mundy, National Science Foundation

1:30-1:55PM                     Education Programs to Develop Talent

Zhang Yantong, COSC Department Director-General

1:55-2:20PM                     Education and Training of S & T Talent





Panel 4: Commercializing Innovative Discoveries

Chair:  Liu Yanhua, COSC/Former Vice Minister of Science & Technology

Kathleen Kingscott, IBM

3:15-3:40PM                     U. S. Commercialization of Innovative Discoveries 

 Jiang Mingling, Former COSC Vice-Chairman

3:40-4:05PM                     PRC Commercialization of Innovative Discoveries



Closing Remarks


J. Stapleton Roy, Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

Wang Weimin, Vice Chairman, Counsellors’ Office of the State Council

If y0u are interested in attending any of the sessions and haven’t received an invitation, contact:


For those of us unable to attend, the US National Research Council produced a report (224 pp) of their 2010 STEP (Board on Science, Technology and Econ0mic Policy)  meeting (published in 2011) titled, Building The 21st Century; US-China Cooperation on Science, Technology and Innovation (Summary of a Symposium). That meeting was part of a series held in the US and in various Asian countries over a period of years so I imagine it would provide some useful insight into the current situation especially when combined with tomorrow’s symposium at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Two (Denmark & US) contrasting documents about nanomaterials and risk

The Danes released their NanoRiskCat (NRC) document in early December 2011 while the US National Research Council released its report on the US research strategy on environmental and health impact of engineered nanomaterials today, Jan. 25, 2012.

(BTW, There”s going to be an alphabet soup situation in this posting with two different NRCs [the catalogue] and the US National Research Council for starters. I’ll do my best to keep these entities distinct from each other.)

The documents represent an interesting contrast regarding approaches to nanomaterials and their risks. From the Jan. 25, 2012 Nanowerk Spotlight article about Denmark’s NanoRiskCat,

The project’s aim was to identify, categorize and rank the possible exposure and hazards associated with a nanomaterial in a product. NanoRiskCat is using a stepwise approach based on existing data on the conventional form of the chemical as well as the data that may exist on the nanoform. However, the tool still needs to be further validated and tested on a series of various nano products in order to adjust and optimize the concept and thereby to achieve a screening tool as informative and practical as possible.

Meanwhile, here’s the description of the US NRC’s latest report, from the Jan. 25, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

Despite extensive investment in nanotechnology and increasing commercialization over the last decade, insufficient understanding remains about the environmental, health, and safety aspects of nanomaterials. Without a coordinated research plan to help guide efforts to manage and avoid potential risks, the future of safe and sustainable nanotechnology is uncertain, says a new report (“A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials“)from the National Research Council. The report presents a strategic approach for developing research and a scientific infrastructure needed to address potential health and environmental risks of nanomaterials. Its effective implementation would require sufficient management and budgetary authority to direct research across federal agencies.

I find it interesting that the US government which has poured billions into its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is still trying to develop a research strategy for environmental and health impacts while the Danish (who have likely spent far less and, to be fair, likely have less bureaucracy) have created an assessment tool designed to evaluate the exposure to and hazards posed by nanomaterials found in consumer and industrial use.

One other interesting tidbit, both the Danish and the US Environmental Protection Agencies (EPAs) were instigators of their country’s respective documents. The Danish EPA was one of the three funders (the other two were the Danish Technical University and the National Research Centre for the Working Environment) for their NanoRiskCat. The US EPA was one of the sponsors  for the strategy report. The other sponsors include the The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council.

I have to admit I’m getting a little tired of strategy documents and I’m please to see an attempt to evaluate the situation. I’m not sure which version (alpha or beta) of the tool they’ve released but there’s definitely some tweaking to be done as the Danes themselves admit,

It is the view of the Danish EPA that the traffic light ranking [I’m assuming they assign a colour [red, amber, yellow] as a means of quickly identifying a risk level in their documentation of specific nanomaterials) of the health effects may be further modified to obtain a better ranking in the various categories. Thus titanium dioxide in sunscreen is ranked as red due to lung effects of titanium dioxide, because the tool in its present form does not sufficiently take account of which type of health effects that are most relevant for the most relevant exposure route of the product. In this case the inhalational exposure of titanium dioxide from a sun screen seems less relevant.

Yes, I agree that exposure to nanoscale titanium dioxide via inhalation is an unlikely when you’re using a nanosunscreen. Although given some folks I’ve known, it’s not entirely out of the question. (It’s been my experience that people will inhale anything if they think they can get high from it.)

Memristors and nuances in a classification tug-of-war; NRC of Canada insights; rapping scientists

Interestingly, there’s an item posted with today’s (April 8, 2010) date on the Nanowerk website from HP Labs reiterating the ‘memristor as a fourth circuit element’ concept that Forrest H Bennett has convincingly argued against first in his comments to my original posting (April 5, 2010) and, at greater length, in yesterday’s (April 7, 2010) interview.

Oddly, the item on Nanowerk, which I’m assuming is a news release from HP Labs as no author is listed, mostly regurgitates the HP Labs work on the memristor.

HP Labs researchers have discovered that the “memristor“ – a resistor with memory that represents the fourth basic circuit element in electrical engineering – has more capabilities than was previously thought. In addition to being useful in storage devices, the memristor can perform logic, enabling computation to one day be performed in chips where data is stored, rather than on a specialized central processing unit.

In fact, much of what’s mentioned in the news release and in the accompanying video was discussed in 2008 when they first published their work. The new excitement has been generated by a team at the University of Michigan (see April 5, 2010 posting), led by Dr. Wei Lu, who’ve proved that synapses in biological organisms behave like memristors. This means that the speculations that the HP Lab folks made in 2008 about hardware that learns are more likely.

As for the ‘fourth circuit element’ mentioned in the item, this brings me to classification schemes. These sorts of discussions can seem picayune to people who are not directly involved but classification schemes have a huge impact on how we think about the world around us and the ways in which we interact with it. For example, we think of the tomato and treat it as if it’s a vegetable when in fact, it’s a fruit. When was the last time you had some tomatoes and ice cream?

Whether the memristor is thought of as a ‘fourth circuit element’ (as per HP Labs and Dr. Leon Chua [as of 2003]) or a member of an ‘infinite periodic table of circuit elements’ (as per Forrest H Bennett) will have an impact on how memristors and other as yet unknown elements are investigated and understood.

As someone who doesn’t understand the particulars especially well, I find Forrest’s approach the more flexible one and therefore preferable. Classification schemes or models that are rigid both buckle as new information is added and tend to constrain it. For example, the Dewey decimal classification scheme used in most public libraries has been buckling under the pressure of adding new categories since the 1950s, at least. It’s the reason most academic libraries use the more flexible Library of Congress classification scheme, although that scheme has its problems too.

One final note, it seems that HP Labs is supporting the notion of a ‘fourth circuit element’ being added to the previous three (capacitors, inductors, and resistors) and they have the resources to distribute their preferred notion far and wide and repeatedly. Or as Forrest put it in one of his comments, “This “4th circuit element” business is marketing spin from HP …”

National Research Council of Canada Insights

In the wake of John McDougall’s appointment as the new president of the Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), Rob Annan over at the Don’t Leave Canada Behind blog has written a very important (if Canadian science policy interests you) piece about NRC.  Rob traces the organization from its beginnings.  From the posting,

The NRC was founded more than 90 years ago to advise the government on matters related to science and technology. It evolved into a federal research laboratory with the construction of the Sussex Dr. labs in the 1930s, and was the focus of Canada’s research efforts during WWII. Post-war, the NRC expanded and was a major source of Canadian research success, with notable achievements like the invention of the pacemaker, development of Canola and the crash position indicator.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, NRC’s success, growth, and increasing complexity led to the creation of spin-off organizations. Atomic research went to the Atomic Energy of Canada, defense research went to the Defense Research Board. Medical research funding went to the Medical Research Council, later the CIHR. Lastly, support for academic research was passed to NSERC.

All of these organizations have grown and prospered. The NRC? Not so much.

He goes on to trace developments to the present day,

The NRC has research institutes in every province in the country, from the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in BC to the Institute for Ocean Technology in Newfoundland. A total of 26 institutes across the country, covering all aspects of science and technology, and employing more than 4,000 people. It’s a broad effort and employs a lot of great scientists.

But since the 1980s, the NRC has been without a strong sense of self. Is it a basic research organization or an applied research organization? Does it exist to perform independent, government-sponsored research, or does it provide research services in support of the private sector? Does it perform early-stage research and then partner with industry, or is it a fee-for-service research organization? The answer is yes.

I encourage you to read his posting as there’s more to his history and analysis and he goes on to make some suggestions. Please don’t forget to read the comments which offer additional insights.

Dave Bruggeman (at Pasco Phronesis) also mentions Rob’s NRC posting in the context of explaining that the current US National Research Council differs greatly from the Canadian one and warns against assuming that organizations with similar names are the same. You can go read Dave’s description of the US NRC here. This is a timely reminder as the ‘reinventing technology assessment’ webcast that the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is hosting later this month features a speaker from the US National Research Council.

Rapping biologists and physicists

While browsing on Dave’s (Pasco Phronesis) blog, I found an item that features two videos of scientists rapping. The first comes from some physicists and the second comes from biologists. I agree with Dave that the biologists have the edge since they rap in front of a live audience although both videos are quite entertaining.

The affect heuristic and risk management principles

Continuing still with the article by Marchant, Sylvester, and Abbott (Risk Management Principles for Nanotechnology) but first a comment about the report released yesterday by the US National Research Council. I haven’t had a chance to look at it but the report coverage points to agreement between a surprising set of stakeholders to the effect that there is no appropriate governance (regulation) of nanotechnology. The stakeholders include scientists, industry heavyweights such as BASF and Dupont as well as non-for-profit organizations (American Chemical Council and Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies). They didn’t mention any activist groups in the materials I’ve seen but I can’t imagine any disagreement for those quarters.

It’s intriguing that this panel report from the US National Research Council has been released the same week that Nature Nanotechnology has published data from ‘the [sic] Cognition Project’ at Yale Law School warning about possible ‘culture wars’ and Dietram Scheufele’s latest findings about the impact religion might have on the adoption of nanotechnology. It’s possible that someone is masterminding all of this but I think there’s a more likely scenario. Most of the people of the involved know each other because there’s a loose network. They are concerned about the potential for problems and when they talk to each other they find out about each other’s projects and encourage them. At some point they may have decided that it would be a good tactic to release reports and publish in Nature Nanotechnology at roughly the same time. Consequently, they got lucky and the various media cooperated unknowingly with this impromptu plan. Conversely, nobody talked to anyone about these various projects and they got lucky. What I don’t believe is that they developed some master plan and carried it out.

On to heuristics. As I understand the word, it means guidelines (more or less). In this paper, the authors discuss two specific heuristics that relate to risk perception. (If you’re going to manage risk, you need to understand how it’s perceived.)

Where nanotechnology is concerned, ‘Affect” is considered to be an important heuristic when examining the public’s perception of risk. (Affect is how you feel about something.) Here’s something interesting from the paper,

… numerous studies have shown that where individuals believe a technology has high benefits, they automatically believe its risks are low. This negative correlation has been shown to affect both lay and expert opinions, and is robust even in the face of countervailing evidence. … In short, how individuals feel about a particular stimulus directs how they perceive its dangers or benefits. p. 48

What fascinates me is that your knowledge about the topic be it expert or amateur is still heavily affected by whether or not you believe the technology is beneficial even when evidence suggests that the dangers are huge.

There’s more about ‘affect’ in the article, if you’re interested, get the journal Nanoethics, 2008, vol. 2, pp. 43-60. Meanwhile, there’s another heuristic that the authors are using to build their case for a new risk management principle. The other heuristic is ‘Availability’ and more about that tomorrow.