Tag Archives: US National Science Foundation (NSF)

Prioritizing ethical & social considerations in emerging technologies—$16M in US National Science Foundation funding

I haven’t seen this much interest in the ethics and social impacts of emerging technologies in years. It seems that the latest AI (artificial intelligence) panic has stimulated interest not only in regulation but ethics too.

The latest information I have on this topic comes from a January 9, 2024 US National Science Foundation (NSF) news release (also received via email),

NSF and philanthropic partners announce $16 million in funding to prioritize ethical and social considerations in emerging technologies

ReDDDoT is a collaboration with five philanthropic partners and crosses
all disciplines of science and engineering_

The U.S. National Science Foundation today launched a new $16 million
program in collaboration with five philanthropic partners that seeks to
ensure ethical, legal, community and societal considerations are
embedded in the lifecycle of technology’s creation and use. The
Responsible Design, Development and Deployment of Technologies (ReDDDoT)
program aims to help create technologies that promote the public’s
wellbeing and mitigate potential harms.

“The design, development and deployment of technologies have broad
impacts on society,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “As
discoveries and innovations are translated to practice, it is essential
that we engage and enable diverse communities to participate in this
work. NSF and its philanthropic partners share a strong commitment to
creating a comprehensive approach for co-design through soliciting
community input, incorporating community values and engaging a broad
array of academic and professional voices across the lifecycle of
technology creation and use.”

The ReDDDoT program invites proposals from multidisciplinary,
multi-sector teams that examine and demonstrate the principles,
methodologies and impacts associated with responsible design,
development and deployment of technologies, especially those specified
in the “CHIPS and Science Act of 2022.” In addition to NSF, the
program is funded and supported by the Ford Foundation, the Patrick J.
McGovern Foundation, Pivotal Ventures, Siegel Family Endowment and the
Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation.

“In recognition of the role responsible technologists can play to
advance human progress, and the danger unaccountable technology poses to
social justice, the ReDDDoT program serves as both a collaboration and a
covenant between philanthropy and government to center public interest
technology into the future of progress,” said Darren Walker, president
of the Ford Foundation. “This $16 million initiative will cultivate
expertise from public interest technologists across sectors who are
rooted in community and grounded by the belief that innovation, equity
and ethics must equally be the catalysts for technological progress.”

The broad goals of ReDDDoT include:  

*Stimulating activity and filling gaps in research, innovation and capacity building in the responsible design, development, and deployment of technologies.
* Creating broad and inclusive communities of interest that bring
together key stakeholders to better inform practices for the design,
development, and deployment of technologies.
* Educating and training the science, technology, engineering, and
mathematics workforce on approaches to responsible design,
development, and deployment of technologies. 
* Accelerating pathways to societal and economic benefits while
developing strategies to avoid or mitigate societal and economic harms.
* Empowering communities, including economically disadvantaged and
marginalized populations, to participate in all stages of technology
development, including the earliest stages of ideation and design.

Phase 1 of the program solicits proposals for Workshops, Planning
Grants, or the creation of Translational Research Coordination Networks,
while Phase 2 solicits full project proposals. The initial areas of
focus for 2024 include artificial intelligence, biotechnology or natural
and anthropogenic disaster prevention or mitigation. Future iterations
of the program may consider other key technology focus areas enumerated
in the CHIPS and Science Act.

For more information about ReDDDoT, visit the program website or register for an informational webinar on Feb. 9, 2024, at 2 p.m. ET.

Statements from NSF’s Partners

“The core belief at the heart of ReDDDoT – that technology should be
shaped by ethical, legal, and societal considerations as well as
community values – also drives the work of the Patrick J. McGovern
Foundation to build a human-centered digital future for all. We’re
pleased to support this partnership, committed to advancing the
development of AI, biotechnology, and climate technologies that advance
equity, sustainability, and justice.” – Vilas Dhar, President, Patrick
J. McGovern Foundation

“From generative AI to quantum computing, the pace of technology
development is only accelerating. Too often, technological advances are
not accompanied by discussion and design that considers negative impacts
or unrealized potential. We’re excited to support ReDDDoT as an
opportunity to uplift new and often forgotten perspectives that
critically examine technology’s impact on civic life, and advance Siegel
Family Endowment’s vision of technological change that includes and
improves the lives of all people.” – Katy Knight, President and
Executive Director of Siegel Family Endowment

Only eight months ago, another big NSF funding project was announced but this time focused on AI and promoting trust, from a May 4, 2023 University of Maryland (UMD) news release (also on EurekAlert), Note: A link has been removed,

The University of Maryland has been chosen to lead a multi-institutional effort supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will develop new artificial intelligence (AI) technologies designed to promote trust and mitigate risks, while simultaneously empowering and educating the public.

The NSF Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS) announced on May 4, 2023, unites specialists in AI and machine learning with social scientists, legal scholars, educators and public policy experts. The multidisciplinary team will work with impacted communities, private industry and the federal government to determine what trust in AI looks like, how to develop technical solutions for AI that can be trusted, and which policy models best create and sustain trust.

Funded by a $20 million award from NSF, the new institute is expected to transform the practice of AI from one driven primarily by technological innovation to one that is driven by ethics, human rights, and input and feedback from communities whose voices have previously been marginalized.

“As artificial intelligence continues to grow exponentially, we must embrace its potential for helping to solve the grand challenges of our time, as well as ensure that it is used both ethically and responsibly,” said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. “With strong federal support, this new institute will lead in defining the science and innovation needed to harness the power of AI for the benefit of the public good and all humankind.”

In addition to UMD, TRAILS will include faculty members from George Washington University (GW) and Morgan State University, with more support coming from Cornell University, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and private sector organizations like the DataedX Group, Arthur AI, Checkstep, FinRegLab and Techstars.

At the heart of establishing the new institute is the consensus that AI is currently at a crossroads. AI-infused systems have great potential to enhance human capacity, increase productivity, catalyze innovation, and mitigate complex problems, but today’s systems are developed and deployed in a process that is opaque and insular to the public, and therefore, often untrustworthy to those affected by the technology.

“We’ve structured our research goals to educate, learn from, recruit, retain and support communities whose voices are often not recognized in mainstream AI development,” said Hal Daumé III, a UMD professor of computer science who is lead principal investigator of the NSF award and will serve as the director of TRAILS.

Inappropriate trust in AI can result in many negative outcomes, Daumé said. People often “overtrust” AI systems to do things they’re fundamentally incapable of. This can lead to people or organizations giving up their own power to systems that are not acting in their best interest. At the same time, people can also “undertrust” AI systems, leading them to avoid using systems that could ultimately help them.

Given these conditions—and the fact that AI is increasingly being deployed to mediate society’s online communications, determine health care options, and offer guidelines in the criminal justice system—it has become urgent to ensure that people’s trust in AI systems matches those same systems’ level of trustworthiness.

TRAILS has identified four key research thrusts to promote the development of AI systems that can earn the public’s trust through broader participation in the AI ecosystem.

The first, known as participatory AI, advocates involving human stakeholders in the development, deployment and use of these systems. It aims to create technology in a way that aligns with the values and interests of diverse groups of people, rather than being controlled by a few experts or solely driven by profit.

Leading the efforts in participatory AI is Katie Shilton, an associate professor in UMD’s College of Information Studies who specializes in ethics and sociotechnical systems. Tom Goldstein, a UMD associate professor of computer science, will lead the institute’s second research thrust, developing advanced machine learning algorithms that reflect the values and interests of the relevant stakeholders.

Daumé, Shilton and Goldstein all have appointments in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, which is providing administrative and technical support for TRAILS.

David Broniatowski, an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at GW, will lead the institute’s third research thrust of evaluating how people make sense of the AI systems that are developed, and the degree to which their levels of reliability, fairness, transparency and accountability will lead to appropriate levels of trust. Susan Ariel Aaronson, a research professor of international affairs at GW, will use her expertise in data-driven change and international data governance to lead the institute’s fourth thrust of participatory governance and trust.

Virginia Byrne, an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Morgan State, will lead community-driven projects related to the interplay between AI and education. According to Daumé, the TRAILS team will rely heavily on Morgan State’s leadership—as Maryland’s preeminent public urban research university—in conducting rigorous, participatory community-based research with broad societal impacts.

Additional academic support will come from Valerie Reyna, a professor of human development at Cornell, who will use her expertise in human judgment and cognition to advance efforts focused on how people interpret their use of AI.

Federal officials at NIST will collaborate with TRAILS in the development of meaningful measures, benchmarks, test beds and certification methods—particularly as they apply to important topics essential to trust and trustworthiness such as safety, fairness, privacy, transparency, explainability, accountability, accuracy and reliability.

“The ability to measure AI system trustworthiness and its impacts on individuals, communities and society is limited. TRAILS can help advance our understanding of the foundations of trustworthy AI, ethical and societal considerations of AI, and how to build systems that are trusted by the people who use and are affected by them,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Laurie E. Locascio.

Today’s announcement [May 4, 2023] is the latest in a series of federal grants establishing a cohort of National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes. This recent investment in seven new AI institutes, totaling $140 million, follows two previous rounds of awards.

“Maryland is at the forefront of our nation’s scientific innovation thanks to our talented workforce, top-tier universities, and federal partners,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “This National Science Foundation award for the University of Maryland—in coordination with other Maryland-based research institutions including Morgan State University and NIST—will promote ethical and responsible AI development, with the goal of helping us harness the benefits of this powerful emerging technology while limiting the potential risks it poses. This investment entrusts Maryland with a critical priority for our shared future, recognizing the unparalleled ingenuity and world-class reputation of our institutions.” 

The NSF, in collaboration with government agencies and private sector leaders, has now invested close to half a billion dollars in the AI institutes ecosystem—an investment that expands a collaborative AI research network into almost every U.S. state.

“The National AI Research Institutes are a critical component of our nation’s AI innovation, infrastructure, technology, education and partnerships ecosystem,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “[They] are driving discoveries that will ensure our country is at the forefront of the global AI revolution.”

As noted in the UMD news release, this funding is part of a ‘bundle’, here’s more from the May 4, 2023 US NSF news release announcing the full $ 140 million funding program, Note: Links have been removed,

The U.S. National Science Foundation, in collaboration with other federal agencies, higher education institutions and other stakeholders, today announced a $140 million investment to establish seven new National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes. The announcement is part of a broader effort across the federal government to advance a cohesive approach to AI-related opportunities and risks.

The new AI Institutes will advance foundational AI research that promotes ethical and trustworthy AI systems and technologies, develop novel approaches to cybersecurity, contribute to innovative solutions to climate change, expand the understanding of the brain, and leverage AI capabilities to enhance education and public health. The institutes will support the development of a diverse AI workforce in the U.S. and help address the risks and potential harms posed by AI.  This investment means  NSF and its funding partners have now invested close to half a billion dollars in the AI Institutes research network, which reaches almost every U.S. state.

“The National AI Research Institutes are a critical component of our nation’s AI innovation, infrastructure, technology, education and partnerships ecosystem,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These institutes are driving discoveries that will ensure our country is at the forefront of the global AI revolution.”

“These strategic federal investments will advance American AI infrastructure and innovation, so that AI can help tackle some of the biggest challenges we face, from climate change to health. Importantly, the growing network of National AI Research Institutes will promote responsible innovation that safeguards people’s safety and rights,” said White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Arati Prabhakar.

The new AI Institutes are interdisciplinary collaborations among top AI researchers and are supported by co-funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST); U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T); U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA); U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (ED-IES); U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (DoD OUSD R&E); and IBM Corporation (IBM).

“Foundational research in AI and machine learning has never been more critical to the understanding, creation and deployment of AI-powered systems that deliver transformative and trustworthy solutions across our society,” said NSF Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering Margaret Martonosi. “These recent awards, as well as our AI Institutes ecosystem as a whole, represent our active efforts in addressing national economic and societal priorities that hinge on our nation’s AI capability and leadership.”

The new AI Institutes focus on six research themes:

Trustworthy AI

NSF Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS)

Led by the University of Maryland, TRAILS aims to transform the practice of AI from one driven primarily by technological innovation to one driven with attention to ethics, human rights and support for communities whose voices have been marginalized into mainstream AI. TRAILS will be the first institute of its kind to integrate participatory design, technology, and governance of AI systems and technologies and will focus on investigating what trust in AI looks like, whether current technical solutions for AI can be trusted, and which policy models can effectively sustain AI trustworthiness. TRAILS is funded by a partnership between NSF and NIST.

Intelligent Agents for Next-Generation Cybersecurity

AI Institute for Agent-based Cyber Threat Intelligence and Operation (ACTION)

Led by the University of California, Santa Barbara, this institute will develop novel approaches that leverage AI to anticipate and take corrective actions against cyberthreats that target the security and privacy of computer networks and their users. The team of researchers will work with experts in security operations to develop a revolutionary approach to cybersecurity, in which AI-enabled intelligent security agents cooperate with humans across the cyberdefense life cycle to jointly improve the resilience of security of computer systems over time. ACTION is funded by a partnership between NSF, DHS S&T, and IBM.

Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry

AI Institute for Climate-Land Interactions, Mitigation, Adaptation, Tradeoffs and Economy (AI-CLIMATE)

Led by the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, this institute aims to advance foundational AI by incorporating knowledge from agriculture and forestry sciences and leveraging these unique, new AI methods to curb climate effects while lifting rural economies. By creating a new scientific discipline and innovation ecosystem intersecting AI and climate-smart agriculture and forestry, our researchers and practitioners will discover and invent compelling AI-powered knowledge and solutions. Examples include AI-enhanced estimation methods of greenhouse gases and specialized field-to-market decision support tools. A key goal is to lower the cost of and improve accounting for carbon in farms and forests to empower carbon markets and inform decision making. The institute will also expand and diversify rural and urban AI workforces. AI-CLIMATE is funded by USDA-NIFA.

Neural and Cognitive Foundations of Artificial Intelligence

AI Institute for Artificial and Natural Intelligence (ARNI)

Led by Columbia University, this institute will draw together top researchers across the country to focus on a national priority: connecting the major progress made in AI systems to the revolution in our understanding of the brain. ARNI will meet the urgent need for new paradigms of interdisciplinary research between neuroscience, cognitive science and AI. This will accelerate progress in all three fields and broaden the transformative impact on society in the next decade. ARNI is funded by a partnership between NSF and DoD OUSD R&E.

AI for Decision Making

AI Institute for Societal Decision Making (AI-SDM)

Led by Carnegie Mellon University, this institute seeks to create human-centric AI for decision making to bolster effective response in uncertain, dynamic and resource-constrained scenarios like disaster management and public health. By bringing together an interdisciplinary team of AI and social science researchers, AI-SDM will enable emergency managers, public health officials, first responders, community workers and the public to make decisions that are data driven, robust, agile, resource efficient and trustworthy. The vision of the institute will be realized via development of AI theory and methods, translational research, training and outreach, enabled by partnerships with diverse universities, government organizations, corporate partners, community colleges, public libraries and high schools.

AI-Augmented Learning to Expand Education Opportunities and Improve Outcomes

AI Institute for Inclusive Intelligent Technologies for Education (INVITE)

Led by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, this institute seeks to fundamentally reframe how educational technologies interact with learners by developing AI tools and approaches to support three crucial noncognitive skills known to underlie effective learning: persistence, academic resilience and collaboration. The institute’s use-inspired research will focus on how children communicate STEM content, how they learn to persist through challenging work, and how teachers support and promote noncognitive skill development. The resultant AI-based tools will be integrated into classrooms to empower teachers to support learners in more developmentally appropriate ways.

AI Institute for Exceptional Education (AI4ExceptionalEd)

Led by the University at Buffalo, this institute will work toward universal speech and language screening for children. The framework, the AI screener, will analyze video and audio streams of children during classroom interactions and assess the need for evidence-based interventions tailored to individual needs of students. The institute will serve children in need of ability-based speech and language services, advance foundational AI technologies and enhance understanding of childhood speech and language development. The AI Institute for Exceptional Education was previously announced in January 2023. The INVITE and AI4ExceptionalEd institutes are funded by a partnership between NSF and ED-IES.

Statements from NSF’s Federal Government Funding Partners

“Increasing AI system trustworthiness while reducing its risks will be key to unleashing AI’s potential benefits and ensuring our shared societal values,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Laurie E. Locascio. “Today, the ability to measure AI system trustworthiness and its impacts on individuals, communities and society is limited. TRAILS can help advance our understanding of the foundations of trustworthy AI, ethical and societal considerations of AI, and how to build systems that are trusted by the people who use and are affected by them.”

“The ACTION Institute will help us better assess the opportunities and risks of rapidly evolving AI technology and its impact on DHS missions,” said Dimitri Kusnezov, DHS under secretary for science and technology. “This group of researchers and their ambition to push the limits of fundamental AI and apply new insights represents a significant investment in cybersecurity defense. These partnerships allow us to collectively remain on the forefront of leading-edge research for AI technologies.”

“In the tradition of USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture investments, this new institute leverages the scientific power of U.S. land-grant universities informed by close partnership with farmers, producers, educators and innovators to address the grand challenge of rising greenhouse gas concentrations and associated climate change,” said Acting NIFA Director Dionne Toombs. “This innovative center will address the urgent need to counter climate-related threats, lower greenhouse gas emissions, grow the American workforce and increase new rural opportunities.”

“The leading-edge in AI research inevitably draws from our, so far, limited understanding of human cognition. This AI Institute seeks to unify the fields of AI and neuroscience to bring advanced designs and approaches to more capable and trustworthy AI, while also providing better understanding of the human brain,” said Bindu Nair, director, Basic Research Office, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. “We are proud to partner with NSF in this critical field of research, as continued advancement in these areas holds the potential for further and significant benefits to national security, the economy and improvements in quality of life.”

“We are excited to partner with NSF on these two AI institutes,” said IES Director Mark Schneider. “We hope that they will provide valuable insights into how to tap modern technologies to improve the education sciences — but more importantly we hope that they will lead to better student outcomes and identify ways to free up the time of teachers to deliver more informed individualized instruction for the students they care so much about.” 

Learn more about the NSF AI Institutes by visiting nsf.gov.

Two things I noticed, (1) No mention of including ethics training or concepts in science and technology education and (2) No mention of integrating ethics and social issues into any of the AI Institutes. So, it seems that ‘Responsible Design, Development and Deployment of Technologies (ReDDDoT)’ occupies its own fiefdom.

Some sobering thoughts

Things can go terribly wrong with new technology as seen in the British television hit series, Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office (based on a true story) , from a January 9, 2024 posting by Ani Blundel for tellyvisions.org,

… what is this show that’s caused the entire country to rise up as one to defend the rights of the lowly sub-postal worker? Known as the “British Post Office scandal,” the incidents first began in 1999 when the U.K. postal system began to switch to digital systems, using the Horizon Accounting system to track the monies brought in. However, the IT system was faulty from the start, and rather than blame the technology, the British government accused, arrested, persecuted, and convicted over 700 postal workers of fraud and theft. This continued through 2015 when the glitch was finally recognized, and in 2019, the convictions were ruled to be a miscarriage of justice.

Here’s the series synopsis:

The drama tells the story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British legal history. Hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters and postmistresses were wrongly accused of theft, fraud, and false accounting due to a defective IT system. Many of the wronged workers were prosecuted, some of whom were imprisoned for crimes they never committed, and their lives were irreparably ruined by the scandal. Following the landmark Court of Appeal decision to overturn their criminal convictions, dozens of former sub-postmasters and postmistresses have been exonerated on all counts as they battled to finally clear their names. They fought for over ten years, finally proving their innocence and sealing a resounding victory, but all involved believe the fight is not over yet, not by a long way.

Here’s a video trailer for ‘Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office,

More from Blundel’s January 9, 2024 posting, Note: A link has been removed,

The outcry from the general public against the government’s bureaucratic mismanagement and abuse of employees has been loud and sustained enough that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had to come out with a statement condemning what happened back during the 2009 incident. Further, the current Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, is now trying to figure out the fastest way to exonerate the hundreds of sub-post managers and sub-postmistresses who were wrongfully convicted back then and if there are steps to be taken to punish the post office a decade later.

It’s a horrifying story and the worst I’ve seen so far but, sadly, it’s not the only one of its kind.

Too often people’s concerns and worries about new technology are dismissed or trivialized. Somehow, all the work done to establish ethical standards and develop trust seems to be used as a kind of sop to the concerns rather than being integrated into the implementation of life-altering technologies.

Last call for Science and Innovation in a Time of Transformation—the Canadian Science Policy Conference (November 13 – 15, 2023)

Unless something really exciting happens, this will be my last post about the upcoming 2023 (and 15th annual) Canadian Science Policy Conference. I will be highlighting a few of the sessions but, first, there’s this from an October 26, 2023 Canadian Science Policy Centre announcement (received via email),

Only Two Weeks Left to Register for CSPC [Canadian Science Policy Conference] 2023!

Only two weeks left to register for CSPC 2023! The deadline to register is Friday, November 10th! With the overarching theme of ‘Science and Innovation in a Time of Transformation’ CSPC 2023 expects more than 1000 participants, 300+ speakers in 50+ panel sessions, and will include a spectacular Gala Dinner featuring its award ceremony which has become a signature annual event to celebrate Canadian science and innovation policy achievements. 

CSPC 2023 will feature more than 300 amazing speakers. To view the list of speakers, click here, and here are some of the international speakers: 

Multiple ticket discounts are also available. CSPC offers a 5% discount on groups of 5-9 registrations and a 10% discount for 10 registrations or more. Please note GROUP REGISTRATION DISCOUNTS are available until Friday, November 10th. Please contact conference@sciencepolicy.ca for more information.

Register now by clicking the button below!
Register Now

View the CSPC 2023 Program and Speakers List!

The biggest and most comprehensive annual Science and Innovation Policy Conference, CSPC 2023, is fast approaching! Explore more than 60 concurrent and plenary panel sessions. Navigate the CSPC 2023 Program: the Interactive Agenda is available here, and the Agenda at a Glance can be viewed here.

There are four sessions that seem particularly interesting to me. First, from the session webpage,

804 – Discussion between Dr. Mona Nemer and Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, moderated by Dr. Alejandro Adem

Monday, November 13, 20231:00 PM – 2:00 PM

This year’s CSPC opening panel will bring together two of North America’s most recognized science leaders for a discussion about their experience in the Canadian and U.S research landscape. Panelists will discuss the importance of societally-relevant science, broadening participation in science, the increasing need for open science, and science & technology in green economic development, as well as their vision for the role of science in international relations.

Organized by: Canada Research Coordinating Committee

Speakers

Dr. Alejandro Adem
President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)

Dr. Mona Nemer
Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Government of Canada

Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan
Computer Scientist and Engineer
15th Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)

Second, from the session webpage,

901 – The new challenges of information in parliaments

Monday, November 13, 20232:30 PM – 4:00 PM

In a democratic environment, members of parliament work with information gathered from parliamentary staff, media, lobbies and experts. With the aim of maintaining a strong democracy, parliaments around the world have developed mechanisms to facilitate access to high-quality information for elected representatives, with variations according to continent, language and culture. This panel proposes an overview of these mechanisms including a discussion on emerging issues impacting them, such as the integration of artificial intelligence and the risks of digital interference in democratic processes.

Organized by: Fonds de recherche du Quebec

Speakers

Interestingly, the Canadian Science Policy Centre recently published a research report titled “Survey of Parliamentarians; Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Use of Science in Policy Making,” you can my comments about it in my October 13, 2023 posting.

Third, from the session webpage,

277 – Science for Social Justice: Advancing the agenda set by the 2022 Cape Town World Science Forum

Tuesday, November 14, 202310:30 AM – 12:00 PM

South Africa had hosted the 10th World Science Forum (WSF), a platform for global science policy dialogue, in Cape Town in December 2022. The WSF is co-organised by a partnership involving global science organisations including UNESCO, the AAAS and the International Science Council, and Hungarian Academy of Science. The theme of the 2022 WSF was “Science for Social Justice.” During a week of intense debate more than 3000 participants from across the world debated the role of science in advancing social justice. This session will review the outcomes of the Forum, including the WSF Declaration on Science for Social Justice.

Organized by: South African Department of Science and Innovation

Speakers

The fourth and final session to be mentioned here, from the session webpage,

910 – Canada’s Quantum potential : critical partnerships and public policy to advance Canada’s leadership in Quantum science and technology.

Tuesday, November 14, 202310:30 AM – 12:00 PM

Canada’s early commitment to invest in Quantum research and technology has made our nation one of the global leaders in that field, and the $360 million earmarked over a seven-year period to foster the National Quantum Strategy (NQS) is a testament to Canada’s leadership ambition in the future. This panel discussion will address the ever-evolving field of quantum science and technology and offer a unique opportunity to explore its policy dimensions including the current state of the field, its advancements and potential applications, and the overall impact of quantum innovations across various sectors. It will explore the transformative impact of quantum science and technologies, and the quantum revolution 2.0 on society, from diverse expert perspectives, using examples such as the impact of quantum computing on drug discovery or financial modelling, as well as discussing the ethical considerations and potential for misuse in surveillance or disinformation campaigns. This panel will examine a variety of policy and social implications of Quantum technologies, including the impact of foundational research and training, approaches to support Quantum industries at their development stages, risks, obstacles to commercialization, and opportunities for better inclusion.

Organized by: University of Ottawa

Speakers

Dr. Khabat Heshami
Research Officer at the National Research Council Canada [NRC]

Jeff Kinder
Project Director
Council of Canadian Academies

Professor Ebrahim Karimi
Co-Director the Nexus for Quantum Technologies Research Institute
University of Ottawa

Professor Ghassan Jabbour
Canada Research Chair in Engineered Advanced Materials and Devices
University of Ottawa – Faculty of Engineering

Rafal Janik
Chief Operating Officer
Xanadu

Tina Dekker
Research Fellow of the University of Ottawa Research Chair in Technology and Society

A few comments

I have highlighted speakers from two of the sessions as I’m going to make a few comments. Dr. Mona Nemer who’s part of the opening panel discussion and Canada’s Chief Science Advisor and Dr. Mehrdad Hariri, the founder and current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for Canadian Science Policy Centre, which organizes the conference, are both from a region that is experiencing war.

I imagine this is a particularly difficult time for many people in Canada whose family and friends are from the various communities in that region. Along with many others, I hope one day there is peace for everyone. For anyone who might want a little insight into the issues, there’s an October 15, 2023 CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio programme segement on ‘The Sunday Magazine with Piya Chattopadhyay’,

How to maintain solidarity in Canadian Jewish and Palestinian communities

The events in Israel and Gaza in the last week have sparked high levels of grief, pain and outrage, deepening long-simmering divides in the region and closer to home. For years, Raja Khouri and Jeffrey Wilkinson have embarked on a joint project to bring North American Palestinian and Jewish communities together. They join Piya Chattopadhyay to discuss how the events of the last week are challenging that ongoing mission in Canada… and how to strive for solidarity in a time of grief and trauma.

You can find the almost 22 mins. programme here. Khouri’s and Wilkinson’s book, “The Wall Between: What Jews and Palestinians Don’t Want to Know about Each Other” was published on October 3, 2023 just days before the initial Hamas attacks,

The Wall Between is a book about the wall that exists between Jewish and Palestinian communities in the Diaspora. Distrust, enmity, and hate are common currencies. They manifest at university campuses, schools and school boards, at political events, on social media, and in academic circles. For Jews, Israel must exist; for Palestinians, the historic injustice being committed since 1948 must be reversed. Neither wants to know why the Other cannot budge on these issues. The wall is up.

These responses emanate, primarily, from the two “metanarratives” of Jews and Palestinians: the Holocaust and the Nakba. Virtually every response to the struggle, from a member of either community, can be traced back to issues of identity, trauma, and victimhood as they relate to their respective metanarrative. This book examines the role that propaganda and disinformation play in cementing trauma-induced fears for the purpose of making the task of humanizing and acknowledging the Other not just difficult, but almost inconceivable. The authors utilize recent cognitive research on the psychological and social barriers that keep Jews and Palestinians in their camps, walled off from each other. They present a clear way through, one that is justice-centered, rather than trauma-and propaganda-driven.

The authors have lived these principles and traveled this journey, away from their tribal traumas, through embracing the principles of justice. They insist that commitment to the Other means grappling with seemingly incompatible narratives until shared values are decided and acted upon. This book is a call to justice that challenges the status quo of Zionism while at the same time dealing directly with the complex histories that have created the situation today. The book is both realistic and hopeful—a guide for anyone who is open to new possibilities within the Israel-Palestine discourse in the West.

From the publisher’s author descriptions, “Jeffrey J. Wilkinson, PhD, is an American Jew who lives in Canada.” From his Wikipedia entry, “Raja G. Khouri is a Lebanese born Arab-Canadian..”

Also, thank you to Dr. Nemer and Dr. Hariri for the science policy work they’ve done here in Canada and their efforts to expand our discussions.

On a much lighter note, the ‘quantum session’ panel is dominated by academics from the University of Ottawa, a policy wonk from Ottawa, and a representative from a company based in Toronto (approximately 450 km from Ottawa by road). Couldn’t the panel organizers have made some effort to widen geographical representation? This seems particularly odd since the policy wonk (Jeff Kinder) is currently working with the Canadian Council of Academies’ Expert Panel on the Responsible Adoption of Quantum Technologies, which does have wider geographical representation.

This CSPC 2023 panel also seems to be another example of what appears to be a kind of rivalry between D-Wave Systems (based in the Vancouver area) and Xanadu Quantum Technologies (Toronto-based) or perhaps another east-west Canada rivalry. See my May 4, 2021 posting (scroll down to the ‘National Quantum Strategy’ subhead) for an overview of sorts of the seeming rivalry; there’s my July 26, 2022 posting for speculation about Canada’s quantum scene and what appears to be an east/west divide; and for a very brief comment in my April 17, 2023 posting (scroll down to the ‘The quantum crew’ subhead.)

As for the conference itself, there’s been a significant increase in conference registration fees this year (see my July 28, 203 posting) and, for the insatiable, there’s my March 29, 2023 posting featuring the call for submissions and topic streams.

Turning asphaltene into graphene

Asphaltene (or asphaltenes are) is waste material that can be turned into graphene according to scientists at Rice University (Texas, US), from a November 18, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily,

Asphaltenes, a byproduct of crude oil production, are a waste material with potential. Rice University scientists are determined to find it by converting the carbon-rich resource into useful graphene.

Muhammad Rahman, an assistant research professor of materials science and nanoengineering, is employing Rice’s unique flash Joule heating process to convert asphaltenes instantly into turbostratic (loosely aligned) graphene and mix it into composites for thermal, anti-corrosion and 3D-printing applications.

The process makes good use of material otherwise burned for reuse as fuel or discarded into tailing ponds and landfills. Using at least some of the world’s reserve of more than 1 trillion barrels of asphaltene as a feedstock for graphene would be good for the environment as well.

A November 17, 2022 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on this exciting news, Note: Links have been removed,

“Asphaltene is a big headache for the oil industry, and I think there will be a lot of interest in this,” said Rahman, who characterized the process as both a scalable and sustainable way to reduce carbon emissions from burning asphaltene.

Rahman is a lead corresponding author of the paper in Science Advances co-led by Rice chemist James Tour, whose lab developed flash Joule heating, materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan and Md Golam Kibria, an assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary, Canada.

Asphaltenes are 70% to 80% carbon already. The Rice lab combines it with about 20% of carbon black to add conductivity and flashes it with a jolt of electricity, turning it into graphene in less than a second. Other elements in the feedstock, including hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur, are vented away as gases.

“We try to keep the carbon black content as low as possible because we want to maximize the utilization of asphaltene,” Rahman said.

“The government has been putting pressure on the petroleum industries to take care of this,” said Rice graduate student and co-lead author M.A.S.R. Saadi. “There are billions of barrels of asphaltene available, so we began working on this project primarily to see if we could make carbon fiber. That led us to think maybe we should try making graphene with flash Joule heating.”

Assured that Tour’s process worked as well on asphaltene as it did on various other feedstocks, including plastic, electronic waste, tires, coal fly ash and even car parts, the researchers set about making things with their graphene. 

Saadi, who works with Rahman and Ajayan, mixed the graphene into composites, and then into polymer inks bound for 3D printers. “We’ve optimized the ink rheology to show that it is printable,” he said, noting the inks have no more than 10% of graphene mixed in. Mechanical testing of printed objects is forthcoming, he said.

Rice graduate student Paul Advincula, a member of the Tour lab, is co-lead author of the paper. Co-authors are Rice graduate students Md Shajedul Hoque Thakur, Ali Khater, Jacob Beckham and Minghe Lou, undergraduate Aasha Zinke and postdoctoral researcher Soumyabrata Roy; research fellow Shabab Saad, alumnus Ali Shayesteh Zeraati, graduate student Shariful Kibria Nabil and postdoctoral associate Md Abdullah Al Bari of the University of Calgary; graduate student Sravani Bheemasetti and Venkataramana Gadhamshetty, an associate professor, at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and its 2D Materials of Biofilm Engineering Science and Technology Center; and research assistant Yiwen Zheng and Aniruddh Vashisth, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, of the University of Washington.

The research was funded by the Alberta Innovates for Carbon Fiber Grand Challenge programs, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-19-1-0296), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (W912HZ-21-2-0050) and the National Science Foundation (1849206, 1920954).  

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

Sustainable valorization of asphaltenes via flash joule heating by M.A.S.R. Saadi, Paul A. Advincula, Md Shajedul Hoque Thakur, Ali Zein Khater, Shabab Saad, Ali Shayesteh Zeraati, Shariful Kibria Nabil, Aasha Zinke, Soumyabrata Roy, Minghe Lou, Sravani N. Bheemasetti, Md Abdullah Al Bari, Yiwen Zheng, Jacob L. Beckham, Venkataramana Gadhamshetty, Aniruddh Vashisth, Md Golam Kibria, James M. Tour, Pulickel M. Ajayan, and Muhammad M. Rahman. Science Advances 18 Nov 2022 Vol 8, Issue 46 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.add3555

This paper is open access.

Could buckyballs and carbon nanotubes come from the dust and gas of dying stars?

In this picture of the Spirograph Nebula, a dying star about 2,000 light-years from Earth, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope revealed some remarkable textures weaving through the star’s envelope of dust and gas. UArizona researchers have now found evidence that complex carbon nanotubes could be forged in such environments.. Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

It’s always interesting to come across different news releases announcing the same research. In this case I have two news releases, one from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and one from the University of Arizona. Let’s start with the July 19, 2022 news item on phys.org (originated by the US NSF),

Astronomers at the University of Arizona have developed a theory to explain the presence of the largest molecules known to exist in interstellar gas.

The team simulated the environment of dying stars and observed the formation of buckyballs (carbon atoms linked to three other carbon atoms by covalent bonds) and carbon nanotubes (rolled up sheets of single-layer carbon atoms). The findings indicate that buckyballs and carbon nanotubes can form when silicon carbide dust — known to be proximate to dying stars — releases carbon in reaction to intense heat, shockwaves and high energy particles.

Here’s the rest of the July 18, 2022 NSF news release, Note: A link has been removed,

“We know from infrared observations that buckyballs populate the interstellar medium,” said Jacob Bernal, who led the research. “The big problem has been explaining how these massive, complex carbon molecules could possibly form in an environment saturated with hydrogen, which is what you typically have around a dying star.”

Rearranging the structure of graphene (a sheet of single-layer carbon atoms) could create buckyballs and nanotubes. Building on that, the team heated silicon carbide samples to temperatures that would mimic the aura of a dying star and observed the formation of nanotubes.

“We were surprised we could make these extraordinary structures,” Bernal said. “Chemically, our nanotubes are very simple, but they are extremely beautiful.”

Buckyballs are the largest molecules currently known to occur in interstellar space. It is now known that buckyballs containing 60 to 70 carbon atoms are common.

“We know the raw material is there, and we know the conditions are very close to what you’d see near the envelope of a dying star,” study co-author Lucy Ziurys said. “Shock waves pass through the envelope, and the temperature and pressure conditions have been shown to exist in space. We also see buckyballs in planetary nebulae — in other words, we see the beginning and the end products you would expect in our experiments.”

A June 16, 2022 University of Arizona news release by Daniel Stolte (also on EurekAlert) takes a context-rich approach to writing up the proposed theory for how buckyballs and carbon nanotubes (CNTs) form (Note: Links have been removed),

In the mid-1980s, the discovery of complex carbon molecules drifting through the interstellar medium garnered significant attention, with possibly the most famous examples being Buckminsterfullerene, or “buckyballs” – spheres consisting of 60 or 70 carbon atoms. However, scientists have struggled to understand how these molecules can form in space.

In a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Physical Chemistry A, researchers from the University of Arizona suggest a surprisingly simple explanation. After exposing silicon carbide – a common ingredient of dust grains in planetary nebulae – to conditions similar to those found around dying stars, the researchers observed the spontaneous formation of carbon nanotubes, which are highly structured rod-like molecules consisting of multiple layers of carbon sheets. The findings were presented on June 16 [2022] at the 240th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Pasadena, California.

Led by UArizona researcher Jacob Bernal, the work builds on research published in 2019, when the group showed that they could create buckyballs using the same experimental setup. The work suggests that buckyballs and carbon nanotubes could form when the silicon carbide dust made by dying stars is hit by high temperatures, shock waves and high-energy particles, leaching silicon from the surface and leaving carbon behind.

The findings support the idea that dying stars may seed the interstellar medium with nanotubes and possibly other complex carbon molecules. The results have implications for astrobiology, as they provide a mechanism for concentrating carbon that could then be transported to planetary systems.

“We know from infrared observations that buckyballs populate the interstellar medium,” said Bernal, a postdoctoral research associate in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “The big problem has been explaining how these massive, complex carbon molecules could possibly form in an environment saturated with hydrogen, which is what you typically have around a dying star.”

The formation of carbon-rich molecules, let alone species containing purely carbon, in the presence of hydrogen is virtually impossible due to thermodynamic laws. The new study findings offer an alternative scenario: Instead of assembling individual carbon atoms, buckyballs and nanotubes could result from simply rearranging the structure of graphene – single-layered carbon sheets that are known to form on the surface of heated silicon carbide grains.

This is exactly what Bernal and his co-authors observed when they heated commercially available silicon carbide samples to temperatures occurring in dying or dead stars and imaged them. As the temperature approached 1,050 degreesCelsius, small hemispherical structures with the approximate size of about 1 nanometer were observed at the grain surface. Within minutes of continued heating, the spherical buds began to grow into rod-like structures, containing several graphene layers with curvature and dimensions indicating a tubular form. The resulting nanotubules ranged from about 3 to 4 nanometers in length and width, larger than buckyballs. The largest imaged specimens were comprised of more than four layers of graphitic carbon. During the heating experiment, the tubes were observed to wiggle before budding off the surface and getting sucked into the vacuum surrounding the sample.

“We were surprised we could make these extraordinary structures,” Bernal said. “Chemically, our nanotubes are very simple, but they are extremely beautiful.”

Named after their resemblance to architectural works by Richard Buckminster Fuller, fullerenes are the largest molecules currently known to occur in interstellar space, which for decades was believed to be devoid of any molecules containing more than a few atoms, 10 at most. It is now well established that the fullerenes C60 and C70, which contain 60 or 70 carbon atoms, respectively, are common ingredients of the interstellar medium.

One of the first of its kind in the world, the transmission electron microscope housed at the Kuiper Materials Imaging and Characterization Facility at UArizona is uniquely suited to simulate the planetary nebula environment. Its 200,000-volt electron beam can probe matter down to 78 picometers – the distance of two hydrogen atoms in a water molecule – making it possible to see individual atoms. The instrument operates in a vacuum closely resembling the pressure – or lack thereof – thought to exist in circumstellar environments.

While a spherical C60 molecule measures 0.7 nanometers in diameter, the nanotube structures formed in this experiment measured several times the size of C60, easily exceeding 1,000 carbon atoms. The study authors are confident their experiments accurately replicated the temperature and density conditions that would be expected in a planetary nebula, said co-author Lucy Ziurys, a UArizona Regents Professor of Astronomy, Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“We know the raw material is there, and we know the conditions are very close to what you’d see near the envelope of a dying star,” she said. “There are shock waves that pass through the envelope, so the temperature and pressure conditions have been shown to exist in space. We also see buckyballs in these planetary nebulae – in other words, we see the beginning and the end products you would expect in our experiments.”

These experimental simulations suggest that carbon nanotubes, along with the smaller fullerenes, are subsequently injected into the interstellar medium. Carbon nanotubes are known to have high stability against radiation, and fullerenes are able to survive for millions of years when adequately shielded from high-energy cosmic radiation. Carbon-rich meteorites, such as carbonaceous chondrites, could contain these structures as well, the researchers propose.

According to study co-author Tom Zega, a professor in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Lab, the challenge is finding nanotubes in these meteorites, because of the very small grain sizes and because the meteorites are a complex mix of organic and inorganic materials, some with sizes similar to those of nanotubes.

“Nonetheless, our experiments suggest that such materials could have formed in interstellar space,” Zega said. “If they survived the journey to our local part of the galaxy where our solar system formed some 4.5 billion years ago, then they could be preserved inside of the material that was left over.”

Zega said a prime example of such leftover material is Bennu, a carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid from which NASA’s UArizona-led OSIRIS-REx mission scooped up a sample in October 2020. Scientists are eagerly awaiting the arrival of that sample, scheduled for 2023.  

“Asteroid Bennu could have preserved these materials, so it is possible we may find nanotubes in them,” Zega said.

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

Destructive Processing of Silicon Carbide Grains: Experimental Insights into the Formation of Interstellar Fullerenes and Carbon Nanotubes by Jacob J. Bernal, Thomas J. Zega, and Lucy M. Ziurys. J. Phys. Chem. A 2022, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jpca.2c01441 Publication Date:June 27, 2022 © 2022 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Mystery of North American insect bioluminescent systems unraveled by Brazilian scientists

I’ve always been fond of ‘l’ words and so it is that I’m compelled to post a story about a “luciferin-luciferase system” or, in this case, a story about insect bioluminescence.

Caption: Researchers isolated molecules present in the larvae of the fungus gnat Orfelia fultoni Credit: Vadim Viviani, UFSCar

A September 9, 2020 Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP) press release (also on EurekAlert but published Sept. 11, 2020) announces research into ‘blue’ bioluminescence,

Molecules belonging to an almost unknown bioluminescent system found in larvae of the fungus gnat Orfelia fultoni (subfamily Keroplatinae) have been isolated for the first time by researchers at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. The small fly is one of the few terrestrial organisms that produce blue light. It inhabits riverbanks in the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States. A key part of its bioluminescent system is a molecule also present in two recently discovered Brazilian flies.

The study, supported by Paulo Research Foundation – FAPESP, is published in Scientific Reports. Five authors are affiliated with UFSCar and two with universities in the United States.

The bioluminescent systems of glow-worms, fireflies and other insects are normally made up of luciferin (a low molecular weight molecule) and luciferase, an enzyme that catalyzes the oxidation of luciferin by oxygen, producing light. While some bioluminescent systems are well known and even used in biotechnological applications, others are poorly understood, including blue light-emitting systems, such as that of O. fultoni.

“In the published paper, we describe the properties of the insect’s luciferase and luciferin and their anatomical location in its larvae. We also specify several possible proteins that are possible candidates for the luciferase. We don’t yet know what type of protein it is, but it’s likely to be a hexamerin. In insects, hexamerins are storage proteins that provide amino acids, besides having other functions, such as binding low molecular weight compounds, like luciferin,” said Vadim Viviani, a professor in UFSCar’s Sustainability Science and Technology Center (CCTS) in Sorocaba, São Paulo, and principal investigator for the study.

The study was part of the FAPESP-funded project “Arthropod bioluminescence“. The partnership with United States-based researchers dates from a previous project, supported by FAPESP and the United States National Science Foundation (NSF), in partnership with Vanderbilt University (VU), located in Nashville, Tennessee.

In addition to luciferin and luciferase, researchers began characterizing a complex found in insects of the family Keroplatidae, which, in addition to O. fultoni, also includes a Brazilian species in the genus Neoditomyia that produces only luciferin and hence does not emit light.

Because they do not use it to emit light, the luciferin in O. fultoni and the Brazilian Neoditomyia has been named keroplatin. In larvae of this subfamily, keroplatin is associated with “black bodies” – large cells containing dark granules, proteins and probably mitochondria (energy-producing organelles). Researchers are still investigating the biological significance of this association between keroplatin and mitochondria.

“It’s a mystery,” Viviani said. “This luciferin may play a role in the mitochondrial energy metabolism. At night, probably in the presence of a natural chemical reducer, the luciferin is released by these black bodies and reacts with the surrounding luciferase to produce blue light. These are possibilities we plan to study.”

Brazilian cousins

An important factor in the elucidation of the United States insect’s bioluminescent system was the discovery of a larva that lives in Intervales State Park in São Paulo in 2018. It does not emit light but produces luciferin, similar to O. fultoni (read more at: agencia.fapesp.br/29066).

In their latest study, the group injected purified luciferase from the United States species into larvae of the Brazilian species, which then produced blue light. The nonluminescent Brazilian species is more abundant in nature than the United States species, so a larger amount of the material could be obtained for study purposes, especially to characterize the luciferin (keroplatin) present in both species.

In 2019, the group discovered and described Neoceroplatus betaryensis, a new species of fungus gnat, in collaboration with Cassius Stevani, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Chemistry (IQ-USP). It was the first blue light-emitting insect found in South America and was detected in a privately held forest reserve near the Upper Ribeira State Tourist Park (PETAR) in the southern portion of the state of São Paulo. A close relative of O. fultoni, N. betaryensis inhabits fallen tree trunks in humid places (read more at: agencia.fapesp.br/31797).

“We show that the bioluminescent system of this Brazilian species is identical to that of O. fultoni. However, the insect is very rare, and so it’s hard to obtain sufficient material for research purposes,” Viviani said.

The researchers are now cloning the insect’s luciferase and characterizing it in molecular terms. They are also analyzing the chemical structure of its luciferin and the morphology of its lanterns.

“Once all this has been determined, we’ll be able to synthesize the luciferin and luciferase in the lab and use these systems in a range of biotech applications, such as studying cells. This will help us understand more about human diseases, among other things,” Viviani said.

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

A new brilliantly blue-emitting luciferin-luciferase system from Orfelia fultoni and Keroplatinae (Diptera) by Vadim R. Viviani, Jaqueline R. Silva, Danilo T. Amaral, Vanessa R. Bevilaqua, Fabio C. Abdalla, Bruce R. Branchini & Carl H. Johnson. Scientific Reports volume 10, Article number: 9608 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-66286-1 Published 15 June 2020

This paper is open access.

Plants as a source of usable electricity

A friend sent me a link to this interview with Iftach Yacoby of Tel Aviv University talking about some new research into plants and electricity. From a June 8, 2020 article by Omer Kabir for Calcalist (CTech) on the Algemeiner website,

For years, scientists have been trying to understand the evolutionary capabilities of plants to produce energy and have had only partial success. But a recent Tel Aviv University [TAU] study seems to make the impossible possible, proving that any plant can be transformed into an electrical source, producing a variety of materials that can revolutionize the global economy — from using hydrogen as fuel to clean ammonia to replace the pollutants in the agriculture industry.

“People are unaware that their plant pots have an electric current for everything,” Iftach Yacoby, head of the Laboratory of Renewable Energy Studies at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Life Sciences said in a recent interview with Calcalist.

“Our study opens the door to a new field of agriculture, equivalent to wheat or corn production for food security — generating energy,” he said. However, Yacoby makes it clear that it will take at least a decade before the research findings can be transferred to the commercial level.

At the heart of the research is the understanding that plants have particularly efficient capacities when it comes to electricity generation. “Anything green that is not dollars, but rather leaves, grass, and seaweed for example, contains solar panels that are completely identical to the panels the entire country is now building,” Yacoby explained. “They know how to take in solar radiation and make electrons flow out of it. That’s the essence of photosynthesis. Most people think of oxygen and food production, but the most basic phase of photosynthesis is the same as silicon panels in the Negev and on rooftops — taking in sunlight and generating electric current.”

… “At home, an electric current can be wired to many devices. Just plug the device into a power outlet. But when you want to do it in plants, it’s about the order of nanometers. We have no idea where to plug the plugs. That’s what we did in this study. In plant cells, we found they can be used as a socket for anything, at just a nanometer size. We have an enzyme, which is equivalent to a biological machine that can produce hydrogen. We took this enzyme, put it together so that it sits in the socket in the plant cell, which was previously only hypothetical. When he started to produce hydrogen, we proved that we had a socket for everything, though nanotermically-sized. Now we can take any plant or kelp and engineer it so that their electrical outlet can be used for production purposes,” Yacoby explained.

“If you attach an enzyme that produces hydrogen you get hydrogen, it’s the cleanest fuel that can be,” he said. “There are already electric cars and bicycles with a range of 150 km that travel on hydrogen. There are many types of enzymes in nature that produce valuable substances, such as ammonia needed for the fertilizer industry and today is still produced by a very toxic and harmful method that consumes a lot of energy. We can provide a plant-based alternative for the production of materials that are made in chemical manufacturing facilities. It’s an electric platform inside a living plant cell.”

You might find it helpful to read Kabir’s article in its entirety before moving on to the news release about the work. The work was conducted with researchers from Arizona State University (ASU;US) and a researcher from Yogi Vemana University (India), as well as, Yacoby. There’s a May 7, 2020 ASU news release (also on EurekAlert but published on May 6, 2020) detailing the work,

Hydrogen is an essential commodity with over 60 million tons produced globally every year. However over 95 percent of it is made by steam reformation of fossil fuels, a process that is energy intensive and produces carbon dioxide. If we could replace even a part of that with algal biohydrogen that is made via light and water, it would have a substantial impact.

This is essentially what has just been achieved in the lab of Kevin Redding, professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and director of the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis. Their research, entitled Rewiring photosynthesis: a Photosystem I -hydrogenase chimera that makes hydrogen in vivo was published very recently in the high impact journal Energy and Environmental Science.

“What we have done is to show that it is possible to intercept the high energy electrons from photosynthesis and use them to drive alternate chemistry, in a living cell” explained Redding. “We have used hydrogen production here as an example.”

“Kevin Redding and his group have made a true breakthrough in re-engineering the Photosystem I complex,” explained Ian Gould, interim director of the School of Molecular Sciences, which is part of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “They didn’t just find a way to redirect a complex protein structure that nature designed for one purpose to perform a different, but equally critical process, but they found the best way to do it at the molecular level.”

It is common knowledge that plants and algae, as well as cyanobacteria, use photosynthesis to produce oxygen and “fuels,” the latter being oxidizable substances like carbohydrates and hydrogen. There are two pigment-protein complexes that orchestrate the primary reactions of light in oxygenic photosynthesis: Photosystem I (PSI) and Photosystem II (PSII).

Algae (in this work the single-celled green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, or ‘Chlamy’ for short) possess an enzyme called hydrogenase that uses electrons it gets from the protein ferredoxin, which is normally used to ferry electrons from PSI to various destinations. A problem is that the algal hydrogenase is rapidly and irreversibly inactivated by oxygen that is constantly produced by PSII.

In this study, doctoral student and first author Andrey Kanygin has created a genetic chimera of PSI and the hydrogenase such that they co-assemble and are active in vivo. This new assembly redirects electrons away from carbon dioxide fixation to the production of biohydrogen.

“We thought that some radically different approaches needed to be taken — thus, our crazy idea of hooking up the hydrogenase enzyme directly to Photosystem I in order to divert a large fraction of the electrons from water splitting (by Photosystem II) to make molecular hydrogen,” explained Redding.

Cells expressing the new photosystem (PSI-hydrogenase) make hydrogen at high rates in a light dependent fashion, for several days.

This important result will also be featured in an upcoming article in Chemistry World – a monthly chemistry news magazine published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The magazine addresses current developments in the world of chemistry including research, international business news and government policy as it affects the chemical science community.

The NSF grant funding this research is part of the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF). In this arrangement, a U.S. scientist and Israeli scientist join forces to form a joint project. The U.S. partner submits a grant on the joint project to the NSF, and the Israeli partner submits the same grant to the ISF (Israel Science Foundation). Both agencies must agree to fund the project in order to obtain the BSF funding. Professor Iftach Yacoby of Tel Aviv University, Redding’s partner on the BSF project, is a young scientist who first started at TAU about eight years ago and has focused on different ways to increase algal biohydrogen production.

In summary, re-engineering the fundamental processes of photosynthetic microorganisms offers a cheap and renewable platform for creating bio-factories capable of driving difficult electron reactions, powered only by the sun and using water as the electron source.

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

Rewiring photosynthesis: a photosystem I-hydrogenase chimera that makes H2in vivo by Andrey Kanygin, Yuval Milrad, Chandrasekhar Thummala, Kiera Reifschneider, Patricia Baker, Pini Marco, Iftach Yacoby and Kevin E. Redding. Energy Environ. Sci., 2020, Advance DOI: https://doi.org/10.1039/C9EE03859K First published: 17 Apr 2020

In order to gain access to the paper, you must have or sign up for a free account.

This image was used to illustrate the research,

A model of Photosystem 1 core subunits Courtesy: ASU