December 30, 2015

ORNL cell-free protein synthesis is potential lifesaver

This section of a serpentine channel reactor shows the parallel reactor and feeder channels
separated by a nanoporous membrane. At left is a single nanopore viewed from the side;
at right is a diagram of metabolite exchange across the membrane.

(December 30, 2015)  Lives of soldiers and others injured in remote locations could be saved with a cell-free protein synthesis system developed at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The device, a creation of a team led by Andrea Timm and Scott Retterer of the lab’s Biosciences Division, uses microfabricated bioreactors to facilitate the on-demand production of therapeutic proteins for medicines and biopharmaceuticals. Making these miniature factories cell-free, which eliminates the maintenance of a living system, simplifies the process and lowers cost.

“With this approach, we can produce more protein faster, making our technology ideal for point-of-care use,” Retterer said. “The fact it’s cell-free reduces the infrastructure needed to produce the protein and opens the possibility of creating proteins when and where you need them, bypassing the challenge of keeping the proteins cold during shipment and storage.”

ORNL’s bioreactor features elegance through a permeable nanoporous membrane and serpentine design fabricated using a combination of electron beam and photolithography and advanced material deposition processes. This design enables prolonged cell-free reactions for efficient production of proteins, making it easily adaptable for use in isolated locations and at disaster sites.

From a functional perspective, the design uses long serpentine channels integrated in a way to allow the exchange of materials between parallel reactor and feeder channels. With this approach, the team can control the exchange of metabolites, energy and species that inhibit production of the desired protein. Through other design features, researchers extend reaction times and improve yields.

“We show that the microscale bioreactor design produces higher protein yields than conventional tube-based batch formats and that product yields can be dramatically improved by facilitating small molecule exchange with the dual-channel bioreactor,” the authors wrote in their paper, published in the journal Small.

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Physicists come up with way to make more effective fuel cells

A-Na molecule © MIPT

(December 30, 2015)  The ion-exchange synthetic membranes based on amphiphilic compounds are able to convert the energy of chemical reactions into electrical current.

 An international research group including Russian, French and German scientists has developed ion-exchange synthetic membranes based on amphiphilic compounds that are able to convert the energy of chemical reactions into electrical current. The new development described in the journal Physical Chemistry, Chemical Physics could potentially be used in fuel cells, and in separation and purification processes. The study was conducted by Moscow-based Laboratory of Functional Organic and Hybrid Materials, which was opened in 2014.

Azo-Na © MIPT

Fuel cells consist of separate galvanic cells and their closest relatives are batteries (primary cells) and accumulators (secondary cells). Batteries convert the energy of the reaction between an oxidizing agent and a reducing agent, and stop working when these agents are used up. An accumulator is able to store electrical energy applied to it from an external source, convert it to chemical energy, and release it again, thus reversing the process.

Example of a fuel cell operating on hydrogen and oxygen. It converts
chemical energy not into heat (as would be the case if hydrogen
was burned in a burner), but into electricity. These devices were used
on the Apollo lunar modules, and the Space Shuttle and Buran spacecraft systems
© R.Dervisoglu / Wikimedia

A fuel cell on the other hand, which is also an electrochemical generator, gets the materials that it needs to function from an external source. These materials are a reducing agent (usually hydrogen, methanol or methane) and an oxidizing agent, oxygen. Providing these materials from an external source means that electricity can be obtained from a fuel cell continuously without having to stop to recharge for as long as the parts of the cell are in working order.

Azo-Na © MIPT

The main elements of this generator are a cathode and an anode, separated by an ion-exchange membrane.

At the cathode, the reducing agent is dissociated – an electron is separated from a hydrogen molecule (or another fuel) and thus a positively charged hydrogen ion, a proton, is formed. The membrane allows protons to pass through, but retains the electrons – these particles are forced to take the “long route” through an external circuit. Only once they have passed through this circuit (the device that the fuel cell is powering) can they reach the anode where they find oxygen and the protons that passed through the membrane to combine and form water. The electrons, which are forced to go around the membrane, create a current in the external circuit that can be utilized.


Why do we need fuel cells and why are they not used more widely?

Fuel cells use the same fuel that can be burned in conventional internal combustion engines producing the same basic products - water vapour in the case of hydrogen and water vapour with carbon dioxide in the case of organic fuel. However, compared to a traditional engine, a fuel cell has at least two advantages: first, the process takes place at a lower temperature without a number of harmful emissions such as nitrogen oxides; secondly, fuel cells can have a much higher level of efficiency. Petrol and diesel generators are limited by thermodynamic laws (they do not allow an efficiency coefficient of more than 80% for example), but such laws do not apply to fuel cells.

journal reference >>

December 29, 2015

2015's Top 10 Scientific Advances at Brookhaven National Laboratory

(December 29, 2015)  From creating the tiniest drops of primordial particle soup to devising new ways to improve batteries, catalysts, superconductors, and more, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory pushed the boundaries of discovery in 2015. Here, in no particular order, are our picks for the top 10 advances of the year.

1. New Record for Polarized Proton Luminosity

In 2015, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), Brookhaven's flagship particle accelerator for nuclear physics research, shattered its own record for producing polarized proton collisions at 200-giga-electron-volt (GeV) collision energy. Thanks to the installation of "electron lenses" and other accelerator improvements, RHIC physicists routinely delivered 1200 billion polarized proton smashups per week—more than double the number routinely achieved in 2012 at the same collision energy. More collisions produce more data for scientists to analyze, increasing the precision of measurements and the potential for new discoveries about the protons' internal structure.

2. Tiny Drops of Early Universe 'Perfect' Fluid

Also at RHIC, in collisions of small particles such as protons, deuterons, and helium nuclei with much larger nuclei of gold atoms, scientists discovered the same kind of particle flow they've observed in their gold-on-gold smashups. These findings reveal that the small particles can create tiny droplets of quark-gluon plasma (QGP)—a liquid-like soup of matter's most fundamental building blocks like the larger samples of QGP created in the gold-on-gold collisions. These experiments are revealing the key elements required for creating the QGP and could also offer insight into the initial state characteristics of the colliding particles.

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NTU scientists unveil social and telepresence robots

Prof Nadia Thalmann (left) posing beside Nadine, a life-like social robot
capable of autonomously expressing emotions and gestures.

(December 29, 2015)  Say hello to Nadine, a “receptionist” at Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore). She is friendly, and will greet you back. Next time you meet her, she will remember your name and your previous conversation with her.

She looks almost like a human being, with soft skin and flowing brunette hair. She smiles when greeting you, looks at you in the eye when talking, and can also shake hands with you. And she is a humanoid.

Unlike conventional robots, Nadine has her own personality, mood and emotions. She can be happy or sad, depending on the conversation. She also has a good memory, and can recognise the people she has met, and remembers what the person had said before.

Nadine is the latest social robot developed by scientists at NTU. The doppelganger of its creator, Prof Nadia Thalmann, Nadine is powered by intelligent software similar to Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana. Nadine can be a personal assistant in offices and homes in future. And she can be used as social companions for the young and the elderly.

A humanoid like Nadine is just one of the interfaces where the technology can be applied. It can also be made virtual and appear on a TV or computer screen, and become a low-cost virtual social companion.

With further progress in robotics sparked by technological improvements in silicon chips, sensors and computation, physical social robots such as Nadine are poised to become more visible in offices and homes in future.

The rise of social robots

Prof Thalmann, the director of the Institute for Media Innovation who led the development of Nadine, said these social robots are among NTU’s many exciting new media innovations that companies can leverage for commercialisation.

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Negative-angle refraction and reflection of visible light with a planar array of silver dimers

(December 29, 2015)  Abstract

We study the plane wave scattering on a planar periodic array of silver dimers. It is found that an appropriately designed array provides the sharp turn of TE-polarized incident beam in orthogonal (opposite) directions through the effects of negative-angle refraction (reflection).

1. Introduction

Manipulation of optical wavefront at nanoscale is one of the central problem of modern photonics. Recent remarkable progress in this field is largely due to implementation of the phase gradient meta-surfaces  which are the two-dimensional arrays of subwavelength antennas with spatially varying geometric parameters (shape, size, orientation). The complex structure of the unit cell of such array introduces a spatially varying phase response with subwavelength resolution, allowing, for example, controllable refraction and reflection of the incident light beam in anomalous directions.

Fig. 3 (a) and (c): The distribution of Hz-component demonstrates the negative-angle
refraction and reflection phenomena. Neighbouring dimers are exited in anti-phase.
(b) and (d): The corresponding distribution of electric field in the gap region.
Excited modes are the lowest plasmonic modes in dimer, see..

The extraordinary optical properties of the periodic scattering structure do not necessarily imply the complex design of its elemental cell. Say, the negative directional transmission of an incident beam has been recently demonstrated both numerically and experimentally in the near-infrared regime with a regular chain of identical silicon nanorods. The effect is observed near the dipolar resonance of individual rods provided that the induced dipole moments in adjacent rods have a phase difference of π. In this work, we show that similar scheme of beam steering allows to manipulate the optical wavefront in visible regime when the metal rods are used instead of dielectric ones.

This schematic view of a nanoantenna array (A), at left, is an example of new plasmonic metasurfaces
that are promising for various advances, including a possible "hyperlens" that could make optical
microscopes 10 times more powerful. At right (B) is a "hyperbolic metasurface," a tiny metallic grating
for enhancing "quantum emitters," which could make possible future quantum information systems
far more powerful than today's computers. (Birck Nanotechnology Center, Purdue University)

Specifically, we consider a periodic planar (2d) array with unit cell consisting of a pair of infinitely long metal cylinders. Analysis includes the cases of both longitudinal and transversal orientation of dimers with respect to the direction of system periodicity, see Fig. 1. It is demonstrated that the ultrathin array of longitudinally orientated dimers can refract an incident TE-wave in a negative way, whereas the transversal dimers’ orientation under certain conditions leads to phenomenon of negative reflection. These phenomena are associated with the resonance excitation of strongly localized plasmonic modes in the inter-cylinders gaps. Noteworthy, the efficiency of the anomalous beam redirection is restricted only by ohmic losses in metal and can reach 100% in the idealized limit of dissipation-free dimers. Our results can lead to applications in designing of ultra-compact optical components in photonic circuits.

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New Acoustic Technique Reveals Structural Information in Nanoscale Materials

Schematic representation of the atomic force microscope interacting
with the material surface in research on investigating phase changes
in nanoscale materials. (Credit: Rama Vasudevan, ORNL)

(December 29, 2015)  Understanding where and how phase transitions occur is critical to developing new generations of the materials used in high-performance batteries, sensors, energy-harvesting devices, medical diagnostic equipment and other applications. But until now there was no good way to study and simultaneously map these phenomena at the relevant length scales.

Now, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have developed a new nondestructive technique for investigating these material changes by examining the acoustic response at the nanoscale. Information obtained from this technique – which uses electrically-conductive atomic force microscope (AFM) probes – could guide efforts to design materials with enhanced properties at small size scales.

The approach has been used in ferroelectric materials, but could also have applications in ferroelastics, solid protonic acids and materials known as relaxors. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the research was reported December 15 in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

“We have developed a new characterization technique that allows us to study changes in the crystalline structure and changes in materials behavior at substantially smaller length scales with a relatively simple approach,” said Nazanin Bassiri-Gharb, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. “Knowing where these phase transitions happen and at which length scales can help us design next-generation materials.”

In ferroelectric materials such as PZT (lead zirconate titanate), phase transitions can occur at the boundaries between one crystal type and another, under external stimuli. Properties such as the piezoelectric and dielectric effects can be amplified at the boundaries, which are caused by the multi-element “confused chemistry” of the materials. Determining when these transitions occur can be done in bulk materials using various techniques, and at the smallest scales using an electron microscope.

journal reference >>


Electron micrograph of stained somatosensory cortex synapses that were identified
using a machine-learning algorithm. Image credit: Saket Navlakha and Alison L. Barth.

(December 29, 2015)  High-throughput, Machine-Learning Tool Could Help Researchers Better Understand Synaptic Activity in Learning and Disease.

Carnegie Mellon University researchers have developed a new approach to broadly survey learning-related changes in synapse properties.

In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience and featured on the journal’s cover, the researchers used machine-learning algorithms to analyze thousands of images from the cerebral cortex. This allowed them to identify synapses from an entire cortical region, revealing unanticipated information about how synaptic properties change during development and learning. The study is one of the largest electron microscopy studies ever carried out, evaluating more subjects and more images than prior researchers have attempted.

As the brain learns and responds to sensory stimuli, its neurons make connections with one another. These connections, called synapses, facilitate neuronal communication, and their anatomic and electrophysiological properties contain information vital to understanding how the brain behaves in health and disease. Researchers use different techniques, including electron microscopy, to identify and analyze synapse properties. While electron microscopy can be a useful tool for reconstructing neural circuits, it is also data and labor intensive. As a result, researchers have only been able to use it to study small, targeted areas of the brain until now.

Studying a large section of the brain using traditional electron microscopy techniques would result in terabytes of unwieldy data, given that the brain has billions of neurons, each with hundreds to thousands of synaptic connections. The new technique developed at Carnegie Mellon simplifies this problem by combining a specialized staining process with machine learning.

journal reference >>

Anxiety dissociates the adaptive functions of sensory and motor response enhancements to social threats

(December 29, 2015) Abstract

Efficient detection and reaction to negative signals in the environment is essential for survival. In social situations, these signals are often ambiguous and can imply different levels of threat for the observer, thereby making their recognition susceptible to contextual cues – such as gaze direction when judging facial displays of emotion. However, the mechanisms underlying such contextual effects remain poorly understood. By computational modeling of human behavior and electrical brain activity, we demonstrate that gaze direction enhances the perceptual sensitivity to threat-signaling emotions – anger paired with direct gaze, and fear paired with averted gaze. This effect arises simultaneously in ventral face-selective and dorsal motor cortices at 200 ms following face presentation, dissociates across individuals as a function of anxiety, and does not reflect increased attention to threat-signaling emotions. These findings reveal that threat tunes neural processing in fast, selective, yet attention-independent fashion in sensory and motor systems, for different adaptive purposes.

journal reference (Open Access) >>

December 28, 2015

B. Sprout 2000 - Cutting Board

(December 28, 2015) B. Sprout 2000 is a one of a kind cutting board designed to allow users to safely cut brussels sprouts and other small vegetables.

B. Sprout 2000 was created as a solution to a problem I've faced for years: brussels sprout cutting related injuries. Sprouts, as well as other small, round vegetables, are difficult to safely cut when your fingers are required to hold them in place. The B. Sprout 2000 is a solution that takes your fingers out of the equation, and away from the line of slice.

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Pumpal Lamp

(December 28, 2015)  “Inspired by the wooden childhood toys my Mother used to make. LED lights are concealed inside the rotating wooden ‘handle’ which is set into a recycled concrete base.”

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December 27, 2015

St Mark, chair

(December27, 2015) St Mark, chair by Martino Gamper,

A homage to the “lowly” tradition of the chair made contemporary by using two apparently contrasting materials. Two versions, as if wood and aluminium, in overcoming the distinction between artisan and industrial production, were one the consequence of the other. And vice versa. With its solidity and comfort the form appears to suggest the modus operandi of master joiners of the pre-industrial age. The back contains and guarantees the utmost in ergonomics while aluminium, as well as considerably reducing its weight, allows for outdoor use. Stackable, coloured and comfortable, St. Mark finds its beauty in the simplicity and in the versatility of use, allowing a contemporary restyling of any type of space, from the public area to the home environment.
Chair in ash varnished open-pore matte, laquered matt or in aluminum satin matte.

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December 25, 2015

Seaweed Capsules May Lead to an Injection-Free Life for Diabetic Patients

The Micro/Bio/Nanofluidics Unit at OIST has developed a novel microfluidic platform
that allows to encapsulate small particles or cells with alginate capsules.

(December 25, 2015)  Diabetes is one of the leading causes of death. Patients with type 1 diabetes have their insulin secreting cells destroyed by the immune system and require daily insulin injections. Pancreatic islet transplantation is an effective treatment that can dramatically reduce daily doses or even eliminate dependence on external insulin. Insulin producing cells are injected into a recipient liver. After an adaptation period they start to produce sufficient hormone needed by diabetic patients.

However, while the transplantation procedure itself has been greatly improved in recent years, collection, preservation, and transportation of these cells are still very challenging. Research published in Advanced Healthcare Materials by the scientists from the Okinawa Institute of Technology and Science Graduate University (OIST) in collaboration with the University of Washington and Wuhan University of Technology offers a solution for some of these problems.

Production and secretion of insulin occur in the pancreas — an endocrine gland in the digestive system. Cells secreting insulin are clustered in pancreatic islets. Despite their crucial role in organismal wellbeing these islets comprise only a few percent of the pancreatic tissue. The islet transplantation does not require major surgical intervention and is often done under local anaesthesia. It is also cheaper and might be safer than transplantation of the entire pancreas. Unfortunately, so far, only human islets can be transplanted and their supply is but a trickle.

Schematic representation of the pancreatic islet cryopreservation method
developed by a multidisciplinary group of researchers led by Prof. Shen.

Cryopreservation, or deep freezing, is the method commonly used for the islet preservation and transportation. But it is not completely safe. One might think that storage at temperatures below -190°C is the most dangerous phase. However, the cells are very good at enduring it. It is the freezing process (-15 to -60°C) itself that poses the most challenges. As the cells are cooled, water in and around them freezes. Ice crystals have sharp edges that can pierce membranes and compromise cell viability. This also becomes problematic during thawing.

A multidisciplinary group of researchers led by Prof. Amy Shen, head of the Micro/Bio/Nanofluidics Unit at OIST, developed a novel cryopreservation method that not only helps to protect pancreatic islets from ice damage, but also facilitates real-time assessments of cell viability. Moreover, this method may reduce transplant rejection and, in turn, decrease use of immunosuppressant drugs, which can be harmful to patient health.

The novel technique employs a droplet microfluidic device to encapsulate pancreatic islets in hydrogel made of alginate, a natural polymer extracted from seaweed. These capsules have a unique microstructure: a porous network and considerable amount of non-freezable water. There are three types of water in the hydrogel: free water, freezable bound water, and non-freezable bound water. Free water is regular water: it freezes at 0°C, producing ice crystals. Freezable bound water also crystallises, but the freezing point is lower. Non-freezable bound water does not form ice due to the strong association between water molecules and the hydrogel networks. Hydrogel capsules with large amounts of non-freezable bound water protect the cells from the ice damage and reduce the need for cryoprotectants — special substances that minimise or prevent freezing damage and can be toxic in high concentrations.

 Prof. Amy Shen in the lab of the Micro/Bio/Nanofluidics Unit at OIST.

Another innovation, proposed by the group, is the use of a fluorescent oxygen-sensitive dye in hydrogel capsules. The porous structure of the capsules does not impede oxygen flow to the cells. And this dye functions as a real-time single-islet oxygen sensor. Fluorescence indicates whether cells are consuming oxygen and, therefore, are alive and healthy. It is a simple, time-efficient, and cheap method of assessing viability, both of individual islets or populations thereof.

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December 24, 2015

Stanford scientists look deeper into the body with new fluorescent dye

The NIR-II dye can clearly resolve blood vessels in the hindlimb as well as in the
brain with unprecedented clarity. Furthermore, the dye allows clear resolution of
tumors in the center of the mouse’s brain and is capable of ultra-sensitive tumor detection.
Alexander Antaris

(December 24, 2015) Glowing dyes help scientists see inside the body and diagnose ailments, but they needed a certain type of molecule to improve the imaging depth. They invented a long wavelength near-infrared fluorescent molecule, and it works.

In recent years, physicians and researchers have increasingly turned to glowing dyes to look beneath the skin. An eye doctor, for example, might inject a dye into a patient's blood before shining a bright light in her eye. The dye causes the blood vessels to glow, providing a roadmap of the patient's retina on a computer screen.

At Stanford and elsewhere, researchers have worked to create dyes that, when stimulated, emit light of long wavelengths close to infrared light. Such a light, which is not visible to the human eye, could then be viewed by a special camera and be projected to a monitor to produce deeper, sharper images from inside the body.

This fluorescent imaging can help to pinpoint tumor locations near the skin's surface in a variety of cancers, such as head and neck, melanoma and breast cancer.

Most of these dyes have safety concerns: Some made from carbon nanotubes or quantum dots can linger in the body for days and months, caught in the liver and spleen, before being excreted slowly. This drawback thus far has prevented their use in humans.

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Here comes the sun: cellular sensor helps plants find light

journal Cell

Salk discovery of novel pathway could be a boon to agriculture

(December 24, 2015)  Despite seeming passive, plants wage wars with each other to outgrow and absorb sunlight. If a plant is shaded by another, it becomes cut off from essential sunlight it needs to survive.

To escape this deadly shade, plants have light sensors that can set off an internal alarm when threatened by the shade of other plants. Their sensors can detect depletion of red and blue light (wavelengths absorbed by vegetation) to distinguish between an aggressive nearby plant from a passing cloud.

Scientists at the Salk Institute have discovered a way by which plants assess the quality of shade to outgrow menacing neighbors, a finding that could be used to improve the productivity of crops. The new work, published December 24, 2015 in Cell, shows how the depletion of blue light detected by molecular sensors in plants triggers accelerated growth to overcome a competing plant.

“With this knowledge and discoveries like it, maybe you could eventually teach a plant to ignore the fact that it’s in the shade and put out a lot of biomass anyway,” says Joanne Chory, senior author and director of Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology.

The new work upends previously held notions in the field. It was known that plants respond to diminished red light by activating a growth hormone called auxin to outpace its neighbors. However, this is the first time researchers have shown that shade avoidance can happen through an entirely different mechanism: instead of changing the levels of auxin, a cellular sensor called cryptochrome responds to diminished blue light by turning on genes that promote cell growth.

This revelation could help researchers learn how to modify plant genes to optimize growth to, for example, coerce soy or tomato crops (which are notoriously fickle) grow more aggressively and give a greater yield even in a crowded, shady field.

The focus of the team’s research efforts was cryptochromes, blue light-sensitive sensors that are responsible for telling a plant when to grow and when to flower. Cryptochromes were first identified in plants and later found in animals, and in both organisms they are associated with circadian rhythm (the body’s biological clock). The protein’s role in sensing depletion of blue light had been known, but this study is the first to show how cryptochromes promote growth in a shaded environment.

The team placed normal and mutant Arabidopsis plants in a light-controlled room where blue light was limited. The mutant plants lacked either cryptochromes or a PIF transcription factor, a type of protein that binds to DNA to control when genes are switched on or off. PIFs typically make direct contact with red light sensors, called phytochromes, to initiate shade avoidance growth. The researchers compared the responses of the mutant and normal plants in the varying blue light conditions by monitoring the growth rate of the stems and looking at contacts between cryptochromes, PIFs and chromosomes.

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Infrared encoding of images with metasurfaces

Infrared encoding of images. Credit--M. Makhsiyan/ONERA

(December 24, 2015)  Researchers at MINAO, a joint lab between The French Aerospace Lab in Palaiseau and the Laboratoire de Photonique et de Nanostructures in Marcoussis, have recently demonstrated metamaterial resonators that allow emission in the infrared to be tuned through the geometry of the resonator.

Their setup uses sub-wavelength scale metal-insulator-metal, or MIM, resonators to spatially and spectrally control emitted light up to its diffraction limit. This allows an array of resonators to be used to form an image in the infrared - much as way the pixels in a television screen can form a visible light image - with potential breakthrough applications in infrared televisions, biochemical sensing, optical storage, and anti-counterfeit devices.

“MIM metasurfaces are great candidates for infrared emitters thanks to their ability to completely control thermal emission, which is groundbreaking compared to the usual thermal sources, such as a blackbody,” said Patrick Bouchon, a researcher at The French Aerospace Lab, also known as ONERA. “Moreover, this study shows the possibility to create infrared images with the equivalent of visible colors.”

Bouchon and his colleagues detail their work this week in Applied Physics Letters, from AIP Publishing. The researchers previously demonstrated the ability to manipulate light through tailoring its absorption or converting its polarization, and have investigated the “funneling effect,” in which incoming light energy is coupled to a nanoantenna.

journal reference (Open Access) >>

Toward Liquid Fuels from Carbon Dioxide

C1 to C2: Connecting carbons by reductive deoxygenation and coupling of CO
Credit: Kyle Horak and Joshua Buss/Caltech

(December 23, 2015)  In the quest for sustainable alternative energy and fuel sources, one viable solution may be the conversion of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into liquid fuels.

Through photosynthesis, plants convert sunlight, water, and CO2 into sugars, multicarbon molecules that fuel cellular processes. CO2 is thus both the precursor to the fossil fuels that are central to modern life as well as the by-product of burning those fuels. The ability to generate synthetic liquid fuels from stable, oxygenated carbon precursors such as CO2 and carbon monoxide (CO) is reminiscent of photosynthesis in nature and is a transformation that is desirable in artificial systems. For about a century, a chemical method known as the Fischer-Tropsch process has been utilized to convert hydrogen gas (H2) and CO to liquid fuels. However, its mechanism is not well understood and, in contrast to photosynthesis, the process requires high pressures (from 1 to 100 times atmospheric pressure) and temperatures (100–300 degrees Celsius).

More recently, alternative conversion chemistries for the generation of liquid fuels from oxygenated carbon precursors have been reported. Using copper electrocatalysts, CO and CO2 can be converted to multicarbon products. The process proceeds under mild conditions, but how it takes place remains a mystery.

Now, Caltech chemistry professor Theo Agapie and his graduate student Joshua Buss have developed a model system to demonstrate what the initial steps of a process for the conversion of CO to hydrocarbons might look like.

The findings, published as an advanced online publication for the journal Nature on December 21, 2015 (and appearing in print on January 7, 2016), provide a foundation for the development of technologies that may one day help neutralize the negative effects of atmospheric accumulation of the greenhouse gas CO2 by converting it back into fuel. Although methods exist to transform CO2 into CO, a crucial next step, the deoxygenation of CO molecules and their coupling to form C–C bonds, is more difficult.

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December 23, 2015

STIKBOX - the first selfie stick case for iPhone and Samsung


(December 23, 2015)  A sleek and seemingly average phone case that magically transforms into a selfie stick with one quick pull.

STIKBOX is the first full-length selfie stick built into a smartphone case!

Sleek and simple design allows access to all control buttons and functions. Slide your phone in quickly and securely.

STIKBOX is available for the iPhone 6/6s, iPhone 6 Plus/6s Plus and Samsung s6 / s6 Edge + Each case is specifically designed and suited for the different weight of each model.

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OTT Nesting Chair Set

(December 23, 2015) the ‘OTT (over the top) nesting chair’ set is made of maple plywood using CNC routing process, where 17 sheet plywood panels are cut out to profile and then glued together to form the volume. the sides are then ground and sanded into shape. felt foot and carved grips are finally added to add usability to the design.

four maple leaf color stripes are painted on each chair to give the personality of the ‘members of the family’, and also dedicates to the designer’s nostalgia for canada. it is a one-off furniture piece that lies between the functional chair and an emotional artwork. it is finished with tung oil and pasting wax.

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UCLA researchers create exceptionally strong and lightweight new metal

UCLA Scifacturing Laboratory
At left, a deformed sample of pure metal; at right, the strong new metal made of magnesium with silicon
carbide nanoparticles. Each central micropillar is about 4 micrometers across.

(December 23, 2015)  Magnesium infused with dense silicon carbide nanoparticles could be used for airplanes, cars, mobile electronics and more

A team led by researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science has created a super-strong yet light structural metal with extremely high specific strength and modulus, or stiffness-to-weight ratio. The new metal is composed of magnesium infused with a dense and even dispersal of ceramic silicon carbide nanoparticles. It could be used to make lighter airplanes, spacecraft, and cars, helping to improve fuel efficiency, as well as in mobile electronics and biomedical devices.

To create the super-strong but lightweight metal, the team found a new way to disperse and stabilize nanoparticles in molten metals. They also developed a scalable manufacturing method that could pave the way for more high-performance lightweight metals. The research was published today in Nature.

“It’s been proposed that nanoparticles could really enhance the strength of metals without damaging their plasticity, especially light metals like magnesium, but no groups have been able to disperse ceramic nanoparticles in molten metals until now,” said Xiaochun Li, the principal investigator on the research and Raytheon Chair in Manufacturing Engineering at UCLA. “With an infusion of physics and materials processing, our method paves a new way to enhance the performance of many different kinds of metals by evenly infusing dense nanoparticles to enhance the performance of metals to meet energy and sustainability challenges in today’s society.” 

journal reference >>

Engineers demo first processor that uses light for ultrafast communications

The electronic-photonic processor chip communicates to the outside world
directly using light, illustrated here. The photo shows the packaged microchip
under illumination, revealing the chip’s primary features.
(Image by Glenn J. Asakawa, University of Colorado,

(December 23, 2015)  Engineers have successfully married electrons and photons within a single-chip microprocessor, a landmark development that opens the door to ultrafast, low-power data crunching.

The researchers packed two processor cores with more than 70 million transistors and 850 photonic components onto a 3-by-6-millimeter chip. They fabricated the microprocessor in a foundry that mass-produces high-performance computer chips, proving that their design can be easily and quickly scaled up for commercial production.

The new chip, described in a paper to be published Dec. 24 in the print issue of the journal Nature, marks the next step in the evolution of fiber optic communication technology by integrating into a microprocessor the photonic interconnects, or inputs and outputs (I/O), needed to talk to other chips.

“This is a milestone. It’s the first processor that can use light to communicate with the external world,” said Vladimir Stojanović, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the development of the chip. “No other processor has the photonic I/O in the chip.”

The electronic-photonic processor chip naturally illuminated by red and green bands of light.
(Image by Glenn J. Asakawa, University of Colorado,

Stojanović and fellow UC Berkeley professor Krste Asanović teamed up with Rajeev Ram at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Miloš Popović at the University of Colorado Boulder to develop the new microprocessor.

“This is the first time we’ve put a system together at such scale, and have it actually do something useful, like run a program,” said Asanović, who helped develop the free and open architecture called RISC-V (reduced instruction set computer), used by the processor.

The illumination and camera create a rainbow-colored pattern across
the electronic-photonic processor chip.
(Image by Milos Popović, University of Colorado,

Greater bandwidth with less power

Compared with electrical wires, fiber optics support greater bandwidth, carrying more data at higher speeds over greater distances with less energy. While advances in optical communication technology have dramatically improved data transfers between computers, bringing photonics into the computer chips themselves had been difficult.

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Weight Loss Programs Tailored to a Person's Genome May Be Coming Soon

Photo by Bill Branson, NIH

(December 23, 2015)  Some health experts predict that the next big advance in helping overweight people achieve a healthier weight will be to use an individual's genetic data to customize diets and physical activity plans, an approach known as "precision weight loss." A recent summary report on the genetics of weight loss, developed by some of the leading experts in this field, finds that the biggest challenge to realizing this dream is the need for better analytical tools for discovering the relationships between genetics, behavior and weight-related diseases.

The report, which appears in the January edition of the journal Obesity, summarizes what scientists currently know about factors that influence weight loss and weight regain, and it identifies how genetic information and data collection from noninvasive, portable devices may soon be incorporated into research and weight loss treatment.

"I think within five years, we'll see people start to use a combination of genetic, behavioral and other sophisticated data to develop individualized weight management plans," says Molly Bray, a geneticist and professor of nutritional sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, who led the working group.

Bray speculates that in the future, patients might submit saliva samples for gene sequencing, along with using automated sensors to collect information about factors such as their environment, diet, activity and stress. A computer algorithm would take this information and provide patients with specific recommendations to achieve their target weight.

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A quantum of light for material science

(December 23, 2015)  A study led by Ángel Rubio, the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country professor and head of the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg, shows that it is possible to predict the effects of photons on materials

Computer simulations that predict the light-induced change in the physical and chemical properties of complex systems, molecules, nanostructures and solids usually ignore the quantum nature of light. Scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD), led by Professor Ángel Rubio of the UPV/EHU's Department of Material Physics and Director of the Theory Department at the MPSD, have now shown how the effects of the photons can be properly included in such calculations. This study opens up the possibility of predicting and controlling the change of material properties due to the interaction with photons from first principles.

The basic building blocks of atoms, molecules and solids are positively charged nuclei and negatively charged electrons. Their mutual interactions determine most of the physical and chemical properties of matter, such as electrical conductivity or the absorption of light. The laws that govern this delicate interplay between electrons and nuclei are those of quantum electrodynamics (QED), in which particles interact via the exchange of photons, which are the quanta of light. However, the equations of QED are so complex that in practice scientists have to simplify them to be able to make any prediction for real materials. A very common simplification in quantum chemistry and solid-state physics is to neglect the quantum nature of light. Although this assumption works well for many applications, recent experiments have uncovered situations where the quantum nature of the photons can dramatically change the material properties and give rise to new collective behaviour and phenomena.

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Optoelectronic microprocessors built using existing chip manufacturing

Researchers have produced a working optoelectronic chip that computes electronically
but uses light to move information. The chip has 850 optical components and 70 million
transistors, which, while significantly less than the billion-odd transistors of a typical
microprocessor, is enough to demonstrate all the functionality that a commercial optical
chip would require. Image: Glenn J. Asakawa

High-performance prototype means chipmakers could now start building optoelectronic chips.

(December 23, 2015)  Using only processes found in existing microchip fabrication facilities, researchers at MIT, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Colorado have produced a working optoelectronic microprocessor, which computes electronically but uses light to move information.

Optical communication could dramatically reduce chips’ power consumption, which is not only desirable in its own right but essential to maintaining the steady increases in computing power that we’ve come to expect.

Demonstrating that optical chips can be built with no alteration to existing semiconductor manufacturing processes should make optical communication more attractive to the computer industry. But it also makes an already daunting engineering challenge even more difficult.

“You have to use new physics and new designs to figure out how you take ingredients and process recipes that are used to make transistors, and use those to make photodetectors, light modulators, waveguides, optical filters, and optical interfaces,” says MIT professor of electrical engineering Rajeev Ram, referring to the optical components necessary to encode data onto different wavelengths of light, transmit it across a chip, and then decode it. “How do you build all the optics using only the layers out of a transistor? It felt a bit like an episode of ‘MacGyver’ where he has to build an optical network using only old computer parts.”

The project began as a collaboration between Ram, Vladimir Stojanović, and Krste Asanovic, who were then on the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science faculty. Stojanović and Asanovic have since moved to Berkeley, and they, Ram, and Miloš A. Popović, who was a graduate student and postdoc at MIT before becoming an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Colorado, are the senior authors on a paper in Nature that describes the new chip.

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(December 23, 2015)  From Madrid, the challenge as industrial designers is to transform this half-finished product, the lamp shade created by artisans in Colombia, into a product ready to be sold on the market: the lamp.

Given that each lamp shade is unique we chose to offer individual lamps as well as big installations. For this we designed an adornment which is cilindrical and made out of mechanised iron and later phosphated, like a black hole from which all the different cables fall.

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Unsynchronized Structured Light

(December 23, 2015)  Various Structured Light (SL) methods are used to capture 3D range images, where a number of binary or continuous light patterns are sequentially projected onto a scene of interest, while a digital cam- era captures images of the illuminated scene. All existing SL meth- ods require the projector and camera to be hardware or software synchronized, with one image captured per projected pattern. A 3D range image is computed from the captured images. The two synchronization methods have disadvantages, which limit the use of SL methods to niche industrial and low quality consumer ap- plications. Unsynchronized Structured Light (USL) is a novel SL method which does not require synchronization of pattern projec- tion and image capture. The light patterns are projected and the images are captured independently, at constant, but possibly dif- ferent, frame rates. USL synthesizes new binary images as would be decoded from the images captured by a camera synchronized to the projector, reducing the subsequent computation to standard SL. USL works both with global and rolling shutter cameras. USL enables most burst-mode-capable cameras, such as modern smart- phones, tablets, DSLRs, and point-and-shoots, to function as high quality 3D snapshot cameras. Beyond the software, which can run in the devices, a separate SL Flash, able to project the sequence of patterns cyclically, during the acquisition time, is needed to enable the functionality.

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Ringing in a New Way to Measure and Modulate Trapped Light

The focused ion-beam tool developed at the NIST Center for
Nanoscale Science and Technology can inject ions into the resonator,
creating tiny bulges that affect the structure’s resonant properties—akin
to how a bell maker can change the sound a bell makes by adding material and
changing its shape. Credit: NIST

(December 23, 2015)  Researchers working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a novel way to noninvasively measure and map how and where trapped light vibrates within microscale optical resonators.*

The new technique not only makes for more accurate measurements but also allows scientists to fine-tune the trapped light’s frequency by subtly altering the shape of the resonator itself.

Visualizing the vibration patterns will help scientists to perfect ultrasensitive optical sensors for detecting biomolecules and even single atoms. The fine-tuning capability will also open the door to creating optical resonators with identical resonances, a feat now impossible to achieve during manufacturing, but necessary for applications such as quantum information processing with single photons.

Microscale optical resonators are like tiny bells that ring not with sound, but with light. Just like a bell’s tone, the frequency with which an optical resonator “rings” is determined by its size and shape, so that it amplifies and sustains some frequencies of light and diminishes others.

The devices are so tiny that the light actually extends outside their outer surfaces where they form “near-fields.” Where these vibrating near-fields are strongest, the resonator is hypersensitive to changes in the environment. Any perturbation of a near field, say by a stray molecule or atom, will affect the light inside the resonator in a detectable way, much in the same way that touching a ringing bell will change its tone or volume or silence the bell altogether.

Mapping these vibration patterns of light in real devices will help scientists to make them even more sensitive.

At present, the vibrational profiles of these resonators are measured using sharp, needle-like probes. The problem with using a probe is that it strongly disturbs the near-fields before it is able to get close enough to the surface to do high-resolution imaging. High-resolution imaging of the microresonator requires a probe that is able to reach the surface without disturbing the near fields.

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