February 29, 2016

Syracuse Chemists Combine Biology, Nanotechnology to Create Alternate Energy Source

A schematic of the nano-biosystem (top) and an electron
microscope image of quantum rods

(February 29, 2016)  New article from Maye Research Group draws on nanoscience, self-assembly

Chemists in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences have made a transformational advance in an alternate lighting source—one that doesn’t require a battery or a plug.

Associate Professor Mathew Maye and a team of researchers from Syracuse, along with collaborators from Connecticut College, have recently demonstrated high-efficient energy transfer between semiconductor quantum rods and luciferase enzymes. Quantum rods and luciferase enzymes are nanomaterials and biomaterials, respectively. When combined correctly, these materials produce bioluminescence—except, instead of coming from a biomaterial, such as a firefly enzyme, the light eminates from a nanomaterial, and is green, orange, red, or near-infrared in color.

The findings are the subject of a recent article in ACS Nano (American Chemical Society, 2016).

“Think of our system as a design project," Maye says. "Our goal has been to build a nano-biosystem that's versatile enough to teach us a lot, while allowing us to overcome significant challenges in the field and have practical applications. The design involves materials from our chemistry and biology labs, as well as various nanoscience and self-assembly tools. It's a true team effort with multiple collaborations.”

Maye illustrates his point by referencing quantum rods, each of which is four nanometers wide and 50 nanometers long. (A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.) “The rods were chemically synthesized with amazing precision,” he says. “To get the best information, we realized that we needed at least two different types of rods, each with three synthetically tuned variations, and up to 10 different assembly conditions.”

Having a wide range of variables has enabled Maye and his team to learn more about the science of nano-biology energy transfer.

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Engineered Swarmbots Rely on Peers for Survival

(February 29, 2016)  Duke University bioengineers design cells that die if they leave the confines of their capsule

Duke University researchers have engineered microbes that can’t run away from home; those that do will quickly die without protective proteins produced by their peers.

Dubbed “swarmbots” for their ability to survive in a crowd, the system could be used as a safeguard to stop genetically modified organisms from escaping into the surrounding environment. The approach could also be used to reliably program colonies of bacteria to respond to changes in their surrounding environment, such as releasing specific molecules on cue.

The system is described online February 29, 2016, in Molecular Systems Biology.

“Safety has always been a concern when modifying bacteria for medical applications because of the danger of uncontrolled proliferation,” said Lingchong You, the Paul Ruffin Scarborough Associate Professor of Engineering at Duke University.

“Other labs have addressed this issue by making cells rely on unnatural amino acids for survival or by introducing a ‘kill switch’ that is activated by some chemical,” You said. “Ours is the first example that uses collective survival as a way of intrinsically realizing this safeguard.”

In the experiment, You and his colleagues engineered a non-pathogenic strain of E. coli to produce a chemical called AHL. They also modified the cells so that, in high enough concentrations, AHL causes them to produce an antidote to antibiotics. When the population of E. coli is dense enough, the antidote keeps them alive, even in the presence of antibiotics that would otherwise kill them.

The researchers then confined a sufficiently large number of the bacteria to a capsule and bathed it in antibiotics. As long as the E. coli remained inside their container where their density was high, they all survived. But if individual bacteria escaped, they were quickly killed off by the antibiotic.

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Chair "Torsion" / Rocking chair

(February 29, 2016) The chair was made under the impression of sculptures of Naum Gabo but also based on investigation of the mathematical principles of optimum structures. These principles arrange configurations of frame members for a minimum quantity of material to endure a given load. The whole structure of the chair was created according it for balancing external load of weight of sitting person by a system of internal forces. At the same time it was carefully measured and created according proportions and forms of human body to provide a high level of functionality and usability.

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Helmholtz Researchers Identify Genetic Switch Regulating Satiety and Body Weight

STAT3 deacetylation by HDAC5 is a prerequisite for central leptin action
and our ability to stay lean.

(February 29, 2016)  A team of researchers at Helmholtz Zentrum München, Technische Universität München and the German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD) has identified a new mechanism that regulates the effect of the satiety hormone leptin. The study published in the journal ‘Nature Communications’ identified the enzyme HDAC5 as key factor in our control of body weight and food intake and potential target against the Yoyo dieting effect.

higher overall HDAC5 immunorreactivity (nature.com)

Why do we get fat and why is it so difficult for so many people to keep off excess weight? Researchers in the Reseach Unit Neurobiology of Diabetes led by Dr. Paul Pfluger and at the Institute for Diabetes and Obesity led by Prof. Dr. Matthias Tschöp have now identified a new component in the complex fine-tuning of body weight and food intake. They found that the enzyme histone deacetylase 5 (HDAC5) has a significant influence on the effect of the hormone leptin*. This hormone plays a crucial role in triggering satiety and thus on how the body adapts to a changing food environment.

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Nanoparticles on Nanosteps

image credit:CNR-IOM/SISSA


New technologies are starved for efficient and inexpensive catalysts. The best materials are made up of nanoparticles, whose properties are the result of their small size. The single catalyst particles have, however, an ugly tendency to cluster into larger particles, thereby reducing their effectiveness. A group of scientists from the International School of Advanced Studies in Trieste and the DEMOCRITOS centre of the Istituto Officina dei Materiali of the Italian National Research Council (IOM-CNR), with the collaboration of other institutions, have developed a material that maintains the stability of a “dispersed” catalyst, thus maximising the efficiency of the process and decreasing costs and wastage.

journal reference (Open Access) >>

VTT and Aalto University to develop new technology for optical data transfer for the evolving needs of the information society

(February 29, 2016)  VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Aalto University, together with a group of contributing local companies, are starting a new Tekes-funded project on optical switching and transmission technologies to improve the scalability and energy-efficiency of data centres and 5G networks where the volumes of data transfer grow exponentially.

The way we use and share information and entertainment content are changing from local media hardware into distributed content with on-line and mobile access. In entertainment, DVDs and CDs have already been replaced by streaming and on-demand movie services. Data storage and bookkeeping are moving into cloud with on-line mobile access and internet of things will soon connect everyday devices into the local or global network.

Already before the onset of this transition, the volume of data transfer was increasing exponentially and the capacity of the data centres was doubled every 18 months. In 2014 the data centres in EU alone consumed about 120 TWh of energy, roughly equivalent to the full capacity of fourteen 1 GW nuclear reactors. 

With the current data centre networking technologies, addressing the exponential increase in data volume would lead to an enormous magnification of the cost.

The new Tekes-funded project, Optical Information Processing for Energy-Efficient Data Centres (OPEC), focuses on the development of novel optical components and technologies on VTT's proprietary silicon photonics platform, as well as new silicon wafer production and precision assembly concepts. This is done in close collaboration with Nokia, Rockley Photonics and other Finnish technology companies aiming to meet the industrial demands of data centres and 5G networks.

Future challenges are approached by developing graphene and other layered 2D material based active photonic components in collaboration between VTT and Aalto University to achieve performance beyond the theoretical limit of the traditional materials. The project also explores the feasibility of integrated photonics in analog signal transfer and manipulation, such as radio-over-fiber and microwave beam steering in mobile link stations.

The project is supported financially and technologically by Nokia, Rockley Photonics, Okmetic, nLight, Ginolis and Picosun. It is part of Tekes' 5th Gear programme that launched several new projects early 2016 in connection with Business from Digitalization call.

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Stretchable electronics that quadruple in length

(February 29, 2016)  EPFL researchers have developed conductive tracks that can be bent and stretched up to four times their original length. They could be used in artificial skin, connected clothing and on-body sensors.

Conductive tracks are usually hard printed on a board. But those recently developed at EPFL are altogether different: they are almost as flexible as rubber and can be stretched up to four times their original length and in all directions. And they can be stretched a million times without cracking or interrupting their conductivity. The invention is described in an article published today in the journal Advanced Materials.

Both solid and flexible, this new metallic and partially liquid film offers a wide range of possible applications. It could be used to make circuits that can be twisted and stretched – ideal for artificial skin on prosthetics or robotic machines. It could also be integrated into fabric and used in connected clothing. And because it follows the shape and movements of the human body, it could be used for sensors designed to monitor particular biological functions.

“We can come up with all sorts of uses, in forms that are complex, moving or that change over time,” said Hadrien Michaud, a PhD student at the Laboratory for Soft Bioelectronic Interfaces (LSBI) and one of the study authors.

Extensive research has gone into developing an elastic electronic circuit. It is a real challenge, as the components traditionally used to make circuits are rigid. Applying liquid metal to a thin film in polymer supports with elastic properties naturally seems like a promising approach.

Thin and reliable

Owing to the high surface tension of some of these liquid metals, experiments conducted so far have only produced relatively thick structures. “Using the deposition and structuring methods that we developed, it’s possible to make tracks that are very narrow – several hundredths of a nanometer thick – and very reliable,” said Stéphanie Lacour, holder of the Bertarelli Foundation Chair in Neuroprosthetic Technology and who runs the lab.

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University of Kentucky Physicist Discovers New 2D Material that could Upstage Graphene

View the video above to hear more about the new material discovered by Menon
that could upstage graphene. Video by REVEAL Research Media.

(February 29, 2016)  A new one atom-thick flat material that could upstage the wonder material graphene and advance digital technology has been discovered by a physicist at the University of Kentucky working in collaboration with scientists from Daimler in Germany and the Institute for Electronic Structure and Laser (IESL) in Greece.

The atoms in the new structure are arranged in a hexagonal pattern as in graphene, but that
is where the similarity ends. The three elements forming the new material all have different
sizes; the bonds connecting the atoms are also different. As a result, the sides of the
hexagons formed by these atoms are unequal, unlike in graphene.

Reported in Physical Review B, Rapid Communications, the new material is made up of silicon, boron and nitrogen — all light, inexpensive and earth abundant elements — and is extremely stable, a property many other graphene alternatives lack.

"We used simulations to see if the bonds would break or disintegrate — it didn't happen," said Madhu Menon, a physicist in the UK Center for Computational Sciences. "We heated the material up to 1,000-degree Celsius and it still didn't break."

Image courtesy of Madhu Menon

Using state-of-the-art theoretical computations, Menon and his collaborators Ernst Richter from Daimler and a former UK Department of Physics and Astronomy post-doctoral research associate, and Antonis Andriotis from IESL, have demonstrated that by combining the three elements, it is possible to obtain a one atom-thick, truly 2D material with properties that can be fine-tuned to suit various applications beyond what is possible with graphene.

journal reference >>

New Form of Electron-beam Imaging Can See Elements that are ‘Invisible’ to Common Methods

In MIDI-STEM (right), developed at Berkeley Lab, an electron beam travels through a ringed
“phase plate,” producing a high-resolution image (bottom right) that provides details about a
sample containing a heavy element (gold) and light element (carbon). Details about the carbon
are missing in an image (bottom left) of the sample using a conventional electron imaging technique
(ADF-STEM). (Colin Ophus/Berkeley Lab, Nature Communications: 10.1038/ncomms10719)

(February 29, 2016)  Berkeley Lab-pioneered ‘MIDI-STEM’ produces high-resolution views of lightweight atoms

Electrons can extend our view of microscopic objects well beyond what’s possible with visible light—all the way to the atomic scale. A popular method in electron microscopy for looking at tough, resilient materials in atomic detail is called STEM, or scanning transmission electron microscopy, but the highly focused beam of electrons used in STEM can also easily destroy delicate samples.

This is why using electrons to image biological or other organic compounds, such as chemical mixes that include lithium—a light metal that is a popular element in next-generation battery research—requires a very low electron dose.

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed a new imaging technique, tested on samples of nanoscale gold and carbon, that greatly improves images of light elements using fewer electrons.

The newly demonstrated technique, dubbed MIDI-STEM, for matched illumination and detector interferometry STEM, combines STEM with an optical device called a phase plate that modifies the alternating peak-to-trough, wave-like properties (called the phase) of the electron beam.

This animated representation shows a Berkeley Lab-developed technique called
MIDI-STEM (at right) and conventional STEM (at left) that does not use a ringed object
called a phase plate. In MIDI-STEM, an interference pattern (bottom right) introduced by
the phase plate (top right) interacts with the electron beam before it travels through
a sample (the blue wave in the center). As the phase of the sample
(the distance between the peaks and valleys of the blue wave) changes,
the electrons passing through the sample are affected and can be measured
as a pattern (bottom right). (Colin Ophus/Berkeley Lab)

This phase plate modifies the electron beam in a way that allows subtle changes in a material to be measured, even revealing materials that would be invisible in traditional STEM imaging.

Another electron-based method, which researchers use to determine the detailed structure of delicate, frozen biological samples, is called cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM. While single-particle cryo-EM is a powerful tool—it was named as science journal Nature’s 2015 Method of the Year—it typically requires taking an average over many identical samples to be effective. Cryo-EM is generally not useful for studying samples with a mixture of heavy elements (for example, most types of metals) and light elements like oxygen and carbon.

journal reference (open access) >> 

February 26, 2016

Solar cells as light as a soap bubble

The MIT team has achieved the thinnest and lightest complete solar cells ever made,
they say. To demonstrate just how thin and lightweight the cells are, the researchers
draped a working cell on top of a soap bubble, without popping the bubble.
Photo: Joel Jean and Anna Osherov

(February 26, 2016)  Ultrathin, flexible photovoltaic cells from MIT research could find many new uses.

Imagine solar cells so thin, flexible, and lightweight that they could be placed on almost any material or surface, including your hat, shirt, or smartphone, or even on a sheet of paper or a helium balloon.

Researchers at MIT have now demonstrated just such a technology: the thinnest, lightest solar cells ever produced. Though it may take years to develop into a commercial product, the laboratory proof-of-concept shows a new approach to making solar cells that could help power the next generation of portable electronic devices.

The new process is described in a paper by MIT professor Vladimir Bulović, research scientist Annie Wang, and doctoral student Joel Jean, in the journal Organic Electronics.

Bulović, MIT’s associate dean for innovation and the Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of Emerging Technology, says the key to the new approach is to make the solar cell, the substrate that supports it, and a protective overcoating to shield it from the environment, all in one process. The substrate is made in place and never needs to be handled, cleaned, or removed from the vacuum during fabrication, thus minimizing exposure to dust or other contaminants that could degrade the cell’s performance.

“It could be so light that you don’t even know it’s there, on your shirt or on your notebook,”
Vladimir Bulović says. “These cells could simply be an add-on to existing structures.”
Photo: Joel Jean and Anna Osherov

“The innovative step is the realization that you can grow the substrate at the same time as you grow the device,” Bulović says.

In this initial proof-of-concept experiment, the team used a common flexible polymer called parylene as both the substrate and the overcoating, and an organic material called DBP as the primary light-absorbing layer. Parylene is a commercially available plastic coating used widely to protect implanted biomedical devices and printed circuit boards from environmental damage. The entire process takes place in a vacuum chamber at room temperature and without the use of any solvents, unlike conventional solar-cell manufacturing, which requires high temperatures and harsh chemicals. In this case, both the substrate and the solar cell are “grown” using established vapor deposition techniques.

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Building living, breathing supercomputers

PHOTO: Till Korten

(February 26, 2016)  Discovery opens doors to creation of biological supercomputers that are about the size of a book

The substance that provides energy to all the cells in our bodies, Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), may also be able to power the next generation of supercomputers. That is what an international team of researchers led by Prof. Nicolau, the Chair of the Department of Bioengineering at McGill, believe.

They’ve published an article on the subject this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), in which they describe a model of a biological computer that they have created that is able to process information very quickly and accurately using parallel networks in the same way that massive electronic super computers do.

Except that the model bio supercomputer they have created is a whole lot smaller than current supercomputers, uses much less energy, and uses proteins present in all living cells to function.

Doodling on the back of an envelope

“We’ve managed to create a very complex network in a very small area,” says Dan Nicolau, Sr. with a laugh. He began working on the idea with his son, Dan Jr., more than a decade ago and was then joined by colleagues from Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands, some 7 years ago. “This started as a back of an envelope idea, after too much rum I think, with drawings of what looked like small worms exploring mazes.”

The model bio-supercomputer that the Nicolaus (father and son) and their colleagues have created came about thanks to a combination of geometrical modelling and engineering knowhow (on the nano scale). It is a first step, in showing that this kind of biological supercomputer can actually work.

The circuit the researchers have created looks a bit like a road map of a busy and very organized city as seen from a plane. Just as in a city, cars and trucks of different sizes, powered by motors of different kinds, navigate through channels that have been created for them, consuming the fuel they need to keep moving.

journal reference >>

Catalyst offers clean water solution

(February 26, 2016)  A quick, cheap and highly efficient method for producing a water-purifying chemical has been developed by researchers at Cardiff University.

The team, from the Cardiff Catalysis Institute, Lehigh University and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the USA, have developed a new group of catalysts that can produce hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) on-demand in a simple one-step process, opening up the possibility of manufacturing the chemical in some of the poorest, remote and disaster-stricken areas of the world.

Their results have been published in the journal Science.

“Using our new catalyst, we’ve created a method of efficiently producing H2O2 on-demand in a quick, one-step process,” said co-author of the study Dr Simon Freakley from the Cardiff Catalysis Institute.

“Being able to produce H2O2 directly opens up a whole host of possibilities, most notably in the field of water purification where it would be indispensable to be able to produce the chemical on-site where safe and clean drinking water is at a premium.”

Over four million tonnes of H2O2 are produced by industry each year, predominantly through a large, multi-step process, which requires highly concentrated solutions of H2O2 to be transported before dilution at the point of use. Current uses of H2O2 include paper bleaching, disinfecting and water treatment and in the chemical synthesis industry.

Though centralised systems adequately supply clean water to billions of households around the world, many people still do not have access to these large-scale water supplies and must therefore rely on decentralised systems for a safe source of water.

journal reference(Science) >>

February 25, 2016



(February 25, 2016)  This week marks the official launch of the software product from TriboForm Engineering, a University of Twente start-up. Launching customers Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, and Skoda develop components such as automotive bonnets and doors using software produced by the fast-growing start-up from Enschede. Director and founder Jan Harmen Wiebenga calls it a dream. ‘When we see those cars on the road, we realize we contributed to making them. That gives us a great feeling.’

Demand for the TriboForm software is tremendous. The start-up now serves a large part of the European automotive industry. TriboForm produces software packages for friction modelling and predicting tribological behaviour. Tribology is a branch of mechanical engineering that describes the contact between materials under different conditions. The software is used in the development and production of new automotive parts.

The official launch of the product will take place this week in Germany, the heart of the global automotive industry. TriboForm will launch the product at the Triboforum 2016, a triennial industry conference. The company will do so together with the principal engineers from Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz. At the request of the Volkswagen group, a pre-presentation of the software was held in Hannover with experts from Porsche, Seat, Audi, Volkswagen and Skoda. It shows the great interest for the software.

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Graphene Slides Smoothly Across Gold

A graphen nanoribbon was anchored at the tip of a atomic force microscope
and dragged over a gold surface. The observed friction force was extremely low.
(Image: University of Basel, Department of Physics)

(February 25, 2016)  Graphene, a modified form of carbon, offers versatile potential for use in coating machine components and in the field of electronic switches. An international team of researchers led by physicists at the University of Basel have been studying the lubricity of this material on the nanometer scale. Since it produces almost no friction at all, it could drastically reduce energy loss in machines when used as a coating, as the researchers report in the journal Science.

In future, graphene could be used as an extremely thin coating, resulting in almost zero energy loss between mechanical parts. This is based on the exceptionally high lubricity – or so-called superlubricity – of modified carbon in the form of graphene. Applying this property to mechanical and electromechanical devices would not only improve energy efficiency but also considerably extend the service life of the equipment.

Fathoming out the causes of the lubricant behavior

An international community of physicists from the University of Basel and the Empa have studied the above-average lubricity of graphene using a two-pronged approach combining experimentation and computation. To do this, they anchored two-dimensional strips of carbon atoms – so-called graphene nanoribbons – to a sharp tip and dragged them across a gold surface. Computer-based calculations were used to investigate the interactions between the surfaces as they moved across one another. Using this approach, the research team led by Prof. Ernst Meyer at the University of Basel is hoping to fathom out the causes of superlubricity; until now, little research has been carried out in this area.

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New Discovery at UMass Amherst May Lead to More Efficient Solar and Opto-Electronic Devices


Fluorescence image of self-assembled TAT crystalline nanowires. Inset shows
a structural schematic of the TAT crystal packing geometry and direction of charge separation.
A new property discovered in the organic semiconductor molecule could lead to more efficient
and cost-effective materials for use in cell phone and laptop displays, among other applications. Courtesy UMass Amherst/Mike Barnes

(February 25, 2016)  Chemists and polymer scientists collaborating at the University of Massachusetts Amherst report in Nature Communications this week that they have for the first time identified an unexpected property in an organic semiconductor molecule that could lead to more efficient and cost-effective materials for use in cell phone and laptop displays, for example, and in opto-electronic devices such as lasers, light-emitting diodes and fiber optic communications.

Physical chemist Michael Barnes and polymer scientist Alejandro Briseño, with doctoral students Sarah Marques, Hilary Thompson, Nicholas Colella and postdoctoral researcher Joelle Labastide, discovered the property, directional intrinsic charge separation, in crystalline nanowires of an organic semiconductor known as 7,8,15,16-tetraazaterrylene (TAT).

The researchers saw not only efficient separation of charges in TAT, but a very specific directionality that Barnes says “is quite useful. It adds control, so we’re not at the mercy of random movement, which is inefficient. Our paper describes an aspect of the nanoscopic physics within individual crystals, a structure that will make it easier to use this molecule for new applications such as in devices that use polarized light input for optical switching. We and others will immediately exploit this directionality.”

He adds, “Observing the intrinsic charge separation doesn’t happen in polymers, so far as we know it only happens in this family of small organic molecule crystalline assemblies or nanowires. In terms of application we are now exploring ways to arrange the crystals in a uniform pattern and from there we can turn things on or off depending on optical polarization, for example.”

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Applause, applause: Regarding the goals of sustainability management social acceptance
is more important than profit for large companies. © fotolia_62372428_yanlev

(February 25, 2016)  It is commonly believed that companies are only committed to environmental and social issues if this contributes to increase their profits. A new study now shows that this stereotype is not true at least for large companies in developed countries. The driving force behind sustainability management activities of large companies is mainly the pursuit of social acceptance. Conversely, profit maximisation plays a subordinate role. This counterintuitive result of a broad empirical study has recently been published in the Journal of Business Ethics by Prof. Dr. Stefan Schaltegger (Leuphana University of Lüneburg) and Prof. Dr. Jacob Hörisch (Alanus University) (DOI: 10.1007 / 210551-015-2854-3).

The study is based on a survey of 432 of the largest companies in ten industrial countries in Europe, North America and Asia. Sustainability managers were asked about the aims, actors, methods and effects of the company’s sustainability management activities. The survey results are clear: A legitimacy-oriented perspective is prevalent not only in the aims, but also in the organisational implementation and the application of sustainability management measures. By contrast, objectives and practices following a more profit-driven logic of action were regarded as less important by the majority of respondents.

Already for developing sustainability management goals, the pursuit of social recognition plays a greater role than the profit motive. This may be because the impact from legitimacy-oriented players such as media or NGOs on corporate sustainability activities is perceived to be much higher, than that of financially focussed external stakeholders such as banks, credit rating agencies or shareholders.

A similar picture emerges from the choice of sustainability activities. For the majority of businesses, legitimacy-driven measures, such as improving employee motivation and the reputation of the company are more important than profit maximisation and cost reduction. This is also reflected in the organisational and personnel anchoring within the company: PR and communication departments, as well as legal departments are much more frequently entrusted with tasks of sustainability management than finance, accounting and controlling.

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Automatic Programming makes Swarm Robots safer and more reliable

(February 25, 2016)  Researchers from Sheffield Robotics have applied a novel method of automatically programming and controlling a swarm of up to 600 robots to complete a specified set of tasks simultaneously.

This reduces human error and therefore many of the bugs that can occur in programming, making it more user-friendly and reliable than previous techniques. This could be particularly advantageous in areas where safety of using robotics is a concern, for example, in driverless cars.

The team of researchers from the University of Sheffield applied an automated programming method previously used in manufacturing to experiments using up to 600 of their 900-strong robot swarm, one of the largest in the world, in research published in the March issue of Swarm Intelligence journal.

Swarm robotics studies how large groups of robots can interact with each other in simple ways to solve relatively complex tasks cooperatively.

Previous research has used ‘trial and error’ methods to automatically program groups of robots, which can result in unpredictable, and undesirable, behaviour. Moreover, the resulting source code is time-consuming to maintain, which makes it difficult to use in the real-world.

The supervisory control theory used for the first time with a swarm of robots in Sheffield reduces the need for human input and therefore, error. The researchers used a graphical tool to define the tasks they wanted the robots to achieve, a machine then automatically programmed and translated this to the robots.

This program uses a form of linguistics, comparable to using the alphabet in the English language. The robots use their own alphabet to construct words, with the ‘letters’ of these words relating to what the robots perceive and to the actions they choose to perform. The supervisory control theory helps the robots to choose only those actions that eventually result in valid ‘words’. Hence, the behaviour of the robots is guaranteed to meet the specification.

We are increasingly reliant on software and technology, so machines that can program themselves and yet behave in predictable ways within parameters set by humans, are less error-prone and therefore safer and more reliable.

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New trigger for self-powered mechanical movement

This image illustrates pumping in two directions at once with an enzyme patch. A patch of enzymes
immobilized on a surface acts as a fluid pump. The fluid, and the small particles (green spheres)
carried by the fluid, can simultaneously be pumped away from the patch (blue) in some parts of the
chamber and toward the patch (red) in other locations. This behavior changes over time and is due
to the changes in fluid density that the reaction produces. Image: University of Pittsburgh

(February 25, 2016)  A new way to use the chemical reactions of certain enzymes to trigger self-powered mechanical movement has been developed by a team of researchers at Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh. A paper describing the team's research, titled "Convective flow reversal in self-powered enzyme micropumps," is published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"These pumps provide precise control over flow rate without the aid of an external power source and are capable of turning on in response to specific chemicals in solution," said Ayusman Sen, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Penn State. "They also can remain viable and capable of turning on even after prolonged storage." Sen and Penn State graduate student Isamar Ortiz did the research team's experiments, which reveal that "simple reactions triggered by enzymes can be used to combine sensing and fluid pumping into single non-mechanical, self-powered, nano/microscale pumps that precisely control flow rate, and that turn on in response to specific stimuli," said Sen, who also made the initial discovery of enzyme pumps.

Potential uses of the self-powered enzyme micropumps include detecting substances, moving particles to build small structures, and delivering medications. "One potential use is the release of insulin to a diabetes patient from a reservoir at a rate proportional to the concentration of glucose in the person's blood," Sen said. "Another example is an enzyme pump that is triggered by nerve toxins to release an antidote agent to decontaminate and treat an exposed person. Also, because enzyme pumps can pump particles suspended in a fluid, it also should be possible to use them to assemble or disassemble small structures in specific locations by directional pumping."

Microrobots learn from ciliates

Light-driven microswimmers: the material of the swimming body, which measures
just under one millimetre in length, is chosen so that it changes shape when exposed
to green light. This causes wave-shaped protrusions to form along the swimmer and
drive it in the opposite direction when light patterns move over its surface.
© Alejandro Posada

(February 25, 2016)  A swimming microrobot formed from liquid-crystal elastomers is driven by a light-induced peristaltic motion

Ciliates can do amazing things: Being so tiny, the water in which they live is like thick honey to these microorganisms. In spite of this, however, they are able to self-propel through water by the synchronized movement of thousands of extremely thin filaments on their outer skin, called cilia. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart are now moving robots that are barely perceptible to the human eye in a similar manner through liquids. For these microswimmers, the scientists are neither employing complex driving elements nor external forces such as magnetic fields. The team of scientists headed by Peer Fischer have built a ciliate-inspired model using a material that combines the properties of liquid crystals and elastic rubbers, rendering the body capable of self-propelling upon exposure to green light. Mini submarines navigating the human body and detecting and curing diseases may still be the stuff of science fiction, but applications for the new development in Stuttgart could see the light-powered materials take the form of tiny medical assistants at the end of an endoscope.

Their tiny size makes life extremely difficult for swimming microorganisms. As their movement has virtually no momentum, the friction between the water and their outer skin slows them down considerably – much like trying to swim through thick honey. The viscosity of the medium also prevents the formation of turbulences, something that could transfer the force to the water and thereby drive the swimmer. For this reason, the filaments beat in a coordinated wave-like movement that runs along the entire body of the single-celled organism, similar to the legs of a centipede. These waves move the liquid along with them so that the ciliate – measuring roughly 100 micrometres, i.e. a tenth of a millimetre, as thick as a human hair – moves through the liquid.

The soft, light-sensitive microrobot is moved by a dynamic, structured light field.
The swimming body consists of a mixture of liquid-crystal molecules (LC) and dye molecules that
heats up when illuminated. This causes the liquid-crystal molecules to bend so that the material
deforms and protrusions form on the illuminated surface. In a moving light field, the protrusions move
along the swimming body via peristalsis, thereby driving the body along. © Stefano Palagi

“Our aim was to imitate this type of movement with a microrobot,” says Stefano Palagi, first author of the study at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, which also included collaborating scientists from the Universities of Cambridge, Stuttgart and Florence. Fischer, who is also a Professor for Physical Chemistry at the University of Stuttgart, states that it would be virtually impossible to build a  mechanical machine at the length scale of the ciliate that  also replicates its movement, as it would need to have hundreds of individual actuators, not to mention their control and energy supply.

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February 24, 2016

The Key to Mass-Producing Nanomaterials

Video: Nanoparticles form in a 3D-printed microfluidic channel. Each droplet shown here
is about 250 micrometers in diameter, and contains billions of platinum nanoparticles.
https://youtu.be/K5rFL4MIfac (Courtesy of Richard Brutchey and Noah Malmstadt)

(February 24, 2016)  Researchers create a system that can scale-up production of the smallest – but among the most useful – materials of this century

Nanoparticles – tiny particles 100,000 times smaller than the width of a strand of hair – can be found in everything from drug delivery formulations to pollution controls on cars to HD TV sets. With special properties derived from their tiny size and subsequently increased surface area, they’re critical to industry and scientific research.

They’re also expensive and tricky to make.

Now, researchers at USC have created a new way to manufacture nanoparticles that will transform the process from a painstaking, batch-by-batch drudgery into a large-scale, automated assembly line.

The method, developed by a team led by Noah Malmstadt of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and Richard Brutchey of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, was published in Nature Communications on Feb. 23.

Schematic of the parallel network assembled by connecting a distribution
manifold to four droplet generators. The continuous phase was linked using
low resistance jumper tubing (ID=762 μm) and the dispersed phase was
linked using various lengths of tubing (ID=127 μm) to create a gradient
of resistances across the four branches. (Nature.com)

Consider, for example, gold nanoparticles. They have been shown to be able to easily penetrate cell membranes without causing any damage – an unusual feat, given that most penetrations of cell membranes by foreign objects can damage or kill the cell. Their ability to slip through the cell’s membrane makes gold nanoparticles ideal delivery devices for medications to healthy cells, or fatal doses of radiation to cancer cells.

However, a single milligram of gold nanoparticles currently costs about $80 (depending on the size of the nanoparticles). That places the price of gold nanoparticles at $80,000 per gram – while a gram of pure, raw gold goes for about $50.

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Want to Be Seen As a Leader? Get Some Muscle.

(February 24, 2016)  Muscular men perceived to be better leaders than physically weak ones

Forget intelligence or wisdom. A muscular physique might just be a more important attribute when it comes to judging a person’s leadership potential.

Take Arnold Schwarzenegger whose past popularity was a result of his physical prowess as a “Mr. Universe” bodybuilder. In the 2003’s historic recall election, the physically imposing Schwarzenegger easily defeated California Governor Gray Davis who is arguably weaker looking than “The Terminator.”

Coincidence? Maybe. But now there is also real evidence that physical strength matters.

Study participants in a series of experiments conducted by Cameron Anderson, a professor of management at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and Aaron Lukaszewski, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, overwhelmingly equated physical strength with higher status and leadership qualities. The paper, “The role of physical formidability in human social status allocation,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The experiments first measured the strength of various men using a handheld, hydraulic Dynamometer that measures chest and arm strength in kilograms or pounds.  After being rated on strength, each man was photographed from the knees up in a white tank shirt to reveal his shoulder, chest, and arm muscles. This way, researchers were able to control for reactions to height and attire rather than strength.

journal reference >>

HYSWAS Tetrahedron Super Yacht – Aviation on the Sea

(February 24, 2016) HYSWAS propulsion at concept stage with
The Maritime Applied Physics Corporation, Baltimore, USA

The Architecture of the Tetrahedron Super Yacht.

The design is instigated by the re-thinking of the form, superstructure and propulsion of the modern super-yacht into a radically simple enclosure and an elevated mode of travel above the water line.

February 22, 2016

Chemically Storing Solar Power

Photochemical cell: Light creates free charge carriers, oxygen (blue)
is pumped through a membrane

(February 22, 2016)  A photo-electrochemical cell has been developed at TU Wien (Vienna). It can chemically store the energy of ultraviolet light even at high temperatures.

Nature shows us how it is done: Plants can absorb sunlight and store its energy chemically. Imitating this on large industrial scale, however, is difficult. Photovoltaics convert sunlight to electricity, but at high temperatures, the efficiency of solar cells decreases. Electrical energy can be used to produce hydrogen, which can then be stored – but the energy efficiency of this process is limited.

Scientists at TU Wien (Vienna) have now developed a new concept: By combining  highly specialised new materials, they have managed to combine high temperature photovoltaics with an electrochemical cell. Ultraviolet light can be directly used to pump oxygen ions through a solid oxide electrolyte. The energy of the UV light is stored chemically. In the future, this method could also be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Special Materials for High Temperatures
As a student at TU Wien, Georg Brunauer  started pondering possible combinations of photovoltaics and electrochemical storage. The feasibility of such a system depends crucially on whether it is able to work at high temperatures. “This would allow us to concentrate sunlight with mirrors and build large-scale plants with a high rate of efficiency”, says Brunauer. Common photovoltaic  cells, however, only work well up to 100°C. In a solar concentrator plant, much higher temperatures would be reached.

Heated reactor (TU Wien)

While working on his doctoral thesis, Brunauer managed to put his ideas into practice. The key to success was an unusual choice of materials. Instead of the ordinary silicon based  photovoltaics, special metal oxides - so-called perovskites - were used. By combining several different metal oxides, Brunauer managed to assemble a cell which combines photovoltaics and electrochemistry. Several research partners at TU Wien contributed to the project. Georg Brunauer is a member of Prof. Karl Ponweiser’s research team at the Institute for Energy Systems and Thermodynamics, Prof. Jürgen Fleig’s group (Chemical Technologies and Analytics) and the Institute for Atomic and Subatomic physics were involved as well.

Creating Voltage and Pumping Ions
“Our cell consists of two different parts – a photoelectric part on top and an electrochemical part below”, says Georg Brunauer. “In the upper layer, ultraviolet light creates free charge carriers, just like in a standard solar cell.” The electrons in this layer are immediately removed and travel to the bottom layer of the electrochemical cell. Once there, these electrons are used to ionize oxygen to negative oxygen ions, which can then travel through a membrane in the electrochemical part of the cell.

“This is the crucial photoelectrochemical step, which we hope will lead to the possibility of splitting water and producing hydrogen”, says Brunauer. In its first evolution step, the cell works as a UV-light driven oxygen pump. It yields an open-current voltage of up to 920 millivolts at a temperature of 400°C.

journal reference (Open Access) >>

Quantum experiments designed by machines

The Algorithm Melvin found out that the most simple realization
can be asymmetric and therefore counterintuitive
(Copyright: Robert Fickler, Universität Wien).

(February 22, 2016)  Algorithm does not work intuitive – just as quantum physics

Quantum physics is counterintuitive. Many of the phenomena in the quantum world do not have a classical analog: In the quantum world, a coin is not either heads or tails – but can have both properties at the same time. For a better understanding of such phenomena, laboratory experiments are indispensable. Quantum physicist Mario Krenn and his colleagues in the group of Anton Zeilinger from the Faculty of Physics at the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Sciences have developed an algorithm which designs new useful quantum experiments. As the computer does not rely on human intuition, it finds novel unfamiliar solutions. The research has just been published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The idea was developed when the physicists wanted to create new quantum states in the laboratory, but were unable to conceive of methods to do so. “After many unsuccessful attempts to come up with an experimental implementation, we came to the conclusion that our intuition about these phenomena seems to be wrong. We realized that in the end we were just trying random arrangements of quantum building blocks. And that is what a computer can do as well – but thousands of times faster”, explains Mario Krenn, PhD student in Anton Zeilinger’s group and first author research.

journal reference >>

Modified laser cutter prints 3-D objects from powder

Researchers in the Miller Lab at Rice University’s Department of Bioengineering used a
commercial-grade CO2 laser cutter to create OpenSLS, an open-source, selective laser sintering
platform that can print intricate 3-D objects from powdered plastics and biomaterials.
(Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

(February 22, 2016)  Rice bioengineers make open-source laser sintering printer for biomaterials fabrication

Rice University bioengineering researchers have modified a commercial-grade CO2 laser cutter to create OpenSLS, an open-source, selective laser sintering platform that can print intricate 3-D objects from powdered plastics and biomaterials. The system costs at least 40 times less than its commercial counterparts and allows researchers to work with their own specialized powdered materials.

The design specs and performance of Rice’s OpenSLS platform, an open-source device similar to commercially available selective laser sintering (SLS) platforms, are described in an open-access paper published in PLOS ONE. OpenSLS, which was built using low-cost, open-source microcontrollers, cost less than $10,000 to build; commercial SLS platforms typically start around $400,000 and can cost up to $1 million.

Rice University’s Ian Kinstlinger with a nylon model of the arterial system of a mouse liver
that he printed with OpenSLS, an open-source selective laser sintering system developed
in the Miller Lab at Rice’s Department of Bioengineering. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

“SLS technology has been around for more than 20 years, and it’s one of the only technologies for 3-D printing that has the ability to form objects with dramatic overhangs and bifurcations,” said study co-author Jordan Miller, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice who specializes in using 3-D printing for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. “SLS technology is perfect for creating some of the complex shapes we use in our work, like the vascular networks of the liver and other organs.”

Ian Kinstlinger (left) and Jordan Miller with the OpenSLS printer. Design specs and performance for OpenSLS are available at https://github.com/MillerLabFTW/. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

He said commercial SLS machines generally don’t allow users to fabricate objects with their own powdered materials, which is something that’s particularly important for researchers who want to experiment with biomaterials for regenerative medicine and other biomedical applications.

“Designing our own laser-sintering machine means there’s no company-mandated limit to the types of biomaterials we can experiment with for regenerative medicine research,” said study co-author Ian Kinstlinger, a graduate student in Miller’s group who designed several of the hardware and software modifications for OpenSLS. The team showed that the machine could print a series of intricate objects from both nylon powder — a commonly used material for high-resolution 3-D sintering — and from polycaprolactone, or PCL, a nontoxic polymer that’s commonly used to make templates for studies on engineered bone.

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