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How To Turn Nitrates Into Water And Air

Engineers at Rice University’s Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) Center have found a catalyst that cleans toxic nitrates from drinking water by converting them into air and water.

Nitrates come mainly from agricultural runoff, which affects farming communities all over the world,” said Rice chemical engineer Michael Wong, the lead scientist on the study. “Nitrates are both an environmental problem and health problem because they’re toxic. There are ion-exchange filters that can remove them from water, but these need to be flushed every few months to reuse them, and when that happens, the flushed water just returns a concentrated dose of nitrates right back into the water supply.”

Wong’s lab specializes in developing nanoparticle-based catalysts, submicroscopic bits of metal that speed up chemical reactions. In 2013, his group showed that tiny gold spheres dotted with specks of palladium could break apart nitrites, the more toxic chemical cousins of nitrates.

Nitrates are molecules that have one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms,” Wong explained. “Nitrates turn into nitrites if they lose an oxygen, but nitrites are even more toxic than nitrates, so you don’t want to stop with nitrites. Moreover, nitrates are the more prevalent problem. Ultimately, the best way to remove nitrates is a catalytic process that breaks them completely apart into nitrogen and oxygen, or in our case, nitrogen and water because we add a little hydrogen, he said”. “More than 75 percent of Earth’s atmosphere is gaseous nitrogen, so we’re really turning nitrates into air and water.

Nitrates are toxic to infants and pregnant women and may also be carcinogenic. Nitrate pollution is common in agricultural communities, especially in the U.S. Corn Belt and California’s Central Valley, where fertilizers are heavily used, and some studies have shown that nitrate pollution is on the rise due to changing land-use patterns.

Both nitrates and nitrites are regulated by theEnvironmental Protection Agency, which sets allowable limits for safe drinking water. In communities with polluted wells and lakes, that typically means pretreating drinking water with ion-exchange resins that trap and remove nitrates and nitrites without destroying them.

The research is available online in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Catalysis.


Nano-based Chip Detects Explosives

Technical University of Denmark (DTU) is ready with a prototype for a chemical “sniffer system” for the detection of criminal substances like narcotics and explosivesDogs have an eminent sense of smell. Their snouts use a specific sniffing technique which almost grabs hold of scents. Elephants’ snouts are even better than those of dogs, but obviously these are attached to elephants which are difficult to carry around. Consequently, today dogs are employed to track narcotics, money and explosives. Sometimes dogs are able to sense explosives in very small doses, however, they are not always 100 percent reliable as they are also sensitive to changes in their surroundings. A technological solution is therefore to be preferred in the tracking of stocks of narcotics or explosive materials.

Researchers at DTU have developed the prototype of a chip able to sniff molecular structures from a number of known substances. A special camera visualises the results from the chip (with 24 megapixels per 15 second) and newly developed software interprets these images according to changes in colour (i.e. the difference between two pictures), caused by the impact of the scents in the air.

We have conducted experiments by sucking air from smaller containers like e.g. handbags or pieces of luggage and from large industrial sized containers typically used for smuggling. In both cases, we arrived at promising results”, says Mogens Havsteen Jakobsen, Senior Researcher at DTU Nanotech.

By using the so-called colorimetric sensing technique, the artificial nose is able to detect different substances like explosives, narcotics, the ripeness of cheese, rotten meat and fish, the quality of wine and coffee or bad indoor climate of a room.

The project has specifically targeted explosives which are a growing safety risk in our society. The Chemical Division of the Danish Emergency Management Agency has been an important collaborator because they are authorised to produce and handle explosives. “We have test laboratories which have been made available during the course of the project”, says Jesper Mogensen, civil engineer and analysis chemist at the Chemical Division and therefore used to handling explosives.

There will be some evident advantages in using a technology such as CRIM-TRACK, compared to the instruments available today,” Jesper Mogensen says. “Firstly, the preparation time is short in that what you largely need to do is switch on the tracker and use it. This is valuable time saved. Secondly and perhaps the most important advantage is the fact that the EOD (the Explosive Ordnance Disposal) does not need to collect a sample. Today when we are called to a ransacking if e.g. a kilo of white powder has been found and we have to analyse its chemistry by way of GC-MS (i.e. gas chromatography-mass spectrometry), a sample of the substance must be collected on a fibre. In other words, it is necessary to collect physically a sample with all the risks this entails. With DTU’s sniffer system, it is possible to collect samples in the air. It sniffs for the drug much like a dog and indicates whether there are any explosives or not. This will increase the safety of our EOD”.


How To Detect Fluoride In Drinking Water

A simple colour-changing test to detect fluoride in drinking water, devised by researchers at the University of Bath (UK), could in the future prevent the crippling bone disease, skeletal fluorosis, in developing countries such as India and Tanzania. Whilst low amounts of fluoride are beneficial for healthy teeth, high levels of fluoride can weaken bones, leading to skeletal fluorosis. This disease causes crippling deformities of the spine and joints, especially in children whose skeletons are still forming.

When water passes over certain minerals, it can dissolve fluoride, which results in elevated levels of fluoride in drinking water sources in parts of East Africa, India, China and North America. Levels of fluoride in drinking water are routinely monitored and controlled at treatment works in developed countries. However in areas of the world where there is no piped water system or treatment works, people rely on drawing untreated water from wells, which can often be contaminated with higher than recommended levels of fluoride. The amounts of fluoride in the groundwater can vary due to weather events, with levels fluctuating hugely when there is a lot of rain.

A research team at the University of Bath’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies, and the Water Innovation and Research Centre (WIRC), led by Simon Lewis, has developed a simple colour-changing test that detects high levels of fluoride quickly and selectively. Whilst the test is at the proof of concept stage, the team aims to develop it into a disposable test strip that is low cost and easy to use by anyone.

The test changes from purple to blue when the levels of fluoride in the water are too high (click to get video)

Lewis explains: “Whilst a small amount of fluoride is good for your teeth and prevents tooth decay, high levels are toxic and can cause crippling deformities that are irreversible. “Most water quality monitoring systems need a lab and power supply and a trained operator to work them. What we’ve developed is a molecule that simply changes colour in a few minutes which can tell you whether the level of fluoride is too high. “This technology is in the very early stages, but we’d like to develop this technology into test strips, similar to litmus paper, that allow people without any scientific training to perform a test that is low cost, rapid and robust. “We anticipate that in the future it could make a real difference to people’s lives.”

I am very enthusiastic about the newly developed indicator molecules and am convinced that they can be incorporated into an easy to use technology that is able to provide instant information on the safety of drinking water with regards to fluoride,” comments co-investigator Dr Jannis Wenk, of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Water Innovation and Research Centre (WIRC) at Bath.


‘Internet Of Water’To Manage Floodings in U.S.

The so-called ‘internet of water‘ could be part of the solution to flooding in cities across the United States. University of Michigan researchers are piloting a ‘smart stormwater system in Ann Arbor. The system combines real-time data on how much water is in the system to help regulate water flow.


We have a network of sensors and valves and other data we can pull in, so weather forecasts and we combine all those together to figure out when is a good time to close these valves, when is a good time to open these valves?“, says Brandon Wong, researcher at the University of Michigan.

The team can control the valves remotely using smartphone apps. Eventually this could mean the water released into the wetlands around Ann Arbor being regulated autonomously.

By also having this on the internet, it doesn’t have to be me that controls it, it could be a colleague of mine, it could be the city and it could also just be autonomous“, explains Brandon Wong. With between 10 and 20 valves per square mile of the stormwater system there’s plenty of data to monitor. The team say their smart system helps ageing infrastructure cope with the increased building pressures on green areas.

So what we have done here is making use of the remaining green areas and making them more effective by putting in these valves,” adds Wong. The project won a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation. If successful, it could be rolled out across the United States.


Dyslexia Coud Be Definitively Cured

French scientists from the University of Rennes say they may have found a potential cause of dyslexia which could be treatable, hidden in tiny cells in the human eye. In a small study they found that most dyslexics had dominant round spots in both eyes – rather than in just one – leading to blurring and confusion. UK experts said the research was “very exciting” and highlighted the link between vision and dyslexia.

Not all dyslexics are likely to have the same problem. People with dyslexia have difficulties learning to read, spell or write despite normal intelligence. Often letters appear to move around and get in the wrong order and dyslexic people can have problems distinguishing left from right. Human beings have a dominant eye in the same way that people have a dominant left or right hand.
In the University of Rennes study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists looked into the eyes of 30 non-dyslexics and 30 dyslexics.
They discovered differences in the shape of spots deep in the eye where red, green and blue cones – responsible for colour – are located. In non-dyslexics, they found that the blue cone-free spot in one eye was round and in the other eye it was oblong or unevenly shaped, making the round one more dominant. But in dyslexic people, both eyes had the same round-shaped spot, which meant neither eye was dominant. This would result in the brain being confused by two slightly different images from the eyes.

Researchers Guy Ropars and Albert le Floch said this lack of asymmetry “might be the biological and anatomical basis of reading and spelling disabilities“. They added: “For dyslexic students, their two eyes are equivalent and their brain has to successively rely on the two slightly different versions of a given visual scene.”


Ancient Ink To Prevent Cancer Metastasis

For hundreds of years, Chinese calligraphers have used a plant-based ink to create beautiful messages and art. Now, a team of researchers from Fudan University (China)  reports in ACS Omega that this ink could noninvasively and effectively treat cancer cells that spread, or metastasize, to lymph nodes. Finding a simple and effective strategy to eliminate tumor metastatic lymph nodes is highly desired in clinical tumor treatment. Herein, we reported a Chinese traditional ink (Hu-ink)-based treatment for photothermal therapy (PTT) of tumor metastatic lymph nodes. By simple dilution, stable ink dispersion was obtained, which presents excellent photothermal effect because of its high absorption in near-infrared (NIR) region.

Meanwhile, as revealed by staining and photoacoustic imaging, Hu-ink could transfer to nearby lymph nodes after directly injected into the primary tumors. Under the guidance of dual-modality mapping, the metastatic sentinel lymph nodes could be subsequently eliminated by NIR irradiation.


The good biocompatibility of Hu-ink has also been verified by a series of experiments. Therefore, the Hu-ink-based treatment exhibits great potential for PTT of tumor metastatic lymph nodes in future clinical practice.


Magnetic Fields To Remotely Control Body Movements

Scientists have used magnetism to activate tiny groups of cells in the brain, inducing bodily movements that include running, rotating and losing control of the extremities — an achievement that could lead to advances in studying and treating neurological disease. The technique researchers developed is called magneto-thermal stimulation. It gives neuroscientists a powerful new tool: a remote, minimally invasive way to trigger activity deep inside the brain, turning specific cells on and off to study how these changes affect physiology.

Magnetic nanoparticles stimulate neurons deep in the brain to evoke body movements of mice. This image shows a section of a mouse brain with injected magnetic nanoparticles (colored red) covering targeted cells in the striatum

There is a lot of work being done now to map the neuronal circuits that control behavior and emotions,” says lead researcher Arnd Pralle, PhD, a professor of physics in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences. “How is the computer of our mind working? The technique we have developed could aid this effort greatly.”

Understanding how the brain works — how different parts of the organ communicate with one another and control behavior — is key to developing therapies for diseases that involve the injury or malfunction of specific sets of neurons. Traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson’s disease, dystonia and peripheral paralysis all fall into this category.

The advances reported by Pralle’s team could also aid scientists seeking to treat ailments such as depression and epilepsy directly through brain stimulation.


Male Unfertility Rises Sharply In Developed World

Male fertility in the developed world is in sharp decline. A new study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem shows a 52.4 percent fall in sperm concentration While total sperm count fell 59.3 percent between 1973 and 2011.


Our findings of sharp decline in sperm count among western men is the canary in the coal mine. It signifies that we have a serious problem with the health of men in the western world,” says Hagai Levine, lead-researcher at Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health.

That’s because sperm count is a marker of men’s general health as well as fertility. The study analysed sperm count studies from across the world – and the trend was reflected in America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The next step is to investigate the causes of male infertility.
From previous research we know that exposure to man-made chemicals, especially during the critical period of the development of the male reproductive system in pre-natal life, in the early stages of pregnancy can severaly disrupt and can manifest later in life as low sperm count and problems with male fertility,” explains Hagai Levine. The study controlled for factors like age, sexual activity and the types of men, making its conclusions more reliable. “So if, for example, you have 50 studies in one country and they all show the same trend in declining sperm counts, including different counting methods in different groups of men, that makes it much more likely that it’s real” states Prof. Daniel Brison, scientific Director at the University of Manchester (Dept. of Reproductive Health).

The decline shows no sign of slowing. And the researchers say further research is urgently needed – and regulation of the environmental factors that may be contributing could be part of the solution.


Clothes Embedded With Nanoparticles Heal The Skin

Tiny capsules embedded in the clothes we wear could soon be used to counteract the rise of sensitive skin conditions.

As people are getting older, they have more sensitive skin, so there is a need to develop new products for skin treatment,” says Dr Carla Silva, from the Centre for Nanotechnology and Smart Materials (CENTI), in Portugal

This increased sensitivity can lead to painful bacterial infections such as dermatitis, otherwise known as eczema. Current treatments use silver-based or synthetic antibacterial elements, but these can create environmentally harmful waste and may have negative side effects.

To combat these bacterial infections in an eco-friendly way the EU-funded SKHINCAPS project is combining concentrated plant oil with nanotechnology. Their solution puts these so-called essential oils into tiny capsules that are hundreds of times smaller than the width of a human hair. Each one is programmed to release its payload only in the presence of the bacteria that cause the skin infections. This means that each capsule is in direct contact with the affected skin as soon as an infection occurs, increasing the effectiveness of the treatment.

According to Dr Silva, who is also project coordinator of SKHINCAPS, the nano-capsules are attached to the clothing material using covalent bonding, the strongest chemical bond found in nature. This ensures the capsules survive the washing machine and that they are invisible to whoever is wearing them. This nanotechnology has a lifespan equal to that of the garment, though the active ingredients contained in the nano-capsules will run out earlier depending on the extent of the skin infection, and thereby on how much of the treatment is released when the clothing is worn.

The nano-capsules will prove invaluable for chronic eczema sufferers and those with high levels of stress, as well as the elderly and diabetics, who are particularly vulnerable to developing such infections.


Nanoweapons Against North Korea

Unless you’re working in the field, you probably never heard about U.S. nanoweapons. This is intentional. The United States, as well as Russia and China, are spending billions of dollars per year developing nanoweapons, but all development is secret. Even after’s June 6, 2016 headline, “US nano weapon killed Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, scientists say,” the U.S. offered no response.

Earlier this year, May 5, 2017, North Korea claimed the CIA plotted to kill Kim Jong Un using a radioactive nano poison, similar to the nanoweapon Venezuelan scientists claim the U.S. used to assassinate former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. All major media covered North Korea’s claim. These accusations are substantial, but are they true? Let’s address this question.

Unfortunately, until earlier this year, nanoweapons gleaned little media attention. However, in March 2017 that changed with the publication of the book, Nanoweapons: A Growing Threat to Humanity (2017 Potomac Books), which inspired two articles. On March 9, 2017, American Security Today published “Nanoweapons: A Growing Threat to Humanity – Louis A. Del Monte,” and on March 17, 2017, CNBC published “Mini-nukes and mosquito-like robot weapons being primed for future warfare.” Suddenly, the genie was out of the bottle. The CNBC article became the most popular on their website for two days following its publication and garnered 6.5K shares. Still compared to other classes of military weapons, nanoweapons remain obscure. Factually, most people never even heard the term. If you find this surprising, recall most people never heard of stealth aircraft until their highly publicized use during the first Iraq war in 1990. Today, almost everyone that reads the news knows about stealth aircraft. This may become the case with nanoweapons, but for now, it remains obscure to the public.

Given their relative obscurity, we’ll start by defining nanoweapons. A nanoweapon is any military weapon that exploits the power of nanotechnology. This, of course, begs another question: What is nanotechnology? According to the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative’s website,, “Nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers.” To put this in simple terms, the diameter of a typical human hair equals 100,000 nanometers. This means nanotechnology is invisible to the naked eye or even under an optical microscope.


How To Clean Up Space From Human-Made Debris

Right now, about 500,000 pieces of human-made debris are whizzing around space, orbiting our planet at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour. This debris poses a threat to satellites, space vehicles and astronauts aboard those vehicles.

What makes tidying up especially challenging is that the debris exists in space. Suction cups don’t work in a vacuum. Traditional sticky substances, like tape, are largely useless because the chemicals they rely on can’t withstand the extreme temperature swings. Magnets only work on objects that are magnetic. Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, either require or cause forceful interaction with the debris, which could push those objects in unintended, unpredictable directions. To tackle the mess, researchers from Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have designed a new kind of robotic gripper to grab and dispose of the debris, featured in the June 27 issue of Science Robotics.


There are many missions that would benefit from this, like rendezvous and docking and orbital debris mitigation,” said Aaron Parness, MS ’06, PhD ’10, group leader of the Extreme Environment Robotics Group at JPL. “We could also eventually develop a climbing robot assistant that could crawl around on the spacecraft, doing repairs, filming and checking for defects.”


How To Repair Connections Between Nerve Cells

Carbon nanotubes exhibit interesting characteristics rendering them particularly suited to the construction of special hybrid devices – consisting of biological tissue and synthetic material – planned to re-establish connections between nerve cells, for instance at spinal level, lost on account of lesions or trauma. This is the result of a piece of research published on the scientific journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology, and Medicine conducted by a multi-disciplinary team comprising SISSA (International School for Advanced Studies), the University of Trieste, ELETTRA Sincrotrone and two Spanish institutions, Basque Foundation for Science and CIC BiomaGUNE. More specifically, researchers have investigated the possible effects on neurons of the interaction with carbon nanotubes. Scientists have proven that these nanomaterials may regulate the formation of synapses, specialized structures through which the nerve cells communicate, and modulate biological mechanisms, such as the growth of neurons, as part of a self-regulating process. This result, which shows the extent to which the integration between nerve cells and these synthetic structures is stable and efficient, highlights the great potentialities of carbon nanotubes as innovative materials capable of facilitating neuronal regeneration or in order to create a kind of artificial bridge between groups of neurons whose connection has been interrupted. In vivo testing has actually already begun.

Scientists have proven that these nanomaterials may regulate the formation of synapses, specialized structures through which the nerve cells communicate, and modulate biological mechanisms, such as the growth of neurons, as part of a self-regulating process

Interface systems, or, more in general, neuronal prostheses, that enable an effective re-establishment of these connections are under active investigation” explain Laura Ballerini (SISSA) and Maurizio Prato (UniTSCIC BiomaGUNE), coordinating the research project. “The perfect material to build these neural interfaces does not exist, yet the carbon nanotubes we are working on have already proved to have great potentialities. After all, nanomaterials currently represent our best hope for developing innovative strategies in the treatment of spinal cord injuries“. These nanomaterials are used both as scaffolds, a supportive framework for nerve cells, and as means of interfaces releasing those signals that empower nerve cells to communicate with each other.