Articles from December 2015

Nanotechnology Hero

Judith Driscoll, 49, is professor of materials science at the University of Cambridge and an expert on nanotechnology. She read materials science at Imperial College London, followed by a PhD in superconductivity at Cambridge and post-doctoral research at Stanford University, California and IBM Almaden Research Centre. Following  is her testimony.


Science is Passion

I’m always surprised more people don’t study materials science. It’s broad and creative and so important to our everyday lives. I loved physics, chemistry and maths at school and hit on materials science as a great way of continuing with them.”

“Studying for a PhD was tough. It’s completely different from a first degree. Intelligence isn’t enough. You have to be creative, have your own ideas, cope with setbacks and work largely unaided. But it is a great way of finding out whether a career in research is right for you.” “The research for which I’m most famous happened on sabbatical. After eight years mostly spent teaching, doing admin and raising money I really wanted to get back into the lab, so I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to work on a new idea I had to combine superconductivity and nanotechnology.” “Nanotechnology is unbelievably small. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre, roughly the length a human hair grows in the time it takes to pick up a razor.” “Nanotechnology lets you create substances as small as one molecule thick, giving enormous surface area for speeding up chemical reactions. You can also miniaturise computer components, potentially storing a terabyte of data per square inch.” “And you can achieve quantum confinement, where particles are so small that electrons behave differently from normal, enabling new optical, electrical and magnetic properties to be realised.”

“My big breakthrough concerned the creation of “perfectdefects in very thin films of superconductors. My brainwave was to create nanoparticles within a thin film superconductor using a different material that I knew the superconductor wouldn’t react with.” “It worked right away, achieving very much higher currents in the superconductor and opening up a whole new world of applications in power transmission, conversion and storage, and in high-power magnets for important science experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider and fusion research.” Nanotechnology may be tiny but its potential is huge. It could give us much more efficient solar power, better storage of renewable energy, cancer-killing drugs delivered to just the right cells in the body, biotechnology to clean polluted environments, even molecular-scale robots called nanobots.

“My latest research involves making new kinds of composite thin films that mimic how the brain works.”

“Being a senior academic is rather like running a small business. Your “product” is your research output and you have to raise funding, manage the lab and the people, supervise the work and “market” your work to other academics.” “The wonderful thing about my job is the freedom. In my research nobody tells me what to do or when, and when my daughters were young I was able to work very flexibly”. “You need to be really passionate to succeed in science. If you’re not the type to give up your weekend to really understand something then you’re probably not cut out for it.”


Stealth Planes: China versus USA

A team of Chinese researchers have made a breakthrough in stealth plane technology that could be so significant even local military sources say it should be kept out of the public realm. The team released the technical and design details of an “invisibility circuit” they claim has the potential to help aircraft trick the best early warning systems in use today. The researchers are affiliated with the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province.

Chinese stealth aircraft

It sounds like something that should be kept in the drawer,” said Professor Huang Jun, a military stealth technology researcher at the School of Aeronautic Science and Engineering at Beihang University. Huang was not involved in the research. “This will be a breakthrough if it works as they claim,” he said. “That will be really bad news for early warning radars,” he added.

They published their research in last month’s Journal of Applied Physics, run by the American Institute of Physics. According to their paper, they have created a multi-layer electrical circuit that can “trapmicrowaves at ultra-high frequencies, thus confusing radar systems and enabling aircraft to sneak past them.


Nanoparticles Trigger Immune System To Destroy Cancer

The shells of a common plant virus, inhaled into a lung tumor or injected into ovarian, colon or breast tumors, not only triggered the immune system in mice to wipe out the tumors, but provided systemic protection against metastases, researchers from Case Western Reserve University and Dartmouth University report. The scientists tested a 100-year-old idea called in-situ vaccination. The idea is to put something inside a tumor and disrupt the environment that suppresses the immune system, thus allowing the natural defense system to attack the malignancy.

That something—the hard coating of cowpea* mosaic virus—caused no detectible side effects, which are a common problem with traditional therapies and some immunotherapies.


The cowpea virus-based nanoparticles act like a switch that turns on the immune system to recognize and fight against the tumor – as well as to remember it,” said Nicole Steinmetz, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve, appointed by the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.

The particles are shockingly potent,” said Steven Fiering, professor of microbiology and immunology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. “They’re easy to make and don’t need to carry antigens, drugs or other immunostimmulatory agents on their surface or inside.”

The team’s research is published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

* Cowpeas are one of the most important food legume crops in the semiarid tropics covering Asia, Africa, southern Europe, and Central and South America


Super-Strong, Light New Metal For Airplanes, Cars

team led by researchers from the Univeristy of California Los Angleles (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.

strong metalAt 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.

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.

The research has been  published  in Nature.


3D Printing To Help Disabled Children

Orthotics is a medical discipline that deals in creating physical supports and braces for those with disabilities. Things like back braces, arm and leg splints, and anything that helps your posture. But it’s a practice under pressure. In the UK just a few hundred specialists look after all those needing their services. World-wide one company estimates that the number of disabled people is as high as 100 million. That company is Andiamo – a company created by British couple Naveed and Samiya Parvez. And they reckon they’re about to revolutionise the industry.

3D printed leg

“What Andiamo does is we create 3D printed orthotics which are custom bracing for the outside of the body. We do that specifically for children, and we do 3D scanning alongside 3D printing to cut the wait time down from about six months down to one week.”

Where Andiamo says their technology is revolutionary is in the execution process. Traditional fittings for orthotics can take hours and delivery even longer – frequently months or more. That’s a timeframe in which children can outgrow the supports that are meant to help them as well. Andiamo say they can 3D print their orthotics and deliver them in 48 hours.

You get 3D scanned, which takes anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds, and that gets a 3D image that’s accurate to under a millimetre, and that 3D image is turned into a medical device using a computer edited design, and then that’s sent to a 3D printer, that’s fitted and then you’re sent away. So rather than taking six months and a very distressing process it can take less than a week.” Andiamo hope to have helped around a thousand families by the end of 2017, and 100,000 by the end of 2020. But with as much as 80 percent of those needing devices unable to currently get one, Naveed and Parvez hope even that will be just the beginning.


Brain Cells Death Provokes Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis* (MS) may be triggered by the death of brain cells that make myelin, the insulation around nerve fibers, according to research on a novel mouse model developed by scientists from the University of Chicago and Northwestern Medicine. The death of these cells initiates an autoimmune response against myelin, the main characteristic of the disease, which leads to MS-like symptoms in mice.This reaction can be prevented, however, through the application of specially developed nanoparticles, even after the loss of those brain cells. The nanoparticles are being developed for clinical trials that could lead to new treatments in humans.

multiple sclerosisAn image of the cerebellum from an animal early in the demyelinating phase of the late-onset disease. The green marks myelinated axons and the dark area in the center is a demyelinated lesion with T-cell inflammation (pink)

Although this was a study in mice, we’ve shown for the first time one possible mechanism that can trigger MS—the death of the cells responsible for generating myelin can lead to the activation of an autoimmune response against myelin,” said study co-senior author Brian Popko, the Jack Miller Professor of Neurological Disorders. “Protecting these cells in susceptible individuals might help delay or prevent MS.”


The study was published in Nature Neuroscience.

* Multiple sclerosis is a neurological disease involving an abnormal immune response against myelin, which leads to the progressive deterioration of a wide range of body functions. MS is thought to affect 2.5 million people worldwide, and has unclear causes and no known cure.


Omnidirectional Solar Cells Boost Efficiency

In recent years, a complicated discussion over which direction solar cells should facesouth or west — has likely left customers uncertain about the best way to orient their panels. Now researchers from 3 different universities in Taiwan  are attempting to resolve this issue by developing solar cells that can harvest light from almost any angle, and the panels self-clean to boot.

solar farm

Commercial solar panels work best when sunlight hits them at a certain angle. Initially, experts had suggested that solar panels face south to collect the most energy from the sun. But an influential 2013 report by Pecan Street, an energy-research organization, advised that systems tilt westward to maximize efficiency. Further analysis has found that determining the ideal angle is more complicated — in essence, it depends on where you live. And even if customers get the positioning correct, they’re still losing out on prime sunlight because most residential systems can’t move or adjust to the sun’s track across the sky. Jr-Hau He, Kun-Yu Lai fron the National Taiwan University and colleagues wanted to address this shortcoming. The researchers developed a glass coating that incorporates ultrathin nanorods and honeycomb nanowalls that can help underlying solar cells harvest sunlight from multiple angles. The cell efficiency can be boosted by 5.2 to 27.7 percent, depending on the angle of the light, and the efficiency enhancement can be up to 46 percent during long-term use. 

The material also repelled dust and pollution that would otherwise block some rays from getting absorbed and converted to electricity. The new glass coating kept panels working outdoors at optimum levels for six weeks while the efficiency of panels with an unmodified coating dropped over the same period.


How To Detect Alzheimer’s Years Before Memory Loss

Chilean neurologists say they’ve found a key to diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease early, even before memory loss and other symptoms develop. Researchers at Chile’s Biomedical Neuroscience Institute (BNI) believe they can identify early stages of dementia and other psychiatric diseases in sufferers through observing eye movement patterns and the brain’s electrical activity. The neurologists study patients navigating a virtual location, where they must find “keys” to complete a task. Lead neurologist Enzo Brunetti said the tests were able to detect very early signs of cognitive impairment in patients who apparently presented no symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Eye movement link to Alzheimer's

Eye movements and brain activity may be the key to diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease earlier and more accurately, according to research led by Chilean neurologists.

In this study, what we did was that we applied spatial navigation tasks using a computer, and with the help of a software we examined in detail which were the early functions that became altered in Alzheimer’s disease (patients) and focused on a very specific function, linked to the codification and development of cognitive memory, that helps people move through the physical environment. This is one of the cognitive functions that were altered in patients with Alzheimer’s and we observed that they were altered from very early stages. Therefore we believe this is a biomarker for the disease, which would give us an opportunity to shed light on an early diagnosis for this disease“, says Enzo Brunetti, neurologist.
Brunetti says the patients who are likely to develop some form of dementia make similar eye movements while navigating through the virtualroom” to those at a developed stage of the disease. With the help of electrodes that measure the brain’s electrical activity, the neurologists run non-invasive electroencephalogram (EEG) tests on patients while they navigate through the computer-made universe.
More tests and a larger clinical trial are needed before the treatment can be made available. An early Alzheimer’s diagnosis may not only help patients and their families plan better for the future, but also offer them a possibility of delaying the symptoms with drugs and other existing treatments. Alzheimer’s is very difficult to detect until it has progressed from mild memory loss to clear impairment. Patients eventually lose all ability to care for themselves.


Power Source Woven Into Fabrics

Wearable power sources for wearable electronics are limited by the size of garments. With that in mind, researchers at Case Western Reserve University ( CWRU)  have developed flexible wire-shaped micro *supercapacitors that can be woven into a jacket, shirt or dress. By their design or by connecting the capacitors in series or parallel, the devices can be tailored to match the charge storage and delivery needs of electronics donned.

While there’s been progress in development of those electronics–body cameras, smart glasses, sensors that monitor health, activity trackers and more–one challenge remaining is providing less obtrusive and cumbersome power sources.

wearable electronics

The area of clothing is fixed, so to generate the power density needed in a small area, we grew radially-aligned titanium oxide nanotubes on a titanium wire used as the main electrode,” said Liming Dai, the Kent Hale Smith Professor of Macromolecular Science and Engineering. “By increasing the surface area of the electrode, you increase the capacitance.

Dai and Tao Chen, a postdoctoral fellow in molecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve, published their research on the microsupercapacitor in the journal Energy Storage Materials. The study builds on earlier carbon-based supercapacitors.

*A capacitor is cousin to the battery, but offers the advantage of charging and releasing energy much faster.


Sunscreen Nanoparticles Eliminate Skin-Cancer

A research team including scientists funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) has developed a nanotechnology-based sunscreen that provides excellent protection from ultraviolet (UV) damage while eliminating a number of harmful effects of currently used sunscreens. The team encapsulated the UV-blocking compounds in bio-adhesive nanoparticles (BNPs), which adhere to the skin well, but do not penetrate beyond the skin’s surface. These properties resulted in highly effective UV protection in a mouse model, without the adverse effects observed with commercial sunscreens, including penetration into the bloodstream and generation of reactive oxygen species, which can damage DNA and lead to cancer. Commercial sunscreens use compounds that effectively filter out damaging UV light. However, there is concern that these agents have a variety of harmful effects due to penetration past the surface skin. For example, these products have been found in human breast tissue and urine and are known to disrupt the normal function of some hormones. Also, the exposure of the UV filters to light can produce toxic reactive oxygen species that are destructive to cells and tissues and can cause tumors through DNA damage.



BNPs remain on skin for a full day but are gone due to normal exfoliation in five days

This work applies a novel bioengineering idea to a little known but significant health problem, adds Jessica Tucker, Ph.D., Director of the NIBIB Program in Delivery Systems and Devices for Drugs and Biologics. “While we are all familiar with the benefits of sunscreen, the potential toxicities from sunscreen due to penetration into the body and creation of DNA-damaging agents are not well known.Bioengineering sunscreen to inhibit penetration and keep any DNA-damaging compounds isolated in the nanoparticle and away from the skin is a great example of how a sophisticated technology can be used to solve a problem affecting the health of millions of people.

Bioengineers and dermatologists at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut combined their expertise in nanoparticle-based drug delivery and the molecular and cellular characteristics of the skin to address these potential health hazards of current commercial sunscreens. The results of their collaboration were reported in the September issue of Nature Materials.


Bomb-proof Bag To Suppress Explosion On Aircraft

This is what happens when a bomb goes off inside the luggage hold of a normal passenger jet. Authorities believe it was a blast like this which downed a Russian aircraft over Egypt in October, killing all 224 people on board. A team of international scientists are working on a device that could mitigate the effect of such an explosion. They’ve developed the Fly-Bag – a bomb-proof lining made from layers of fabrics and composites that have high strength and impact, and heat resistance. In field-tests, an explosive device was placed in a suitcase and then zipped up inside the Fly-Bag. When detonated, the bag expands and contracts but does not tear. The structural integrity of the fuselage is maintained. The Fly-Bag could be a fail-safe in the event an explosive device is smuggled aboard an aircraft, according to a leading British security consultant.


I think it has the capacity to transform how we look at hold baggage. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the reconciliation of passengers and their bags; since 1988, since the Lockerbie Disaster, that’s been a big focus of the airline industry”, says Matthew Finn, security consultant at Augmeniq, a Brtish company. “What the Fly-Bag does is look to those situations where there may be the device on board and how do we contain that. I think it’s a really interesting development and I’d like to see it deployed more widely“, he adds.
The Fly-Bag is being developed by Blastech, a spin out company from the University of Sheffield, as well as partners from across Europe..


How To Increase Photovoltaic Efficiency

Researchers from the The Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) have built tiny “match-headwires that act as built-in light concentrators, enhancing solar cell efficiency.

Crystal growth on a nano/microscale level results in the formation of “match-head”-like, three-dimensional structures that enhance light absorption and photovoltaic efficiency. Match-head semiconductor nanowires focus incident light for greater overall efficiency. The match heads are naturally formed during the wire-growth process, which can be applied to various materials and structures for photonic and optoelectronic devices. This is the first large structure grown on a nanowire tip and it creates a completely new architecture for harnessing energy.

match-head(Left) Silicon wires with match heads and (right) light absorption profile of a single match-head wire at 587 nm absorption

Enhanced light absorption and efficient, photogenerated carrier collection are essential characteristics of highly efficient solar cells. Nanowires with embedded radial junctions are promising building blocks for highly efficient photovoltaics because of their ability to achieve these two characteristics. The new technology in this highlight provides a novel method for enhancing optical absorption and photovoltaic efficiency with crystal growth. Controlled silicon crystal growth on the tops of silicon wires creates a match-head structure. The match head acts as a light concentrator. Light absorptance was increased by 36% and photovoltaic efficiency was increased by 20%. Because the match-head crystal is naturally grown and minimizes surface energy, this technique is applicable for a wide range of materials and device architectures to boost performance. The ability to control the shape of the nanostructure is essential for manufacturing next-generation semiconductor devices, such as photodetectors and light emitters.