Articles from June 2016

Vertical Farming

Odds are this isn’t like other farms you’re used to. Located in a warehouse in an urban New Jersey neighborhood,  Aerofarms grows crops year-round without using soil or sunlight. The company has an ambitious goal: to grow high-yielding crops using economical methods that will provide locally sourced food to the community.

“We need a new way to feed our planet. Aerofarms presents one of the solutions to do so. Here we can grow in cities, in warehouses in cities, so we’re close to where the mouths are, reducing those transport miles and basically do more with less. That’s what we need to do. We use to grow our plants, about 95 percent less water to grow the plants, about 50 percent less fertilizer as nutrients and … zero pesticides, herbicides, fungicides“, says David rosenberg, CEO of Aerofarms.

Inside, the 30,000 square foot building (2,800 square meter) are crops of kale, arugula and watercress illuminated by rows of light emitting diodes, or LED lamps, and planted in white fabric made from recycled water bottles. The levels of light, temperature and nutrients reaching each plant in the tall columns are controlled using what AeroFarms describes as a patented growing algorithm.

We can take that exact same seed for leafy greens that out in the field can take 30-45 days to grow and grow it in 12-16 days. It’s always about optimizing. We’re giving it the right nutrients. So we’re looking at the macro nutrients, the micro nutrients, we are adjusting based on the plant variety, the stage of maturation, and we’re able to again, deliver a higher quality product more consistently all year round“, says co-founder and Chief marketing officer Marc Oshima.

The result according to Oshima – a farm that can be 75 times more productive. The company’s model also eliminates transportation of crops from grow states like California and Arizona to consumers in the Northeast. While they aren’t saying just how much food they produce, plans are in development for a larger Newark facility, and 25 more farms in the United States and abroad over the next five years. If growth continues at that rate we could one day see our cities rival the countryside as the home of agriculture.


Nanotechnology Boosts Oil Recovery

As oil producers struggle to adapt to , getting as much oil as possible out of every well has become even more important, despite concerns from nearby residents that some chemicals used to boost production may pollute underground water resources.

Researchers from the University of Houston have reported the discovery of a nanotechnology-based solution that could address both issues – achieving 15 percent tertiary oil recovery at low cost, without the large volume of chemicals used in most commercial fluids. The solution – graphene-based Janus amphiphilic nanosheets – is effective at a concentration of just 0.01 percent, meeting or exceeding the performance of both conventional and other nanotechnology-based fluids, said Zhifeng Ren, MD Anderson Chair professor of physics. Janus nanoparticles have at least two physical properties, allowing different chemical reactions on the same particle.

The low concentration and the high efficiency in boosting tertiary oil recovery make the nanofluid both more environmentally friendly and less expensive than options now on the market, said Ren, who also is a principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH. He is lead author on a paper describing the work, published June 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

oil well

Our results provide a novel nanofluid flooding method for tertiary oil recovery that is comparable to the sophisticated chemical methods,” they wrote. “We anticipate that this work will bring simple nanofluid flooding at low concentration to the stage of oilfield practice, which could result in oil being recovered in a more environmentally friendly and cost-effective manner.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates as much as 75 percent of recoverable reserves may be left after producers capture hydrocarbons that naturally rise to the surface or are pumped out mechanically, followed by a secondary recovery process using water or gas injection.

Traditional “tertiaryrecovery involves injecting a chemical mix into the well and can recover between 10 percent and 20 percent, according to the authors. But the large volume of chemicals used in tertiary oil recovery has raised concerns about potential environmental damage.

Obviously simple nanofluid flooding (containing only nanoparticles) at low concentration (0.01 wt% or less) shows the greatest potential from the environmental and economic perspective,” the researchers wrote.

Previously developed simple nanofluids recover less than 5 percent of the oil when used at a 0.01 percent concentration, they reported. That forces oil producers to choose between a higher nanoparticle concentration – adding to the cost – or mixing with polymers or surfactants. In contrast, they describe recovering 15.2 percent of the oil using their new and simple nanofluid at that concentration – comparable to chemical methods and about three times more efficient than other nanofluids.


Nanoparticle Attacks Agressive Thyroid Cancer

Anaplastic thyroid cancer (ATC), the most aggressive form of thyroid cancer, has a mortality rate of nearly 100 percent and a median survival time of three to five months. One promising strategy for the treatment of these solid tumors and others is RNA interference (RNAi) nanotechnology, but delivering RNAi agents to the sites of tumors has proved challenging. Investigators at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, together with collaborators from Massachusetts General Hospital, have developed an innovative nanoplatform that allows them to effectively deliver RNAi agents to the sites of cancer and suppress tumor growth and reduce metastasis in preclinical models of ATC.

thyroid cancer

We call this a ‘theranostic’ platform because it brings a therapy and a diagnostic together in one functional nanoparticle,” said co-senior author Jinjun Shi, PhD, assistant professor of Anesthesia in the Anesthesia Department. “We expect this study to pave the way for the development of theranostic platforms for image-guided RNAi delivery to advanced cancers.”

RNAi, the discovery of which won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 10 years ago, allows researchers to silence mutated genes, including those upon which cancers depend to grow and survive and metastasize. Many ATCs depend upon mutations in the commonly mutated cancer gene BRAF. By delivering RNAi agents that specifically target and silence this mutated gene, the investigators hoped to stop both the growth and the spread of ATC, which often metastasizes to the lungs and other organs.

When RNAi is delivered on its own, it is usually broken down by enzymes or filtered out by the kidneys before it reaches tumor cells. Even when RNAi agents make it as far as the tumor, they are often unable to penetrate or are rejected by the cancer cells. To overcome these barriers, the investigators used nanoparticles to deliver the RNAi molecules to ATC tumors. In addition, they coupled the nanoparticles with a near-infrared fluorescent polymer, which allowed them to see where the nanoparticles accumulated in a mouse model of ATC.

The results have appeared in the journal  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Hydrogen Fuel Stations

A Stanford University research lab has developed new technologies to tackle two of the world’s biggest energy challenges – clean fuel for transportation and grid-scale energy storageHydrogen fuel has long been touted as a clean alternative to gasoline. Automakers began offering hydrogen-powered cars to American consumers last year, but only a handful have sold, mainly because hydrogen refueling stations are few and far between.

silicone nanoconesStanford engineers created arrays of silicon nanocones to trap sunlight and improve the performance of solar cells made of bismuth vanadate

Millions of cars could be powered by clean hydrogen fuel if it were cheap and widely available,” said Yi Cui, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford.

Unlike gasoline-powered vehicles, which emit carbon dioxide, hydrogen cars themselves are emissions free. Making hydrogen fuel, however, is not emission free: Today, making most hydrogen fuel involves natural gas in a process that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

To address the problem, Cui and his colleagues have focused on photovoltaic water splitting. This emerging technology consists of a solar-powered electrode immersed in water. When sunlight hits the electrode, it generates an electric current that splits the water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen. Finding an affordable way to produce clean hydrogen from water has been a challenge. Conventional solar electrodes made of silicon quickly corrode when exposed to oxygen, a key byproduct of water splitting. Several research teams have reduced corrosion by coating the silicon with iridium and other precious metals.
The researchers described their findings in two studies published this month in the journals Science Advances and Nature Communications. 

Writing in the June 17 edition of Sciences Advances, Cui and his colleagues presented a new approach using bismuth vanadate, an inexpensive compound that absorbs sunlight and generates modest amounts of electricity.

Bismuth vanadate has been widely regarded as a promising material for photoelectrochemical water splitting, in part because of its low cost and high stability against corrosion,” said Cui, who is also an associate professor of photon science at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. “However, the performance of this material remains well below its theoretical solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency.”

Bismuth vanadate absorbs light but is a poor conductor of electricity. To carry a current, a solar cell made of bismuth vanadate must be sliced very thin, 200 nanometers or less, making it virtually transparent. As a result, visible light that could be used to generate electricity simply passes through the cell.

To capture sunlight before it escapes, Cui’s team turned to nanotechnology. The researchers created microscopic arrays containing thousands of silicon nanocones, each about 600 nanometers tall.

Nanocone structures have shown a promising light-trapping capability over a broad range of wavelengths,” Cui explained. “Each cone is optimally shaped to capture sunlight that would otherwise pass through the thin solar cell.”

In the experiment, Cui and his colleagues deposited the nanocone arrays on a thin film of bismuth vanadate. Both layers were then placed on a solar cell made of perovskite, another promising photovoltaic material.

When submerged, the three-layer tandem device immediately began splitting water at a solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency of 6.2 percent, already matching the theoretical maximum rate for a bismuth vanadate cell.


Smart Threads For Clothing And Robots

Fabrics containing flexible electronics are appearing in many novel products, such as clothes with in-built screens and solar panels. More impressively, these fabrics can act as electronic skins that can sense their surroundings and could have applications in robotics and prosthetic medicine. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST – Saudi Arabia) researchers have now developed smart threads that detect the strength and location of pressures exerted on them1. Most flexible sensors function by detecting changes in the electrical properties of materials in response to pressure, temperature, humidity or the presence of gases. Electronic skins are built up as arrays of several individual sensors. These arrays currently need complex wiring and data analysis, which makes them too heavy, large or expensive for large-scale production.

Yanlong Tai and Gilles Lubineau from the University’s Division of Physical Science and Engineering have found a different approach. They built their smart threads from cotton threads coated with layers of one of the miracle materials of nanotechnology: single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs).

smart threadsThe twisted smart threads developed by KAUST researchers can be woven into pressure-sensitive electronic skin fabrics for use in novel clothing, robots or medical prosthetics

Cotton threads are a classic material for fabrics, so they seemed a logical choice,” said Lubineau. “Networks of nanotubes are also known to have piezoresistive properties, meaning their electrical resistance depends on the applied pressure.”

The researchers showed their threads had decreased resistance when subjected to stronger mechanical strains, and crucially the amplitude of the resistance change also depended on the thickness of the SWCNT coating.

These findings led the researchers to their biggest breakthrough: they developed threads of graded thickness with a thick SWCNT layer at one end tapering to a thin layer at the other end. Then, by combining threads in pairs—one with graded thickness and one of uniform thickness—the researchers could not only detect the strength of an applied pressure load, but also the position of the load along the threads.

Our system is not the first technology to sense both the strength and position of applied pressures, but our graded structure avoids the need for complicated electrode wirings, heavy data recording and analysis,” said Tai.

The researchers have used their smart threads to build two- and three-dimensional arrays that accurately detect pressures similar to those that real people and robots might be exposed to.
We hope that electronic skins made from our smart threads could benefit any robot or medical prosthetic in which pressure sensing is important, such as artificial hands,” said Lubineau.

Walking on The Street With Your Massaging Jacket

While it’s not visible to the naked eye, both of these people are getting a back massage, thanks to this jacket called the Airawear. Designed by TWare in Singapore, it uses air to create pressure on targeted parts of the upper and lower back with a massaging sensation. There are six inflatable pressure point relaxers that target muscles and pain points. They’re all controlled with a smart phone app, which means you’re free to continue working or going about your regular activities. CEO Lin Wei Liang says it’s the perfect solution, for people who spend their days hunched over computers.


We’re always in a tense, hunched-back position, in a bad posture, and that causes a lot of back pain and shoulder pain … So, in this context, it’s very hard for employees to maybe take out any kind of conventional massage device, or any hand-held massage device to start to provide some massage to themselves to get some form of relief. So what we have here is much more invisible, discreet, something that you can wear just like a normal hoodie or jacket, and yet you can get that massage without people noticing ,” says Lin Wei Liang, Tware CEO.

The device also has a posture correction feature that sends a signal when sensors detect the user needs an adjustment. Airawear does require a charge and has a built-in USB port so users can get three hours of continuous massage. At a recent trial potential buyers gave the $119 jacket a spin.

I thought it was great, I loved the pressure coming out of the jacket. You can basically feel your whole body just relaxing. The mode I was actually on was the “Relax” mode, so it’s not too much pressure, but it’s just enough that it makes you feel comfortable enough and at ease“, comments Cianta Seneviratne. As for the actual health benefits, not everyone agrees that the jacket should be used to treat back pain.

Physiotherapist Michelle Tong explains: “I would think that they’d wear it and forget about the time. You might be using it and working, and you might be massaged for five hours, for example. So you question whether the person would develop a tolerance to it, so each time they’re using it, they end up having to apply a high pressure each time, just to get the same effect, as you would if you were taking painkillers.

That doesn’t seem to be affecting Tware‘s plans. The company’s crowd funding campaign on Kickstarter, has already surpassed its goal by more than $50 thousand (USD). Deliveries of jackets are expected to begin in November of 2016.


Nanotechnology Key Driver for the Global Internet of Things Market

Analysts from Technavio,  a leading market research companyforecast the global internet of nano things (IoNT) market to grow at a annual growth rate of more than 24% during the 2016/2020  period, according to their latest report. The rise in the number of connected nanoscale devices in industries has led to generation of large data sets. These data can be used to optimize costs, deliver better services, and boost revenues. Also, the interconnection of nanoscale devices has enabled efficient data communication between disparate devices over the network. Thus, IoNT helps organizations to reduce the complexity in communication and increase the process efficiency using data collected from nanoscale devices.


Even governments have realized the importance of IoNT technology in the healthcare sector that can be used to treat cancer and other genetic diseases at the molecular level. This has further increased the demand and awareness of IoNT among multiple industries,” says Amit Sharma, a lead analyst at Technavio for research on IT professional services.

The report also highlights the US government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) that supports the adoption of nanotechnology in industries, such as healthcare, defense, and textiles, due to its vast applications. This initiative has been awarded over USD 22 billion since 2001 to promote the adoption of nanoscience and nanotechnology by states, universities, and companies.

The rise in demand for miniaturization of electronics products coupled with increased consumer demand for smaller and more powerful devices at affordable prices has made nanotechnology more popular among industries. Both private and public sectors are investing heavily in R&D to tap the potential benefits of nanotechnology.

Also, the rise in commercialization of nanomaterials, such as nanocatalyst thin films for catalytic converters, nanotechnology-enhanced thin-film solar cells, and nanoscale electronic memory, is shaping the growth of the global nanotechnology market. Thus, there is an increase in the number of interconnected nanodevices. IoNT provides a communication infrastructure for interconnected nanodevices to share information and coordinate multiple activities over the Internet.

“The Internet revolution is fueling global connectivity by bringing unconnected devices, such as nanoscale devices, on the network. The nanonetwork technology is evolving to meet the needs of various applications. Such technologies provide an effective communication infrastructure for the rapid pace of communication among nanoscale devices,” comments Amit.

The scope of Internet has been extended due to increased interconnection of nanosensors with consumer devices and other physical assets. IoNT enables data collection, processing, and sharing with end-users. It finds application in industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, energy and utilities, and other services.


Artificial Intelligence Mimicks Biological Hierarchy

New research from University of Wyoming and INRIA (France) explains why so many biological networks, including the human brain (a network of neurons), exhibit a hierarchical structure, and will improve attempts to create artificial intelligence.

biological hierarchyThe evolution of hierarchy – a simple system of ranking – in biological networks may arise because of the costs associated with network connections

Like large businesses, many biological networks are hierarchically organised, such as gene, protein, neural, and metabolic networks. This means they have separate units that can each be repeatedly divided into smaller and smaller subunits. For example, the human brain has separate areas for motor control and tactile processing, and each of these areas consist of sub-regions that govern different parts of the body.

But why do so many biological networks evolve to be hierarchical? The results of the study suggest that hierarchy evolves not because it produces more efficient networks, but instead because hierarchically wired networks have fewer connections. This is because connections in biological networks are expensive – they have to be built, housed, maintained, etc. – and there is therefore an evolutionary pressure to reduce the number of connections.
The findings not only explain why biological networks are hierarchical, they might also give an explanation for why many man-made systems such as the Internet and road systems are also hierarchical“, comments Jeff Clune, author of the paper.

The study has been published in PLOS Computational Biology.


Perovskite Solar Cells Surpass 20% Efficiency

Researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland are pushing the limits of perovskite solar cell performance by exploring the best way to grow these crystals.
Michael Graetzel and his team found that, by briefly reducing the pressure while fabricating perovskite crystals, they were able to achieve the highest performance ever measured for larger-size perovskite solar cells, reaching over 20% efficiency and matching the performance of conventional thin-film solar cells of similar sizes. This is promising news for perovskite technology that is already low cost and under industrial development. However, high performance in pervoskites does not necessarily herald the doom of silicon-based solar technology. Safety issues still need to be addressed regarding the lead content of current perovskite solar-cell prototypes in addition to determining the stability of actual devices.

peroskite solar cell

Layering perovskites on top of silicon to make hybrid solar panels may actually boost the silicon solar-cell industry. Efficiency could exceed 30%, with the theoretical limit being around 44%. The improved performance would come from harnessing more solar energy: the higher energy light would be absorbed by the perovskite top layer, while lower energy sunlight passing through the perovskite would be absorbed by the silicon layer. Graetzel is known for his transparent dye-sensitized solar cells. It turns out that the first perovskite solar cells were dye-sensitized cells where the dye was replaced by small perovskite particles. His lab’s latest perovskite prototype, roughly the size of an SD card, looks like a piece of glass that is darkened on one side by a thin film of perovskite. Unlike the transparent dye-sensitized cells, the perovskite solar cell is opaque.

The results are published in Science.


90 Minutes To Annihilate Early Stage Prostate Cancer

A prostate cancer patient undergoing a new photodynamic therapy that’s exciting specialists. Developed in Israel, treatment takes 90 minutes and involves no radiation or chemotherapy. It’s pain free and tests in Latin America showed an impressive clear-up rate and minimal side effects for early stage patients.

Prostate cancer

The patient may be cured, he may not be even cured of his disease but he may have a remedy for 20-30 years which is exactly what we need. Most of these patients are men the age of 60-70, not all of them healthy, and if you give them 10-20 years with good health and without side effects, which is the main thing, then we’ve done a great thing and we’ve done a revolution“, says Professor Jack Baniel, Chief Urologist at the Ramat Aviv Medical Center.

Israeli start-up Steba Research developed the therapy, in conjunction with Weizmann Insititute professors. It’s a focal therapy, which destroys tumours in the prostate while leaving the gland and most tissue intact. Using ultrasound, doctors insert conductors into the body, close to blood vessels feeding the tumour. Illuminating optic fibres are placed inside the conductors. A drug called Tookad that makes light toxic to living tissue is injected into the patient’s blood.

When doctors light up the optic fibres inside the patient, the cells touched by light die instantly. This patient is delighted with his treatment.  “So one day after the treatment I was back at home and three days later I was back at the office with regular life like before, and today after I got the new MRI I found out that my life is back again and everything is like before, no side affects, sexual life like before and I feel great“, comments Yaron Sfadia, patient.
The treatment has already been approved in Mexico. Phase III trials are currently taking place in New York and the developers are confident it won’t be long before the treatment becomes widespread. Future work to extend the same photodynamic principles to other types of cancers is possible.


Algae To Power Jets

Aviation giant Airbus hope algae could one day help power jets – and help airlines cut their C02 emissions. They’re working with the Munich Technical University (Germany) to cultivate the photosynthetic organisms in this lab. Algae here is cultivated in water with a salt content of 6-9 percent. A combination of light and carbon dioxide does the rest.


Primarily you need obviously algae cells that are able to generate fats and oils. In combination with CO2 and light these algae cells propagate and form algae biomass and under certain cultivation conditions, for example the lack of nitrogen in the cultivation media, these algae cells accumulate fats and oils in their cell mass and this can reach up to 50 to 70 percent of the total cell weight. That is quite a lot and once you formed that fat and oil you can actually extract it from the cell and convert it over a chemical process“, says  Thomas Brueck, Professor at Munich Technical University (TUM). In these open tanks algae grows 12 times faster than plants cultivated on soil, producing an oil yield 30 times that of rapeseed.

Algae fuel today is still in the state of research so today, we could probably not offer it at costs which are realistic to run an airline. But we are sure that over time, we will make it possible to offer kerosine made of algae for a competitive price“, comments Gregor von Kursell, Airbus Group Spokesman. The company says the project remains in its infancy. Researchers believe biofuel from algaculture could provide up to 5 percent of jetfuel needs by around 2050.


Biosensor Chip Detects DNA Mutations

Bioengineers at the University of California, San Diego have developed an electrical graphene chip capable of detecting mutations in DNA. Researchers say the technology could one day be used in various medical applications such as blood-based tests for early cancer screening, monitoring disease biomarkers and real-time detection of viral and microbial sequences.

biosensor chip SNP detection

We are at the forefront of developing a fast and inexpensive digital method to detect gene mutations at high resolution—on the scale of a single nucleotide change in a nucleic acid sequence,” said Ratnesh Lal, professor of bioengineering, mechanical engineering and materials science in the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.

The technology, which is at a proof-of-concept stage, is a first step toward a biosensor chip that can be implanted in the body to detect a specific DNA mutation—in real time—and transmit the information wirelessly to a mobile device such as a smartphone or laptop.

The advance was published June 13 in the online early edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.