Clean Hydrogen Produced From Biomass

A team of scientists at the University of Cambridge has developed a way of using solar power to generate a fuel that is both sustainable and relatively cheap to produce. It’s using natural light to generate hydrogen from biomass. One of the challenges facing modern society is what it does with its waste products. As natural resources decline in abundance, using waste for energy is becoming more pressing for both governments and business. Biomass has been a source of heat and energy since the beginning of recorded history.  The planet’s oil reserves are derived from ancient biomass which has been subjected to high pressures and temperatures over millions of years. Lignocellulose is the main component of plant biomass and up to now its conversion into hydrogen has only been achieved through a gasification process which uses high temperatures to decompose it fully.

biomass can produce hydrogen

Lignocellulose is nature’s equivalent to armoured concrete. It consists of strong, highly crystalline cellulose fibres, that are interwoven with lignin and hemicellulose which act as a glue. This rigid structure has evolved to give plants and trees mechanical stability and protect them from degradation, and makes chemical utilisation of lignocellulose so challenging,” says  Dr Moritz Kuehnel, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the research.

The new technology relies on a simple photocatalytic conversion process. Catalytic nanoparticles are added to alkaline water in which the biomass is suspended. This is then placed in front of a light in the lab which mimics solar light. The solution is ideal for absorbing this light and converting the biomass into gaseous hydrogen which can then be collected from the headspace. The hydrogen is free of fuel-cell inhibitors, such as carbon monoxide, which allows it to be used for power.

The findings have been  published in Nature Energy.


Artificial Embryo From Stem Cells

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have managed to create a structure resembling a mouse embryo in culture, using two types of stem cells – the body’s ‘master cells’ – and a 3D scaffold on which they can grow. Understanding the very early stages of embryo development is of interest because this knowledge may help explain why a significant number of human pregnancies fail at this time.

Once a mammalian egg has been fertilised by a sperm, it divides multiple times to generate a small, free-floating ball of stem cells. The particular stem cells that will eventually make the future body, the embryonic stem cells (ESCs) cluster together inside the embryo towards one end: this stage of development is known as the blastocyst. The other two types of stem cell in the blastocyst are the extra-embryonic trophoblast stem cells (TSCs), which will form the placenta, and primitive endoderm stem cells that will form the so-called yolk sac, ensuring that the foetus’s organs develop properly and providing essential nutrients.

Using a combination of genetically-modified mouse ESCs and TSCs, together with a 3D scaffold known as an extracellular matrix, Cambridge researchers were able to grow a structure capable of assembling itself and whose development and architecture very closely resembled the natural embryo.  There is a  remarkable degree of communication between the two types of stem cell: in a sense, the cells are telling each other where in the embryo to place themselves.

artificial embryo

We knew that interactions between the different types of stem cell are important for development, but the striking thing that our new work illustrates is that this is a real partnership – these cells truly guide each other,”  says Professor Zernicka-Goetz. “Without this partnership, the correct development of shape and form and the timely activity of key biological mechanisms doesn’t take place properly.”

Comparing their artificial ‘embryo’ to a normally-developing embryo, the team was able to show that its development followed the same pattern of development. The stem cells organise themselves, with ESCs at one end and TSCs at the other.

The study has been published in the journal Science.


Artificial Intelligence Writes Code By Looting

Artificial intelligence (AI) has taught itself to create its own encryption and produced its own universal ‘language. Now it’s writing its own code using similar techniques to humans. A neural network, called DeepCoder, developed by Microsoft and University of Cambridge computer scientists, has learnt how to write programs without a prior knowledge of code.  DeepCoder solved basic challenges of the kind set by programming competitions. This kind of approach could make it much easier for people to build simple programs without knowing how to write code.

deep coder

All of a sudden people could be so much more productive,” says Armando Solar-Lezama at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the work. “They could build systems that it [would be] impossible to build before.”

Ultimately, the approach could allow non-coders to simply describe an idea for a program and let the system build it, says Marc Brockschmidt, one of DeepCoder’s creators at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. UK.DeepCoder uses a technique called program synthesis: creating new programs by piecing together lines of code taken from existing software – just like a programmer might. Given a list of inputs and outputs for each code fragment, DeepCoder learned which pieces of code were needed to achieve the desired result overall.


Scalable Production of Conductive Graphene Inks

Conductive inks based on graphene and layered materials are key for low-cost manufacturing of flexible electronics, novel energy solutions, composites and coatings. A new method for liquid-phase exfoliation of graphite paves the way for scalable production.

Conductive inks are useful for a range of applications, including printed and flexible electronics such as radio frequency identification (RFID) antennas, transistors or photovoltaic cells. The advent of the internet of things is predicted to lead to new connectivity within everyday objects, including in food packaging. Thus, there is a clear need for cheap and efficient production of electronic devices, using stable, conductive and non-toxic components. These inks can also be used to create novel composites, coatings and energy storage devices.

A new method for producing high quality conductive graphene inks with high concentrations has been developed by researchers working at the Cambridge Graphene Centre at the University of Cambridge, UK. The novel method uses ultrahigh shear forces in a microfluidisation process to exfoliate graphene flakes from graphite. The process converts 100% of the starting graphite material into usable flakes for conductive inks, avoiding the need for centrifugation and reducing the time taken to produce a usable ink. The research, published in ACS Nano, also describes optimisation of the inks for different printing applications, as well as giving detailed insights into the fluid dynamics of graphite exfoliation.

graphene scalable production

“This important conceptual advance will significantly help innovation and industrialization. The fact that the process is already licensed and commercialized indicates how it is feasible to cut the time from lab to market” , said Prof. Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre.


Nano-Robots Enter Living Cells

Researchers have developed the world’s tiniest engine – just a few billionths of a metre in size – which uses light to power itself. The nanoscale engine, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, could form the basis of future nano-machines that can navigate in water, sense the environment around them, or even enter living cells to fight disease. The prototype device is made of tiny charged particles of gold, bound together with temperature-responsive polymers in the form of a gel. When the ‘nano-engine’ is heated to a certain temperature with a laser, it stores large amounts of elastic energy in a fraction of a second, as the polymer coatings expel all the water from the gel and collapse. This has the effect of forcing the gold nanoparticles to bind together into tight clusters. But when the device is cooled, the polymers take on water and expand, and the gold nanoparticles are strongly and quickly pushed apart, like a spring.


It’s like an explosion,” said Dr Tao Ding from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, and the paper’s first author. “We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them.
We know that light can heat up water to power steam engines,” said study co-author Dr Ventsislav Valev, now based at the University of Bath. “But now we can use light to power a piston engine at the nanoscale.”

The results are reported in the journal PNAS.


Brain: Graphene Interacts Safely With Neurons

Researchers from the University of Trieste (Italy) and the University of Cambridge have successfully demonstrated how it is possible to interface graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon – with neurons, or nerve cells, while maintaining the integrity of these vital cells. The work may be used to build graphene-based electrodes that can safely be implanted in the brain, offering promise for the restoration of sensory functions for amputee or paralysed patients, or for individuals with motor disorders such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease. Previously, other groups had shown that it is possible to use treated graphene to interact with neurons. However the signal to noise ratio from this interface was very low. By developing methods of working with untreated graphene, the researchers retained the material’s electrical conductivity, making it a significantly better electrode.

graphene interacts in the brain

For the first time we interfaced graphene to neurons directly,” said Professor Laura Ballerini of the University of Trieste in Italy. “We then tested the ability of neurons to generate electrical signals known to represent brain activities, and found that the neurons retained their neuronal signalling properties unaltered. This is the first functional study of neuronal synaptic activity using uncoated graphene based materials.

The research, published in the journal ACS Nano, was an interdisciplinary collaboration coordinated by the University of Trieste in Italy and the Cambridge Graphene Centre.


Robot Mother Builds Its Own Children

Researchers led by the University of Cambridge have built a mother robot that can independently build its own children and test which one does best; and then use the results to inform the design of the next generation, so that preferential traits are passed down from one generation to the next. Without any human intervention or computer simulation beyond the initial command to build a robot capable of movement, the mother created children constructed of between one and five plastic cubes with a small motor inside. In each of five separate experiments, the mother designed, built and tested generations of ten children, using the information gathered from one generation to inform the design of the next.

mother robot

Natural selection is basically reproduction, assessment, reproduction, assessment and so on,” said lead researcher Dr Fumiya Iida of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who worked in collaboration with researchers at ETH Zurich. “That’s essentially what this robot is doing – we can actually watch the improvement and diversification of the species.” For each robot child, there is a unique ‘genome’ made up of a combination of between one and five different genes, which contains all of the information about the child’s shape, construction and motor commands. As in nature, evolution in robots takes place through ‘mutation’, where components of one gene are modified or single genes are added or deleted, and ‘crossover’, where a new genome is formed by merging genes from two individuals.
The results, reported in the open access journal PLOS One, found that preferential traits were passed down through generations, so that the ‘fittest’ individuals in the last generation performed a set task twice as quickly as the fittest individuals in the first generation.


New Nanoparticles Destroy Brain Cancer

A “Trojan horse” treatment for an aggressive form of brain cancer, which involves using tiny nanoparticles of gold to kill tumour cells, has been successfully tested by scientists from the University of Cambridge (U.K)

The ground-breaking technique could eventually be used to treat glioblastoma multiforme, which is the most common and aggressive brain tumour in adults, and notoriously difficult to treat. Many sufferers die within a few months of diagnosis, and just six in every 100 patients with the condition are alive after five yearsThe research involved engineering nanostructures containing both gold and cisplatin, a conventional chemotherapy drug. These were released into tumour cells that had been taken from glioblastoma patients and grown in the lab.

Once inside, these “nanospheres” were exposed to radiotherapy. This caused the gold to release electrons which damaged the cancer cell’s DNA and its overall structure, thereby enhancing the impact of the chemotherapy drug.

gold nanoparticle against brain cancer

The combined therapy that we have devised appears to be incredibly effective in the live cell culture,” Professor Welland said. “This is not a cure, but it does demonstrate what nanotechnology can achieve in fighting these aggressive cancers. By combining this strategy with cancer cell-targeting materials, we should be able to develop a therapy for glioblastoma and other challenging cancers in the future”.

The process was so effective that 20 days later, the cell culture showed no evidence of any revival, suggesting that the tumour cells had been destroyed.


20 Pence Reusable Sensor To Detect Diabetes

A low-cost, reusable sensor which uses nanotechnology to screen for and monitor diabetes and other conditions, has been developed by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, for use both in clinics and home settings. According to the International Diabetes Federation, there are an estimated 175 million undiagnosed diabetic patients worldwide, 80% of whom live in low- and middle– income countries. Development of non-invasive and accurate diagnostics that are easily manufactured, robust and reusable will allow for simple monitoring of high-risk individuals in any environment, particularly in the developing world.

These sensors can be used to screen for diabetes in resource-poor countries, where disposable test strips and other equipment are simply not affordable,” said Ali Yetisen, a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering & Biotechnology, who led the research. The sensors can be produced at a fraction of the cost of commercially-available test strips. A single sensor would cost 20 pence to produce, and can be reused up to 400 times
The sensors use nanotechnology to monitor levels of glucose, lactate and fructose in individuals with diabetes or urinary tract infections, and change colour when levels reach a certain concentration. They can be used to test compounds in samples such as urine, blood, saliva or tear fluid. Recently, the team has also partnered with a non-governmental organisation to deploy the technology for field use in Ghana early next year.


Inkjet-printed Cells From The Eye

A group of researchers from the University of Cambridge have used inkjet printing technology to successfully print cells taken from the eye for the very first time. At the moment the results provide proof-of-principle that an inkjet printer can be used to print two types of cells from the retina of adult rats― ganglion cells and glial cells. This is the first time the technology has been used successfully to print mature central nervous system cells and the results showed that printed cells remained healthy and retained their ability to survive and grow in culture.

The loss of nerve cells in the retina is a feature of many blinding eye diseases. The retina is an exquisitely organised structure where the precise arrangement of cells in relation to one another is critical for effective visual function” said co-authors of the study Professor Keith Martin and Dr Barbara Lorber, from the John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair, University of Cambridge.
Our study has shown that cells derived from the mature central nervous system, the eye, can be printed using a piezoelectric inkjet printer. Although our results are preliminary the aim is to develop this technology for use in retinal repair in the future.