22 Sep 2018
Ever wondered how groups of cells managed to build your tissues and organs while you were just an embryo?
Using state-of-the-art techniques he developed, UC Santa Barbara researcher Otger Campàs and his group have cracked this longstanding mystery, revealing the astonishing inner-workings of how embryos are physically constructed.
Not only does it bring a century-old hypothesis into the modern age, the study and its techniques provide the researchers a foundation to study other questions key to human health, such as how cancers form and spread or how to engineer organs.
“In a nutshell, we discovered a fundamental physical mechanism that cells use to mold embryonic tissues into their functional 3D shapes,” said Campàs, a professor of mechanical engineering in UCSB’s College of Engineering who holds the Duncan & Suzanne Mellichamp Chair in Systems Biology. His group investigates how living systems self organize to build the remarkable structures and shapes found in nature.
Cells coordinate by exchanging biochemical signals, but they also hold to and push on each other to build the body structures we need to live, such as the eyes, lungs and heart. And, as it turns out, sculpting the embryo is not far from glass molding or 3D printing. In their new work,”A fluid-to-solid jamming transition underlies vertebrate body axis elongation,” published in the journal Nature, Campàs and colleagues reveal that cell collectives switch from fluid to solid states in a controlled manner to build the vertebrate embryo, in a way similar to how we mold glass into vases or 3D print our favorite items. Or, if you like, we 3D print ourselves, from the inside.
Most objects begin as fluids. From metallic structures to gelatin desserts, their shape is made by pouring the molten original materials into molds, then cooling them to get the solid objects we use.
A fluid-to-solid jamming transition underlies vertebrate body axis elongation
As in a Chihuly glass sculpture, made by carefully melting portions of glass to slowly reshape it into life, cells in certain regions of the embryo are more active and ‘melt’ the tissue into a fluid state that can be restructured. Once done, cells ‘cool down’ to settle the tissue shape, Campàs explained.
“The transition from fluid to solid tissue states that we observed is known in physics as ‘jamming’,” Campàs said. “Jamming transitions are a very general phenomena that happens when particles in disordered systems, such as foams, emulsions or glasses, are forced together or cooled down.”
This discovery was enabled by techniques previously developed by Campàs and his group to measure the forces between cells inside embryos, and also to exert miniscule forces on the cells as they build tissues and organs. Using zebrafish embryos, favored for their optical transparency but developing much like their human counterparts, the researchers placed tiny droplets of a specially engineered ferromagnetic fluid between the cells of the growing tissue.
The spherical droplets deform as the cells around them push and pull, allowing researchers to see the forces that cells apply on each other. And, by making these droplets magnetic, they also could exert tiny stresses on surrounding cells to see how the tissue would respond.
“We were able to measure physical quantities that couldn’t be measured before, due to the challenge of inserting miniaturized probes in tiny developing embryos,” said postdoctoral fellow Alessandro Mongera, who is the lead author of the paper.
“Zebrafish, like other vertebrates, start off from a largely shapeless bunch of cells and need to transform the body into an elongated shape, with the head at one end and tail at the other,” Campàs said.
The physical reorganization of the cells behind this process had always been something of a mystery. Surprisingly, researchers found that the cell collectives making the tissue were physically like a foam (yes, as in beer froth) that jammed during development to ‘freeze’ the tissue architecture and set its shape.
These observations confirm a remarkable intuition made by Victorian-era Scottish mathematician D’Arcy Thompson 100 years ago in his seminal work “On Growth and Form.”
Read About: D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson
“He was convinced that some of the physical mechanisms that give shapes to inert materials were also at play to shape living organisms. Remarkably, he compared groups of cells to foams and even the shaping of cells and tissues to glassblowing,” Campàs said. A century ago, there were no instruments that could directly test the ideas Thompson proposed, Campàs added, though Thompson’s work continues to be cited to this day.
The new Nature paper also provides a jumping-off point from which the Campàs Group researchers can begin to address other processes of embryonic development and related fields, such as how tumors physically invade surrounding tissues and how to engineer organs with specific 3D shapes.
“One of the hallmarks of cancer is the transition between two different tissue architectures. This transition can in principle be explained as an anomalous switch from a solid-like to a fluid-like tissue state,” Mongera explained. “The present study can help elucidate the mechanisms underlying this switch and highlight some of the potential druggable targets to hinder it.”
Alessandro Mongera, Payam Rowghanian, Hannah J. Gustafson, Elijah Shelton, David A. Kealhofer, Emmet K. Carn, Friedhelm Serwane, Adam A. Lucio, James Giammona & Otger Campàs
Image: REUTERS/Nick Carey
Graphene is a modern marvel. It is comprised of a single, two-dimensional layer of carbon, yet is 200 times stronger than steel and more conductive than any other material, according to the University of Manchester, where it was first isolated in 2004.
Graphene also has multiple potential uses, including in biomedical applications such as targeted drug delivery, and for improving the lifespan of smartphone batteries.
Now, a team of researchers at the University of Arkansas has found evidence to suggest graphene could also be used to provide an unlimited supply of clean energy.
The team says its research is based on graphene’s ability to “ripple” into the third dimension, similar to waves moving across the surface of the ocean. This motion, the researchers say, can be harvested into energy.
To study the movement of graphene, lead researcher Paul Thibado and his team laid sheets of the material across a copper grid that acted as a scaffold, which allowed the graphene to move freely.
Thibado says graphene could power biomedical devices such as pacemakers.
Image: Russell Cothren
The researchers used a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) to observe the movements, finding that narrowing the focus to study individual ripples drew clearer results.
In analysing the data, Thibado observed both small, random fluctuations, known as Brownian motion, and larger, coordinated movements.
A scanning tunnelling microscope.
Image: University of Arkansas
As the atoms on a sheet of graphene vibrate in response to the ambient temperature, these movements invert their curvature, which creates energy, the researchers say.
“This is the key to using the motion of 2D materials as a source of harvestable energy,” Thibado says.
“Unlike atoms in a liquid, which move in random directions, atoms connected in a sheet of graphene move together. This means their energy can be collected using existing nanotechnology.”
The pieces of graphene in Thibado’s laboratory measure about 10 microns across (more than 20,000 could fit on the head of a pin). Each fluctuation exhibited by an individual ripple measures only 10 nanometres by 10 nanometres, and could produce 10 picowatts of power, the researchers say.
As a result, each micro-sized membrane has the potential to produce enough energy to power a wristwatch, and would never wear out or need charging.
Sheet of graphene as seen through Thibado’s STM
Image: University of Arkansas
Thibado has created a device, called the Vibration Energy Harvester, that he claims is capable of turning this harvested energy into electricity, as the below video illustrates.
This self-charging power source also has the potential to convert everyday objects into smart devices, as well as powering more sophisticated biomedical devices such as pacemakers, hearing aids and wearable sensors.
Thibado says: “Self-powering enables smart bio-implants, which would profoundly impact society.”
Have you read?
One of the biggest challenges to the recovery of someone who has experienced a major physical trauma such as a heart attack is the growth of scar tissue.
As scar tissue builds up in the heart, it can limit the organ’s functions, which is obviously a problem for recovery.
However, researchers from the Science Foundation Ireland-funded Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research (AMBER) Centre have revealed a new biomaterial that actually ‘grows’ healthy tissue – not only for the heart, but also for people with extensive nerve damage.
In a paper published to Advanced Materials, the team said its biomaterial regenerating tissue responds to electrical stimuli and also eliminates infection.
The new material developed by the multidisciplinary research team is composed of the protein collagen, abundant in the human body, and the atom-thick ‘wonder material’ graphene.
The resulting merger creates an electroconductive ‘biohybrid’, combining the beneficial properties of both materials and creating a material that is mechanically stronger, with increased electrical conductivity.
This biohybrid material has been shown to enhance cell growth and, when electrical stimulation is applied, directs cardiac cells to respond and align in the direction of the electrical impulse.
Could repair spinal cord
It is able to prevent infection in the affected area because the surface roughness of the material – thanks to graphene – results in bacterial walls being burst, simultaneously allowing the heart cells to multiply and grow.
For those with extensive nerve damage, current repairs are limited to a region only 2cm across, but this new biomaterial could be used across an entire affected area as it may be possible to transmit electrical signals across damaged tissue.
Speaking of the breakthrough, Prof Fergal O’Brien, deputy director and lead investigator on the project, said: “We are very excited by the potential of this material for cardiac applications, but the capacity of the material to deliver physiological electrical stimuli while limiting infection suggests it might have potential in a number of other indications, such as repairing damaged peripheral nerves or perhaps even spinal cord.
“The technology also has potential applications where external devices such as biosensors and devices might interface with the body.”
The study was led by AMBER researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in partnership with Trinity College Dublin and Eberhard Karls University in Germany.
IMAGE: SAMPLES OF NANOHYBRIDS OBTAINED IN NUST MISIS “INORGANIC NANOMATERIALS ” LABORATORY view more CREDIT: ©NUST MISIS
NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY MISIS
Scientists from the National University of Science and Technology MISIS (NUST MISIS), the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology and the Queensland University (Brisbane, Australia) have created BN/Ag hybrid nanomaterials and have proved their effectiveness as catalysts and antibacterial agents as well as for treating oncological diseases. The results are published in the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology.
The interest in the nanomaterials is related to the fact that when a particle is decreased to nanometers (1 nanometer = 10-9 meter) its electronic structure changes, and the material acquires new physical and chemical properties. For example, a magneto can lose its magnetism completely when decreased to ten nanometers.
Today, scientists are beginning to study combinations of various materials at the nanolevel instead of as separate nanoparticles (fullerenes and nanotubes). They have come up with a concept of hybrid nanomaterials, which combine the properties of individual components.
Hybridization makes it possible to combine properties that were incompatible before, for example, to create a material that can be a solid and a plastic at the same time. In addition, the scientists noted that combinations of nanomaterials often showed better or even new properties. Today the nanohybrid area is only beginning to develop.
MISIS scientists are studying the properties of BN hybrid nanomaterials. BN (boron nitride) was chosen as the base for new hybrid nanoparticles because it is chemically inert and biocompatible and has low relative density.
BN hybrid nanomaterials are used as prospective key components of the next generation advanced biomaterials, catalysts and sensors. These hybrids have advantageous combination of properties, such as biocompatibility, high tensile strength and thermal conductivity as well as superb chemical stability and electrical insulation. This explains their rich functionality for developing new biomedicines, reinforcement of ultralight metals and polymers and production of transparent superhydrophobic films and quantum devices.
“We have studied BN/Ag nanohybrid properties and have discovered a high potential for new applications. We were especially interested in an application for treating oncological diseases as well as their activity as catalysts and antibacterial agents,” said Andrei Matveyev, a research author, Senior Research Fellow at the MISIS Inorganic Materials Laboratory.
According to Matveyev, these nanohybrids can be used in cancer therapy as a base for drug delivery medicines. The nanohybrids with the drug become containers to be delivered inside cancer cells. Nanohybrids are chemically modified by attaching folic acid (vitamin ?9) to its surface through an Ag nanoparticle.
The modified nanohybrids with folic acid are mostly accumulated in cancer cells, because they have an increased number of folic acid receptors, so the concentration grows thousand times higher than in healthy cells. In addition, the acidity in a cancer cell is also higher than in the intercellular space, which leads to the drug’s release from its nanocontainer.
“This is why the drug is mostly released inside cancer cells, which decreases the general concentration of the drug in the organism, thus preventing toxicity,” Matveyev notes.
The authors believe that nanohybrids modified for drug delivery can be applied to uses in isotope and neuron capture cancer therapy.
The synthesized particles have also demonstrated high antibacterial activity against test bacteria: Escherichia coli live in dirty water, so water disinfection by nanohybrids may prove useful in emergencies or during war time.
Nanohybrids based on BN/Ag nanoparticles can also be used as an ultraviolet photoactive material.
31 Jul 2015
Many human-made pollutants in the environment resist degradation through natural processes, and disrupt hormonal and other systems in mammals and other animals. Removing these toxic materials — which include pesticides and endocrine disruptors such as bisphenol A (BPA) — with existing methods is often expensive and time-consuming.
In a new paper published this week in Nature Communications, researchers from MIT and the Federal University of Goiás in Brazil demonstrate a novel method for using nanoparticles and ultraviolet (UV) light to quickly isolate and extract a variety of contaminants from soil and water.
Ferdinand Brandl and Nicolas Bertrand, the two lead authors, are former postdocs in the laboratory of Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. (Eliana Martins Lima, of the Federal University of Goiás, is the other co-author.) Both Brandl and Bertrand are trained as pharmacists, and describe their discovery as a happy accident: They initially sought to develop nanoparticles that could be used to deliver drugs to cancer cells.
Image: Nicolas Bertrand
Brandl had previously synthesized polymers that could be cleaved apart by exposure to UV light. But he and Bertrand came to question their suitability for drug delivery, since UV light can be damaging to tissue and cells, and doesn’t penetrate through the skin. When they learned that UV light was used to disinfect water in certain treatment plants, they began to ask a different question.
“We thought if they are already using UV light, maybe they could use our particles as well,” Brandl says. “Then we came up with the idea to use our particles to remove toxic chemicals, pollutants, or hormones from water, because we saw that the particles aggregate once you irradiate them with UV light.”
A trap for ‘water-fearing’ pollution
The researchers synthesized polymers from polyethylene glycol, a widely used compound found in laxatives, toothpaste, and eye drops and approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a food additive, and polylactic acid, a biodegradable plastic used in compostable cups and glassware.
Nanoparticles made from these polymers have a hydrophobic core and a hydrophilic shell. Due to molecular-scale forces, in a solution hydrophobic pollutant molecules move toward the hydrophobic nanoparticles, and adsorb onto their surface, where they effectively become “trapped.” This same phenomenon is at work when spaghetti sauce stains the surface of plastic containers, turning them red: In that case, both the plastic and the oil-based sauce are hydrophobic and interact together.
If left alone, these nanomaterials would remain suspended and dispersed evenly in water. But when exposed to UV light, the stabilizing outer shell of the particles is shed, and — now “enriched” by the pollutants — they form larger aggregates that can then be removed through filtration, sedimentation, or other methods.
The researchers used the method to extract phthalates, hormone-disrupting chemicals used to soften plastics, from wastewater; BPA, another endocrine-disrupting synthetic compound widely used in plastic bottles and other resinous consumer goods, from thermal printing paper samples; and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carcinogenic compounds formed from incomplete combustion of fuels, from contaminated soil.
The process is irreversible and the polymers are biodegradable, minimizing the risks of leaving toxic secondary products to persist in, say, a body of water. “Once they switch to this macro situation where they’re big clumps,” Bertrand says, “you won’t be able to bring them back to the nano state again.”
The fundamental breakthrough, according to the researchers, was confirming that small molecules do indeed adsorb passively onto the surface of nanoparticles.
“To the best of our knowledge, it is the first time that the interactions of small molecules with pre-formed nanoparticles can be directly measured,” they write in Nature Communications.
Even more exciting, they say, is the wide range of potential uses, from environmental remediation to medical analysis.
The polymers are synthesized at room temperature, and don’t need to be specially prepared to target specific compounds; they are broadly applicable to all kinds of hydrophobic chemicals and molecules.
“The interactions we exploit to remove the pollutants are non-specific,” Brandl says. “We can remove hormones, BPA, and pesticides that are all present in the same sample, and we can do this in one step.”
And the nanoparticles’ high surface-area-to-volume ratio means that only a small amount is needed to remove a relatively large quantity of pollutants. The technique could thus offer potential for the cost-effective cleanup of contaminated water and soil on a wider scale.
“From the applied perspective, we showed in a system that the adsorption of small molecules on the surface of the nanoparticles can be used for extraction of any kind,” Bertrand says. “It opens the door for many other applications down the line.”
This approach could possibly be further developed, he speculates, to replace the widespread use of organic solvents for everything from decaffeinating coffee to making paint thinners. Bertrand cites DDT, banned for use as a pesticide in the U.S. since 1972 but still widely used in other parts of the world, as another example of a persistent pollutant that could potentially be remediated using these nanomaterials. “And for analytical applications where you don’t need as much volume to purify or concentrate, this might be interesting,” Bertrand says, offering the example of a cheap testing kit for urine analysis of medical patients.
The study also suggests the broader potential for adapting nanoscale drug-delivery techniques developed for use in environmental remediation.
“That we can apply some of the highly sophisticated, high-precision tools developed for the pharmaceutical industry, and now look at the use of these technologies in broader terms, is phenomenal,” says Frank Gu, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and an expert in nanoengineering for health care and medical applications.
“When you think about field deployment, that’s far down the road, but this paper offers a really exciting opportunity to crack a problem that is persistently present,” says Gu, who was not involved in the research. “If you take the normal conventional civil engineering or chemical engineering approach to treating it, it just won’t touch it. That’s where the most exciting part is.”
26 Mar 2015
To evaluate the prospects for sustaining such growth, the MIT researchers look at possible constraints on materials availability, and propose a system for evaluating the many competing approaches to improved solar-cell performance.
In a broad new assessment of the status and prospects of solar photovoltaic technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers say that it is “one of the few renewable, low-carbon resources with both the scalability and the technological maturity to meet ever-growing global demand for electricity.”
The analysis is presented in Energy & Environmental Science; a broader analysis of solar technology, economics and policy will be incorporated in a forthcoming assessment of the future of solar energy by the MIT Energy Initiative.
The team comprised MIT professors Vladimir Bulović, Tonio Buonassisi and Robert Jaffe, and graduate students Joel Jean and Patrick Brown. One useful factor in making meaningful comparisons among new photovoltaic technologies, they conclude, is the complexity of the light-absorbing material.
The report divides the many technologies under development into three broad classes: wafer-based cells, which include traditional crystalline silicon, as well as alternatives such as gallium arsenide; commercial thin-film cells, including cadmium telluride and amorphous silicon; and emerging thin-film technologies, which include perovskites, organic materials, dye-sensitized solar cells and quantum dots.
Illustration shows the MIT team’s proposed scheme for comparing different photovoltaic materials, based on the complexity of their basic molecular structure. The complexity increases from the simplest material, pure silicon (single atom, lower left), to the most complex material currently being studied for potential solar cells, quantum dots (molecular structure at top right). Materials shown in between include gallium aresenide, perovskite and dye-sensitized solar cells. Image courtesy of the researchers.
With the recent evolution of solar technology, says Jean, the paper’s lead author, it’s important to have a uniform framework for assessment. It may be time, he says, to re-examine the traditional classification of these technologies, generally into three areas: silicon wafer-based cells, thin-film cells and “exotic” technologies with high theoretical efficiencies.
“We’d like to build on the conventional framework,” says Jean, a doctoral student in MIT’s Dept. of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “We’re seeking a more consistent way to think about the wide range of current photovoltaic technologies and to evaluate them for potential applications. In this study, we chose to evaluate all relevant technologies based on their material complexity.”
Under this scheme, traditional silicon—a single-element crystalline material—is the simplest material. While crystalline silicon is a mature technology with advantages including high efficiency, proven reliability and no material scarcity constraints, it also has inherent limitations: Silicon is not especially efficient at absorbing light, and solar panels based on silicon cells tend to be rigid and heavy. At the other end of the spectrum are perovskites, organics and colloidal quantum dots, which are “highly complex materials, but can be much simpler to process,” Jean says.
The authors make clear that their definition of material complexity as a key parameter for comparison does not imply any equivalency with complexity of manufacturing. On the contrary, while silicon is the simplest solar-cell material, silicon wafer and cell production is complex and expensive, requiring extraordinary purity and high temperatures.
By contrast, while some complex nanomaterials involve intricate molecular structures, such materials can be deposited quickly and at low temperatures onto flexible substrates. Nanomaterial-based cells could even be transparent to visible light, which could open up new applications and enable seamless integration into windows and other surfaces. The authors caution, however, that the conversion efficiency and long-term stability of these complex emerging technologies is still relatively low. As they write in the paper: “The road to broad acceptance of these new technologies in conventional solar markets is inevitably long, although the unique qualities of these evolving solar technologies—lightweight, paper-thin, transparent—could open entirely new markets, accelerating their adoption.”
The study does caution that the large-scale deployment of some of today’s thin-film technologies, such as cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium diselenide, may be severely constrained by the amount of rare materials that they require. The study highlights the need for novel thin-film technologies that are based on Earth-abundant materials.
The study identifies three themes for future research and development. The first is increasing the power-conversion efficiency of emerging photovoltaic technologies and commercial modules.
A second research theme is reducing the amount of material needed per cell. Thinner, more flexible films and substrates could reduce cell weight and cost, potentially opening the door to new approaches to photovoltaic module design.
A third important research theme is reducing the complexity and cost of manufacturing. Here the researchers emphasize the importance of eliminating expensive, high-temperature processing, and encouraging the adoption of roll-to-roll coating processes for rapid, large-scale manufacturing of emerging thin-film technologies.
“We’ve looked at a number of key metrics for different applications,” Jean says. “We don’t want to rule out any of the technologies,” he says—but by providing a unified framework for comparison, he says, the researchers hope to make it easier for people to make decisions about the best technologies for a given application.
Source: Massachusetts Institute of
*** Note to Readers: With the installation of this first article (from the Financial Times) we will begin a series of articles addressing not only California’s “Water Disaster”, but the impact the lack of access to Clean, Abundant, Affordable WATER is having on our world – PLANET EARTH.
More importantly, we will address how we believe Nanotechnology with its ‘cross disciplines’ across many Scientific Fields “holds the KEY” to solving the World’s Water Crisis. We believe that Nanotechnology and the need for water will also create commercial opportunities and the “Opportunity to Do Well … by Doing Good”. – Team GNT
Next Week: “Nanotechnology and Desalinization – “An Answer to World’s Thirst for Water?”
(Story from the Financial Times: By Pilita Clark)
With his military fatigues and the holstered gun at his hip, Lieutenant John Nores Jr. is a slightly unnerving sight as he slips through the woody foothills overlooking the southern edge of California’s Silicon Valley. But what the 45-year-old game warden has come to look at is more alarming.
Here in the late summer heat, not far from the sleek headquarters of technology giants Apple and Google, he leads the way to a carefully hidden patch of terraced ground pockmarked with hundreds of shallow holes that until very recently contained towering marijuana plants.
California pioneered laws allowing marijuana use for medical reasons. But it has yet to follow states such as Colorado that permit recreational use and, in any case, this crop was on public land, making it illegal and dangerous to eliminate – Lt. Nores has witnessed several shoot-outs over the past decade.
He estimates that each of the state’s 2,000-odd cartel pot farms contains an average of 5,000 plants, and that each one sucks up between eight and 11 gallons of water a day, depending on the time of year. That means at least 80m gallons of water – enough for more than 120 Olympic-size swimming pools – is probably being stolen daily in a state that in some parts is running dry as a three-year-old drought shrinks reservoirs, leaves fields fallow and dries wells to the point that some 1,300 people have had no tap water in their homes for months.
Jerry Brown, California’s governor, declared a state of emergency in January after the driest year on record in 2013, but as the annual wet season beckons, the prospect of a complete drought recovery this winter is highly unlikely, government officials say.
“Marijuana cultivation is the biggest drought-related crime we’re facing right now,” says Lt Nores as he pokes at a heap of plastic piping the growers used to divert water from a dried-up creek near the plantation.
But California’s drought is exposing a series of problems in the US’s most populous state that are a reminder of an adage popularized by Michael Kinsley, the columnist: the scandal is often not what is illegal but what is legal.
The theft of 80m gallons of water a day by heavily armed marijuana cartels is undoubtedly a serious concern, not least when the entire state is affected by drought and 58 per cent is categorized as being in “exceptional drought”, as defined by the government-funded US Drought Monitor.
However, this is a tiny fraction of the water used legally every day in a state that, like so many other parts of the world, has a swelling population driving rising competition for more heavily regulated supplies that have long been taken for granted and may face added risks as the climate changes.
California has always been a dry state. For almost six months of the year many of its citizens get little rain. There have been at least nine statewide droughts since 1900, not counting the latest one.
The state’s history is littered with water wars, among them the conflicts surrounding Los Angeles’s move to siphon off most of the Owens river last century that inspired the classic 1974 film, Chinatown . That dispute was over just one part of a vast system of canals and reservoirs built in the last 100-odd years that are the reason California is sometimes called the most hydro-logically altered landmass on the planet.
The system channels water from wetter to drier spots, using rivers and streams that in a normal year fill with melted snow from mountain ranges ringing the state, supplying about a third of California’s farms and cities.
The crisis is more severe because a decline in snowfall has compounded problems caused by the lack of rain. The state’s mountain snowpack was just 18 per cent of its average earlier this year, a situation scientists say could be repeated as the climate warms.
As a result eight major reservoirs were last week holding less than half their average storage for this time of year. Reservoir levels sank worryingly when a bad drought hit California in 1976-77, but there were fewer than 22m people in the state then, compared with 38.3m now.
There were also fewer laws such as those protecting creatures such as the endangered Delta smelt, a finger-sized fish that can be affected by the management of the canal system, prompting restrictions on pumping the water used by a farming sector that accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the state’s human water use. Those laws regularly inflame debate between conservationists and farmers during droughts – and are doing so again today.
The farmer’s story
“I farm in a very environmentally conscious manner, but these regulations have made it much worse for the farmers,” says Barat Bisabri, a citrus and almond farmer whose property lies in the Central Valley, one of the regions worst hit by the drought.
This flat, fertile strip runs south for about 450 miles from the northern reaches of the Sacramento Valley through the heart of the state and grows a lot of what America eats. Nearly half the fruit and nuts grown in the US come from California, including 80 per cent of the world’s almonds.
An investigation into how businesses are having to adapt to rising water costs around the world
Much of that produce comes from the Central Valley, where farming is carried out on an industrial scale. Crops and orchards grow up to the edge of people’s houses. Driving down the valley’s long, straight roads, it is striking to see an orchard of dead, brown trees next to another with puddles of water around healthy ones.
This may partly be a symptom of a century-old water rights system that critics say is so weak and archaic it makes it hard for regulators to tell whose supplies should be cut during a drought.
Mr. Bisabri’s grim predicament shows why one study estimates the drought will cost the state $2.2bn in 2014.
From the windows of the roomy farmhouse that overlooks row upon row of the property’s citrus trees, Mr Bisabri points to two of California’s main waterways, the Delta-Mendota Canal and the California Aqueduct. Both run straight through his farm but because of the drought, authorities have sharply limited the amount of water many users can take from them.
“Unfortunately we cannot get water from either of them this year,” says Mr Bisabri, as he explains how, a few weeks earlier, he used bulldozers to rip out 85 acres of healthy mandarin, orange and grapefruit trees that would have used so much water it would have made the rest of the crop far less valuable.
“I had to make a decision to kill some so the other ones could survive,” he says, as he drives to the bare patch where the trees once stood. “Had I not made that decision and kept all the citrus that we had, then I would have run out of water in the middle of August.” It is a dilemma facing farmers across the Central Valley, many of whom have shifted from crops such as tomatoes or peppers to more valuable almonds or other trees that cannot be left unwatered in a dry year.
Perennial crops such as nuts and grapes accounted for 32 per cent of the state’s irrigated crop acreage in 2010, up from 27 per cent in 1998. The shift has been even more marked in the southern Central Valley, so when drought hits, farmers face difficult choices.
A few miles down the road from his farm, Mr Bisabri stops at a jaw-dropping sight by an almond orchard of withered trees: a huge earthmoving machine is scooping up several at a time and feeding them into another machine that grinds them with an ear-splitting roar into great mounds of woodchip.
“That is exactly the same machine that we used on my farm,” he says.
Mr Bisabri has had to bring in water from other sources this year, but he says the price was almost $1.2m, 10 times what it was the previous year.
That does not include the $250,000 he spent on digging new wells to try to get supplies from the one source farmers and communities have always turned to in times of drought: groundwater.
In a normal year, aquifers supply about a third of the state’s water. In a drought, that can rise to as much as 60 per cent. But one of the most alarming aspects of this drought is that groundwater levels are plummeting.
“Water levels are dropping at an incredibly rapid rate in some places, like 100ft a year,” says Michelle Sneed, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey who monitors groundwater in the Central Valley. “It is very extreme. Ordinarily, talking with hydrologists, if you would talk about a well dropping 10ft a year that would really get somebody’s attention, like wow! Really? Ten feet? And now we’re 10 times that.”
The depletion of this vital resource is not just a concern because it is so difficult to refill some aquifers when drought eventually subsides. It is also creating extraordinary rates of subsidence because as the groundwater disappears the land above it can sink. In one part of the valley, land has been subsiding by almost a foot a year, which Ms Sneed says is among the fastest rates anywhere in the world.
This is damaging the very canal system California built to reduce reliance on groundwater, she says, because these waterways depend on gravity for a steady flow and when parts of a canal start sinking it creates a depression that needs more water to fill it before flows can resume.
‘We ran out of water in June’
Two hours’ drive south from Mr. Bisabri’s farm, the town of East Porterville has more pressing groundwater worries. At least 1,300 people in the town rely for drinking and bathing water on wells that have gone dry as the drought has deepened.
“We ran out of water in June,” says Donna Johnson, a 72-year-old retired counsellor who delivers water to dozens of dry households from the back of her pick-up truck. Ms Johnson depends on a hose running to her home from a neighbor whose well is still working.
Until now, California has been notable among dry, western states for a pump-as-you-please approach to groundwater. A powerful agricultural lobby resisted repeated attempts at reform.
But the severity of this drought finally led to a package of measures signed into law in September requiring local agencies to monitor and manage wells, or face state intervention. Some critics say it is too little too late: many local agencies will have five to seven years to come up with plans, and until 2040 to implement them. Still, it is a lot better than nothing, say others.
“It’s a giant step for California,” says Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona and the author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It . “You cannot manage what you don’t measure, full stop.”
The crisis may also encourage approval of another measure to be voted on in November allowing billions of dollars to be borrowed for new reservoirs and other steps to strengthen drought resilience.
None of this will help farmers such as Mr. Bisabri or the residents of East Porterville this year. Still, it is one more example of how the state often responds to a serious drought, says Jay Lund, a water expert at the University of California, Davis.
“Every drought brings a new innovation where we say, ‘Oh, here’s something we haven’t been doing that would really be helpful’,” says Prof Lund, pointing to irrigation systems, reservoirs and water markets rolled out after past dry spells.
“In this drought, it’s groundwater regulation so far,” he says. And will it eventually work? “It opens the door.”
That is small comfort when the latest outlook from the US Climate Prediction Center suggests the drought “will likely persist or intensify in large parts of the state” this winter.
“If there’s no water for people to live, and you don’t have the basic necessities of life, your population is going to leave,” says Andrew Lockman, the emergency services manager responsible for East Porterville. “Our primary economic driver is agriculture. If there’s no water to water crops, we’re not going to have any agriculture business, so you could see the economy of this area just decimated.”
Next Week: “Nanotechnology and Desalinization – “An Answer to World’s Thirst for Water?”
20 Aug 2014
IBM Researchers build solar concentrator that generates electricity and enough heat for desalination or cooling.
Researchers envision giant concentrators, built with low-cost materials, that produce electricity and heat for use in desalination or cooling. Credit: IBM Research.
Cooling a supercomputer can provide clues on how to make solar power cheap, says IBM.
IBM Research today detailed a prototype solar dish that uses a water-cooling technology it developed for its high-end computers (see “Hot Water Helps Super-Efficient Supercomputer Keep Its Cool”). The solar concentrator uses low-cost components and produces both electricity and heat, which could be used for desalination or to run an air conditioner.
The work, funded by $2.4 million grant from the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation, is being done by IBM Research, the Swiss company Airlight Energy, and Swiss researchers. Since this is outside IBM’s main business, it’s not clear how the technology would be commercialized. But the high-concentration photovoltaic thermal (HCPVT) system promises to be cost-effective, according to IBM, and the design offers some insights into how to use concentrating solar power for both heat and electricity.
Typically, parabolic dishes concentrate sunlight to produce heat, which can be transfered to another machine or used to drive a Stirling engine that makes electricity (see “Running a Marine Unit on Solar and Diesel”). With this device, IBM and its partners used a solar concentrator dish to shine light on a thin array of highly efficient triple-junction solar cells, which produce electricity from sunlight. By concentrating the light 2,000 times onto hundreds of one-centimeter-square cells, IBM projects, a full-scale concentrator could provide 25 kilowatts of power.
In this design, the engineers hope to both boost the output of the solar cells and make use of the heat produced by the concentrator. Borrowing its liquid-cooling technology for servers, IBM built a cooling system with pipes only a few microns off the photovoltaic cells to circulate water and carry away the heat. More than 50 percent of the waste heat is recovered. “Instead of just throwing away the heat, we’re using the waste heat for processes such as desalination or absorption cooling,” says Bruno Michel, manager, advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research.
Researchers expect they can keep the cost down with a tracking system made out of concrete rather than metal. Instead of mirrored glass on the concentrator dish, they plan to use metal foils. They project the cost to be 10 cents per kilowatt-hour in desert regions that have the appropriate sunlight, such as the Sahara in northern Africa.
One of the primary challenges of such a device, apart from keeping costs down and optimizing efficiency, is finding a suitable application. The combined power and thermal generator only makes sense in places where the waste heat can be used at least during part of the day. The researchers envision it could be used in sunny locations without adequate fresh water reserves or, potentially, in remote tourist resorts on islands. In those cases, the system would need to be easy to operate and reliable.
What is Nanotechnology?
A basic definition: Nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. This covers both current work and concepts that are more advanced.
In its original sense, ‘nanotechnology’ refers to the projected ability to construct items from the bottom up, using techniques and tools being developed today to make complete, high performance products.
Nanotechnology (sometimes shortened to “nanotech”) is the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. The earliest, widespread description of nanotechnology referred to the particular technological goal of precisely manipulating atoms and molecules for fabrication of macroscale products, also now referred to as molecular nanotechnology.
A more generalized description of nanotechnology was subsequently established by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which defines nanotechnology as the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers. This definition reflects the fact that quantum mechanical effects are important at this quantum-realm scale, and so the definition shifted from a particular technological goal to a research category inclusive of all types of research and technologies that deal with the special properties of matter that occur below the given size threshold.
It is therefore common to see the plural form “nanotechnologies” as well as “nanoscale technologies” to refer to the broad range of research and applications whose common trait is size. Because of the variety of potential applications (including industrial and military), governments have invested billions of dollars in nanotechnology research.
Through its National Nanotechnology Initiative, the USA has invested 3.7 billion dollars. The European Union has invested 1.2 billion and Japan 750 million dollars
Houston, TX | Posted on July 10th, 2014
Rice University’s breakthrough silicon oxide technology for high-density, next-generation computer memory is one step closer to mass production, thanks to a refinement that will allow manufacturers to fabricate devices at room temperature with conventional production methods.
First discovered five years ago, Rice’s silicon oxide memories are a type of two-terminal, “resistive random-access memory” (RRAM) technology. In a new paper available online in the American Chemical Society journal Nano Letters, a Rice team led by chemist James Tour compared its RRAM technology to more than a dozen competing versions.
“This memory is superior to all other two-terminal unipolar resistive memories by almost every metric,” Tour said. “And because our devices use silicon oxide — the most studied material on Earth — the underlying physics are both well-understood and easy to implement in existing fabrication facilities.” Tour is Rice’s T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry and professor of mechanical engineering and nanoengineering and of computer science.
Tour and colleagues began work on their breakthrough RRAM technology more than five years ago. The basic concept behind resistive memory devices is the insertion of a dielectric material — one that won’t normally conduct electricity — between two wires. When a sufficiently high voltage is applied across the wires, a narrow conduction path can be formed through the dielectric material.
The presence or absence of these conduction pathways can be used to represent the binary 1s and 0s of digital data. Research with a number of dielectric materials over the past decade has shown that such conduction pathways can be formed, broken and reformed thousands of times, which means RRAM can be used as the basis of rewritable random-access memory.
RRAM is under development worldwide and expected to supplant flash memory technology in the marketplace within a few years because it is faster than flash and can pack far more information into less space. For example, manufacturers have announced plans for RRAM prototype chips that will be capable of storing about one terabyte of data on a device the size of a postage stamp — more than 50 times the data density of current flash memory technology.
The key ingredient of Rice’s RRAM is its dielectric component, silicon oxide. Silicon is the most abundant element on Earth and the basic ingredient in conventional microchips. Microelectronics fabrication technologies based on silicon are widespread and easily understood, but until the 2010 discovery of conductive filament pathways in silicon oxide in Tour’s lab, the material wasn’t considered an option for RRAM.
Since then, Tour’s team has raced to further develop its RRAM and even used it for exotic new devices like transparent flexible memory chips. At the same time, the researchers also conducted countless tests to compare the performance of silicon oxide memories with competing dielectric RRAM technologies.
“Our technology is the only one that satisfies every market requirement, both from a production and a performance standpoint, for nonvolatile memory,” Tour said. “It can be manufactured at room temperature, has an extremely low forming voltage, high on-off ratio, low power consumption, nine-bit capacity per cell, exceptional switching speeds and excellent cycling endurance.”
This scanning electron microscope image and schematic show the design and composition of new RRAM memory devices based on porous silicon oxide that were created at Rice University.
Credit: Tour Group/Rice University
In the latest study, a team headed by lead author and Rice postdoctoral researcher Gunuk Wang showed that using a porous version of silicon oxide could dramatically improve Rice’s RRAM in several ways. First, the porous material reduced the forming voltage — the power needed to form conduction pathways — to less than two volts, a 13-fold improvement over the team’s previous best and a number that stacks up against competing RRAM technologies. In addition, the porous silicon oxide also allowed Tour’s team to eliminate the need for a “device edge structure.”
“That means we can take a sheet of porous silicon oxide and just drop down electrodes without having to fabricate edges,” Tour said. “When we made our initial announcement about silicon oxide in 2010, one of the first questions I got from industry was whether we could do this without fabricating edges. At the time we could not, but the change to porous silicon oxide finally allows us to do that.”
Wang said, “We also demonstrated that the porous silicon oxide material increased the endurance cycles more than 100 times as compared with previous nonporous silicon oxide memories. Finally, the porous silicon oxide material has a capacity of up to nine bits per cell that is highest number among oxide-based memories, and the multiple capacity is unaffected by high temperatures.”
Tour said the latest developments with porous silicon oxide — reduced forming voltage, elimination of need for edge fabrication, excellent endurance cycling and multi-bit capacity — are extremely appealing to memory companies.
“This is a major accomplishment, and we’ve already been approached by companies interested in licensing this new technology,” he said.
Study co-authors — all from Rice — include postdoctoral researcher Yang Yang; research scientist Jae-Hwang Lee; graduate students Vera Abramova, Huilong Fei and Gedeng Ruan; and Edwin Thomas, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, professor in mechanical engineering and materials science and in chemical and biomolecular engineering.