Adding graphene to rubber bands could save lives!

Graphene is flexible and conductive, rubber bands are stretchy and cheap, so what happens if you combine the two?

A discovery by Europeans scientists published this week shows a cheap and easy way to add graphene to rubber bands turning them into a sensor which could measure vitals such as your breathing or pulse rate.

In my radio live interview this morning I talked about the new technology, how simple it is and how it could be used:

The paper called “Sensitive, High-Strain, High-Rate Bodily Motion Sensors Based on Graphene–Rubber Composites” published in ACS Nano this week shows that adding graphene to rubber bands results in stretchy electronic properties.  What is novel about this technique is how cheap they are to produce without expensive equipment or supplies and they show potential to be used as wearable sensors for monitoring breathing, heart rate, or irregular movements.

The process involves two simple steps, the first step is to create little sheets of graphene using a technique called liquid exfoliation where graphite is immersed in a solvent.  The second step involves immersing rubber bands in toluene (commonly used as paint thinner) which causes them to swell and create large interparticle pores between the rubber and the natural latex particles in the band.  This creates a space for the graphene to fit into naturally when the swollen rubber bands are dipped into the solvent graphite mix.  Allowing the rubber bands to dry, reduces their swollen shape back to their normal size with the trapped graphene particles now inside.

When I read the experimental method described in this paper I was surprised that it was so easy I could probably carry it out at home in my kitchen!

The stretchy, conductive material senses motion such as breathing, pulse and joint movement and could easily be used to create a lightweight sensor which could be incorporated into a wearable band or even stretchy clothing for vulnerable patients who need constant health monitoring including premature babies.  Because they are so cheap to produce, it opens up doors for patient monitoring in developing countries that may not be able to purchase more expensive and high tech sensors.


Could an aspirin a day could dramatically cut your cancer risk?

In an incredibly detailed review of 200 studies published between 2009 and 2012, the results showed that the benefits of taking an aspirin every day for cancer prevention far outweigh the risks.

The research published in the Annals of Oncology showed some very impressive results when it came to cancers, especially those in the digestive tract (bowel, stomach and esophageal).

I only had a short time to discuss the subject on the Paul Henry show, but read on below if you want to find out more.

Click on the photo to watch the television interview

Click on the photo to watch the television interview

The review looked at 200 studies which measured the health of patients who had taken aspirin  in doses of 70 to 325 mg per day over many years.

They found that those who took aspirin daily over a 10 year period cut the:

  • Incidence of bowel cancer by 35%, and deaths from the disease by 40%
  • Incidence of stomach cancer by 30% and deaths from the disease by 35%
  • Incidence of esophageal cancer by 30% and deaths from the disease by 50%!
  • Incidence of heart attack by 18% and deaths from the disease by 5%.

They also found evidence that lung, breast, and prostate cancers were reduced but not by such a large amount.

So how does it work?  Well there have been several suggested mechanisms including:

However, running to pop an aspirin right now and hoping that you are protected won’t work.  The effects of aspirin seemed take a long time to start showing any cancer proection and between the ages of 50 and 65 years, three years was the minimum and five to ten years of daily dosage required to gain the full benefits.

As great as this all sounds, none of the health organisations currently recommend taking aspirin to prevent cancer.  There are some risks involved, such as an increased risk of stomach bleeding of between 2.2% to 3.6% for 60 year olds,  importantly in those cases, 5% of the bleeds could be fatal.

The paper calculated that the risk of side effects from taking aspirin are:

  • major (extracranial) bleeding – 70% increase in incidence
  • gastric bleeding – 70% increase in deaths
  • peptic ulcer – 70% increase in deaths

In conclusion, the findings on aspirin and cancer do show promise, however a more specific study needs to be carried out with control groups and placebo pills to really make a solid conclusion.  Because this study was based on many other research publications, each with their own design and level of quality with a lot of the evidence coming purely from observations, there are still some holes in the research.

It is also worth noting that many cancer risks can be reduced by lifestyle choices such as not smoking and keeping a healthy body weight.  The infographic below from the UK cancer research society shows how much each lifestyle choice can have an effect on a cancer type.

Proportions of cancers in the UK linked to the 14 lifestyle and environmental factors studied. Image Source

Proportions of cancers in the UK linked to the 14 lifestyle and environmental factors studied. Image Source

The advice is to go and chat to your doctor about whether taking a low dose of aspirin every day could help to reduce your risks of some diseases.  It’s important to note that aspirin can cause major side effects such as peptic ulcers and bleeding from the stomach, and so ensuring you go through your full medical history with your doctor is important especially if you are pregnant, have a blood disorder, have a stomach ulcer, have asthma, have kidney problems, blood pressure issues or a bleeding disorder.


Where do you fit on the scientific Kardashian Index?

I’m a scientist who also owns a twitter account and was very interested in this paper by Professor Neil Hall from the University of Liverpool about scientists and Twitter and a new metric that he calls the Kardashian index.

Where do you sit on the Kardashian Index?

Where do you sit on the Kardashian Index?

Basically it provides an equation so that you can compare the number of followers you have on Twitter with the impact of your peer reviewed journal publications, judged by the number of citations it has. It’s called Kardashian index based on Kim Kardashian being famous for not really doing anything, and thus those of us with a high Kardashian are classed as scientists who really haven’t accomplished much in science but talk like we do.

It’s a great concept, and highlights the fact that scientifically we really are only judged as being successful by the number of citations we have, even if we do a whole bunch of other stuff around our discipline that makes a difference in other ways.

Let me share a little piece from this paper with you:

In an age dominated by the cult of celebrity we, as scientists, need to protect ourselves from mindlessly lauding shallow popularity and take an informed and critical view of the value we place on the opinion of our peers. Social media makes it very easy for people to build a seemingly impressive persona by essentially ‘shouting louder’ than others. Having an opinion on something does not make one an expert.”

The implication is that those of us who tweet apparently only do it to talk about how great we are.  I disagree with this and only need to look at my academic peers to see that we use it for a multitude of things.  I personally use it to interact with members of the public about science topics, and to link to educational science media work that I do so that people can watch or listen if they have an interest.

I use twitter for many things, including showing that I'm a real human being not a science robot.

I use twitter for many things, including showing that I’m a real human being not a science robot.

I also post pictures of my dog, which has nothing to do with science, but hopefully shows that I too have a life outside of science and my dog is part of that!

Professor Hall proposes that that those people whose Kardashian index is greater than 5 can be considered ‘Science Kardashians’.  Naturally I calculated my own Kardashian index and am officially, according to this paper a Kardashian in science, however I do feel privileged to have come out with the same score as Brian Cox.

Brian Cox tweeted about his Kardashian Index being 35

Brian Cox tweeted about his Kardashian Index being 35

I have to admit that I really don’t care, because one thing that Professor Hall doesn’t seem to include, is how useful Twitter can be for a scientist.  It’s a great space to talk to other scientists, I’ve set up international collaborations through twitter, I’ve found out about funding opportunities through twitter.  More importantly for me, I’ve been able to answer serious questions from the public about their concerns with topics in science and openly debate with other scientists hot topics in our fields.  None of that creates a citation index number, most of it isn’t recorded or logged, but a lot of it is important in creating a community of scientific individuals that the public can trust and who can inspire others to follow through to a scientific career.

The bigger question lies in the issue that the number of citations a paper has doesn’t indicate how many people outside of academia read it and quoted from it.  It’s an internal mechanism that rewards people within the system, but at no point do we measure how many members of the public, whose taxpayer money may have been used to fund the research read and understood the significance of the research and thus lies the issue with how me measure success as a scientist.

It’s a dilemma I have daily as a passionate scientist who loves the science that I do, but who also loves to communicate it with the outside world.  The system currently only rewards number of publications and number of citations, and so if I were worried about career progression or being a ‘successful’ scientists, then I would quit all of this blogging, tweeting and media stuff and only concentrate on outputting peer reviewed papers.

However, I quite like being an ‘unsuccessful’ scientist instead 🙂


Sniffing out explosives with nanotechnology

There is a new nose about town and it’s sniffing out explosives molecules better than anything we have had before.  On Radio Live this morning I chatted to Mark Sainsbury about the new nanotechnology sensor and why it could help improve the air travel screening process.  You can listen to the interview here:

radioexplosThe novel nanotechnology sensor was devised by Prof. Fernando Patolsky from Tel Aviv University Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.  With financial help from a company called Tracense the device picks up the scent of explosives molecules much better than a trained explosive detecting dog’s nose. The research has just been published in the journal Nature Communications with the title ‘Supersensitive fingerprinting of explosives by chemically modified nanosensors arrays‘.

Explosive detection dogs have to be close to the device they are detecting and can not tell you which molecule they are detecting.  Image Source

Explosive detection dogs have to be close to the device they are detecting and can not tell you which molecule they are detecting. Image Source

The tiny chip consists of hundreds of silicon nanowhiskers each of which are able to detect ultra low traces of volatile explosives in the air. The whiskers are covered in binding chemicals and nanoparticles which specifically bind to the explosive molecules if they are in the air.  The whiskers mounted on the chip form a tiny electronic device called a nanotransistor which outputs a positive signal if molecular binding occurs on one or more of the whiskers.

This is similar to how our noses smell things, as at the top of out nasal passages right behind the nose, there is a patch of special neurons which have tiny hair-like projections called cilia.  If a volatile molecule is given off by the thing you are smelling and your cilia hairs detect it, they generate a signal in the neuron.  Replacing the cilia with silicon whiskers and the neuron with the silicon chip and its easy to see how the two techniques are very similar.

Although a well trained explosives dog can detect when there are explosives in a package, the animal has to be in close proximity to the device and can not tell you which explosive molecule it is detecting. The new chip is two to three orders of magnitude more sensitive than a dog’s nose and can detect small molecular species in air down to concentrations of parts-per-quadrillion in real time.

Although still in its prototype phase, the detector can identify several different types of explosives several meters from the source in real time. It has been tested on TNT, RDX, and HMX which are explosives used in commercial blasting and military applications.  It has also been tested on peroxide-based explosives like TATP and HMTD which are known to be used in homemade bombs and with suicide bombers.  The latter two are very difficult to detect using existing explosive sensing technology and open up new possibilities for remote explosive sensing.

The nanosensors could enable screening for explosives without the need to remove liquids from carry-on bags at airport screenings

The nanosensors could enable screening for explosives without the need to remove liquids from carry-on bags at airport screenings. Image Source

Aside from its incredibly sensitivity, the technology is also small and light making it portable and easy to carry.  Being able to detect explosives from a distance means that it has the potential to protect both the human or dog who would normally have to have initial contact with a potential explosive device. Being portable means the sensor could be wall mounted and can still detect items within a room, possibly leading to walk-through technologies at airports allowing passengers to be scanned which could remove the current fluid carry-on restrictions.

Nano is the new black…….Vantablack

Trying to make the blackest material known to man may not seem like an important issue until you see how much light interferes with our telescopes and prevents us from seeing distant stars and learning more about the world outside of Earth.

Talking to Mark Sainsbury on Radio Live, I chat about Vantablack, how it got its name (VANTA stands for vertically aligned carbon nanotube arrays) and what it could be used for.  You can listen to the interview here:

vantaradioSurrey Nanosystems have just started commercial production of this new Vantablack coating which is 10 times darker than the paint Z306 currently used to coat high tech materials making them reflect less light. More importantly, Vantablack can be applied to metals such as aluminium with good adhesion and resistance to shock and vibration making them more robust than previous nanotube coatings.  This is what makes this technology unique as previous nanotech based black coatings have had a tendency to peel off easily making them unsuitable for many applications.

The technology uses carbon nanotubes to create the blackest coating ever invented confirmed by measurements of the lowest reflectance across the light spectrum all the way from the UV to the far infra-red.  The coating absorbs 99.965% of incident radiation meaning that a mere 0.035% of radiation that hits Vantablack is reflected.

The coating consists of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes which can be seen in this scanning electron microscope image.

The coating consists of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes which can be seen in this scanning electron microscope image.

The coating works by packing vertically aligned carbon nanotubes closely enough together that they allow light (photons) to come in, but then don’t let the photons out again. This is because the incident radiation strikes the material but then bounces around within the nanotube structure and all but a minute amount of the radiation gets absorbed.

The plan is to start using it on space technology such as telescopes.  Right now when light enters a telescope it gets scattered because it reflects internally within the structure.  Currently a special black paint called Z306 is used to try to reduce some of this internal reflection, however light contamination still results in up to 40% of the data being unusable because of the poor signal to noise ratio.  By using Vantablack as a replacement to the black paint, much less internal light reflection will occur giving higher quality signals from our telescopes and possibilities of viewing more distant stars.  There is also discussion of using the coating on stealth aircraft and other military equipment to make it ‘invisible’ due to a lack of shape perception.

What I find most incredible about the coating is that when you pick up a material coated in Vantablack it will mess with your brain as it looks like a 2D surface even if you crumple it up in your hands.  This is because your eye can’t see any creases or features due to the lack of light reflecting off, meaning that it will just look like a dark hole no matter what shape you fold it into.
Hmmm, a fabric that can reduce the appearance of lumps, bumps and wrinkles…….I might just get my sewing machine out!