Climate Crisis: Where are the Bees Going?

bee_pollen_macroOne of the greatest threats to our planetary ecosystem is the threat of bees going extinct, a phenomenon that is often filed under the heading of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Because of their role in pollination, bees are an integral part of the environment, and their disappearance would mean the sudden collapse of all life on the planet in just a few years time.

Because of this, environmentalists and entomologists are looking for ways to address the disappearance of bees. One solution, as put forward by a team of Australian scientists working in Tasmania, is to outfit bees with tiny microchip trackers to monitor their movements. By turning them into an army of mobile data-collectors, the team hopes to determine why the local bees are abandoning their hives.

bee_chipsFor the past five months, this team has been capturing hundreds of bees, refrigerating them, shaving them, and gluing tiny sensors – which weigh about 1/4000th of a paperclip – to their backs. So far, the team has captured, tagged and released hundred bees, but the team plans to engineer a total of 5000 with these chips for the sake of their research.

Dr. Paulo de Souza, the lead scientist on the project, explained the capture and tagging process as follows:

The bees are very sensitive to temperature. We take the bees to the lab in a cage, we put them in a fridge with temps around 5 degrees Celsius, and in five minutes, all the bees fall asleep, because their metabolism goes down. We rub a bit of glue on them, and then attach the sensor. We carry them back, and in five minutes the bees wake up again.

colony_collapse_disorderBy monitoring their behavior, the scientists are trying to prevent Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious phenomenon in which worker bees suddenly abandon their hives. As it stands, no one is entirely sure what causes CCD, but  biological diversity, diet, management of the hives, radiation, and pesticide use are all possible influences on the bees’ behavior.

Colony Collapse Disorder remains a mystery that not only effects bees, but entire industries. If bees don’t pollinate fruit crops well enough, production decreases, prices rise, and local ecosystems can collapse. Tasmania, who’s huge agricultural tracts accounts for 65% of all Australian crop exports, could be devastated. Hence why de Souza and his colleagues are using it as a testing ground for their research.

bee_chips1In addition to monitoring the bees movements and checking in with them via RFID readers installed near hives and feeding stations, they’ve also created an experiment which exposes some bees to environmental contaminants (like pesticides) where other hives remain pesticide-free. By examining the effect on bees’ movements, they’ll be able to determine which factors cause bee disorientation and abnormal behavior.

As DeSouza explains it, the tagging and tracking process works a lot like a swipe card:

When you go to your office, you swipe a card to gain access. We assign different numbers to the devices on the bees, so we have 5,000 of these micro-sensors with one specific number. We follow not only the swarm, but each of the individuals to see what they’re doing.

colony_collapse_disorder1The scientists will also be able to examine bee data through several generations within the hive. When the contaminated pollen turns to nectar, other bees within the hive feed on it, and pass contamination on to their offspring. To de Souza’s knowledge, this is the first time scientists have attempted to measure hive contamination on this scale.

Right now, their main goal is to understand CCD before it reaches Australia’s shores and effects its agricultural operations. But the research is expected to have far-reaching implications, helping to address a major ecological concern that effects the entire world. And in the long run, de Souza and his team are looking to refine the process and take it even further.

HoneyBeesOnYellowFlowersThis includes adding more features to the chips and applying them to other species of crucial and threatened insects. Key to this, says de Souza, is miniaturization:

As the chips go down in size, we’ll also be able to use this in other insects. Fruit flies, for example, are another insect incredibly important for biosecurity in Australia.

An interesting concept, isn’t it? Big data meets entomology meets ecology, and all for the sake of preserving a crucial part of the food industry and an integral part of our environment. Because ultimately, its not just about preventing colonies from collapsing, but the Earth’s ecosystems as well.


Year-End Tech News: Stanene and Nanoparticle Ink

3d.printingThe year of 2013 was also a boon for the high-tech industry, especially where electronics and additive manufacturing were concerned. In fact, several key developments took place last year that may help scientists and researchers to move beyond Moore’s Law, as well as ring in a new era of manufacturing and production.

In terms of computing, developers have long feared that Moore’s Law – which states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years – could be reaching a bottleneck. While the law (really it’s more of an observation) has certainly held true for the past forty years, it has been understood for some time that the use of silicon and copper wiring would eventually impose limits.

copper_in_chips__620x350Basically, one can only miniaturize circuits made from these materials so much before resistance occurs and they are too fragile to be effective. Because of this, researchers have been looking for replacement materials to substitute the silicon that makes up the 1 billion transistors, and the one hundred or so kilometers of copper wire, that currently make up an integrated circuit.

Various materials have been proposed, such as graphene, carbyne, and even carbon nanotubes. But now, a group of researchers from Stanford University and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California are proposing another material. It’s known as Stanene, a theorized material fabricated from a single layer of tin atoms that is theoretically extremely efficient, even at high temperatures.

computer_chip5Compared to graphene, which is stupendously conductive, the researchers at Stanford and the SLAC claim that stanene should be a topological insulator. Topological insulators, due to their arrangement of electrons/nuclei, are insulators on their interior, but conductive along their edge and/or surface. Being only a single atom in thickness along its edges, this topological insulator can conduct electricity with 100% efficiency.

The Stanford and SLAC researchers also say that stanene would not only have 100%-efficiency edges at room temperature, but with a bit of fluorine, would also have 100% efficiency at temperatures of up to 100 degrees Celsius (212 Fahrenheit). This is very important if stanene is ever to be used in computer chips, which have operational temps of between 40 and 90 C (104 and 194 F).

Though the claim of perfect efficiency seems outlandish to some, others admit that near-perfect efficiency is possible. And while no stanene has been fabricated yet, it is unlikely that it would be hard to fashion some on a small scale, as the technology currently exists. However, it will likely be a very, very long time until stanene is used in the production of computer chips.

Battery-Printer-640x353In the realm of additive manufacturing (aka. 3-D printing) several major developments were made during the year 0f 2013. This one came from Harvard University, where a materials scientist named Jennifer Lewis Lewis – using currently technology – has developed new “inks” that can be used to print batteries and other electronic components.

3-D printing is already at work in the field of consumer electronics with casings and some smaller components being made on industrial 3D printers. However, the need for traditionally produced circuit boards and batteries limits the usefulness of 3D printing. If the work being done by Lewis proves fruitful, it could make fabrication of a finished product considerably faster and easier.

3d_batteryThe Harvard team is calling the material “ink,” but in fact, it’s a suspension of nanoparticles in a dense liquid medium. In the case of the battery printing ink, the team starts with a vial of deionized water and ethylene glycol and adds nanoparticles of lithium titanium oxide. The mixture is homogenized, then centrifuged to separate out any larger particles, and the battery ink is formed.

This process is possible because of the unique properties of the nanoparticle suspension. It is mostly solid as it sits in the printer ready to be applied, then begins to flow like liquid when pressure is increased. Once it leaves the custom printer nozzle, it returns to a solid state. From this, Lewis’ team was able to lay down multiple layers of this ink with extreme precision at 100-nanometer accuracy.

laser-welding-640x353The tiny batteries being printed are about 1mm square, and could pack even higher energy density than conventional cells thanks to the intricate constructions. This approach is much more realistic than other metal printing technologies because it happens at room temperature, no need for microwaves, lasers or high-temperatures at all.

More importantly, it works with existing industrial 3D printers that were built to work with plastics. Because of this, battery production can be done cheaply using printers that cost on the order of a few hundred dollars, and not industrial-sized ones that can cost upwards of $1 million.

Smaller computers, and smaller, more efficient batteries. It seems that miniaturization, which some feared would be plateauing this decade, is safe for the foreseeable future! So I guess we can keep counting on our electronics getting smaller, harder to use, and easier to lose for the next few years. Yay for us!

Sources:, (2)

Microchips Made With DNA!

It seems IBM is deep at work developing a revolutionary new method for assembling microchips. This process will involve using self-assembled DNA nanostructures to create microchips and chip components. Or, to put it more dramatically, DNA would be used as a sort of “origami”, serving as a sort of scaffolding in the arrangement of nanotubes and allowing the company to develop microchips that are smaller and much less expensive to produce.

But of course, the long-term goal is much more ambitious. According to Greg Wallraff, a scientist working with IBM, the “goal is to use these structures to assemble carbon nanontubes, silicon nanowires, quantum dots. What we are really making are tiny DNA circuit boards that will be used to assemble other components.” In short, this could be not only a step towards bioassembly, nanotechnology, and even quantum computing.

For some time now, scientists have been experimenting with DNA as an assembler for microcircuits. One such individual is Paul W. K. Rothemund, a research associate at the California Institute of Technology, who developed DNA origami back in 2006. This involved taking a long strand of viral DNA, putting into a 2 or 3-D shape, and then holding it together with shorter strands of DNA. In this way, he was able to create shapes such as triangles, stars and smiley faces, according to his Caltech Web site.

Based on this process, complex DNA nanostructures are made in solution and then applied to surfaces which have designated “sticky spots” to ensure that they hold a specific configuration. Once the scaffold is in place, molecules of polymer, metal and other materials can then be guided into place, assembled from the cellular level outward. According to Rothemund, there are still some problems that need to be worked out and it is likely to be another 10 years before the process is entirely viable.

Still, for enthusiasts of bioware, biotech, and nanotechnology, this is exciting news. To know that we could be just ten years away from components assembled by nanostructures composed of living material, a stepping stone towards machinery composed entirely of DNA structures or nanomachines themselves… like I said, exciting!