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Sensibill Launches Receipt Extraction API

Sensibill, a provider of SKU-level data and financial tools like digital receipt management that helps institutions better know and serve their customers, today announced the launch of its newest product: Receipt Extraction API. The machine learning-based solution automates and streamlines the transcription of receipts, allowing businesses to deepen customer engagement and loyalty at scale.

Sensibill’s Receipt Extraction API solution will benefit a wide range of businesses that need to quickly and accurately extract receipt data at scale. For example, enterprise accounting firms can use the service to reduce costs and maintain profitability, despite economic pressures. Financial services companies like accounting software and PFM providers can gain access to SKU-level data to drive personalization, using the technology to create an innovative edge and differentiate themselves from the competition. And, loyalty and reward companies that need near-perfect extraction capabilities can leverage Receipt Extraction API to help deliver rewards and value back to users more quickly, increasing efficiencies and improving product quality and accuracy.

“There is a new urgency around cost savings, efficiencies, digital engagement and innovation in otherwise mature markets,” explained Corey Gross, CEO of Sensibill. “Our Receipt Extraction API offering uses smart technology to extract receipts in bulk with speed and precision. At Sensibill, we are proven experts in SKU-level data; it’s what we’ve focused on for the past seven years and why leading institutions and digital banking and core providers across the globe have partnered with us. We are excited to help a broader range of organizations as they work to quickly and efficiently unlock the power of SKU-level data to drive deeper digital engagement and loyalty with their customers.”

Sensibill’s combination of deep SKU-level data expertise and leading AI and machine learning technology makes it uniquely positioned to deliver this solution to the market. Receipt Extraction API is powered by multi-brain processing, leveraging multiple OCR engines and machine learning models to maximize accuracy. And, the solution is intuitive and easily deployable, allowing business to quickly and nimbly test and implement. To best position businesses for success, Sensibill offers customers strategic account management support and white-glove service for extraction capabilities as needed.

Source: Finextra.com

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Chemists make cellular forces visible at the molecular scale

Scientists have developed a new technique using tools made of luminescent DNA, lit up like fireflies, to visualize the mechanical forces of cells at the molecular level. Nature Methods published the work, led by chemists at Emory University, who demonstrated their technique on human blood platelets in laboratory experiments.

“Normally, an optical microscope cannot produce images that resolve objects smaller than the length of a light wave, which is about 500 nanometers,” says Khalid Salaita, Emory professor of chemistry and senior author of the study. “We found a way to leverage recent advances in optical imaging along with our molecular DNA sensors to capture forces at 25 nanometers. That resolution is akin to being on the moon and seeing the ripples caused by raindrops hitting the surface of a lake on the Earth.”

Almost every biological process involves a mechanical component, from cell division to blood clotting to mounting an immune response. “Understanding how cells apply forces and sense forces may help in the development of new therapies for many different disorders,” says Salaita, whose lab is a leader in devising ways to image and map bio-mechanical forces.

The first authors of the paper, Joshua Brockman and Hanquan Su, did the work as Emory graduate students in the Salaita lab. Both recently received their PhDs.

The researchers turned strands of synthetic DNA into molecular tension probes that contain hidden pockets. The probes are attached to receptors on a cell’s surface. Free-floating pieces of DNA tagged with fluorescence serve as imagers. As the unanchored pieces of DNA whizz about they create streaks of light in microscopy videos.

When the cell applies force at a particular receptor site, the attached probes stretch out causing their hidden pockets to open and release tendrils of DNA that are stored inside. The free-floating pieces of DNA are engineered to dock onto these DNA tendrils. When the florescent DNA pieces dock, they are briefly demobilized, showing up as still points of light in the microscopy videos.

Hours of microscopy video are taken of the process, then speeded up to show how the points of light change over time, providing the molecular-level view of the mechanical forces of the cell.

The researchers use a firefly analogy to describe the process.

“Imagine you’re in a field on a moonless night and there is a tree that you can’t see because it’s pitch black out,” says Brockman, who graduated from the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, a joint program of Georgia Tech and Emory, and is now a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard. “For some reason, fireflies really like that tree. As they land on all the branches and along the trunk of the tree, you could slowly build up an image of the outline of the tree. And if you were really patient, you could even detect the branches of the tree waving in the wind by recording how the fireflies change their landing spots over time.”

“It’s extremely challenging to image the forces of a living cell at a high resolution,” says Su, who graduated from Emory’s Department of Chemistry and is now a post-doctoral fellow in the Salaita lab. “A big advantage of our technique is that it doesn’t interfere with the normal behavior or health of a cell.”

Another advantage, he adds, is that DNA bases of A, G, T and C, which naturally bind to one another in particular ways, can be engineered within the probe-and-imaging system to control specificity and map multiple forces at one time within a cell.

“Ultimately, we may be able to link various mechanical activities of a cell to specific proteins or to other parts of cellular machinery,” Brockman says. “That may allow us to determine how to alter the cell to change and control its forces.”

By using the technique to image and map the mechanical forces of platelets, the cells that control blood clotting at the site of a wound, the researchers discovered that platelets have a concentrated core of mechanical tension and a thin rim that continuously contracts. “We couldn’t see this pattern before but now we have a crisp image of it,” Salaita says. “How do these mechanical forces control thrombosis and coagulation? We’d like to study them more to see if they could serve as a way to predict a clotting disorder.”

Just as increasingly high-powered telescopes allow us to discover planets, stars and the forces of the universe, higher-powered microscopy allows us to make discoveries about our own biology.

“I hope this new technique leads to better ways to visualize not just the activity of single cells in a laboratory dish, but to learn about cell-to-cell interactions in actual physiological conditions,” Su says. “It’s like opening a new door onto a largely unexplored realm — the forces inside of us.”

Co-authors of the study include researchers from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, the Max Planck Institute and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The work was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Naito Foundation and the Uehara Memorial Foundation.

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Can life survive a star’s death? Webb telescope can reveal the answer

When stars like our sun die, all that remains is an exposed core — a white dwarf. A planet orbiting a white dwarf presents a promising opportunity to determine if life can survive the death of its star, according to Cornell University researchers.

In a study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, they show how NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could find signatures of life on Earth-like planets orbiting white dwarfs.

A planet orbiting a small star produces strong atmospheric signals when it passes in front, or “transits,” its host star. White dwarfs push this to the extreme: They are 100 times smaller than our sun, almost as small as Earth, affording astronomers a rare opportunity to characterize rocky planets.

“If rocky planets exist around white dwarfs, we could spot signs of life on them in the next few years,” said corresponding author Lisa Kaltenegger, associate professor of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Carl Sagan Institute.

Co-lead author Ryan MacDonald, a research associate at the institute, said the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in October 2021, is uniquely placed to find signatures of life on rocky exoplanets.

“When observing Earth-like planets orbiting white dwarfs, the James Webb Space Telescope can detect water and carbon dioxide within a matter of hours,” MacDonald said. “Two days of observing time with this powerful telescope would allow the discovery of biosignature gases, such as ozone and methane.”

The discovery of the first transiting giant planet orbiting a white dwarf (WD 1856+534b), announced in a separate paper — led by co-author Andrew Vanderburg, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison — proves the existence of planets around white dwarfs. Kaltenegger is a co-author on this paper, as well.

This planet is a gas giant and therefore not able to sustain life. But its existence suggests that smaller rocky planets, which could sustain life, could also exist in the habitable zones of white dwarfs.

“We know now that giant planets can exist around white dwarfs, and evidence stretches back over 100 years showing rocky material polluting light from white dwarfs. There are certainly small rocks in white dwarf systems,” MacDonald said. “It’s a logical leap to imagine a rocky planet like the Earth orbiting a white dwarf.”

The researchers combined state-of-the-art analysis techniques routinely used to detect gases in giant exoplanet atmospheres with the Hubble Space Telescope with model atmospheres of white dwarf planets from previous Cornell research.

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is now looking for such rocky planets around white dwarfs. If and when one of these worlds is found, Kaltenegger and her team have developed the models and tools to identify signs of life in the planet’s atmosphere. The Webb telescope could soon begin this search.

The implications of finding signatures of life on a planet orbiting a white dwarf are profound, Kaltenegger said. Most stars, including our sun, will one day end up as white dwarfs.

“What if the death of the star is not the end for life?” she said. “Could life go on, even once our sun has died? Signs of life on planets orbiting white dwarfs would not only show the incredible tenacity of life, but perhaps also a glimpse into our future.”

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Carbon-rich exoplanets may be made of diamonds

As missions like NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, TESS and Kepler continue to provide insights into the properties of exoplanets (planets around other stars), scientists are increasingly able to piece together what these planets look like, what they are made of, and if they could be habitable or even inhabited.

In a new study published recently in The Planetary Science Journal, a team of researchers from Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Chicago have determined that some carbon-rich exoplanets, given the right circumstances, could be made of diamonds and silica.

“These exoplanets are unlike anything in our solar system,” says lead author Harrison Allen-Sutter of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Diamond exoplanet formation

When stars and planets are formed, they do so from the same cloud of gas, so their bulk compositions are similar. A star with a lower carbon to oxygen ratio will have planets like Earth, comprised of silicates and oxides with a very small diamond content (Earth’s diamond content is about 0.001%).

But exoplanets around stars with a higher carbon to oxygen ratio than our sun are more likely to be carbon-rich. Allen-Sutter and co-authors Emily Garhart, Kurt Leinenweber and Dan Shim of ASU, with Vitali Prakapenka and Eran Greenberg of the University of Chicago, hypothesized that these carbon-rich exoplanets could convert to diamond and silicate, if water (which is abundant in the universe) were present, creating a diamond-rich composition.

Diamond-anvils and X-rays

To test this hypothesis, the research team needed to mimic the interior of carbide exoplanets using high heat and high pressure. To do so, they used high pressure diamond-anvil cells at co-author Shim’s Lab for Earth and Planetary Materials.

First, they immersed silicon carbide in water and compressed the sample between diamonds to a very high pressure. Then, to monitor the reaction between silicon carbide and water, they conducted laser heating at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, taking X-ray measurements while the laser heated the sample at high pressures.

As they predicted, with high heat and pressure, the silicon carbide reacted with water and turned into diamonds and silica.

Habitability and inhabitability

So far, we have not found life on other planets, but the search continues. Planetary scientists and astrobiologists are using sophisticated instruments in space and on Earth to find planets with the right properties and the right location around their stars where life could exist.

For carbon-rich planets that are the focus of this study, however, they likely do not have the properties needed for life.

While Earth is geologically active (an indicator habitability), the results of this study show that carbon-rich planets are too hard to be geologically active and this lack of geologic activity may make atmospheric composition uninhabitable. Atmospheres are critical for life as it provides us with air to breathe, protection from the harsh environment of space, and even pressure to allow for liquid water.

“Regardless of habitability, this is one additional step in helping us understand and characterize our ever- increasing and improving observations of exoplanets,” says Allen-Sutter. “The more we learn, the better we’ll be able to interpret new data from upcoming future missions like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope to understand the worlds beyond on our own solar system.”

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Cuttlebone’s microstructure sits at a ‘sweet spot’

Ling Li has a lesson in one of his mechanical engineering courses on how brittle materials like calcium carbonate behave under stress. In it, he takes a piece of chalk composed of the compound and snaps it in half to show his students the edge of one of the broken pieces. The break is blunt and straight.

Then, he twists a second piece, which results in sharper shards broken at a 45-degree angle, indicating the more dangerous direction of tensile stress on the chalk. The broken chalk helps Li demonstrate what brittle calcium carbonate will do under normal forces: it tends to fracture.

“If you bend it, it will break,” Li said.

In Li’s Laboratory for Biological and Bio-Inspired Materials, many of the ocean animals he studies for their biological structural materials have parts made of calcium carbonate. Some mollusks use it in photonic crystals that create a vivid color display, “like a butterfly’s wings,” Li said. Others have mineral eyes built with it, into their shells. The more Li studies these animals, the more he’s amazed by the uses their bodies find for intrinsically brittle and fragile material. Especially when the use defies that fragility.

In a study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Li’s research team focused on the cuttlefish, another one of those inventive, chalk-built animals and a traveler of the ocean’s depths. The researchers investigated the internal microstructure of cuttlebone, the mollusk’s highly porous internal shell, and found that the microstructure’s unique, chambered “wall-septa” design optimizes cuttlebone to be extremely lightweight, stiff, and damage-tolerant. Their study goes into the underlying material design strategies that give cuttlebone these high-performance mechanical properties, despite the shell’s composition mostly of brittle aragonite, a crystal form of calcium carbonate.

In the ocean, the cuttlefish uses cuttlebone as a hard buoyancy tank to control its movement up and down the water column, to depths as low as 600 meters. The animal adjusts the ratio of gas to water in that tank to float up or sink down. To serve this purpose, the shell has to be lightweight and porous for active fluid exchange, yet stiff enough to protect the cuttlefish’s body from strong water pressure as it dives deeper. When cuttlebone does get crushed by pressure or by a predator’s bite, it has to be able to absorb a lot of energy. That way, the damage stays in a localized area of the shell, rather than shattering the entire cuttlebone.

The need to balance all of these functions is what makes cuttlebone so unique, Li’s team discovered, as they examined the shell’s internal microstructure.

Ph.D. student and study co-author Ting Yang used synchrotron-based micro-computed tomography to characterize cuttlebone microstructure in 3D, penetrating the shell with a powerful X-ray beam from Argonne National Laboratory to produce high-resolution images. She and the team observed what happened to the shell’s microstructure when it was compressed by applying the in-situ tomography method during mechanical tests. Combining these steps with digital image correlation, which allows for frame-by-frame image comparison, they studied cuttlebone’s full deformation and fracture processes under loading.

Their experiments revealed more about cuttlebone’s chambered “wall-septa” microstructure and its design for optimized weight, stiffness, and damage tolerance.

The design separates cuttlebone into individual chambers with floors and ceilings, or “septa,” supported by vertical “walls.” Other animals, like birds, have a similar structure, known as a “sandwich” structure. With a layer of dense bone atop another and vertical struts in between for support, the structure is made lightweight and stiff. Unlike the sandwich structure, however, cuttlebone’s microstructure has multiple layers — those chambers — and they’re supported by wavy walls instead of straight struts. The waviness increases along each wall from floor to ceiling in a “waviness gradient.”

“The exact morphology we haven’t seen, at least in other models,” said Li of the design. This wall-septa design gives cuttlebone control of where and how damage occurs in the shell. It allows for graceful, rather than catastrophic, failure: when compressed, chambers fail one by one, progressively rather than instantaneously.

The researchers found that cuttlebone’s wavy walls induce or control fractures to form at the middle of walls, rather than at floors or ceilings, which would cause the entire structure to collapse. As one chamber undergoes wall fracture and subsequent densification — in which the fractured walls gradually compact in the damaged chamber — the adjacent chamber remains intact until fractured pieces penetrate its floors and ceilings. During this process, a significant amount of mechanical energy can be absorbed, Li explained, limiting external impact.

Li’s team further explored the high-performance potential of cuttlebone’s microstructure with computational modeling. Using measurements of the microstructure made with the earlier 3D tomography, postdoctoral researcher Zian Jia built a parametric model, ran virtual tests that altered the waviness of the structure’s walls, and observed how the shell performed as a result.

“We know that cuttlebone has these wavy walls with a gradient,” Li said. “Zian changed the gradient so we could learn how cuttlebone behaved if we went beyond this morphology. Is it better, or not? We show that cuttlebone sits in an optimal spot. If the waviness becomes too big, the structure is less stiff. If the waves become smaller, the structure becomes more brittle. Cuttlebone seems to have found a sweet spot, to balance the stiffness and energy absorption.”

Li sees applications for cuttlebone’s microstructural design in ceramic foams. Among foams used for crush resistance or energy absorption in packaging, transportation, and infrastructure, polymer and metal materials are the more popular choices. Ceramic foams are rarely used because they’re brittle, Li said. But ceramics have their own unique advantages — they’re more chemically stable and have a high melting temperature.

If cuttlebone’s properties could be applied to ceramic foams, their ability to withstand high heat paired with newfound damage tolerance could make ceramic foams ideal for use as thermal protection units in space shuttles or as general thermal protection, Li believes. His team has been evaluating that application in a separate study.

Though the team has already begun to look up from the sea to the sky at the possibilities that cuttlebone inspires, their study of the shell’s fundamental design strategies is just as important to Li.

“Nature makes a lot of structural materials,” Li said. “These materials are made at room temperature and regular atmospheric pressure, unlike metals, which can be detrimental to the environment to produce — you need to use high temperatures and refraction processes for metals.

“We’re intrigued by such differences between biological structural materials and engineered structural materials. Can we bridge these two and provide insights in making new structural materials?”

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AI used to show how hydrogen becomes a metal inside giant planets

Dense metallic hydrogen — a phase of hydrogen which behaves like an electrical conductor — makes up the interior of giant planets, but it is difficult to study and poorly understood. By combining artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics, researchers have found how hydrogen becomes a metal under the extreme pressure conditions of these planets.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, IBM Research and EPFL, used machine learning to mimic the interactions between hydrogen atoms in order to overcome the size and timescale limitations of even the most powerful supercomputers. They found that instead of happening as a sudden, or first-order, transition, the hydrogen changes in a smooth and gradual way. The results are reported in the journal Nature.

Hydrogen, consisting of one proton and one electron, is both the simplest and the most abundant element in the Universe. It is the dominant component of the interior of the giant planets in our solar system — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — as well as exoplanets orbiting other stars.

At the surfaces of giant planets, hydrogen remains a molecular gas. Moving deeper into the interiors of giant planets however, the pressure exceeds millions of standard atmospheres. Under this extreme compression, hydrogen undergoes a phase transition: the covalent bonds inside hydrogen molecules break, and the gas becomes a metal that conducts electricity.

“The existence of metallic hydrogen was theorised a century ago, but what we haven’t known is how this process occurs, due to the difficulties in recreating the extreme pressure conditions of the interior of a giant planet in a laboratory setting, and the enormous complexities of predicting the behaviour of large hydrogen systems,” said lead author Dr Bingqing Cheng from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

Experimentalists have attempted to investigate dense hydrogen using a diamond anvil cell, in which two diamonds apply high pressure to a confined sample. Although diamond is the hardest substance on Earth, the device will fail under extreme pressure and high temperatures, especially when in contact with hydrogen, contrary to the claim that a diamond is forever. This makes the experiments both difficult and expensive.

Theoretical studies are also challenging: although the motion of hydrogen atoms can be solved using equations based on quantum mechanics, the computational power needed to calculate the behaviour of systems with more than a few thousand atoms for longer than a few nanoseconds exceeds the capability of the world’s largest and fastest supercomputers.

It is commonly assumed that the transition of dense hydrogen is first-order, which is accompanied by abrupt changes in all physical properties. A common example of a first-order phase transition is boiling liquid water: once the liquid becomes a vapour, its appearance and behaviour completely change despite the fact that the temperature and the pressure remain the same.

In the current theoretical study, Cheng and her colleagues used machine learning to mimic the interactions between hydrogen atoms, in order to overcome limitations of direct quantum mechanical calculations.

“We reached a surprising conclusion and found evidence for a continuous molecular to atomic transition in the dense hydrogen fluid, instead of a first-order one,” said Cheng, who is also a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College.

The transition is smooth because the associated ‘critical point’ is hidden. Critical points are ubiquitous in all phase transitions between fluids: all substances that can exist in two phases have critical points. A system with an exposed critical point, such as the one for vapour and liquid water, has clearly distinct phases. However, the dense hydrogen fluid, with the hidden critical point, can transform gradually and continuously between the molecular and the atomic phases. Furthermore, this hidden critical point also induces other unusual phenomena, including density and heat capacity maxima.

The finding about the continuous transition provides a new way of interpreting the contradicting body of experiments on dense hydrogen. It also implies a smooth transition between insulating and metallic layers in giant gas planets. The study would not be possible without combining machine learning, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics. Without any doubt, this approach will uncover more physical insights about hydrogen systems in the future. As the next step, the researchers aim to answer the many open questions concerning the solid phase diagram of dense hydrogen.

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Seeing objects through clouds and fog

Like a comic book come to life, researchers at Stanford University have developed a kind of X-ray vision — only without the X-rays. Working with hardware similar to what enables autonomous cars to “see” the world around them, the researchers enhanced their system with a highly efficient algorithm that can reconstruct three-dimensional hidden scenes based on the movement of individual particles of light, or photons. In tests, detailed in a paper published Sept. 9 in Nature Communications, their system successfully reconstructed shapes obscured by 1-inch-thick foam. To the human eye, it’s like seeing through walls.

“A lot of imaging techniques make images look a little bit better, a little bit less noisy, but this is really something where we make the invisible visible,” said Gordon Wetzstein, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford and senior author of the paper. “This is really pushing the frontier of what may be possible with any kind of sensing system. It’s like superhuman vision.”

This technique complements other vision systems that can see through barriers on the microscopic scale — for applications in medicine — because it’s more focused on large-scale situations, such as navigating self-driving cars in fog or heavy rain and satellite imaging of the surface of Earth and other planets through hazy atmosphere.

Supersight from scattered light

In order to see through environments that scatter light every-which-way, the system pairs a laser with a super-sensitive photon detector that records every bit of laser light that hits it. As the laser scans an obstruction like a wall of foam, an occasional photon will manage to pass through the foam, hit the objects hidden behind it and pass back through the foam to reach the detector. The algorithm-supported software then uses those few photons — and information about where and when they hit the detector — to reconstruct the hidden objects in 3D.

This is not the first system with the ability to reveal hidden objects through scattering environments, but it circumvents limitations associated with other techniques. For example, some require knowledge about how far away the object of interest is. It is also common that these systems only use information from ballistic photons, which are photons that travel to and from the hidden object through the scattering field but without actually scattering along the way.

“We were interested in being able to image through scattering media without these assumptions and to collect all the photons that have been scattered to reconstruct the image,” said David Lindell, a graduate student in electrical engineering and lead author of the paper. “This makes our system especially useful for large-scale applications, where there would be very few ballistic photons.”

In order to make their algorithm amenable to the complexities of scattering, the researchers had to closely co-design their hardware and software, although the hardware components they used are only slightly more advanced than what is currently found in autonomous cars. Depending on the brightness of the hidden objects, scanning in their tests took anywhere from one minute to one hour, but the algorithm reconstructed the obscured scene in real-time and could be run on a laptop.

“You couldn’t see through the foam with your own eyes, and even just looking at the photon measurements from the detector, you really don’t see anything,” said Lindell. “But, with just a handful of photons, the reconstruction algorithm can expose these objects — and you can see not only what they look like, but where they are in 3D space.”

Space and fog

Someday, a descendant of this system could be sent through space to other planets and moons to help see through icy clouds to deeper layers and surfaces. In the nearer term, the researchers would like to experiment with different scattering environments to simulate other circumstances where this technology could be useful.

“We’re excited to push this further with other types of scattering geometries,” said Lindell. “So, not just objects hidden behind a thick slab of material but objects that are embedded in densely scattering material, which would be like seeing an object that’s surrounded by fog.”

Lindell and Wetzstein are also enthusiastic about how this work represents a deeply interdisciplinary intersection of science and engineering.

“These sensing systems are devices with lasers, detectors and advanced algorithms, which puts them in an interdisciplinary research area between hardware and physics and applied math,” said Wetzstein. “All of those are critical, core fields in this work and that’s what’s the most exciting for me.”

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Bio-based communication networks could control cells in the body to treat conditions

Like electronic devices, biological cells send and receive messages, but they communicate through very different mechanisms. Now, scientists report progress on tiny communication networks that overcome this language barrier, allowing electronics to eavesdrop on cells and alter their behavior — and vice versa. These systems could enable applications including a wearable device that could diagnose and treat a bacterial infection or a capsule that could be swallowed to track blood sugar and make insulin when needed.

The researchers will present their results today at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2020 Virtual Meeting & Expo.

“We want to expand electronic information processing to include biology,” says principal investigator William E. Bentley, Ph.D. “Our goal is to incorporate biological cells in the computational decision-making process.”

The new technology Bentley’s team developed relies on redox mediators, which move electrons around cells. These small molecules carry out cellular activities by accepting or giving up electrons through reduction or oxidation reactions. Because they can also exchange electrons with electrodes, thereby producing a current, redox mediators can bridge the gap between hardware and living tissue. In ongoing work, the team, which includes co-principal investigator Gregory F. Payne, Ph.D., is developing interfaces to enable this information exchange, opening the way for electronic control of cellular behavior, as well as cellular feedback that could operate electronics.

“In one project that we are reporting on at the meeting, we engineered cells to receive electronically generated information and transmit it as molecular cues,” says Eric VanArsdale, a graduate student in Bentley’s lab at the University of Maryland, who is presenting the latest results at the meeting. The cells were designed to detect and respond to hydrogen peroxide. When placed near a charged electrode that generated this redox mediator, the cells produced a corresponding amount of a quorum sensing molecule that bacteria use to signal to each other and modulate behavior by altering gene expression.

In another recent project, the team engineered two types of cells to receive molecular information from the pathogenic bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa and convert it into an electronic signal for diagnostic and other applications. One group of cells produced the amino acid tyrosine, and another group made tyrosinase, which converts tyrosine into a molecule called L-DOPA. The cells were engineered so this redox mediator would be produced only if the bacteria released both a quorum sensing molecule and a toxin associated with a virulent stage of P. aeruginosa growth. The size of the resulting current generated by L-DOPA indicated the amount of bacteria and toxin present in a sample. If used in a blood test, the technique could reveal an infection and also gauge its severity. Because this information would be in electronic form, it could be wirelessly transmitted to a doctor’s office and a patient’s cell phone to inform them about the infection, Bentley says. “Ultimately, we could engineer it so that a wearable device would be triggered to give the patient a therapeutic after an infection is detected.”

The researchers envision eventually integrating the communication networks into autonomous systems in the body. For instance, a diabetes patient could swallow a capsule containing cells that monitor blood sugar. The device would store this blood sugar data and periodically send it to a cell phone, which would interpret the data and send back an electronic signal directing other cells in the capsule to make insulin as needed. As a step toward this goal, VanArsdale developed a biological analog of computer memory that uses the natural pigment melanin to store information and direct cellular signaling.

In other work, Bentley’s team and collaborators including Reza Ghodssi, Ph.D., recently designed a system to monitor conditions inside industrial bioreactors that hold thousands of gallons of cell culture for drug production. Currently, manufacturers track oxygen levels, which are vital to cells’ productivity, with a single probe in the side of each vessel. That probe can’t confirm conditions are uniform everywhere in the bioreactor, so the researchers developed “smart marbles” that will circulate throughout the vessel measuring oxygen. The marbles transmit data via Bluetooth to a cell phone that could adjust operating conditions. In the future, these smart marbles could serve as a communication interface to detect chemical signals within a bioreactor, send that information to a computer, and then transmit electronic signals to direct the behavior of engineered cells in the bioreactor. The team is working with instrument makers interested in commercializing the design, which could be adapted for environmental monitoring and other uses.

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New way to check the quality of nanomaterials like graphene

A new way to check the quality of nanomaterials like graphene has emerged from a team at the University of Sussex.

Graphene and nanomaterials have been touted as wonder materials, and they are proving invaluable in all sorts of applications, such as in the automotive and aerospace industries, where heavy metals are replaced with lighter but equally strong composite materials. Nanomaterial quality therefore matters a great deal, but standardisation and quality checking have eluded the industry.

The Sussex team have developed a technique that gives detailed information about the size and thickness of graphene particles. It uses a non-destructive, laser-based method for looking at the particles as a whole, and lets them quickly build a detailed picture of the distribution of particles in a given material. Their paper “Raman Metrics for Molybdenum Disulfide and Graphene Enable Statistical Mapping of Nanosheet Populations” is published in the journal ‘Chemistry of Materials‘.

Dr Matt Large, who led the discovery in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, said:

“Standards for measurement are a really critical underpinning of modern economies. It really comes down to one simple question; how do you know you got what you paid for?

“At the moment the graphene industry is a bit of a wild frontier; it’s very difficult to compare different products because there is no agreed way of measuring them. That’s where studies like ours come in.

“It’s really an important issue for any business looking to reap the benefits of graphene (or any other nanomaterial, for that matter) in their products. Often using the wrong material can either have no benefit at all, or even make product performance worse.

“A particular example would be composite materials like graphene-reinforced plastics; if a poor-quality graphene material is used it can cause parts to fail instead of providing the improved strength expected. This can be a big issue for industries such as automotive and aerospace, where there is enormous effort behind replacing heavier metal parts with lighter composite materials (like carbon fibre) that are just as strong. If graphene and other nanomaterials are to play a role in reducing weight and cost then agreed standards are really important.”

Aline Amorim Graf is a co-author of the paper in the team at the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. She said:

“Some manufacturers say they produce graphene but actually — no doubt inadvertently — produce a form of graphite. Some will charge up to £500 per gram.

“The trouble is there’s no standardisation. What we’ve done is to create a new way to measure the quality of nanomaterials like graphene. We use a Raman spectrometer to do this, and have created an algorithm to automate the process. In this way, we can determine the quality, size and thickness of the sample.

“Clearly the quality of graphene really matters. If you’re using graphene to strengthen structures, to use in health monitors, to use in supermarket tags, you want to know you’re getting the real stuff. But actually purchasers of graphene have no clue as to the quality of what they’re buying online. If you’re using graphene to strengthen cement, and it turns out it’s actually not graphene or is low quality graphene, then that’s going to matter.”

Professor Alan Dalton, co-Director of the Sussex Programme for Quantum Research and co-author of the paper, said:

“This is truly an important area of research for our team. We believe that our new metric will be of great help to industry, researchers and standards bodies alike who are key-stakeholders in the development of 2D materials towards commercialisation.”

The Graphene Council has long called for better standardisation. Terrance Barkan of the Graphene Council has said has written:

“The lack of an agreed global standard for graphene and closely related materials creates a vacuum and lack of trust in the marketplace for industrial scale adoption of graphene materials.”

The Sussex team continue their research and are open to checking the quality of graphene on a consultative basis.

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‘Blinking’ crystals may convert CO2 into fuels

Imagine tiny crystals that “blink” like fireflies and can convert carbon dioxide, a key cause of climate change, into fuels.

A Rutgers-led team has created ultra-small titanium dioxide crystals that exhibit unusual “blinking” behavior and may help to produce methane and other fuels, according to a study in the journal Angewandte Chemie. The crystals, also known as nanoparticles, stay charged for a long time and could benefit efforts to develop quantum computers.

“Our findings are quite important and intriguing in a number of ways, and more research is needed to understand how these exotic crystals work and to fulfill their potential,” said senior author Tewodros (Teddy) Asefa, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. He’s also a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering in the School of Engineering.

More than 10 million metric tons of titanium dioxide are produced annually, making it one of the most widely used materials, the study notes. It is used in sunscreens, paints, cosmetics and varnishes, for example. It’s also used in the paper and pulp, plastic, fiber, rubber, food, glass and ceramic industries.

The team of scientists and engineers discovered a new way to make extremely small titanium dioxide crystals. While it’s still unclear why the engineered crystals blink and research is ongoing, the “blinking” is believed to arise from single electrons trapped on titanium dioxide nanoparticles. At room temperature, electrons — surprisingly — stay trapped on nanoparticles for tens of seconds before escaping and then become trapped again and again in a continuous cycle.

The crystals, which blink when exposed to a beam of electrons, could be useful for environmental cleanups, sensors, electronic devices and solar cells, and the research team will further explore their capabilities.

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