In Layman’s Terms: The Ant Mill Phenomenon – Why it’s Important to March to the Beat of a Different Drum

Editor’s Notes: NESSE Member Simon writes about the phenomena of the ant mill, and describes how we can use it to take a step back and think about the impact that our behaviour, as humans and researchers, is having on the world. 

This video shows the phenomena of an ant mill spiral. It was first described 1910 by the Harvard Professor William Morton Wheeler in his book “Ants – Their Structure, Development and Behaviour”

(You may need to head over to YouTube to view the video)

He wrote – “I have never seen a more astonishing exhibition of the limitations of instinct. For nearly two whole days these blind creatures, so dependent on the contact-odor sense of their antennae, kept palpating their uniformly smooth, odoriferous trail and the advancing bodies of the ants immediately preceding them, without perceiving that they were making no progress but only wasting their energies, till the spell was finally broken by some more venturesome members of the colony.

Paul Watzlawick uses this example in his lecture ‘When the solution is the problem’ to describe its link to climate change. He says that animals, but also humans, have the disastrous characteristic of stubbornly holding on once successful, or at least adequate, solutions, even in the case of changing environmental circumstances, in which these solutions are not longer appropriated.

Jared Diamond shows in his book ‘Collapse’, how societies like the Mayas, Greenlandic Vikings or the population of the Easter Island failed. “One common characteristic of such failing was that in the moment, when they realised that the living conditions became precarious, they intensified their strategies, which have been successful so far.” (Harald Welzer)

In our example above, the ant would start to run faster, akin to how we would behave. We accelerate the economic system after a crises, if the oil becomes scarce, we drill deeper with higher risks for the environment, we intensify our agriculture and fishery, or try to increase the efficiency of the resource use. Why don’t we change our behaviour and adopt to an environment with limits in space and time?

We can’t solve the problems that are caused by a growing economic system with even more growth of that economic system. This causes a societal tunnel vision.

As an ant in an ant mill, we have to stop and make a break, we have to look around and observe what is going on. We have to think about where we want to go and what we really need. As human beings with conscience and the freedom of will, we can resist those instincts, like greed, which trap us in such a circle, but we have to be aware and make use of these abilities.

Instead of decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth, we should think about decoupling human well-being from economic growth.

In Layman’s Terms: Ignition Point

Editor’s Note: On 4th November 2016, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change entered into effect. It’s aim is “to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”. Here, NESSE Member Simon Rauch describes the risk of climate change on the basis of an example from chemical reaction engineering.

For the construction and operation of a reactor for an exothermic reaction, the consideration of the ignition behaviour is a fundamental issue. While the heat removal (WAG) proceeds linear, the heat production (WEK) is strongly non-linear. This results from the self-reinforcing effect of exothermic reactions. The higher the temperature is, the faster the reaction runs. A faster reaction produces more heat, which increases the temperature. If the heat production exceeds the heat removal, the ignition point is reached (4) and it comes to a runaway. At this point, the temperature in the reactor rises, until another stable operating point is reached (8).

untitledIn the best case, the reactor is designed for the new operating conditions. Often neglected by this calculation is the influence of the solvents, which will be in huge excess compared to the reactant. In the case of the transgression of a critical point, the thermal combustion of the solvent starts and much more energy is released. This is a situation which is difficult to handle.

I want to use my knowledge of this behaviour to describe what is happening to our planet and climate. In this case, our solvent is the carbon that is cryopreserved in form of dead biomass by permafrost. The ratios are similar. Every year, humankind emits 6.5 gigatonnes (gt) of carbon. Around 770 gt of carbon are still stored as oil and mainly coal in the ground. The entirety of all living plants contains 650 gt of carbon and the atmosphere contains 730 gt. In the permafrost soils of the northern latitudes there are assumingly 1600 gt of carbon fixed. With a rising global temperature, there is the danger that this carbon is released in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane, which is even worse. This depends on the humidity of the ground.  Those emissions reinforce the greenhouse effect, whereby the process enforces itself. Additionally, the microbes produce heat during the degradation of the biomass, which increases the soil temperature.

If only a small amount of that carbon is released to the atmosphere, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change will be nullified and the 2°C limit will not be achievable. This issue is one of the tipping points of the climate and eco system, the ignition point of our planet. There are related processes, such as the ice-abledo feedback. A higher partial pressure of CO2 in the Atmosphere also contributes to acidification of the oceans, which is a big problem on its own.

The behaviour of permafrost soils concerning increasing temperatures is not investigated very well at the moment. Scientists just start to examine these processes and connections; therefore we have to deal with uncertainties.  According to the US-American geologist Laurence C. Smith, we need at least ten years to attain a solid scientific consensus. But do we have the time to wait?

A non-linear and stochastic chain of effects is one of the four characteristics of systemic risks. Those are complex, uncertain and ambivalent. The other three characteristics are related to climate change:

  1. Climate risks are global in character, it doesn’t matter where and by whom greenhouse gases are emitted. Each individual, you and me, contributes to this problem in a small amount, but combined, we cross the boundary. The negative, and maybe positive, effects occur globally.
  2. Climate risks are tightly connected with other economic and social crises phenomena. They enforce droughts, floods and famines, but also increase the possibility and potential of extreme weather events. A rising sea level endangers coastal areas. For a better overview, I recommend the Global Risks Interconnection Map, developed at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
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  3. Climate risks are underestimated and do not lead to a change of our behaviour. Until the present moment, the emission increase almost continuously, together with the risk of a climate change. Those changes occur insidious, which is a problem for our perception that is evolutionary focused on sudden changes and dangers. Thanks to the cognitive dissonance reduction, we don’t have mental stress, when we violate our own moral values and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. What is your carbon foot print?

When we want to achieve sustainability, the transition doesn’t only depend on new and more efficient technologies, we also need a change of our behaviour and habitus. Otherwise rebound effects might compensate all the saving, achieved by an intensified production.

That’s why, I want to finish with a quote by Mahatma Gandhi:
“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves”

How we can remake ourselves, will be the content of another article.

This article is mainly based on the books “Chemical Technology” by Dr. Peter Wasserscheid / Dr. Andreas Jess (source of the picture), “The World in 2050 – Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future” by Dr. Laurence C Smith, and “Das Risikoparadox – Warum wir uns vor dem Falschen fürchten” by Dr. Ortwin Renn (sadly there is no English translation).


What is the difference between Global Challenges and Sustainable Development Goals?

Contributed by our Director of Research – Dr. Cristiano Varrone

If we want to simplify, the Global Challenges can be regarded as the consequence of a continuous exponential growth of human population, coupled with an unsustainable development of our societies, which can be associated with problems such as pollution, global warming, but also unequal distribution and access to resources, etc.

All this has led to several challenges worldwide, in all societies, which we might call “Global Challenges”.

For this reason, the UN proposed 15 Global Challenges for Humanity, as a result of continuous research, studies, interviews, with participation of over 4,000 experts from around the world, since 1996 (The Millenium Project).


Global Challenges


These challenges are all interconnected, so there is no topic that is more important or comes first. Moreover it has been recognized that they cannot be addressed by any government or institution acting alone.

The Millenium Global Challenges were then substituted by the so-called Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, when the UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY adopted a set of 17 new goals to end poverty and protect the planet, as part of a new sustainable development agenda.

Each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals  (launched in 2000 – 2015) and complete what they did not achieve.

In general, they seek to fight poverty, realize the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.

They are integrated and should balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental (the Sustainability Triad).


Main difference between Global Challenges and Sustainable Development Goals:

The Global Challenges targeted the reduction of poverty, hunger, inequality… but the Sustainable Development Goals are targeting a statistical “zero”  hunger, poverty, etc. This implies a much larger commitment.

While the Sustainable Development Goals are not legally binding, governments are expected to take ownership and establish national frameworks for the achievement of the 17 Goals. 

Important Facts:

  • Most countries recognize now that sustainability and sustainable development cannot be neglected any more
  • We live in a complex and interconnected system and the actions of one single element will most probably have effects on the other parts : To reach those goals everyone need to do their part: we are all involved!
  • In fact, the interdisciplinary nature of the Challenges requires collaboration among governments, international organizations, corporations, universities, NGOs, and creative individuals.
  • Furthermore, the solutions require technology breakthroughs through research and innovation in academia, industry and policy

Check back to see what NESSE is doing about SDG!

Four Ways Nanotechnology is Shaping the Future

Contributed by Lauren Willison

To fix any problem, you have to get to the root of its issue. This is a core concept in nanotechnology, where solutions to some of the world’s most threatening issues can be found on a microscopic level. Until recently, we’ve lacked the technology to study and interact with atoms and molecules. However, thanks to new microscopic tools and a growing nanotechnology field, we’ve gained better insight on the structure of these particles.

Nanotechnology, which is the study of devices on the molecular level, allows scientists to alter the atoms of materials and devices to make them more sustainable. By manipulating the device’s molecular properties, scientists can generate greater strength, lighter weight, increased control of light spectrum, and greater chemical reactivity than the device’s larger-scale counterparts.

Here’s a look at the direction nanotechnology is heading in.

Sustainable Energy
Building a greener future begins with finding a sustainable energy source to replace oil and gas. That’s the focus of some nanotechnology and environmental experts, who continue to invent new sustainable materials, as well as improve existing energy devices. For example, nanotechnologists are improving batteries by increasing their energy density. This results in lightweight batteries with a longer shelf life, allowing users to gain more use from the battery with less recharging.

Cleaner Drinking Water
Another global issue nanotechnology is solving – particularly in third-world nations – is the lack of clean drinking water. This problem affects over 1 billion people every day and is generally due to pollution and pesticides contaminating drinking water. Nanotechnologists are responding with devices that eliminate carcinogens and dangerous chemicals. These cost-effective water filters open access to previously undrinkable water and are cutting down on preventable diseases linked to contaminated water.

Improved Medical Care
The pharmaceutical industry is another major beneficiary of nanotechnology. Researchers have improved faulty drugs and improved healthcare systems to make generic, cost-effective alternatives everyone can afford. These experts are also finding ways to use nanorobots to quickly detect illnesses without harming the patient. By cutting down on the number of tests, scans, and diagnostic procedures, treatments can begin sooner.

Advanced STEM Education
STEM-focused nanotechnology degree (such as at Florida Polytechnic University) programs provide cutting-edge machines and tools, allowing students to experiment with new materials and find solutions for these real-world problems. They are also taught to observe the consequences of their own discoveries to avoid a negative impact on the environment. Through hands-on experience and project-based coursework, these students learn to embrace the responsibilities of nanotechnology in environmental, social and political spheres.

Nanotechnology holds the power to resolve many of our largest problems and create a bright future. By exploring devices on the molecular level, scientists are one step closer to unlocking the full potential of nanotechnology and understanding its world-changing role.

Lauren Willison is the Director of Admissions at Florida Polytechnic University, she is responsible for supporting the Vice Provost of Enrollment in managing recruitment efforts. She develops and coordinates on- and off-campus events, as well as manages the campus visit experience.

In Layman’s Terms: Industrial Enzymatic Reactions

contributed by Christin B. Monroe

What do you think about when someone says “industrial chemicals”? If you’re like most people, biology is the furthest thing from your mind when you picture a vat of chemicals in a factory. You might be surprised to learn that today, many common industrial processes are performed by biological enzymes instead of traditional chemical approaches. In fact, over 500 industrial products are made with enzymes, including detergents, pharmaceuticals, and drinks.

What are enzymes?

Enzymes are biological machines that speed up chemical reactions in your body by changing their shapes temporarily. Without enzymes, life would not exist, because the reactions required would not proceed at a rate quick enough to sustain life. Some enzymes are capable of breaking down large molecules into simpler parts, while some build smaller molecules into more complex ones. The active site of an enzyme—the empty space where the components of a chemical reaction fit in—is designed in such a way that the right components slot in easily and perfectly, like a lock to a keyhole (Scheme 1).



Scheme 1. Enzymatic activity Source: Skinners’ School Biology Department

Unlike manmade machines, enzymes are proteins which can be produced by living systems using the information encoded in DNA as a template (Scheme 2).


Scheme 2. Production of proteins by DNA expression Source:

Why are enzymes a greener alternative to traditional chemical approaches?

Traditional chemical approaches result in challenges for large scale industrial reactions. Those challenges include:

  •  The need for high temperatures and pressures
  • Creation of organic waste and pollutants

These reactions are typically not very efficient and often lead to the formation of unwanted side products. Enzymes represent a huge opportunity for making industrial chemical reactions more environmentally friendly.

The benefit of using enzymes to perform industrial reactions are:

  • Typically operations are carried out under atmospheric conditions at room temperature and neutral pH.
  • There is a lower energy demand and an increased catalytic efficiency
  • Elimination of unwanted side products
  • Enzymes are also biodegradable and breakdown over time.

A specific example of an enzyme used to produce the products we use in our daily lives is pectinase. Pectinase is the enzyme responsible for breaking down the compound pectin (Figure 1), the complex sugar molecule found in fruits.


Figure 1. Structure of Pectin Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pectin is a large polysaccharide, therefore it is not soluble and causes a haze or precipitation to form when fruits are squeezed for juice. If you have ever made fruit juice on a small scale you know that it can be a very messy process. Imagine the same mess on an industrial scale. By adding pectinase to the juice making process, much of the material that would jam or break machines is eliminated. Once the enzyme has done its job it breaks down and all you are left with is your desired juice product, with no harmful additives.

Where is this research going?

Naturally occurring enzymes are usually not suitable for biocatalytic processes in industry. Often whole cells are used, because the protein is unstable unless contained in the protective environment of the cell. Another challenge includes the amount of protein produced by the organism. This is due to the fact that it is difficult to force the organism to expend extra energy to make more enzyme then it needs to survive. These limitations are becoming less of an issue with advances in genetics and recombinant protein production. Another avenue is the production of proteins in organisms (other than the natural organism), where the precursor DNA for the protein is incorporated into a well-studied and manageable organism (such as Escherichia coli) that can be easily manipulated. Using this technique the enzymes can be modified at the molecular level to become more stable and ideally more efficient, as well.

With these advances in enzyme research the use of enzymes in industrial processes will be more suitable. Stay tuned for the details about one class of enzyme which is being utilized industrially in upcoming posts.

In the meantime, the next time you wash your clothes or drink a glass of apple juice, think about the enzymatic processes that have contributed to providing safer and cleaner products for your use and consumption.

In Layman’s Terms: In Search of Treasure from Trash

contributed by Priscilla Carrillo-Barragán

It’s not rocket science: with waste, as with fashion, less is more. But what is it that we human beings, creatures of diverse opinions, consider waste? How can we define this common term?

Remember that bottle of water you bought last summer? It was a hot, sunny day, and heat means getting thirsty. The water was so refreshing that you drank it all, and suddenly there you were, with an empty plastic bottle on your hands and only one question in mind: how do I get rid of this? The bottle, valuable when it had water in it, was now waste, and the only place you wanted it was away from you.

So, simply put, waste is an unwanted material which no longer has value.

As a responsible citizen, you probably tossed the water bottle into the nearest recycling bin as plastic waste. But what if a drinking fountain had crossed your way? You could have refilled the bottle, and it would have held value for you again.

The difference between these actions might not be immediately obvious. Reusing, recycling—aren’t they equivalent? Either way, the bottle escapes the landfill. Aren’t you doing your bit by doing either of these?

The answers: No, and maybe.

Let me introduce you to the Waste Hierarchy, a ranking of the waste management options according to what is best for the environment (Fig. 1).



Waste hierarchy. Source: Welsh Government 2015

The top priority is given to the elimination of waste in the first place. Elimination is particularly important with hazardous materials, due to their inherent toxicity like mercury in thermometers and asbestos in buildings. If the waste cannot be avoided, then it should be reduced.

Before an item becomes waste, it should be reused. Remember the plastic water bottle? In addition to reusing it by filling it again, you could reuse it as a planter, a chandelier, a trinket organizer…your creativity is the limit. Similarly, a printed paper could be used to scribble notes on, folded into decorative origami, or shredded to create packing material. Once the reused item becomes unusable, it should be recycled.

The recycling company will have to process it, investing energy and generating waste in the process. The company may be able to recover some energy from the process, but in the end there will always be waste to be disposed of. Frequently, the recycled product will be of lower quality, or “downcycled”, as is the case in plastics recycling.

So here is the answer: reusing and recycling are not the same thing. When you reuse a material, you are using it again for the same or another purpose without it requiring further processing. But to recycle, you change the material physically and/or chemically, consuming more materials and energy. That is why reusing is preferred over recycling.

The last two levels of the waste hierarchy are the least preferred—recovery and disposal. Recovery refers to turning waste into usable energy, which can be difficult and inefficient. Finally, when all other options are exhausted, waste can be disposed of in a landfill.

Unfortunately, not all materials can go through every level of the waste hierarchy. Consider agriculture and food waste. An activity as common and necessary as eating unavoidably produces waste every day, starting with agricultural waste, which cannot be reused or recycled, and often is disposed by burning it in site without energy recovery. Composting is an option, but there is only so much compost that can be usefully applied, and the remainder of food waste is landfilled in many countries, as the U.S., where about 30 million tons of food waste are sent to landfills every year (U.S. Waste Characterization, U.S. EPA, 2007).


Landfill receiving a painful lot of food waste that could have been diverted. Source: Cheaperwaste 2013

In an ideal world, this waste would be turned into value. Can you imagine fueling your car with ethanol that comes from organic waste, and not from crops that could have been eaten? Or food industries using their waste to generate energy which could be applied at their own facilities? And what if the plastic for food packaging were made of agricultural waste, such as corn husks?

Well, all these possibilities are being studied and developed by researchers around the world, some of whom are NESSE members! Stay tuned for the details in upcoming posts.

In the meantime, remember: waste is in the eye of the beholder. What do you see?

In Layman’s Terms: Nanotechnology and Silicon Nanocrystals as a Green Nanomaterial

Image credit: Nanosys Inc.

The color of light emitted by nanoparticles depends on the size of the particle. Image credit: Nanosys Inc.

contributed by Melanie Mastronardi

Over the past few years, you may have started to hear the words ‘nanotechnology’ or ‘nanomaterials’ pop up in the media and everyday conversation, particularly now that commercial TV displays are starting to be constructed with nanotechnology. Nanomaterials are fragments of a material that are so small we need the most advanced electron microscopes to see them.  For example, nanocrystals (often called quantum dots) are particles that range from 1 to 100 nanometers (nm) in diameter, where 1 nm is 0.000001 mm.

What makes nanomaterials interesting is that regardless of the material they are made of, their small size gives them properties very different from the bulk material. For nanocrystals, one of the most interesting of these properties is the ability to emit light when energy is put into the system; the specific colour of light emitted depends on the size of the particle.

Artist's rendering of drug-delivery nanoparticle being developed by Bind Therapeutics. The protective layer keeps the drug safe as it travels through the body to its target. Image Credit: Bind Therapeutics

Artist’s rendering of drug-delivery nanoparticle being developed by Bind Therapeutics. The protective layer keeps the drug safe as it travels through the body to its target. Image Credit: Bind Therapeutics

While cadmium nanocrystals are safe in this particular application, there are many potential uses where toxicity may be a bigger concern, such as medical applications. Nanomaterials have the potential to be useful in delivering drugs to targeted areas of the body, imaging from within the body using their light emission abilities, and killing cancerous cells by converting the light energy they absorb into heat. All of these possible applications are still a long way from actual use, but it is unlikely they will ever get there if the nanomaterials being developed are highly toxic. Consequently, a lot of research is currently being focused on nanomaterials that are made up of non-toxic materials, for example, silicon nanocrystals, which are my area of study.

Even though they’re made of a completely different material, silicon nanocrystals possess light-emitting properties very similar to the well-established cadmium-containing nanocrystals. The process through which the light is emitted is slightly more complex, but silicon nanocrystals still show vivid light emission when energy is put into the system, and the colour changes depending on the particle size. Below, you can see an example of samples of silicon nanocrystals I’ve prepared that emit red, orange and yellow light when they are exposed to UV (“black”) light as an energy source. The red particles are the largest, with a diameter of about 3 nm, and as the particle size decreases to around 1 nm, the colour shifts from red to orange to yellow.

Silicon nanocrystals emitting light in red, orange, and yellow wavelengths

Silicon nanocrystals emitting light in red, orange, and yellow wavelengths.

By making silicon nanocrystals even larger than those shown above, the colour of the light can be shifted to near-infrared (NIR), which is not visible to the human eye. This type of light is particularly interesting for medical imaging applications because it is one of the few colours that human tissue doesn’t absorb. This means that, in theory, silicon nanocrystals could be introduced into the body and excited to emit NIR light that can pass through the body and be easily detected outside it.  This, along with the low toxicity of silicon, makes silicon nanocrystals very attractive for medical imaging applications.

In addition to being non-toxic, silicon has the advantage of being the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust (oxygen is the first).  In fact, almost 30% of the earth’s crust is made up of silicon, whereas the average concentration of cadmium is between 0.1 and 0.5 parts per million—that’s .00001 to .00005%.  This means that silicon is far more accessible and available than cadmium, and as a result it is a lot cheaper and likely to remain so. Based on these advantages, silicon nanocrystals could be a greener alternative to cadmium in display technologies, but there is still a lot of work required for silicon to compete with cadmium in light-emitting efficiency and colour purity.

The field of nanotechnology is a young one, and needs a great deal of work before commercial applications can take full advantage of the unique properties of nanomaterials. Aside from the toxicity of the bulk material, there are concerns about the small size and novel shape of the nanomaterials, and what harm they may cause to us or the environment. Since nanomaterials have been developed so recently there hasn’t yet been time to really understand their hazards. Even so, the fact remains that nanomaterials possess some truly unique properties, which if harnessed safely could be responsible for some of the greatest innovations of our generation.