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Researchers from AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research, in conjunction with the Insight, the SFI centre for Data Analytics, and the University of Wollongong, Australia, have developed a 3D printed biocompatible hydrogel sugar sensor.


Most people are familiar with the pinprick test used to measure blood sugar concentrations or might even be aware of glucose measuring sensors that sit under the skin for continuous monitoring. For millions of people worldwide with diabetes, a disease in which the body is unable to regulate blood sugars, monitoring of blood sugar levels by either of these mechanisms is of critical importance.

For the first time scientists think they may have found a way to use 3D printing technology to create a new generation of smart sensors that can measure the biochemical environment of our cells – including sugar monitoring. The new technology builds on a substance found in many glucose sensors: hydrogels. A hydrogel is a type of polymer and is used because it can enhance the sensor lifetime, giving it some mechanical stability, and can be functionalised, or turned into a ‘smart gel’, so that it is sensitive to the environment and can facilitate drug delivery.

In their recent publication, which garnered the front cover in the highly regarded journal Macromolecular Rapid Communications, scientists reported their innovative use of 3D printing technology to create gelatin hydrogel scaffolds with functionalised sugar-sensing molecules. The team created a bio-ink, integrating a gelatin hydrogel polymer with sugar sensing molecules, which can then be 3D printed. The sugar sensing molecules fluoresce in the presence of sugars in physiologically relevant concentration ranges (up to 40 mM), and as the concentrations of glucose or fructose (another sugar molecule) increases, the fluorescence emission also increases up to concentrations of 100 mM.

While the work is still based in the lab, with the results presented in the publication coming from tests being done outside the body, and inside the test tube, the lead researchers are very positive about the direction of the research.

AMBER investigator Prof. Larisa Florea, of the School of Chemistry, said “Over the past few years we have been really interested in finding ways to measure glucose concentrations. Our results indicate that we have found a way to do this by using glucose sensing compounds and combining them with 3D printing technologies. A very common use for 3D printing of bioinks is to make scaffolds for growing cells and tissue. The added value our work brings, is that by adding certain molecules into these scaffolds, by functionalising them, we can potentially create scaffolds that grow cells, and also sense and report on the environment of the cell. So this study has far reaching consequences beyond sugars, it serves as a blueprint for the generation of 3D printed chemical sensing platforms”.

Prof. Florea goes on to highlight the importance of collaboration in the production of this kind of research, saying “this truly was a team effort; from our very talented PhD student, Danille Bruen at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics who developed the glucose sensing compounds used in the study, to Prof. Gordan Wallace at University of Wollongong, Austrailia, who brings vast expertise in the area of 3D printing technologies, and enabled us to print our final bio-ink. This collaboration illustrates the benefits of bringing together the possibilities of novel materials with the vast field of 3D printing. We would certainly hope to continue this successful collaboration into the future and broaden the scope of the research into new and exciting areas”.

The Centre Has Adapted Its NanoWOW Primary Educational Programme So Children Can Learn About Science Online.

AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research at Trinity College Dublin, have launched a new digital learning experience for children across Ireland, who are at home as a result of the COVID-19 measures currently in place. By adapting the Centre’s NanoWOW educational programme, AMBER researchers have created videos to teach children more about science, while they’re at home.

AMBER scientists will answer questions like:
- Can we grow human brains?
- Why do we use some materials for some uses, and not for others?
- What is a mirror made from and why is it reflective?
- How small is nano?
- Why does a crushed-up vitamin tablet dissolve quicker than a whole vitamin tablet?
- Do you think it’s possible to wear clothes that can do things like change your body temperature and charge your phone battery?

Starting today, over a three week period on the AMBER website – at www.ambercentre.ie/nanowow – a variety of fun and educational videos will be made available. The videos are aimed at children aged between 10 – 12 years old but are also suitable for younger ages. Each video is presented by an AMBER scientist, or educator, so that children have the opportunity to learn about materials science and nanoscience direct from the people who know it best. Each video ties back to NanoWOW resources for parents and teachers to use when schooling at home, this includes presentations and details on investigations and experiments, to try out at home! On the website there is also information for parents and teachers who want to register their kids’ interest in future virtual ScienceLive! events, a NanoWOW quiz, and a feedback form for parents and teachers to share their experience of teaching NanoWOW from home.

Lorraine Byrne, Executive Director of the AMBER Research Centre, said:
All across the world parents are adjusting to a new normal. The measures put place to protect us from the spread of COVID-19 have meant the closure of schools and families socially distancing themselves from others. At AMBER we have a wealth of educational resources available to help with science learning. Ordinarily these resources would delivered by teachers in a classroom setting but in the current landscape we wanted to find a way to bring these to life for children in their homes.

The NanoWOW videos are fun and explore lots of different concepts - sparking children’s interest in science and finding new ways of looking at our day to day world. We want to deliver content that at the very least would be both entertaining and educational, but also give parents access to the tools and resources that can help develop the scientists of the future.”

NanoWOW is a primary school resource for teachers, parents and children (10-12 years old) to introduce nanoscience and nanotechnologies. It was developed in conjunction with St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, now part of the DCU and adapted for home schooling by the AMBER education team. There are 5 modules in NanoWOW at home which include PowerPoint presentations, and teaching/learning materials.

Researchers from AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research, the School of Physics and the CRANN Institute, at Trinity College Dublin, have utilised their model and simulations of the atomic world to give insight in one of the key issues in the realisation of quantum computers.The findings have now been published in the prestigious international journal Nature Communications.

In quantum computing, a qubit, or quantum bit, is the basic unit of quantum information. It’s the quantum version of the classical binary ‘bit’, the 1’s and 0’s that we might be familiar with in standard computing. Qubits are similar to bits, but also, vastly different. It’s this difference that scientists are trying to exploit to make quantum computers a reality, but this comes with some huge quantum hurdles.

Much like a ‘bit’ a qubit is a two-state system, but one which is governed by the physics of quantum mechanics, rather than classical mechanics. One common two-state qubit is the spin of the electron in which the two levels can be spin up and spin down. But, because of quantum mechanics, theoretically the qubit can be in both states simultaneously, a property which is fundamental to quantum computing (coherent superposition). One of the problems that has faced scientists since the dawn of quantum computing in the 1970’s is decoherance; by interacting with their surroundings, qubits do not behave as theorised. Put in terms of computing: if qubits store information based on being in both states simultaneously then decoherance means data will be lost.

Scientists at AMBER are now looking at the problem of decoherance using electronic structure calculations to provide an interpretation of the atom in line with experimental oberservations.

AMBER investigator Dr. Alessandro Lunghi explains: “So far we don’t fully understand the details of decoherence but one suggested source is that vibrations occur in the material. Through our research we have new insights on the nature of these molecular vibrations and can propose new strategies on how to mitigate their destructive role on spin quantum coherence”.

Working alongside experimental teams based in the UK and Italy, Dr. Lunghi and Prof. Stefano Sanvito conducted theoretical and modelling work. “What makes this research unique” Prof. Sanvito explains “was that the experimental teams were able to observe vibrations of molecular qubits for the first time, and our TCD team made it possible to understand the nature and the details of how the observed vibrations couple to spin”.

Dr Lunghi goes on to highlight the importance of this research saying that “this is at the very forefront of the research field and sheds new light on a fundamental phenomenon such as the interaction between spin and atomic motion. This is a major step for us as it validates the models we have developed and means that we can understand and predict spin coherence in molecular spins starting from simulations. We can now use these models to design new compounds and set the starting point for the design of more efficient molecular qubits”

The full paper can be read here:

Garlatti, E., Tesi, L., Lunghi, A. et al. Unveiling phonons in a molecular qubit with four-dimensional inelastic neutron scattering and density functional theory. Nat Commun 11, 1751 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15475-7

AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for advanced materials science and bioengineering research hosted by Trinity College Dublin (TCD) is collaborating on a second project with MagGrow, an Irish SME based in Dublin, specializing in magnetic-assisted agricultural spraying. The overall goal of the jointly funded project, with leading magnet scientist Prof. Michael Coey FRS, is to build upon initial, AMBER investigations into the physical basis for the magnetic effect attributed to the award-winning MagGrow spray technology, in respect of economically beneficial and environmentally friendly spray coverage.

The second collaborative project between AMBER and MagGrow will build upon the encouraging results obtained from its initial AMBER project, which yielded a clear magnetic effect upon spray performance and a platform for gaining further insight into the effect through more detailed scientific analysis.
In current practice, some 70% of pesticide spray does not reach the target crop. MagGrow’s innovative sprayer technology gives better coverage of the target plant, and reduced water usage. It reduces drift of the spray chemicals targeting them exactly where they are needed, with benefits to the health of agricultural workers and the soil. The MagGrow technology, which has been researched and developed over the last six years, uses permanent magnets to achieve these results. Prof. Coey and his colleagues have already investigated the magnetic effects underpinning MagGrow technology, and in doing so have recognized the effect and the potential for further research, including the opportunity for a major, multi-million Euro multi-disciplinary effort aimed at triggering a paradigm shift in agricultural spraying. The new project will build on the initial findings and insights by extending its investigative reach to field and operational conditions, helping MagGrow explore and exploit the potential of the emergent science-into-technological practice to create innovative solutions for agriculture and irrigation, particularly with regard to food security and environmental protection.

The aim of the second project is to further investigate the physical basis for the magnetic effects of the MagGrow agricultural sprayer technology, using both field and laboratory-based research facilities to systematically investigate the influence of the magnets on spray characteristics, droplet size distribution, and spray coverage, and with a view to optimizing the magnetic and fluidic circuit designs in relation to drift, coverage and efficacy of chemical usage. This work will involve an interplay of experiment and finite-element computer modelling. The very detailed scientific information derived through this study will provide MagGrow with the foundational theory to optimise existing products and develop the technology for other applications.

Prof. Michael Coey, AMBER and School of Physics, Trinity College, said: “We bring to the collaboration with MagGrow our internationally-recognized expertise in magnetism, and a long background of successful research in the School of Physics and AMBER on different aspects of this fascinating subject. We see that magnetic spraying has the potential to improve the delivery of pesticides and other agricultural inputs. The opportunity to extend our engagement with MagGrow in this project is exciting. Our aim is to shed light on the physical basis of the effects of rare earth magnets on crop spraying and contribute to optimizing a technology that could prove vital for feeding everyone on Earth in the coming years.”

“This strategic collaboration builds on the work of our Research and Development teams in Ireland and the UK and will help us gain more of an understanding of the science around our technology, optimise our existing product set and help us identify new areas of product development,” said Gary Wickham, Chief Executive Officer, MagGrow. “The research team at MagGrow, led by Professor Anthony Furness, is delighted to be working with Professor Mike Coey and his team at Trinity on this collaboration. These industry-leading experts will help accelerate the optimisation and development of MagGrow products that are helping to fix large global issues right now, namely a scarcity of water, the waste associated with poor application of pesticides and the environmental damage that can result from spray run-off and spray drift.”