New analysis presents evidence of global infant exposure to microplastics and the need for appropriate mitigation strategies and new plastic technologies.

New research shows that high levels of microplastics (MPs) are released from infant-feeding bottles (IFBs) during formula preparation. The research also indicates a strong relationship between heat and MP release, such that warmer liquids (formula or water used to sterilise bottles) result in far greater release of MPs.In response, the researchers involved – from AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research, TrinityHaus and the Schools of Engineering and Chemistry at Trinity College Dublin – have developed a set of recommendations for infant formula preparation when using plastic IFBs that minimise MP release.

Led by Dr Jing Jing Wang, Prof John Boland and Prof Liwen Xiao at Trinity, the team analysed the potential for release of MPs from polypropylene infant-feeding bottles (PP-IFBs) during formula preparation by following international guidelines. They also estimated the exposure of 12-month-old infants to MPs in 48 countries and regions and have just published their findings in the high-profile journal NatureFood.

There is growing evidence to suggest that micro and nano plastics are released into our food and water sources through the chemical and physical degradation of larger plastic items. Some studies have demonstrated the potential transfer of micro and nano plastics from oceans to humans via the food chain but little is known about the direct release of microplastics (MPs) from plastic products through everyday use. Polypropylene (PP) is one of the most commonly produced plastics in the world for food preparation and storage. It is used to make everyday items such as lunch boxes, kettles and infant-feeding bottles (IFBs). Despite its widespread use the capacity of PP to release microplastics was not appreciated until now.

Drawing on international guidelines for infant formula preparation (cleaning, sterilising, and mixing techniques), the team developed a protocol4 to quantify the PP-MPs released from 10 representative infant-feeding bottles that account for 68.8% of the global infant-feeding bottle market. When the role of temperature on the release of PP-MPs was analysed a clear trend emerged; the higher the temperature of liquid inside the bottle, the more microplastics released.

Under a standardised protocol, after sterilisation and exposure to water at 70⁰C, the PP-IFBs released up to 16.2 million PP-MP per litre. When the water temperature was increased to 95⁰C, as much as 55 million PP-MP per litre were released, while when the PP-IFB’s were exposed to water at 25⁰C – well under international guidelines for sterilisation or formula preparation – 600,000 PP-MP per litre were generated.

Given the widespread use of PP-IFBs and the quantity of MPs released through normal daily use, the team realised the potential exposure of infants to MPs is a worldwide issue. The team estimated the exposure of 12-month-old infants to MPs in 48 countries and regions by using MP release rates from PP-IFBs, the market share of each PP-IFB, the infant daily milk-intake volume, and breastfeeding rates. The team found that the overall average daily consumption of PP-MPs by infants per capita was 1,580,000 particles. Oceania, North America and Europe were found to have the highest levels of potential exposure corresponding to 2,100,000, 2,280,000, and 2,610,000 particles/day, respectively.

Given the global preference for PP-IBFs it is important to mitigate against unintended generation of micro and nanoplastics in infant formula. Based on their findings the team devised and tested a series of recommendations for the preparation of baby formula that will help minimise the production of MPs.They note though, that given the prevalence of plastic products in daily food storage and food preparation, and the fact that every PP product tested in the study (infant bottles, kettles, lunch boxes and noodle cups) released similar levels of MPs, there is an urgent need for technological solutions.

As Prof. John Boland, AMBER, CRANN, and Trinity’s School of Chemistry explains:
“When we saw these results in the lab we recognised immediately the potential impact they might have. The last thing we want is to unduly alarm parents, particularly when we don’t have sufficient information on the potential consequences of microplastics on infant health.We are calling on policy makers, however, to reassess the current guidelines for formula preparation when using plastic infant feeding bottles. Crucially, we have found that it is possible to mitigate the risk of ingesting microplastics by changing practices around sterilisation and formula preparation.”

Prof. Liwen Xiao at TrinityHaus and Trinity’s School of Engineering said:
“Previous research has predominantly focused on human exposure to micro and nanoplastics via transfer from ocean and soils into the food chain driven by the degradation of plastics in the environment. Our study indicates that daily use of plastic products is an important source of microplastic release, meaning that the routes of exposure are much closer to us than previously thought. We need to urgently assess the potential risks of microplastics to human health. Understanding their fate and transport through the body following ingestion is an important focus of future research. Determining the potential consequences of microplastics on our health is critical for the management of microplastic pollution.”

Lead authors, Dr Dunzhu Li and Dr Yunhong Shi, researchers at AMBER, CRANN and Trinity’s School of Engineering, said:
“We have to accept that plastics are pervasive in modern life, and that they release micro and nano plastics through everyday use. We don’t yet know the risks to human health of these tiny plastic particles, but we can develop behavioural and technological solutions and strategies to mitigate against their exposure.”

Dr Jing Jing Wang, Microplastics Group at AMBER and CRANN, said:
“While this research points to the role of plastic products as a direct source of microplastic the removal of microplastics from the environment and our water supplies remains a key future challenge. Our team will investigate specific mechanisms of micro and nano plastic release during food preparation in a host of different contexts. We want to develop appropriate technologies that will prevent plastics degrading and effective filtration technologies that will remove micro and nanoplastics from our environment for large scale water treatment and local distribution and use.”

This work has been undertaken by the Microplastics Group led by Dr Jing Jing Wang at AMBER and CRANN, with internal collaboration from TrinityHaus and Trinity’s School of Engineering and School of Chemistry. This research was supported by Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, a School of Engineering Scholarship at Trinity, and the China Scholarship Council.

Trinity researchers awarded €550K to develop innovative nano and micro devices for consumer electronics, car manufacture and healthcare.

Researchers at AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research and Trinity’s School of Chemistry have received 550k under the EU’s Horizon 2020 “Future and Emerging Technologies – Open” (FET Open) programme 5D NanoPrinting consortium. The project, entitled ‘Functional & Dynamic 3D Nano-MicroDevices by Direct Multi-Photon Lithography’ has been awarded a total budget of €3.58 million.

The project aims to develop innovative smart materials and novel fabrication methods for micro and nano devices. In the next four years, it will advance micro and nano printing technologies, allowing faster prototyping of devices and design of novel functional materials with tailorable properties for a range of applications from consumer electronics to healthcare.

Micro devices, or MicroMachines – also known as “MEMS” (Micro ElectroMechanical Systems) – refer to microscopic devices with moving parts which are capable of accomplishing a specific task. The current production of these micro devices presents challenges that the project will address, and attempt to overcome, such as the limitations in the materials and the fabrication methods. Together with the expensive development process that many devices need, these issues are impeding the full development of the technology, making them more expensive and slowing down the access to the market.

The 5DNanoPrinting approach will unlock the full potential of “MEMS” by creating these microdevices in less time, with lower costs and higher flexibility. The project will especially focus on direct laser writing, a 3D-printing technology that uses focused laser pulses to prepare complex structures with extremely high resolution. This new experimental approach of rapid prototyping makes the production process faster and it allows the customisation of the devices during the production phase. Moreover, when compared to the standard fabrication techniques, the 5DNanoPrinting methodology can lower the production costs of MEMS thanks to the possibility of producing small quantity lots on-demand. This is particularly appealing in the case of bio-medical devices or other components where personalisation is a key factor.

Prof. Larisa Florea, from AMBER and the School of Chemistry, Trinity College Dublin is one of the principal investigators in the project. She said “We are absolutely delighted to have received funding for this exciting project under the FET-OPEN. This is one of the most competitive programmes under H2020 and one of the few programmes dedicated to funding early stage research in science and technology. We believe that this project will advance the state-of-the-art in micro and nano printing technologies, to allow for faster prototyping of microdevices. My team will design new functional materials to enable the realisation of microdevices proposed in this project.”

Prof. Florea, who also received a prestigious ERC Starting Grant in 2018, has extensive experience in the field. “The interdisciplinarity of these collaborations”, she says, “enables breakthroughs which could never be envisaged by individual partners. It complements the ERC programme, to allow breakthrough technologies to be applied for greater societal benefit.”

Prof. Virgilio Mattoli, Center for MicroBioRobotics at Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT), Italy, leads the project. Together with IIT, the project’s consortium includes academic and industrial partners from both Italy and other European countries that will bring their expertise in chemistry, material science, physics and engineering including CNR – Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Italy; Graz University of Technology, Austria; University of Groningen, Netherlands; and Trinity College of Dublin.

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Researchers at CRANN, and the School of Physics at Trinity College Dublin have discovered that a new material can act as a super-fast magnetic switch. When struck by successive ultra-short laser pulses it exhibits ‘toggle switching’ that could potentially increase the capacity of the global fibre optic cable network by an order of magnitude.

Expanding the capacity of the internet
Switching between two states ‘0’ and ‘1’ is the basis of digital technology and the backbone of the internet. The vast majority of the all the data we download is stored magnetically in huge data centres across the world, linked by a network of optical fibres. Obstacles to further progress with the internet are threefold, specifically the speed and energy consumption of the semiconducting or magnetic switches that process and store our data and the capacity of the fibre optic network to handle it. The new discovery of ultra-fast toggle switching using laser light on mirror-like films of an alloy of manganese, ruthenium and gallium known as MRG could help with all three problems. Not only does light offer a great advantage when it comes to speed but magnetic switches need no power to maintain their state. More importantly, they now offer the prospect of rapid time-domain multiplexing of the existing fibre network, which could enable it to handle ten times as much data.

The science behind magnetic switching
Working in the photonics laboratory at CRANN, Trinity’s nanoscience research centre, Dr Chandrima Banerjee and Dr Jean Besbas used ultra-fast laser pulses lasting just a hundred femtoseconds (one ten thousand billionth of a second) to switch the magnetization of thin films of MRG back and forth. The direction of magnetization can point either in or out of the film. With every successive laser pulse, it abruptly flips its direction. Each pulse is thought to momentarily heat the electrons in MRG by about 1000 degrees, which leads to a flip of its magnetization. The discovery of ultra-fast toggle switching of MRG is published this week in Nature Communications.

Dr Karsten Rode, Senior Research Fellow in the ‘Magnetism and Spin Electronics Group’ at Trinity’s School of Physics, suggests that the discovery just marks the beginning of an exciting new research direction.

“We have a lot of work to do to fully understand the behaviour of the atoms and electrons in a solid that is far from equilibrium on a femtosecond timescale. In particular, how can magnetism change so quickly while obeying the fundamental law of physics that says that angular momentum must be conserved? In the spirit of our spintronics team, we will now gather data from new pulsed-laser experiments on MRG, and other materials, to better understand these dynamics and link the ultrafast optical response with electronic transport. We plan experiments with ultra-fast electronic pulses to test the hypothesis that the origin of the toggle switching is purely thermal”.

Next year Chandrima will continue her work at University of Haifa, Israel, with a group who can generate even shorter laser pulses. The TCD researchers, led by Karsten, plan a new joint project with collaborators in the Netherlands, France, Norway and Switzerland aimed at proving the concept of ultrafast time-domain multiplexing of fibre-optic channels.

The work that made the discovery possible was supported by Science Foundation Ireland, The Irish Research Council and the European Commission.

Ireland’s High-Performance Computing authority announced on, Friday September 11, the details of seven academic projects which will be supported by its new Academic Flagship Programme. Two of the seven projects were awarded to Trinity’s School of Physics.

The Academic Flagship Programme will operate under the EuroHPC Competency Centre for Ireland which ICHEC recently launched. It is one of 33 similar centres across Europe which form the ambitious EuroHPC programme. The two year Academic Flagship Programme aims to increase Irish competitiveness in the European supercomputing landscape. The successful projects were selected from a competitive call which received 13 proposals from researchers distributed across 17 universities/institutes across Ireland, UK, Spain, France, Germany, Denmark, Japan and the USA.

Commenting on the success, Prof. Stefano Sanvito, AMBER, Director or CRANN and School of Physics explains his project, Development of a flexible and modularized first-principles machine-learning infrastructure for automatic new materials discovery – application to high-entropy alloys,
“Our project aims at establishing an automatic workflow for materials discovery that will integrate machine learning/artificial intelligence methods with state-of-the-art electronic structure theory. The collaboration with ICHEC computational scientists will allow us to implement such program on massively parallel computational infrastructures, and eventually on the peta-scale facilities that will be soon available in Europe. Our ambition is to be able to map the enormous chemical and structural space available to high-entropy alloys, in the search for ideal compounds for a number of applications. These include high-performance metallurgy, aereospace, precision mechanics and catalysis.”

Prof. John Goold at Trinity’s School of Physics secured an award for his project “Kernel polynomial methods for quantum spin chains”; explaining the project, Prof. Goold commented:

“From a scientific perspective we are interested in a century old fundamental question: how does thermodynamics and thermal behaviour emerge from the unitary dynamics of isolated quantum dynamics. This requires the simulation of complex quantum dynamics for both large systems and long times without any of the usual approximation such as mean field etc. This requires exponential computational resources. Although quantum simulators are currently on the horizon, we will use this support to develop codes on the largest of European computational facilities.”

Commenting on the significance of Euro-HPC Programme for Ireland, J-C Desplat Director, ICHEC said;

“High-Performance Computing is a strategic resource for Europe’s future for academia and business. Coming technology changes will drive competitiveness and Europe is aware that supercomputing is fundamental to this. Ireland, through ICHEC, will gain access for researchers and SMEs to a coordinated, integrated, high level of expertise across Europe in high-performance computing and related disciplines for science and industry, such as high-performance data analytics, classical simulation, and artificial intelligence.”