Start-up of the Day: Vienna Textile Lab dyes fabrics with bacteria

Bakterien, Textilfarben, Vienna Textile Lab

“Bacteria are the most intelligent, environmentally friendly and resource-efficient way to produce textile dyes,” says Karin Fleck, founder of Vienna Textile Lab. “Bacteria occur in nature, can be stored as a strain in laboratories and propagated at any time. They synthesize colors in a natural way”.

Karin studied technical chemistry at TU Wien in Austria. For many years she had various managerial positions at several energy companies such as Vattenfall Energy Trading in The Netherlands and in Germany. When she met Cecilia Raspanti (who had founded the company Textile Lab Amsterdam), she became inspired to use bacteria to make textile dyes. Cecilia had already tried this herself, but without much success. “It is not so much about the challenge of using bacteria as a raw material. More than anything, you actually need a lot of know-how and understanding of scientific methods. You then also have to go about it very carefully. There could potentially be germs among them,” Karin explains.

She had already been working with dyes when she was graduating. But the whole sector was new to her in principle. That’s why she sought support via:

  • Fritsch, a textile dye company in Vienna, which specializes in environmentally friendly dyes;
  • Erich Schopf, a bacteriographer from Vienna, who makes paintings using bacteria;
  • the Institute of Applied Synthesis Chemistry at TU Wien.

Microorganisms tend to produce microbial dyes in response to altered growth conditions. They protect cells from external influences such as salt or temperature stress, light or intense competition. These substances often also have an anti-bacterial effect. Bacteria-based textile dyes have the same properties as conventional synthetic dyes when used on a daily basis.

Karin Fleck elaborates further:

Bakterien, Textilfarbe, Vienna Textile Lab
Karin Fleck, Vienna Textile Lab (c) Michael Fraller

What solution does this bacterial-based textile dye offer and why is that important?

It is an alternative to synthetic dyes, which to a large degree have a detrimental effect on health and the environment. But also particularly for people in the textile industry who are constantly in contact with these dyes. Furthermore, everyone wears clothes and is therefore exposed to the chemicals that they contain. These dyes are currently under critical examination throughout the world. The EU has guidelines on synthetic dyes too. Dyes are banned on a regular basis or their use is restricted. This creates more room for new, innovative dyes. But especially for new production systems which do not rely on crude oil.

What has been the biggest obstacle that had to be overcome?

Our limited ability to hire people. The Austrian labor market is geared towards permanent jobs and employee security. Yet the world of start-ups is unpredictable. Above all, people are needed on a project basis in order to be able to cope with any peaks. You need to be able to react flexibly to the circumstances when you’re a young company who has growth spurts.

What has been a high point so far? What are you particularly proud of?

There have been many wonderful moments. Such as winning prizes. When we first started out, we already won 3rd place at the Climate Launchpad. This year we won the BOKU Start-up Prize from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. All the invitations we’ve received have also been very encouraging. For example, for the TEDxCanggu in Bali or for a pitch at CLIX , part of the 2018 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

It’s also great to see how people, customers and organizations from all over the world know how to find us. We talk to people from the US, Indonesia, Sweden, Estonia, the Netherlands, Germany and so on. For instance, I came in contact with Material Connexion in New York. This is a collection of some of the most diverse, innovative materials for industry, local tradespeople, artists and designers. Samples from Vienna Textile Lab have now also been included in their collection.

We derive the most pleasure from everyone who supports us. People who let us know that they appreciate how good our bacteria-based textile dyes are. The experts who really help us out when we can’t figure something out right at that moment. But also local organizations that believe in our success. These include the Vienna Impact Hub or the TCBL, Textile clothing and business labs.

Bakterien, Textilfarbe, Vienna Textile Lab,
Bacteria are applied directly onto the fabric, where they multiply and develop a pattern. Karin Fleck, Vienna Textile Lab (c) Michael Fraller

How is everything going at the Vienna branch?

Fine. We can have confidence in the structures and systems. We have had many rewarding and supportive experiences involving funding agencies and universities. There are people here who are promoting us, even when they don’t know us personally. I can’t judge whether things are any better anywhere else. But I know that there is more money available for the biotech sector in Germany and the US.

Where will the start-up be in five years’ time?

By then we will have elevated our manufacturing method to an industrial level. We will have a customer base that will facilitate further growth, and perhaps we’ll be expanding on a global scale.

What distinguishes Vienna Textile Lab from similar companies?

We have opted for solid partners. This in turn makes us stronger and more competent. Aside from that, we want to remain transparent and have discussions with all potential customers or partners. Not only with large corporations, but also with niche companies, artists and designers. That may well make it more complicated, but that makes it all the better as well. We learn a lot through this kind of interaction and are therefore able to position and develop our products much more effectively. Last but not least, we have an extremely wide variety of our most important employees: bacteria.

Bakterien, Textilfarbe, Vienna Textile Lab
Bacteria are capable of producing a large proportion of the colors in the color palette. Nevertheless, some colors are problematic and need to be mixed. Vienna Textile Lab (c) Michael Fraller

Read more articles about start-ups here.

 

 

Start-up of the Day: Hydrogen as the ‘crude oil’ of the future

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

Hydrogenious is the product of a university research team that already had faith in hydrogen when it still wasn’t really relevant in Germany. They have managed to find a way to store and transport the hard-to-handle hydrogen in a practical way. After a successful financing round, they now want to establish their LOHC technology worldwide and “make hydrogen the ‘crude oil’ of the regenerative era”, says co-founder Daniel Teichmann.

In terms of mass, hydrogen has three times the energy content of gasoline. This is an impressive feature for an energy source. However, hydrogen also has the lowest density of all gases and is therefore difficult to handle. It evaporates easily, is flammable and must be stored under high pressure or at low temperatures.

Evaporation and flammability

Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies took up the challenge and solved both evaporation and flammability issues. The start-up company developed a process whereby hydrogen can be stored and transported together with oil (dibenzyltoluene) without risk. The result? The existing infrastructure can be used. Not only the fuel tanks at service stations, but also the pipelines for transportation. This could pave the way for emission-free mobility and industry.

Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies is a spin-off from the Friedrich Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. Managing director and co-founder Daniel Teichmann has been working in the field of LOHC (liquid organic hydrogen carriers) since the start of his PhD in 2009. The company was founded in 2013 as a result of a critical technological breakthrough, which was also co-developed by professors Peter Wasserscheid, Wolfgang Arlt and Eberhard Schlücker.

Dewatering system

What was already working under laboratory conditions could be implemented on a technical scale for the first time in 2016. The first LOHC dewatering system was commissioned at the Fraunhofer ILO in Stuttgart. Electrolysis and hydrogenation take place at the main site in Erlagen. The process works as follows:

  • The hydrogen is produced with the aid of solar energy using PEM electrolysis,
  • Hydrogen is hydrogenated through the chemical bonding of hydrogen molecules to the liquid carrier via catalytic reactions,
  • During the dehydrogenation process, catalytic reactions are again used to release the hydrogen molecules from the liquid carrier medium,
  • The carrier material is not wasted and can be reused again and again.

Target groups are the chemical industry as well as service stations and the chemical industry. Hydrogenious sells two types of equipment. These are storage facilities for use in hydrogen-producing wind farms for hydrogenation, and the so-called Release Box at service stations and industrial installations for dehydrogenation.

 

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious
LOHC recycling system with storage installation and a Release Box (c) Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

Innovation Origins spoke with Daniel Teichmann:

What is your motivation and what problem does the company resolve?

We believe in hydrogen as a renewable energy source. This motivated us to start the company in 2013. At that time, we could have developed the technology together with industrial partners, but we wanted to be in business.

What has been the biggest obstacle that you have had to overcome? Was there a moment when you wanted to give up?

Giving up never occurred to us and fortunately there was never a reason to give up. However, setting up and developing a business is a huge challenge. At the start, it’s usually a matter of finding funding. In Germany, there is not really an explicit culture when it comes to venture capital. Things are different in the Anglo-Saxon world and in China. Six years ago, hydrogen was not yet playing an important role in Europe. This has changed over the past year. As a university spin-off, we started out with a technology that works at the laboratory level. We first had to bring it up to an industrial level and make it commercially relevant.

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies
Construction of the LOHC hydrogen infrastructure in the USA (c) Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

What have been the highlights so far?

The successful funding round in July 2019, where we found four partners who not only act as capital providers, but also make a strategic contribution. This was an important milestone in the history of hydrogen-based LOHC technologies.

What are the advantages of your location?

Erlangen is an ideal location for us because of its proximity to the university, whom we also work closely with. In addition, the availability of specialists here is very good. We are also very lucky with our landlords, they’ve provided us with an excellent office and workshop space.

Where will your company be in five years’ time?

We want to progress from our current demonstration level to the realization of large industrial projects. We want to establish a successful global positioning of the LOHC technology. With our technology, hydrogen can then be easily and efficiently transported over long distances. For example, from Africa to Europe. That is how we can make an emission-free industry happen.

What distinguishes your innovation from similar products in the hydrogen energy sector?

Hydrogen has been produced and stored as an industrial gas for one hundred years. Our technology means that using hydrogen in a liquid form is feasible which thereby means it can make use of the existing infrastructure. In this way, we are turning hydrogen into the emission-free fuel of the future. Similar technologies exist in Japan, although they are not exactly the same. We are the technological leaders with our LOHC. As such, we hope to make an important contribution towards combating climate change.

Are you interested in start-ups? Read all articles from our series here.

Also interesting:

TU Eindhoven is bringing hydrogen as a source of energy for households one step closer.

Mobility of the future – battery or hydrogen?

Skis and other means of snow mobility – four new technologies

Skier, Wintersportgeräte

The first snow has long since fallen in the Alps. And the Christmas holidays aren’t that far away either. It’s high time to explore the latest options for snow mobility. Obviously, skiing is the most important branch of winter sports. Yet by no means the only one. All over the world, start-ups are tinkering with new technologies and bold combinations for winter sports options. The result is not always crystal clear.

At 4500 years old, skis are the most advanced winter sports equipment. However, further optimization is possible thanks to digitization.

1. Made-to-measure x mass production

The Austrian company Original+ has designed a self-learning online ski configurator. This system configures the right skis on the basis of answers to 21 personal questions with the help of artificial intelligence. The program has been developed in collaboration with the start-up Fact.AI. Basically the idea was to make individually adapted skis possible for a wide public. The Original+ models are available from €660.

Commercialization of custom-made skis was made possible by:

  • Automation of customer conversations;
  • A modular ski structure that allows for 600 ski designs;
  • Combining flexible ski production with precise series production;

Each ski model is made up of 32 parts that are adapted to the individual skier. The central element is the wooden core, which can be made of poplar wood, ash wood, or a combination of the two. The construction, processing and strength have an effect on the ski properties and are adjusted accordingly.

2. Snow shoes x skis

The desire to combine skiing with endurance sports has led to a wonderful ski touring movement. The combination of mountaineering and the subsequent downhill skiing called for a technological leap forward. The equipment had to be lighter and more flexible. This made it easier to climb as well as provide more grip during the descent. While this was still relatively simple as far as skiing was concerned, it was more difficult when it came to snowboarding. The ascent in particular was sometimes only possible with a splitboard. But not all snowboarders are satisfied with that. Drift, a brand from the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, designed an alternative and combined three elements:

  • the simplicity of snowshoes;
  • the speed of the skis;
  • the grip of touring skis;

Seasoned snowboarders only use driftboards for climbing. Once they’re at the top, they exchange them for a snowboard. The light and handy boards are easy to attach to a rucksack. They are lightweight thanks to the carbon material. The wooden core is not heavy either according to the makers. It gives the boards the stability that they need for the descent. Driftboards also function as stand-alone sports equipment. Shape and construction offer versatility and add a playful component to the descent. Its aluminium binding offers the extra advantage that it works with all boots.

 

3. Skis x downhill mountain bike

Three short skis and a saddle-free bike frame provide the basis for the Sno-go Bike. This fusion is not entirely clear. It does offer a totally new experience on snow. The American start up says that the bar should be set low initially. The three skis are able to move independently of each other. They provide control and stability together with the steering grips. Coordinated movements are made possible by synchronized coupling technology. Advanced skiers are also able to perform tricks such as turns and jumps on the Sno-go Bike.

Binding

The feet fit into a kind of binding. These aren’t really fastened, so you can easily move your feet in and out. For instance, you could use a foot to help push the bike off to a start. The inventors have also thought about how to transport the Sno-Go bike. A hook makes it possible to attach it to a chairlift. After use, the bike and skis can be disassembled so that they easily fit into the boot of the car.

 

4. Skis x skates

Would you want to glide across snow in shoes that have a slippery surface? It’s like skating on snow. You could also call them ‘snow-skates’, so say the inventors of Snowfeet, a Czech start-up. The idea of getting through snow with no more equipment than a binding on your shoe with a kind of ski tip is very tempting.

This winter sports gear is light, small, fits in any pocket and is easy to transport. The binding is adjustable in width and can be adapted to all shoes. It looks a lot like a binding for soft snowboard boots. You can use snowboard boots, but you don’t have to. Waterproof winter boots are also suitable as long as they provide ankle support. The gear is made of reinforced fiberglass and has metal edges for fast braking as well as heel brakes to slow down the ride. They can be used on and off the slopes as well as in snow parks. People with acrobatic ambitions can do somersaults with them as well …

Also interesting:

Ski technologies for effortless rides down the slopes

Seven strategies for sustainable mobility

nachhaltige Mobilität

Diesel engines are the most efficient combustion engines and are difficult to replace in the transport sector at short notice, says Martin Mittelbach, an expert on renewable raw materials. In the future, he sees the combination of electromobility and hydrogen as the only alternative for sustainable mobility.

Mittelbach is an expert on biodiesel and sustainable mobility. Despite this – or precisely because of this – he has a sober view of developments in the field of environmentally friendly drive technologies. His evaluation includes infrastructure, vehicle production and energy generation as well as economic feasibility. The following are his seven strategies for sustainable mobility:

1 Alternative to diesel: fuel from biomass

Electric and hydrogen propulsion are still in their infancy. Until they are ready for the market, combustion engines will be indispensable. That is the perspective of Mittelbach, who conducts research at the Institute of Chemistry at the University of Graz. To improve the ecological balance, he recommends synthetic fuels or biodiesel. Biodiesel can be produced from waste and residual biomass or biomass from fast-growing plants. However, those have a bad reputation in Europe and research has stagnated, as the researcher notes. But he himself sees great potential in this. Rapeseed, for example, could fulfil two tasks at once:

  • Protein supplier for animal feed;
  • Oil supplier for fuel;

This would reduce both oil and soya imports.

2 CO2 tax to reduce air traffic

The chemist detects one of the biggest problems in air traffic. A flight from Graz to London and back causes three tons of CO2 per person. This is one third of the average CO2 emission per person and year in Austria. Alternatives to kerosene are currently far too expensive. According to Mittelbach, a CO2 tax is unavoidable. This would

  • put an end to cheap flights;
  • bring short-haul flights back on (a train) track;

3 Natural or liquefied gases instead of marine diesel oil

A ship generates – in relation to freight – much less CO2 emissions than road transportation. The problematic part is fuel, which emits large amounts of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide. In 2020, sulphur content in marine diesel will be reduced from 3.5 percent to 0.5 percent. However, the amount will still be 500 times higher than in normal fuel. The researcher sees an alternative in the medium-term use of natural or liquid gas.

4 Switching to trains

Switching from trucks to trains would make sense, says Mittelbach. Due to the low flexibility and capacity, however, this would only be possible to a limited extent.

5 Pushing for trolleybuses

Local emissions, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are especially harmful in congested areas. Mittelbach demands

  • car-free inner cities;
  • expanding public transport;

He recommends pushing for the use of battery-powered trolleybuses that are cheap, flexible, and environmentally friendly.

6 Small cars for short distances

Mittelbach sees electric cars as an important alternative to conventional vehicles in private transport – as long as the refueled electricity comes from renewable sources. The dilemma with electric cars lies in high energy consumption involved in battery production. This only pays for itself after thousands of kilometres have been driven. According to the researcher, small cars have a much better life cycle assessment than a Tesla and are ideal for short distances.

7 Hydrogen has future potential

The problem with hydrogen is that it currently comes from non-renewable sources – and is produced from natural gas in an energy-intensive process. The advantage over electricity is

  • its shelf life;
  • rapid refuelling;
  • that it could also be used to power trucks and airplanes;

The latter, however, is currently still ten to one hundred times more expensive.

Nevertheless, Mittelbach sees electric mobility and hydrogen as the only alternatives in the transportation sector.

For climate change turnaround to succeed, however, the commitment of politicians and citizens is also needed. Mittelbach calls for the entire transport system and e-mobility to be questioned.

You might also like:

A decision in favour of hydrogen propulsion would be a grave mistake

TU Vienna Professor rejects hydrogen car

Dutch researchers: don’t disregard the combustion engine

Electric vs. diesel (2): ‘It’s like marketing an improved incandescent lamp’

More articles about e-mobility HERE.

Mobile Traffic Safety Lab for Motorcycle Riders

Motorcyclists are among the most vulnerable road users. Without a protective body, even the slightest carelessness can have serious consequences. A forgiving road is therefore unavoidable, say the traffic safety experts at the AIT Center for Mobility Systems in Vienna. They developed a motorcycle that can use sensors and algorithms to identify dangerous road locations. The results can be used in traffic safety technology.

Complex driving dynamics

There is certainly a need for action: The number of fatal traffic accidents involving passenger cars fell to 400 in 2018, the lowest level recorded in traffic records. However, the number of motorcycle accidents has continued to rise (Source: accident statistics 2018 of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Transport). In general, it is the complex driving dynamics and physics that lead to driving errors, especially among inexperienced motorcyclists. But certain factors, such as insufficient road grip, are not predictable even for experienced riders.

Highly specialized test vehicle

In the viaMotorrad project, experts from the AIT Center for Mobility developed a highly specialized test vehicle together with the Institute of Mechanics and Mechatronics at the Vienna University of Technology. The object runs under the name Motorcycle Probe Vehicle, MoProVe for short. It is a motorbike equipped with technology and equipped with a high-precision measuring system. As a mobile laboratory, it serves to analyze the interaction between vehicle and road and to investigate driving dynamics and vehicle safety. In the project, six road sections were tested with five different types of motorcyclists from beginners to racers, explains Florian Hainz, Press Officer at the AIT Center for Mobility.

The aim of the project is to:

  • Better understand the causes of motorcycle accidents
  • Identify risky stretches of road before accidents occur
  • Provide road owners with a tool that enables the efficient, cost-effective and sustainable mitigation of hazardous areas.

The analysis of the measurement data can also be used by industry, adds Hainz. It could be used to develop vehicle assistants that warn motorcyclists of dangers in good time.

Acquisition of vehicle signals and data

The special feature of MoProVe are two independently working measuring instruments. These complement each other and enable precise operation and precise coverage of the parameters to be measured. The main modules of both measuring systems are six-axis motion detectors (IMU), GPS antennas, CAN interfaces and data loggers. Both systems collect vehicle signals and data such as wheel speed, throttle position and brake system pressure.

  • One system is commonly used for vehicle motion (via dual GPS antennas and a DGPS station)
  • Another system is mainly used on and off the chassis and steering system level.

Use in flowing traffic

MoProVe is approved for road use and can therefore be used in flowing traffic. To record the traffic as well as details on the situation and environment, additional video cameras were installed.

The collected measurement data is set in the context of external parameters such as weather, traffic volume and route environment. The analysis is carried out using novel machine learning methods.

The post-processing of the measurement data makes it possible to extrapolate the system status to higher speeds or other environmental conditions. Accidents can be simulated by a combination of experiments and mathematical methods. This avoids dangerous driving maneuvers or driving situations that cannot be reproduced.

Objective identification

The project has already been successfully completed. On six motorcycle routes it was demonstrated that safety can be measured objectively and that MoProVe has great potential for accident prevention.

The results confirm that the Motorcycle Prove Vehicle is able to objectively identify road sections that are dangerous for motorcyclists. Hainz: “The results were compared with the actual accident situation.” The data from Road Safety Inspections showed that serious accidents had indeed often occurred at the identified danger points in the past. Plus, MoProVe makes it possible to forecast future danger points.

The project runs under the name viaMotorrad and was funded by the Road Safety Fund (VSF) of the Federal Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure and Technology (BMVIT).

Additional information:

Virtual traffic simulation to help prepare the road network for automated vehicles

Autonomous vehicles could reduce accidents by 22%.

 

Technical workshops for pre-schoolers

Technik-Workshops

How do you explain complex correlations to young children? TU Graz experts are taking up this challenge. Pedagogically and professionally trained staff are busy developing technical workshops for pre-schoolers and playful ways of imparting knowledge.

Digitization requires citizens to have technical skills. Governments are trying to accomplish this by adapting curricula. The Austrian province of Styria has responded by launching the IT-Talenteschmiede project – with the aim of triggering the youngest generation’s interest in technology.

The Office for Gender Equality and Equal Opportunity at the Technical University in Graz, the capital of Styria, is participating in this project. These extracurricular activities began in 2018 and are known as TUit Workshops. The goal is to teach children and young people the basics of digital technologies and to give them the opportunity to get creative with them. The program is free of charge and can be booked at any time of the year. Courses last between two and four school hours and are held either in the Graz University of Technology classrooms or in the schools themselves.

In the first year, students from the 3rd to the 12th grade (9-18 years) were involved. The focus was on dealing with IT applications and digital media and on the basic principles of electronics and programming. To date, around 2200 students have taken part in these workshops.

New courses for pre-schoolers

Three new courses have since been introduced which give pre-schoolers from the age of four access to the world of technology and science. The workshops offer insights into the Laws of Nature, physics, and information technology (IT) related to logic, mathematics and science.

  • In the Laws of Nature workshop, physical phenomena and their role in generating energy are taught in a fun way.
  • The Osmo workshop (IT, logic, mathematics & physics) introduces programming via playful elements. In addition, mathematical and logical problems are solved and laws are discussed as well.
  • The Physics workshop teaches the basics of physics – from fundamental physics to spectroscopy.

An interview with Lissa Reithofer from the Office for Gender Equality and Equal Opportunity:

How are the workshop subjects tailored to each age group?

The subjects for the TUit-workshops are geared to competencies that are laid down in the curriculum. These were tested out in advance by teachers, a psychologist and children from different age groups. The TUit-workshops were subsequently designed to suit the various age groups.

How is the material presented?

In the Laws of Nature TUit Workshop for toddlers, children learn about the different natural laws and their origins in a playful way. For example, they can become part of the water cycle as drops of water! We also discuss why there are different seasons.

During the Ozobot workshop the children can program an Ozobo, a small colored robot with a built-in rechargeable battery. This workshop is aimed at students in the third to twelfth grade. Programming is done online and offline, children figure out a color algorithm to program something offline. This entails using a felt-tip pen in a particular color combination to sketch out a route on paper. They can get the little Ozobot to move across the paper this way and then they will be able to program the Ozobot online on the computer based on this.

Of course we also offer lots of other TUit-workshops across a range of subjects such as electronics, mathematics and physics. Yet all the TUit workshops have one thing in common – the focus is on learning in a fun way and encouraging kids to work things out themselves!

The workshops for older children in the fifth to twelfth grade started last year. How has the feedback been?

That’s right. We could hold the first workshop in April last year in 2018. So far, so good, we’ve always had enthusiastic reactions and positive feedback from teachers and students. The many bookings for the coming school year are a reflection of this.

Which courses are popular?

The Ozobot workshop is particularly popular as it is a very good introduction to programming for most age groups.

Thank you for your interview.

 

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App allows citizens to participate in research on hail

Butterflies as a way to measure biodiversity – and what we see is bad news for humanity

New bio-ink for 3D bioprinting advances cell research

Bioprinting, Bio-Tinte, Zellforschung, 3D-Druck

Bio-printing has brought new perspectives to cell research. So far, however, other 3D printing methods have fallen short of expectations. A special bio-ink has now been developed at TU Wien (Vienna) that solves the current problems.

The new bio-ink enables:

  • extremely fast and high-resolution 3D printing;
  • integration of living cells directly into microstructures during the printing process.

Bio-printing of microstructures provides cell research with models whereby it can be observed how diseases spread via cells and how their behaviour can be controlled. Nevertheless, the challenges for 3D printing are considerable. Not only do the structures have to be tiny, they also need to reflect the natural environments of cells. As it is the mechanical and chemical properties as well as the geometries of the cell environments that influence cell proliferation.

In concrete terms, this means that cell environments must be permeable for nutrients so that the cells can survive and multiply. It is also important whether the structures are rigid or flexible.  And whether they are stable or if they degrade over time.

Problems related to bio-printing

Manufacture of microscopic 3D objects is nowadays relatively straightforward. Living cells are embedded in the structure as part of the 3D procedure using bioprinting technology – a special additive 3D printing process. The drawbacks of this technique have on occasion been a lack of precision. As well as a time frame that is very brief for processing living cells. The cells are damaged if the time frame is exceeded.

Precision vs. speed

The biggest technical challenge in bioprinting was at times the low resolution that conventional technologies offered. Lithography-based approaches such as two-photon polymerization (2PP) are able to overcome this limitation.

Researchers at the TU Vienna have many years of practical experience in the application of this method. This is based on a chemical reaction that only becomes active when a molecule of the material simultaneously absorbs two of the laser beam’s photons. This is the case if the laser beam has a particularly high intensity and causes a selective and very specific hardening of the substance. These properties are conducive to high precision manufacture of the finest of structures.

The disadvantages of the two-photon polymerization is the slow printing speed. This ranges at times from micrometers to a few millimeters per second.

Cell-friendly bio-ink

According to Professor Aleksandr Ovsianikov, head of the 3D Printing and Biofabrication research group at the Institute of Materials Science and Technology at TU Wien, the slower print speed in bioprinting is the result of certain chemical substances. His team achieved a speed of one meter per second with cell-friendly materials. The process must be completed in a few hours in order for the cells to survive and continue to develop.

This represents a major breakthrough when it comes to embedding living cells for two-photon polymerization, Ovsianikov explains.

“The high level of speed achievable in laser scanning makes it possible to quickly generate structures for statistical analysis during cell culture experiments as well as for large-scale production”. Aleksandr Ovsianikov

Another advantage of this method is that the cell environments can be individually adapted. Depending on the structure, they can be made more rigid or softer. Even delicate, continuous transitions are possible. The laser intensity can also be used to adjust the degradation of the structure relative to time.

The bio-ink is based on a a gelatin norbornene hydrogel, whereby dithiothreitol was used as a thiol cross-linking agent together with a special biocompatible photoinitiator based on diazosulfonate (doi: 10.1039/C8PY00278A).

Compatible with stem cells

The discovery of the cell-friendly bio-ink is not only a technical breakthrough, but also a major contribution to cell research. The microstructures that result from this process provide unprecedented accuracy. New insights can be gained into the spread of diseases throughout the body.

“Furthermore, the material is also compatible with stem cells and has already been tested with obese human stem cells in a laboratory. As with the L929 cells used in the publication*, these cells can be embedded directly into the 3D matrix and printed in accordance with a suitable architecture. This leads to excellent cell viability.” Aleksandr Ovsianikov

Interdisciplinary Team

The research project constitutes a transnational and interdisciplinary collaboration. Besides the TU Wien, several Belgian research institutes were also involved: the Polymer Chemistry and Biomaterials Group in Gent, the Brussels Photonics Campus, the Department of Applied Physics and Photonics at the University of Brussels, Flanders Make in Lommel and Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Three institutes were involved at the TU Vienna: The Institute of Materials Science and Technology, the Institute of Applied Synthetic Chemistry and the Institute of Lightweight Structures and Structural Biomechanics.

The high-resolution 3D printing technology and the requisite materials will be provided by UPNano, a young and successful spin-off from TU Vienna.

*Publication: A. Dobos et al. (2019):  Thiol–Gelatin–Norbornene Bioink for Laser‐Based High‐Definition Bioprinting, Advanced Healtcare Materials.

 

Also interesting:

3D printing technology for natural regeneration of damaged bone

Wastewater treatment plants provide a valuable resource for growing vegetables in greenhouses

Kläranlage

Wastewater treatment plants have the job of purifying sewage. But science also sees these as a valuable resource. Wastewater – and what it is made up of  – is now being used in new agricultural solutions. As part of the SUSKULT Project, an urban greenhouse is to be set up which will utilize resources from a wastewater treatment plant.

The agricultural economy is becoming more and more intensive and is already showing serious signs of exhaustion. Phosphate sources are finite. No plant can grow without phosphate. Fertilizer production requires a great deal of energy, meanwhile water and soil are increasingly becoming more contaminated. This dilemma is compounded by an ever-increasing demand for sustainable, local and high-quality agricultural produce. Supplying expansive urban centers poses a specific problem.

Linking up with wastewater treatment plants

Wastewater treatment plants are already present in cities. Plus they are furnished with all the equipment that is required for the cultivation of agricultural produce in greenhouses. The SUSKULT Project therefore aims to link up with wastewater treatment plants in order to create an agricultural system for the urban cultivation of high-quality vegetables.

“The system is to be integrated into existing wastewater treatment plants and use the resources that are available there. Apart from nutrients, these include CO2 and heat in particular for enhancing the productivity and heating of glasshouses,”

as Markus Ellersdorfer explains. He conducts research in the field of Renewable Materials Processing as part of the Chair of Process Engineering of Industrial Environmental Protection at the Leoben University of Mining and Metallurgy in Austria.

Kläranlage
Schematic depiction of the SUSKULT vision (c) Fraunhofer UMSICHT

 

Initially the project will test a variety of technologies for the recovery of nutrients. The separate scientific partners are focusing on their own fields of expertise. Ellersdorfer states that research is being carried out, for example, by the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology (Fraunhofer UMSICHT) on membrane technology. The University of Leoben is researching the separation of nutrients through ion exchange processes on zeolites. To quote: “At the end of the day, either the best technology will be selected from the individual technologies, or an optimal overall process consisting of specific individual technologies will be created. Ultimately this will enable the recovery of the essential nutrients for plant cultivation – namely nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – from wastewater treatment plants.

Hydroponic system

The researchers assume that a hydroponic system will be used in the greenhouse. The system does not use soil. Nutrients and fertilizers required by the plant are applied to the roots solely in liquid form.

The nutrient recovery process should be immediate. The nutrients are to be extracted from the wastewater in circulation at the sewage treatment plant and fed as consistently as possible to the crops.

Pilot plant in the Ruhr district

The project is scheduled to run until 2024. A demonstration facility will have been installed by then for the production of forty tons of vegetables per year at the Emschermünde plant (one of the established wastewater treatment plants in the Ruhr area).

Fifteen partners from industry and research are involved in the SUSKULT Project. These include REWE Markt GmbH and Metro AG. The initiator and coordinator is the Fraunhofer UMSICHT in Oberhausen, Germany. It is part of the Agricultural Systems of the Future Initiative funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Recovery of nutrients

Process engineers at the University of Leoben have completed a project for the recovery of nitrogen from wastewater. As part of that, a new process that uses zeolites to recover excess nitrogen from wastewater is also under development.

Zeolites occur in nature in the guise of various minerals and can also be mined in European deposits. Due to their crystalline structure, they have the ability to bind certain substances or release them in concentrated form. The team surrounding Ellersdorfer let the wastewater flow over the zeolites. They discovered that nitrogen remains trapped in the zeolites’ lattice structures and is subsequently washed away as a concentrated solution. The nitrogen obtained in this way is used for the purification of industrial smoke emissions.

The SUSKULT Project will now test if this nitrogen can also be used as fertilizer and whether potassium and phosphorus could be extracted using the same process.

Local, urban production

There are already methods where wastewater treatment plants are used as part of a circular economy. For example, phosphorus is recovered from sludge and ash in sewage treatment plants. In these cases, this phosphorus is put back into agriculture as either fertilizer or feed additives. Yet this process means that the phosphorus first has to be delivered to rural regions before it can be used to bring fruit and vegetables back to the city. Whereas the SUSKULT Project’s vision is to promote the growing of local produce in urban areas.

Kläranlagen
Emschermündung wastewater treatment plant. A view of the VKB primary treatment tank (funnel). © EGLV Rupert Oberhäuser

 

Also interesting:

Start-up of The Day: Austrian daredevils tackle energy-guzzling greenhouses

New methodology for defining turbulent flows

turbulente Strömungen

The effect of turbulent flows is obvious. As yet, these have not been scientifically defined and remains one of the biggest unsolved problems in science. A global team of leading physicists now wants to resolve this dilemma with a new methodology.

Turbulent flows are omnipresent and are found everywhere in oceans, around vehicles and through pipelines. Turbulence determines the amount of friction loss as well as transport and mixture properties. Nonetheless, there is still no basic understanding of the origin of turbulence nor the principles on which it is based.

The motion of the smooth (laminar) flow can be accurately depicted using formulas from Newton’s laws of motion (Navier Strokes equations). Yet these formulas have no validity when it comes to active flows – even if the largest supercomputers in the world were to be used.

Unresolved physics problem

The phenomenon is considered to be one of the main enigmas that scientists have yet to solve. A better scientific understanding of this phenomenon could be used for a variety of practical applications, e.g. from meteorology and oceanography to astrophysics and aerodynamics. One example is that dangerous weather events such as hurricanes or tornadoes could be predicted more precisely. Aircraft aerodynamics modeling would also be significantly improved.

New methodology

Now an international consortium of leading physicists wants to apply novel techniques and better define, model and conceptualize turbulent flows. The aim is to use the statistical properties of turbulent fluids to improve the characterization of turbulent flow types. This new methodology will be used to devise a new conceptual framework for defining turbulence. This conceptual framework could potentially improve the ability to predict real turbulent flows.

IST Austria participation

Professor Björn Hof is also a member of the team. He is a physicist in the field of fluid dynamics at the Institute of Science and Technology IST Austria, (near Vienna). He heads a research group on nonlinear dynamics and turbulence. The group combines detailed laboratory experiments with high-resolution computer simulation. Key aspects of the transition between laminar and turbulent flow are being researched using nonlinear dynamics and statistical physics methodologies. The aim is to identify the universal characteristics that this transition has in common with disordered systems in other areas of physics. Some of these insights could be used to influence turbulent flows. The group is actively working on these kinds of methodologies.

Research funding

The consortium received 3.7 million euros in research funding from the Simons Foundation in New York. Founded in 1994, it supports these sorts of projects which are at the frontier of basic research. Funding is provided for experimental techniques that are developed and used by interdisciplinary basic research groups.

Also interesting:

Sensors guide aircraft through turbulence without vibration

New medical technologies are not always compatible with legal requirements

neue medizinische Technologien, rechtliche Vorschriften

The progressively ageing society and new medical technologies are challenging the Austrian health and legal system. Laws must be amended or rewritten. Medical law expert Karl Stöger from the Institute of Public Law and Political Science at the University of Graz is examining how new medical technologies are compatible with legal requirements. In this interview he sheds light on the current discourse in Austria.

Rising life expectancy and the provision of medical care for the elderly are major challenges for the healthcare system. New medical technologies such as robots could take over part of this care. However, this will result in conflicts with current legislation. Particularly where data protection and liability are concerned.

New medical technologies based on artificial intelligence are far more likely to replace doctors than medical devices. The boundaries between humankind and machines are blurring. Consequently, the question has arisen as to whether artificial intelligence should be regulated. And should that be done in the same way as a device or as a human being?

Nonetheless, at the same time, the healthcare system has problems properly fulfilling the needs of patients. Part of the population are able to afford better treatment through supplementary insurance and special outpatient clinics. Stöger sees this as posing a danger to healthcare across the class divide. That’s why he is trying to find legal solutions for adequate basic medical care.

Karl Stöger in an interview with Innovation Origins:

What challenges do advancing technology pose for the Austrian health and legal system?

One topical issue that is currently high on the agenda is medication. The technological advancements in medicine mean that we have a greater quantity of better and more effective medications. But these are also more expensive and as a result are no longer affordable for everyone. This raises the question as to what level of treatment the healthcare system should provide each patient. Another problem is that some pharmaceutical companies do not supply Austria with medications at all as the market is relatively small and the quantities are minimal.

Another issue currently under discussion is telemedicine. This means that physicians and patients no longer have to be in the same place as each other. Even bedridden elderly patients and patients in remote areas can receive better medical care when a doctor is able to advise them by telephone. However, this is not yet deductible under welfare legislation. The problem is not insurmountable. But the question remains as to how we go about it.

Artificial intelligence can provide decision-making systems for doctors. AI diagnoses already outperform doctors where diagnostic imaging equipment is concerned. AI learns from an existing database. The big issue here is data protection. The question of how to deal with this facet is once more brought to the fore. It is also important to let patients know that data may be used anonymously so that other patients can be helped. Except, the better the system, the greater the possibility that the system will be able to identify the individual patient. For instance, if she or he has a particular type of tumor. We have to overcome the challenge of data accessibility. But the legal system still needs to catch up. At the same time, this issue should also be resolved at a European level.

neue medizinsiche Technologien, rechtliche Vorschriften
Univ. Prof. Dr. Karl Stöger, MJur (c) University of Graz

If systems were to work autonomously, the question of who is responsible also comes up.  One suggestion is that autonomous entities could be created. The intelligent machine would then be responsible. It has always been the case that when I travel with an item, I am legally required to have it under control.  This is done via compulsory liability insurance. The question now arises as to whether autonomous systems should also be treated like this.

But who is to blame if mistakes happen in hospitals? Who do I hold responsible? If it is a manufacturing fault, I can hold the manufacturer responsible. But the manufacturer can’t help it if someone has trained the system using faulty data. This is a challenge that applies to the entire digitization process.

In a project that we (as in the University of Graz) carried out together with Joanneum Research and Med Uni Graz, it was all about equipment for measuring blood glucose and insulin dosages for diabetes. The system can be run on a tablet and is already in use in some Austrian hospitals. The question was whether the system could also be used in home care. If the system works correctly, the nurse assistant only has to read the data and inject insulin. At present, however, this is not legally possible because the read-out data must be checked by qualified nursing staff. This means that we are still coming up against legal limitations. We need to change the law – and it is not that simple.

In what ways could digitization support a fairer healthcare system?

Wearables such as health monitors or apps provide ever better ways of compiling data. Doctors could use this data to treat their patients more effectively. In Austria, however, the use of genetic analyses is only possible on a limited basis. This is because there is a risk that private insurance companies could have access to information on the health status of individuals. As a result, individuals with a high health risk could be rejected by private insurers.  Plus the concept of a statistics-based high-risk community would be lost. Yet can people be held responsible for the fact that cancer, for example, is prevalent in their family? There is also the danger that people with a certain risk profile will become exclusively dependent on state health insurance.  High costs could be incurred there that way.

Which legal provisions would contribute to an affordable healthcare system?

The Austrian health system is financed by the federal government and the states. The Austrian Federal Government is responsible for the social welfare system and registered physicians. The states take care of hospitals. These provisions are laid down in constitutional law. The problem is that this regulation in some cases is ambiguous and expensive as a result of the doubling up of work. Savings can be achieved by consolidating services. Treatments should be concentrated at specific locations so that equipment and specialists are utilized as efficiently as possible. Hospitals have to close and merge for this purpose. However, patients think that care will be worse if the hospital around the corner shuts down. Planning and provision of care have to be carefully thought through.

One such case currently pending before the Constitutional Court is a new planning system has been in place for a year now. It spans both the federal and state levels. However, it is not clear whether this system is legally valid as the Constitution has not yet been amended.

Moreover, costs in the hospital sector and for general practitioners should also be limited. But without a deterioration in patient care, of course. In private practices, for example, savings may be made on medicines. A reimbursement code defines which medicines health insurance pays for. Some brand name drugs are not reimbursed because the same active ingredient is available in a generic drug. This is also controversial.

Thank you for this interview.

Also interesting:

Human rights for robots?

Animal-free medical research needs clear legislation

New production process for improved protein therapeutics

Proteintherapeutika

Proteins are often used in medicine to deliver drugs to the body and maintain the activity of these drugs in the body. Fundamental research has now provided a better understanding of the body’s own processes. As well as a significant boost to the manufacture of improved protein therapeutics.

Lipids are inserted into proteins as carriers for drugs during the preparation of these proteins. Lipids is a collective term for completely – or at least largely – water-insoluble natural substances. However, due to their low polarity, they can be dissolved very well in hydrophobic ( also known as lipophilic ) solutions such as hexane.

The body’s own processes

Protein therapeutics refer to the body’s own processes. A protein is a biological macromolecule composed of amino acids and peptide bonds. Some proteins are also made up of fat-like lipid chains which in turn have a decisive influence on the biological properties of the protein. For example, the Ras protein is responsible for the development of numerous types of cancer. However, it only becomes active and carcinogenic if it is able to bind to a membrane via a fat that is anchored to it.

Palladium as a catalyst

Current methods for inserting lipids into proteins, however, are costly and time-consuming. Rolf Breinbauer from the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the the Graz Technical University and Christian Becker from the Department of Biological Chemistry at the University of Vienna, have now developed a much simpler and more direct method. They found a catalyst in the precious metal palladium which makes it possible to attach lipids to proteins. A catalyst refers to a chemical substance. This accelerates the reaction speed of a chemical reaction by lowering its activation energy, although it is not used in the process itself.

Coordinated bond

The BiPhePhos ligand plays a decisive role in this newly discovered process. A ligand is an atom or molecule that binds to a central metal atom to form a coordinate bond, also called a dative covalent bond. The researchers tested a total of fifty different ligands. Yet only BiPhePhos has the specific selectivity required for palladium to enable lipidation of the sulfur-containing amino acid cysteine.

Rapid modification

Protein chemist Christian Becker applied these results to proteins. His experiments were also successful. The researcher highlighted the excellent selectivity of the new catalyst and its robust reaction. These properties enable the rapid modification of a large number of cysteine-containing peptides and proteins for biomedical research.

The reagents that are used are very easy to manufacture or can be purchased commercially. The researchers are confident that this method for the faster and easier manufacture of protein therapeutics will soon come into practice.

The research project was funded as a stand-alone project by the FWF Austrian Science Fund (FWF).

The study was presented in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). You can find the link here.

 

Also of interest:

Start-up of the Day: From sunlight to fish, Blue Planet Ecosystems wants to shift pisciculture to computerized container systems

Blue Planet Ecosystems, Ökosystem, Fischzucht

Climate change and dwindling agricultural land are major challenges for food and feed production. The supply of animal protein is particularly problematic.

The start-up Blue Planet Ecosystems, based in San Francisco and Vienna, wants to shift pisciculture (fish farming) to computerized container systems. The ecosystem is to be simulated in such a way that nature is able to grow in self-sustaining LARA systems (Land-based Automated Recirculating Aquaculture).

“We built everything ourselves, including the hardware,” says Paul Schmitzberger, CEO and co-founder of Blue Planet Ecosystems. We are a team of engineers, biologists and computer scientists. The hardware are LARA systems wherein the three stages of an aquatic ecosystem are reconstructed. From algae (phytoplankton) to zooplankton and then to the final product: fish.

Phytoplankton are phytosynthetic organisms that produce their own food from the energy of sunlight. A further characteristic is their high propagation rate. They can be harvested within four to seven days under ideal lighting and temperature conditions. This is a level of productivity that is far above that of traditional agriculture.

Zooplankton are microscopic and semi-microscopic invertebrates which are found in water. Zooplankton such as Daphnia have brief life cycles that go from the egg stage to maturity within just a few days. In nature, their population explodes when the environmental conditions are right. A condition that Blue Planet Ecosystems utilizes. The environmental parameters are optimized with a sufficient supply of food (microalgae). Daphnia are even more efficient than insects when it comes to converting vegetable biomass into valuable animal protein. This efficiency significantly reduces the environmental impact compared to keeping warm-blooded animals such as cattle.

Fish nourished naturally

Health-promoting nutrients synthesized by algae are bioaccumulated through the natural food chain into the end-product – as in fish. This food chain is interrupted in conventional aquaculture. Water protein is replaced by plant-based (fish meal) and animal-based (blood meal) proteins. Microplastics and other environmental toxins from industry and agriculture are invariably fed to farm animals. As a result, fish largely loses its health-promoting properties. At Blue Planet Ecosystems, the fish diet meets the physiological requirements of the organisms.

Our start-up company is researching the LARA system, which is based on renewable energy. To put it simply, it is a process in which sunlight is converted into fish. The algae unit that CTO Georg Schmitzberger designed has the ability to optimally “harvest” light and make it available for the algae.

The system enables the production of food largely independent of climate-related environmental factors. It avoids any price fluctuations associated with feed such as fish meal. LARA systems are also to be used in desert areas because of their greatly reduced dependence on water.

Paul Schmitzberger in an interview with Innovation Origins:

What motivates you? What problem do you resolve and why is that so important?

We are interested in the topic on an intellectual level – and we enjoy building things. First we researched how biological ecosystems work out of curiosity and then found out that we could resolve a major problem with them.

Over the next few decades, we will have to double animal protein production as the world’s population rises. Humankind is turning ecological treasures into agricultural land as a result of this. We solve this problem by decoupling animal protein production from the usual agricultural value chains. We do not need feed from vegetable or animal proteins which are affected by climate change.

Another aspect is the pollution of the world’s oceans caused by microplastics and environmental toxins such as lead or fertilizer. These toxins accumulate in the food chain and have potentially negative effects on sensitive people and those with health issues.

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome? Was there ever a moment when you wanted to give up?

No, luckily we haven’t had that moment yet.

What have been the best moments so far?

We received a pre-seed investment from IndieBio in San Francisco, the most important Life Science Accelerator in the world. When we presented our laboratory scale prototype to 1200 people on Demo Day, it was really wonderful.

What achievements are you particularly proud of?

That we managed to go from a PowerPoint presentation to a prototype within a very short time. And build a good team – and find support for a technically challenging idea.

How difficult was it to get funding?

Funding is certainly the most difficult part of any start-up project. In Silicon Valley it is said that you need 120 contacts with venture capitalists for five Term-Sheets and five Term-Sheets for one investment. We’ve also been in a lot of discussions and have managed that.

How are the conditions in Vienna? Can you imagine a more ideal location for your start-up?

Since August we have been back in Vienna after five months at IndieBio in San Francisco. But we still have a branch in San Francisco. Silicon Valley certainly offers tremendous advantages in terms of location. Yet we also have very good scientists and great conditions in Europe. Above all, Vienna is an affordable location. Silicon Valley is incredibly expensive.

Where would you like to be with your company in five years time?

A stable, prosperous company and a well-functioning product that is well received by the market.

What makes your innovation better/different than other existing ideas?

We believe that the value of industries of the future lies more in software than in hardware. But there has to be coordination between hardware and software – as well as with biology in our project.

What sets us apart is our software. We are building a system that simulates the natural ecosystem and are striving for a solution that is able to learn faster and more independently. Our Head of Data Science is a particle physicist. She spent ten years at Cern working on machine learning systems for Atlas experiments. Using extremely large amounts of data and sophisticated models. With us, she’s not simulating the universe, she’s simulating the ecosystem. Our expert in agriculture has designed fish farms in Sri Lanka, among other places.

Thank you for this interview

Learn more about Blue Planet Ecosystems on this link here.

Are you interested in start-ups? Read more of our articles on this theme here.

Electric cars are allowed to drive faster in Austria

E-Autos, Tempolimit

Incentives to promote e-mobility are available in many European countries. In most cases, it is the tax reductions and subsidies on purchases that should make it easier for citizens to make the switch to e-cars. When the Austrian federal government recently exempted e-cars from the 100 kph speed limit on routes marked out as ‘air protection zones‘,  it was unique across Europe.

In Austria, sections of highways and expressways with a total length of 440 kilometers are listed as air protection zones. They are subject to a speed limit of 100 kph. The slower diesel and petrol-driven cars drive, the less CO2 they emit. This is regulated in the Immissionschutzgesetz-Luft act (IG-L, legislation designed to protect the air from harmful traffic emissions).

Road safety

E-cars drive for the most part emission-free. With the rising numbers of e-cars on the road, it was therefore only a matter of time before the speed limit was called into question. The debate was initiated by Tyrolean lawyer Christian Schöffthaler. In 2014, he deliberately exceeded the speed limit in order to be able to lodge a complaint with the regional administrative court. The court subsequently dismissed the complaint. Their argument: Different speed limits for passenger cars can interrupt the flow of traffic and thereby jeopardize road safety.

Incentive for e-cars

Schöffthaler’s lawsuit was soon followed by others. But the courts remained difficult. This was different at the Bundesministerium für Nachhaltigkeit und Tourismus (the BMNT, Federal Ministry of Sustainability and Tourism). The then Minister Elisabeth Köstinger of the Austrian People’s Party saw the suspension of the speed limit for e-cars as an incentive. She brought the new IG-L regulation into force in November 2018. The actual implementation date did not take place until 1 July 2019, when the traffic signs were placed on the relevant sections of the routes.

Introduction of the Lufthundert

    • The new regulation, or the so-called Lufthundert (Air Hundred), applies exclusively to highways and expressways. But not on other roads where the IG-L speed limit is still in place.
    • The Lufthundert exemption applies to fully-electric vehicles and vehicles with hydrogen fuel cell technology. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are not included.
    • The exemption can only be used by e-car motorists who have a license plate with green lettering. As of 2017, this may be requested for vehicles with a fully-electric engine, but it’s not compulsory.

E-Autos, Tempolimit © Asfinag

The Österreichische Autofahrer Club (ÖAMTC, the Austrian Automobile Club) welcomed the new IG-L regulation and agreed with the argument made by Schöffthal and the Minister. According to ÖAMTC, the Lufthundert is generally unpopular among Austrian motorists. In an online survey, half of the respondents rejected the speed limit. Only one in five said that it was okay.

Negative side effects

A clear no to the scrapping of the Lufthundert for e-car drivers came from the Verkehrsclub Österreich (VCÖ, another Austrian motorist’s association).  It advocates an ecologically compatible, economically efficient and socially just transport system. The experts of the VCÖ pointed out the negative side effects and called for more effective measures in order to speed up the energy system transformation. According to VCÖ, varying speeds will hamper the flow of traffic, increase the risk of accidents and complicate the work of speed controllers and traffic police. In addition, electric cars are not completely environmentally friendly and would trigger fine particles due to wear on brakes and tires. And according to the latest emissions report from the Federal Environment Agency, 58 % of PM10 emissions of fine particles are caused by dust that is stirred up and by the wear and tear on brakes and tires. The VCÖ finds this problematic. As varying speeds in the air protection zones lead to more braking maneuvers being made and consequently to more wear and tear on brakes and tires. [This falls under non-exhaust traffic related emissions, as detailed in the 2014 Joint Research Centre report from the European Commission, ed.]

The VCÖ experts also doubt whether the exemption for Luchthondert motorists will lead to citizens switching to e-cars one hundred times sooner. They attribute the low percentage of e-cars in Austria mainly to a lack of supply from the car industry. If it is up to the VCÖ, then the government should reduce CO2 limits and increase the e-car quota for car manufacturers. This would boost the number of e-cars on the market.

Europe

An additional problem with regard to international traffic is the fact that the Lufthundert exemption only applies to vehicles with a license plate that has green lettering. Even before the law came into force, the German media were of the opinion that this discriminates against foreign motorists.

 

More IO articles on electromobility here.

More IO articles on hydrogen fuel cells here.

 

Start-up of The Day: Austrian daredevils tackle energy-guzzling greenhouses

Etagrow, Beleuchtungssystem für Gewächshäuser, LED

The Austrian start-up company Etagrow has invented a highly efficient lighting system for greenhouses and vertical farming. LED-based, it not only emits light, but can also create the right kind of climate.

When co-founders Stefan Huebl and Florian Ablinger first tried to make it through the winter with their own home-grown vegetables, they were using standard sodium vapor lamps. Light is essential for plant growth. It provides the energy for photosynthesis, as well as other things.

What they had not anticipated was the extreme energy consumption of sodium vapor lamps. Both had graduated from the Higher Technical Federal Education and Research Institute (HTL Wiener Neustadt) in Austria and wanted to find out what LED technology could do for greenhouse lighting. They built numerous prototypes before their product was ready for series production. In 2018 – it finally happened: their lighting system for greenhouses was now extremely efficient. They also succeeded in harnessing the heat waste from LED lamps for climate control.

Co-founder Florian Ablinger in an interview with Innovation Origins:

What motivates you?

The optimization of LED technologies for maximum efficiency in the greenhouse sector is a pioneering and exciting field. We are enthusiastic about innovative approaches to economic problems and want to be able to influence the climate in a positive way.

What problem do you address with your greenhouse lighting system and why is that so important?

The area that’s currently available for growing food per person will be cut in half by 2050 because of population growth. That means food production must become much more efficient. Greenhouses use less land, water and fertilizer than agricultural land. Yet they also use up a lot more energy.

Up until now, eighty percent of the sodium vapor lamps used in greenhouse lighting systems have been inexpensive. This is a sixty-year-old technology which is now regarded as extremely energy-inefficient.

We are cutting down on the energy requirements of greenhouses by more than a half by using Etagrow. Just one of our lamps reduces the amount of CO2 by ten tons over its lifetime. The potential savings are therefore enormous.

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

We see our product as a sustainable response to entrenched, short-term market systems. Our distinctive efficiency concept has so far been of little interest to profit-oriented investors. That’s why we opted to pursue our vision with our own resources.

Was there ever a moment when you wanted to give up?

With our own funding as mentioned above, we are taking a lot of things into our own hands. We have already made mistakes and have even put our progress at risk. So far, however, we have always been able to learn from these mistakes. So this hardly ever happens anymore.

What have been the most memorable occasions so far? What achievements have made you really proud?

Our products make us proud. Our water-cooled lighting system is the first of its kind in the world and is ideal for unlimited scaling. We have achieved unprecedented efficiency by redistributing the heat output. We have also integrated an online management system that allows you to control light, temperature and humidity anytime, anywhere.

So far, we have managed to cover areas from one to 10,000 square meters. In our first pilot project, we equipped an annex for growing cannabidiol (CBD) with our lighting system. CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid from the female hemp plant and is used for cosmetics, smoking, teas and flour. It was a very special occasion when the annex was put into operation.

As a second product line, we developed a small version of the lighting system that operates over an area of one to four square meters. This variant is aimed at florists as well as city dwellers who want to grow plants in their homes all year round.

 

Beleuchtungssystem für Gewächshäuser, Etagrow, LED,
Etagrow Climate management (c) Etagrow

Where would you like your company to be in five years time – what is your ultimate goal?

Over the next five years, we will be establishing the Etagrow brand and our technology internationally. We are also aiming for an annual turnover of €1.5 million to €2 million and will be setting up a new company location for our production.

Could you imagine a better or more ideal location for your start-up?

So far, our location has worked out very well. But a larger city like Amsterdam would bring clear advantages. The Netherlands has a technology hub in horticulture. Also, Wageningen University is highly regarded in the biology and botany fields. Networks are also better there. We could also do more research on cannabis in the Netherlands.

What makes your innovation better or different from what already exists?

We are expanding on the idea of efficiency and embarking on a new path for the climate system. We have also invested a substantial amount of time and energy in the technical concept. This means that our product is very well thought-out. The design is minimalist – with the exception of the luminescent part. The system is easy to assemble and produces hardly any waste when discarded. Last but not least, investment in the greenhouse lighting system can be recouped.

Etagrow LED Panel (c) Etagrow

 

Thank you for this interview.

Read more on this subject here: Start-up of the day: intelligent lighting for greenhouses

Are you interested in start-ups? Find more articles on this theme here.

 

Animal-free medical research needs clear legislation

tierversuchsfreie medizinische Forschung, tierversuchsfrei

Medical research has a long tradition when it comes to testing on animals. Apart from the ethical problem, animal experiments also lack reliability. Mice do not always react to diseases and drugs in the same way as humans do. Another example – chocolate is toxic to dogs, explains project assistant Mario Rothbauer from the Cellchip Group at TU Vienna. Moreover, animal experiments aren’t exactly consistent. Slight changes in the housing and care of the animals can have a major impact on the ultimate results.

Rothbauer and his team are committed to alternative, animal-free medical research. The method is based on simulating human organs under controlled conditions in a biochip. In these so-called organ-on-a-chip systems, data is collected that cannot be measured in a laboratory animal. Furthermore, this approach is easier to manage and is more reliable.

Animal-free medical research

The biochip contains tissue types that are relevant to a specific medical issue. In the case of arthritis, for example, proliferative tissue may be removed from the joint and used for simulation in the biochip. A few square millimeters of tissue are sufficient. This allows for therapies to be precisely adapted to patients and should lead to a new form of precision medicine.

Rothbauer and his colleagues hope to offer more than just ethical and precise alternatives to animal experiments. They are hoping to completely dispense with substances derived from animal products. To Rothbauer, opting for animal-free medicine is a question of how to deal with resources. Plus whether you are for or against animal suffering. He also sees this as a cultural change. Quote: “Standards change when societies change.”

His project has now been awarded a Herbert Stiller Prize by Doctors Against Animal Experiments for its use of the 3D-Synovium-on-a-chip as a disease model for rheumatoid arthritis. The prize is worth €20,000.

Mario Rothbauer in an interview with Innovation Origins:

Animal experiments are still the standard in medicine. Yet the cosmetics industry is already dropping animal testing. What does this mean?

You have to take a more in-depth look at the problem: The industry is always guided by existing legislation and corresponding regulations. If animal testing is legally required, it will continue to be used in practice. That is a very straightforward principle.

The legal situation in the cosmetics industry is different from how medicine deals with it. In the United States, animal testing for cosmetics is generally not legally required. The European Union banned animal testing for the cosmetics industry back in 2013.

The EU has invested large sums in the Human Avatar project and wants to bring about a fundamental shift towards a sustainable healthcare system. But we are still at the very beginning of this transformation.

What is the current situation in non-animal-based medical research?

The current situation in non-animal-based medicine is complicated. A great deal is still being done using animal models in basic academic research. When it comes to obtaining approval for medicines, animal experiments are considered indispensable because at present they are still mandatory.

The ban on animal experiments in the cosmetics industry was the first step in the right direction. For the first time, this is a ban and no longer a directive. In Austria, animal testing is not allowed anymore if there is an alternative available. But so far, no animal experiment has been rejected in spite of the availability of alternative models. We need clear legislation.

What problems still need to be overcome?

Animal experiments are extremely popular in medical research. If you bring in non-animal-based research, you are subject to a great deal of criticism at first. Most medical universities have animal testing facilities and also use these for basic research.

As long as the laws in each country do not change, the industry will not change a thing. Animal-free alternatives will only be held on file – pending the prospective date in the distant future when a ban does comes into effect. This is a political challenge and we all know that political processes are extremely slow.

Another aspect is the pressure that there is to publish in academic journals. Publications are considered currency and are necessary when it comes to obtaining third-party funding. Success needs to be measurable for optimal career advancement. Even though it has been criticized for decades, the most common parameter for measuring the quality of research is still the journal impact factor. This is a figure that’s calculated to reflect the influence of a scientific journal. Data and studies based on animal experiments are welcome in the most influential journals such as Nature. Many academic journals of the same stature even insist on the comparison of in vitro models with in vivo models.

How is your project different from others?

Our project has the stipulation that it must be free of animal experiments. Both the model itself and all analyses related to the model. This isn’t that easy. As sera inhibitors, collagen monomers or antibodies used in imaging are all derived mainly from animals. Nevertheless, we will definitely not use these types of substances in our project. This is a huge challenge at times. Fortunately, there are some excellent artificial alternatives or substances that can be obtained from human blood.

What problems does your project address – and what problems do you still have to solve before you can achieve what you are aiming for?

We are working on a human model as an alternative to animal experiments. Not only that, we are also refraining from using any other animal parts in medical experiments. By doing this, we are instrumental in making organ-on-a-chip systems more relevant to human diseases. After all, humans do not have calf serum in their blood nor do we have mouse growth factors in our tissue.

Actually, we do work with biological waste. When tissue is removed from a human joint, it is disposed of – or we use it. It is important to handle available resources as carefully as possible.

They say that at least some fields of medical research could be carried out without animal experiments. What is this dependent on?

It depends on to what extent legislators and industry are willing to invest the necessary sums into the development of alternatives to animal models.

Another important consideration would be to revise education. University graduates must be informed in detail about the alternatives to animal testing. I would like to see compulsory courses for students from all relevant fields of study – especially at medical and life science universities in Austria.

The Technical University of Vienna has addressed this issue with an important educational focus in the form of five voluntary courses. Unfortunately, this is still unique in Austria. So far, universities have only taught the advantages of animal models and the inadequacies of outdated alternatives such as two-dimensional cell cultures. So it is not surprising that few changes are taking place in the minds of the future intellectual social elite.

There are also doubts about animal-free research. It is said that cell cultures and computer models cannot replace animal experiments as they do not adequately simulate complex biological processes. How do you view that?

It is important to define in advance how complex a model must be in order to answer a specific medical question. In non-animal-based research, we can learn a lot about diseases from tissue extracted from patients. We are able to apply these findings from the patient directly to the alternative model. For example, if the combination of three cell types do not have sufficient relevance for a particular problem, we can then add different functional cell types until the system is complex enough to be able to answer the problem. It definitely will be necessary to add critical functional cell types and biochemical processes to the alternative system for every problem and disease until it can adequately replicate the biological process.

Thank you for the interview.

Also interesting:

Skin On A Chip – Research without animal experiments

 

Akiro Yoshino one of the three winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Akiro Yoshino

In June 2019, I had the opportunity to interview Akiro Yoshino, the father of the lithium-ion battery, on the fringes of the 2019 European Inventor Awards. At that time he had just won the Non-European Country category. He had already won a number of impressive prizes before that. Now he has received the highest award of all, the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The Nobel Prize Committee recognized the advancement of the lithium-ion battery. Its milestones can be traced back to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Yoshino. Based on the precepts of Whittingham and Goodenough, Yoshino designed the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985. This lightweight, rechargeable and high-performance battery is still used today in all mobile communication devices and in electric vehicles as well. The battery is also capable of storing significant amounts of solar and wind energy. As such, it has laid the foundation for a wireless, fossil fuel-free society.

In that interview I had with him in June, I also spoke to him about sustainable trends in battery research. At the time, he called for the development of recycling processes for lithium-ion batteries. Read the full interview here:

Yoshino began developing rechargeable batteries in 1981 at a time when batteries were large, heavy and expensive and were not suitable for powering mobile electronic devices. Lighter alternatives based on lithium often exploded or caught fire. Yoshino completely dispensed with lithium metal in the anode battery. Instead, he used a safe, electrically conductive plastic: polyacetylene. He later substituted this with a carbon compound. He then switched the cathode material for lithium cobalt oxide. In addition, he integrated a heat-sensitive polyethylene-based film between the reactive layers. This film melts when the battery becomes too hot, acting as a fuse which prevents the entire battery structure from burning.

The lithium-ion battery patent as we know it today was filed by Yoshino in 1983. In 1991, Sony and Asahi were the first companies to commercialize the lithium-ion battery. Until 2016, Asahi Kasei’s world market share for lithium-ion battery separators was 17 %. In 2017, the global market value for lithium-ion batteries was estimated at 26.5 billion euros. A growth of more than eighty billion euros has been projected for 2025.

You’ve filed sixty patents so far. Are all these patents part of the lithium-ion battery sector?

Yes, all sixty patents are for lithium-ion batteries. These patents are valid for twenty years. Some have already expired, others are still in effect. But all of the technologies are still in use.

What fascinates you most about your research field?

(Laughs) What makes me happy is the fact that new markets are constantly emerging for the technologies I have been developing. Some of these new markets are just appearing. The first devices which required small, lightweight, rechargeable batteries were mobile phones and laptops. Now a new market is emerging for electric vehicles. I find this development incredible and it makes me happy to work in another field with so much potential.

They are still working on improving the safety and efficiency of lithium-ion batteries. What is your current research problem?

Safety is a critical and crucial parameter. We are therefore continuing our research in this area. I think that the solid-state battery will be a big step forward in terms of safety – but also in terms of efficiency. This is a new field.

The lithium-ion battery is still the most efficient. But there are also efforts to develop new battery types – like the magnesium battery at the Helmholtz Institute. How do you feel about that?

It remains to be seen how these new alternative technologies will develop and whether they will make a breakthrough. That’s what matters. What we definitely can say is that the solid-state battery has made a breakthrough. Note that for solid-state batteries, both the electrode and electrolyte types are made of a solid (non-liquid) material. They are quick to load and are non-flammable.

In Europe, there is also research on sustainable batteries, such as those made from leftovers from apples. A research project at the Helmholtz Institute has led to this research. What do you think about sustainability in rechargeable batteries?

(Laughs) When it comes to the sustainability of batteries, there are two approaches: First, a battery must do its job and provide the best possible storage capacity for electricity. This guarantees high efficiency and sustainable use of electricity. The next question is: How to make the battery itself sustainable. We need to develop recycling technologies for batteries. We do not use lithium metal in our anodes. However, the cathode in particular, where we use lithium cobalt oxide, must be recycled.

About Akira Yoshino

Born in 1948 in Suita (Osaka), Yoshino studied petrochemistry and earned a doctorate in engineering. Since 1972 he has been working for the chemical group Asahi Kasei in the Tokyo prefecture. Today he holds the position of General Manager of the Yoshino Laboratory and is also the president of the Lithium-Ion Battery Technology and Evaluation Center (LIBTEC). Since 2017, the researcher has also been a professor at the private Meijō University in the Aichi prefecture. He has already been awarded several prestigious prizes for his work. Yoshino is a Fellow of the Chemical Society of Japan. In 2013 he received the Global Energy Prize (Russia) in 2013, the Charles-Stark-Draper-Prize from the United States National Academy of Engineering in 2014, and the Japan Prize in 2018. Last but certainly not least, in October 2019, Akira Yoshino has received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Also interesting:

Lely milking robot in the European Inventor Award 2019 finals

Durability and safety: burning issues on Battery Day

 

Why climate change affects water supplies

Wasserverfügbarkeit, Klimawandel

We assume that water is an unlimited resource every time we turn on the tap. But experts warn that climate change will affect our water supplies. Freshwater is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world.

It is the diversity of species in lakes and rivers that is responsible for our water quality. In an ecosystem such as a waterway or a river, each individual living creature contributes its share to the overall equilibrium. Water quality is at risk because of declining biodiversity. This will over time lead to changes in our water supplies, even in the Alpine region of Austria.

Safeguarding water supplies

At the 6th Biennal Symposium of International Society for River Science (ISRS) in Vienna, it was the hydrobiologist Thomas Hein who warned against the careless use of freshwater resources. Studies show that since 1970, the diversity of freshwater species has declined by 83 percent. According to Hein, it’s not just the number of species that are becoming extinct that is alarming, but the speed at which they are disappearing is of great concern as well. Ongoing loss of microorganisms, insects and fish destabilizes the ecosystem of waterways over the long term. The scientist emphasizes that the extinction of a species is final. The remaining biodiversity in flowing waters must ultimately be preserved in order to safeguard water resources.

Hein is a board member at the Institute of Hydrobiology and Aquatic Ecosystem Management (IHG), part of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna and a member of the global initiative Alliance for Freshwater Life. This is a network of experts who aim to communicate more effectively on solutions for the development and conservation of freshwater ecosystems. Their goal is to reverse the depletion and decline of freshwater biodiversity.

Appeal to politicians

To date, political initiatives to conserve freshwater biodiversity have not been enforced consistently enough – to quote the organization’s message. Political strategies for the sustainable development and use of freshwater usually neglect the biodiversity that is associated with it.

At the Biennal Symposium of the International Society for River Science, researchers presented a series of studies describing the impact of climate change on biodiversity. One of the key problems: Alternating periods of heavy rainfall and drought. Which caused flooding and lowering of water levels in rivers and floodplains. Both weather events result in a decline in biodiversity.

Triggers heavy rainfall and periods of drought

This was shown in a study by Pawel Napiórkowsky and Nikola Kolàrova, from the Department of Hydrobiology at Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz, Poland. The scientists examined the effects of extreme weather events on zooplankton in the floodplain lakes of the Vistula Valley in Poland. The study was conducted over a period of nine years.

Zooplankton is the term used to describe all animal organisms floating in water. In addition to phytoplankton, they contribute significantly to the production of organic material in the aquatic ecosystem.

Rotifier dominance

Only a few species have the capacity to utilize resources during major climatic disruptions. Their dominance reached between forty and sixty percent when the water level dropped sharply. Both floods and droughts encouraged the exponential growth rate of small rotifers (microscopic animals) that feed on floating matter and bacteria. They have the ability to adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions. Proliferation of the rotifer species has been at the expense of crustaceans and has been observed in several places.

Cleaner hydropower

Hein’s colleague Astrid Schmidt-Kloiber, senior scientist at the Institute of Hydrobiology and Aquatic Ecosystem Management at BOKU Vienna, advocated at the symposium for cleaner hydropower. Expansion of dams is booming business worldwide. More than half of all rivers have already been dammed up. Austria is No. 1 in Europe when it comes to the use of hydropower. It made the largest contribution to this sector in 2017, accounting for 35.3 percent of total renewable energy generation in Austria.

In addition to flood protection structures, there is one transverse structure per kilometer of river in Austrian waterways. That’s according to the statistics from the Federal Office of Water Management. That is about 33,000 barriers for migratory fish and other organisms. Among other things, it is the lack of adequate water passages that endangers food security for fish and denies migratory fish species access to their spawning grounds.

The negative effects of structural intrusions into river systems explain why so-called clean hydropower is considered a major factor in species extinction, the scientist concludes. Yet this need not be the case. Sustainable technical solutions already exist. These have already been implemented in Austria on a case-by-case basis. Globally, though, she sees a trend towards further deterioration.

Also interesting:

Using a Migration Aid for Fish to Generate Green Electricity

Mobile braille keyboard available as open source

Bachelor student Johannes Střelka-Petz has designed a portable Braille keyboard for the blind and visually impaired. OSKAR, the prototype’s name, is an open source project. The blueprints and program code are freely available online.

When blind and visually impaired people use a computer, they use a braille keyboard which is based on their own tactile writing system. This new braille keyboard has the advantage of haptic symbols. This option is not yet available for smartphones. At present, people who are affected this way use voice control and a virtual keyboard. Both versions are problematic:

  • voice control lacks privacy;
  • The virtual keyboard lacks haptics and is slower than a physical keyboard;

Supplementary tool for the smartphone

Johannes Střelka-Petz dealt with this problem as part of his Bachelor thesis. He is studying process engineering at the TU Vienna and wrote his bachelor thesis at the Informatics Faculty department of Multidisciplinary Design & User Research. Professor Wolfgang Zagler‘s lecture papers were the inspiration for the development of a mobile keyboard. When building the prototype, the student was guided by a construction manual for a chorded keyboard. The manual is also available via Wikipedia. The components are commercially available and are based on interfaces such as Arduino, Bluetooth and USB.

Střelka-Petz has since designed a mobile keyboard that is so small that it can be attached to the back of a smartphone. It has adopted the internationally recognized form of braille as its standard.

The mobile braille keyboard concept

The braille typeface is based on six raised dots arranged in three vertical rows of two. The Braille keyboard is made up of six keys, each with a different arrangement of the tactile dots. These stand for letters. For example, on one key the first dot is marked at the top left, on another key, three dots are marked on the bottom right. Two other keys are used as modifiers. The braille keyboard is referred to as a chorded keyboard. How it functions is comparable to how a piano works. On the piano, simultaneous striking of several keys creates a chord. Whereas letters are created on the braille keyboard when various keys are touched.

OSKAR Concertino was based on the DIN 32 982 German standard. However, since this standard is somewhat outdated, the Braille expert Professor Erich Schmid developed a variant of Erich Schmid’s 8 Keys Braille that was adapted for today’s computers and smartphones.

The mobile braille keyboard prototype

The prototype is an Open Source Key Arrangement, that’s why Strelka- Petz subsequently named it OSKAR. The student gave the braille keyboard a mobile format. The target group feels haptic symbols when typing in text. The device is also used for other input. It can take over the functions of the keyboard, touch screen, keypad and remote control.

Because the keyboard is mounted on the back of the smartphone, users are faced with an inverted key system. This requires a different hand position than that of an ordinary keyboard. But the keys are arranged in such a way that the same fingers are used for different positions.

mobile Braille-Tastatur Oskar
Johannes Střelka-Petz with the mobile braille keyboard Oskar. (c) TU Vienna

Evaluation of the mobile Braille keyboard

The aim of the design was to create a keyboard that can be operated with one hand while standing or walking. Moreover, the system should be more powerful than conventional mobile text input methods. With this aim in mind, Střelka-Petz created a one-handed and a two-handed version of the keyboard. He tested these on seven people from the Austrian Federal Institute for Blind Education. One part of the quantitative evaluation was the measurement of speed and accuracy of the prototypes. One-hand operation and two-hand operation were also compared with a virtual QWERTY keyboard.

Preference for the two-handed keyboard

Střelka-Petz started from the premise that a keyboard could be operated with one hand. However, The test subjects definitely preferred the two-handed prototype. This prototype was also the test winner. Users were able to use it four times faster than the virtual keyboard – and with greater accuracy.

The test demonstrated that using a mobile two-handed keyboard is easy to learn. The test subjects carried out the tests without any prior training. After just a few minutes, they managed a typing speed of about twenty words per minute with the new device. This speed is comparable to that of a conventional braille keyboard.

These tests have shown that a mobile chord keyboard like OSKAR can be an alternative to the touch screen. Although it was important to the test subjects that the keyboard should not only allow them to type texts but also to operate the smartphone.

OSKAR can be attached to devices like a smartphone or a tablet as a mobile device but also to a forearm or hand as well.

The bachelor thesis of Střelka-Petz was supervised by Roman Ganhör at the Institute for Visual Computing and Human-Centered Technology. On September 24, the student received the WINTEC Award (Science Award for Inclusion via Natural Sciences and Technology) from the Austrian Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection.

The link to the Bachelor thesis can be found here: OSKAR – Prototypical Implementation and Evaluation of a Mobile Braille Text Input Method

The link to the Open Source building instruction for OSKAR Concertina can be found here: https://gitlab.com/teamoskar/oskar

 

Also of interest:

Gerard & Anton Award-winner Hable: super fast braille on your smartphone

With Hable Accessibility, the European Venture Programme gets a Dutch winner

 

Magnetic new improved technology for heart pumps

Herzkatheterpumpe (c) TU Wien

A new technical solution has been found for the intra-aortic balloon pump (IABP) at the Technical University of Vienna (TU Wien). This enables a higher capacity in a smaller format. The technology might also be interesting for other medical applications.

Heart failure is a weakness of the heart muscle whereby the heart is no longer able to supply the body with sufficient blood and oxygen. The causes are manifold and the disease is one of the most frequent causes of death in Germany. A possible therapy is the insertion of a A new technical solution has been found for the intra-aortic balloon pump. This device draws the blood directly from the ventricle of the heart and pumps it through.

Major technical requirements

The technical requirements for intra-aortic balloon pump are at odds with each other:

  • one side of the pump must come into direct contact with the blood;
  • but the blood may not get into the motor;

A common solution to this problem, for instance, is a permanent release of a sugar solution in order to prevent the blood from flowing into the motor, explains Christoph Janeczek from the Institute of Engineering Sciences and Product Development at TU Wien. He was involved in the development of this innovation.

According to Janeczek, a more elegant solution would be to divide the pump into two completely separate sections. The rotary motion of the motor must be magnetically transferred through the partition wall to the other part of the pump using a magnetic field. Standard solutions are placed either axially or radially.

Vulnerabilities of conventional solutions

The axial placement can be imagined as like two axially cut halves of a rod. Several magnetic poles are placed in the correct positions on the interface. When the pump is activated, the rotation of one part causes the rotation of the other part without any contact. The disadvantage of the axial position is that there is a magnetic attraction of the two parts around the axis. This adds to the load on the IABP motor. Another problem is that there is only a relatively low torque transmission then.

In a radial positioning of the magnetic poles, one part of the coupling engages the other from the outside. This results in a considerable need for more space. However, the torque transmission is greater.

Miniaturization using simple geometry

The research team at TU Wien was able to combine the advantages of these two pump variants – as well as achieve an increase in both performance and a reduction in size. The magnetic effect is achieved using a very effective bimetallic sheath. This incorporates two permanent magnets. The advantage is that their magnetic field is constant. In comparison, electromagnets require an additional electrical supply.

The geometrical design ensures that the coupling has both axial and radial components. This approach enables the miniaturization of the IABP. It is a mere five to six millimeters in diameter. At the same time, torque transmission could be boosted by thirty percent compared to conventional pumps of the same size.

As Janeczek notes, the new technology could also be used to reduce the size of existing IABPs. Furthermore, the company is currently exploring whether the pump could also be used in other medical areas, such as lung support.

The miniaturized magnetic coupling has already been patented. The company is now looking for industrial partners in order to bring these into clinical practice.

Intra-aortic balloon pump (c) TU Wien

More details about the miniaturized magnetic coupling can be found here.

Also interesting:

Substance from Edelweiss flower saves heart attack patients

Researchers discover new gene mutation that causes heart muscle disease

Heart Plaster to Improve Contraction after Heart Attack

The influence of contraceptives on cognitive ability

The neurobiologist Belinda Pletzer from the University of Salzburg is researching the psychological effect of the contraceptive pill. She is focusing on the neurobiological effects on the structures inside the brain – and whether these are reversible. She is particularly interested in puberty as one of the most sensitive phases of brain development.

There are about 9000 known studies on health risks and side effects of the pill. In addition to physical symptoms such as weight gain, high blood pressure and thrombosis, the psychological effects have also been studied. Until now, however, only about fifteen studies have explored the influence that the contraceptive pill has on the brain. As she has studied amongst other things biology and psychology, observing the causes of psychological effects on the brain is also an appropriate method for Pletzer.

In her study, the researcher is looking at contraceptives which contain two different active ingredients:

  • Levonorgestrel has androgenic – as in more masculine – effects;
  • Drospirenone has an anti-androgenic – as in more feminine – effect;

Women react very differently emotionally when taking the various birth control pills available. Pletzer adds:

“For some women, using these may cause depressive moods. For others, they have a stabilizing effect. After all, some birth control pills are prescribed for premenstrual syndrome (PMS) as well.”

PMS refers to complex physical and emotional discomfort associated with a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Cognitive tests

The project aims to reveal what distinguishes women who can tolerate the contraceptive pill easily, from women who cannot. It also aims to study how the various contraceptives affect the brain during sensitive periods of the brain’s development, such as puberty.

The tests are carried out using fMRI scans at the Christian Doppler Clinic. The test subjects have to solve various cognitive problems and their scans must be recorded in order to determine whether taking the pill alters the brain structure or brain activity.

The tests are performed before, during and after taking contraceptives. After a contraceptive pill has been discontinued, a check is carried out to see whether the effect is reversible.

Pletzer works at the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience in Salzburg. Her project was awarded a €1.5 million ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council. The exceptional 36-year-old researcher studied biology, psychology, philosophy and mathematics and has two doctorates. She is also the mother of four children. The funding runs for five years and will allow her to conduct a comprehensive study with 300 test subjects.

An interview with Belinda Pletzer:

DDR. Belinda Pletzer , NAWI Salzburg
BRD. Belinda Pletzer, University of Salzburg (c) Andreas Kolarik/Herbert Rohrer

 

Are there any reasons why there are hardly any studies to date on the pill’s effect on the psyche?

When we talk about the psyche, we think about emotional well-being. We have known since the 1960s that the pill has an effect on the psyche. There are also studies on this, but the results are contradictory. Some studies have found an increase in depression, whereas others have shown stabilizing effects on emotional well-being. Both have merit, women have different reactions. These effects have been observed by gynecologists and proven in studies.

I am concerned with the neurobiological structures in the brain – and as of yet there are practically no relevant studies on this. For example, there are studies that examined in group comparisons whether the brain structure of women who take the pill differs from that of those who do not. This is questionable from a methodological point of view. Every person is different.

We are conducting a longitudinal study and comparing the development of women’s brain structure before, during and after use of the pill.

What kind of cognitive tasks do the test subjects have to perform during the tests?

Because there are scarcely any studies in this field, we are trying to cover cognition in as comprehensibly as possible. As a general rule, these are the aspects – spatial, verbal and memory. We test:

  • Navigational ability
  • Working memory
  • Verbal fluency
  • Face recognition ability

For facial recognition, we did a preliminary study wherein we were able to show that facial recognition skills are improved when taking certain types of contraceptive pills. Face recognition has a correlation with the gray mass in the area of the brain responsible for face recognition.

Separately from us, another group looked at brain activity, which is also correlated. The longer women take the pill, the greater its effect.

Face recognition should be included in studies that examined the influence of the contraceptive pill on memory. In fact, and with a considerable amount of circumspection, it could be said that the common denominator among the few available studies is that taking the contraceptive pill seems to slightly improve memory function.

This does not mean that taking the contraceptive pill is either good or bad, but merely that it may have an effect. As every woman reacts differently to using the pill and there are still very few relevant studies, it is not yet possible to make recommendations.

What were the findings on this topic in earlier studies?

Our hypotheses are based on findings concerning the effect of endogenous hormones on the brain. We have looked at a number of brain regions that have consistently responded to hormones in a similar way – across a variety of studies and in different test subjects. When estradiol levels rise, there is more gray matter and more activity in the hippocampus. As the pill usually contains a very strong synthetic estrogen (ethylene estradiol), we can expect a very similar effect. But this still has yet to be proven.

Note: estradiol is a sex hormone and the most effective natural estrogen (estrogen) in comparison with estrone and estriol. It is produced mainly in the ovarian follicles.

Thank you for this interview.

Also of interest:

How the brain distinguishes between voice and sound

Study using AI: men’s and women’s brains are different