Powering a personal wireless network with urine

December 15, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
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Researchers at the the Bristol BioEnergy Centre have used miniaturised microbial fuel cells (MFCs) to power a wireless transceiver with urine.

Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) replicate biological processes to generate energy, and researchers at UWE in Bristol have embedded the technology in a pair of socks. The key is that the MFC takes in urine and produces enough energy to power a wireless transceiver, creating a personal area network (PAN) link without having to use batteries.  This is the first self-sufficient system powered by a wearable energy generator based on microbial fuel cell technology and the research paper, ‘Self-sufficient Wireless Transmitter Powered by Foot-pumped Urine Operating Wearable MFC’, is published in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.

The paper describes a lab-based experiment led by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre at the University of the West of England. The Bristol BioEnergy Centre is based in Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a collaborative partnership between UWE and the University of Bristol.

Researchers at UWE have developed socks that convert urine into energy to

power a wireless transceiver for a personal area network without batteries

Soft MFCs embedded within a pair of socks was supplied with fresh urine, circulated by the human operator walking.  Normally, continuous-flow MFCs would rely on a mains powered pump to circulate the urine over the microbial fuel cells, but this experiment relied solely on human activity, which is a key step forward (pun intended). The manual pump was based on a simple fish circulatory system and the action of walking caused the urine to pass over the MFCs and generate energy. Soft tubes, placed under the heels, ensured frequent fluid push–pull by walking. The wearable MFC system successfully ran a wireless transmission board, which was able to send a message every two minutes to the PC-controlled receiver module.

“Having already powered a mobile phone with MFCs using urine as fuel, we wanted to see if we could replicate this success in wearable technology. We also wanted the system to be entirely self-sufficient, running only on human power – using urine as fuel and the action of the foot as the pump,” said Professor Ieropoulos. “This opens up possibilities of using waste for powering portable and wearable electronics. For example, recent research shows it should be possible to develop a system based on wearable MFC technology to transmit a person’s coordinates in an emergency situation. At the same time this would indicate proof of life since the device will only work if the operator‘s urine fuels the MFCs.”

The challenge now is how the MFC cells are refuelled with urine.

Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) use bacteria to generate electricity from waste fluids. They tap into the biochemical energy used for microbial growth and convert it directly into electricity.  This technology can use any form of organic waste and turn it into useful energy without relying on fossil fuels, making this a valuable green technology. Parts of this work were funded by the UK Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The research is important in other areas of robotics as it would allow autonomous systems to generate power from waste materials to operate for days or even months at a time.

New £715K laboratory to advance cell research

July 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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A new £715K laboratory at the University of Bristol aims to equip scientists in the South West with the facilities they need to carry out the latest techniques in cell biology research.

A £715,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation, coupled with significant investment from the University of Bristol, has enabled the refurbishment of space in the University’s School of Medical Sciences to provide a state-of-the art laboratory space for cell biologists.

The facility will house three research teams, led by Professor George Banting, Professor David Stephens and Dr Jon Lane, who share a common interest in understanding the molecular mechanisms that underlie cell function — how the tens of thousands of individual components within a cell work together for the cell to do its job.

Professors Banting and Stephens will use the facility to study how proteins are delivered to the right place(s) within cells, how they are exported from cells, and how cell membranes are organised. This research is fundamental to cell biology as it has implications for a range of disease states as well as for tissue organisation and responses to pathogen (bacterial and viral) infection.

Dr Lane’s lab applies an understanding of membrane and cytoskeletal dynamics to “autophagy” — a process of cellular quality control that is upregulated during cell stress. This process is vital for normal organismal development, but can give rise to degenerative diseases and cancer if it goes wrong.

Professor Leo Brady, Head of the University’s School of Biochemistry said: “Cells are the building blocks of most forms of life. This investment from the Wolfson Foundation helps to keep Bristol at the cutting edge in cell biology research.”

The refurbishment also provides bespoke space for sophisticated microscopy systems that have been purpose built within the Stephens and Lane research groups. These systems complement the excellent imaging equipment available in the nearby Wolfson Bioimaging Facility – this unique facility was funded from a £1 million investment from the Wolfson Foundation and completed in 2008. It is regularly used by around 100 research groups across the University. It is situated is in close proximity on the same floor as the new laboratory space.

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New £3.8m Industrial Doctoral Centre for New Materials in Bristol

June 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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The University of Bristol is to set up a new Industrial Doctorate Centre to provide the composites manufacturing industry with elite research engineers of the future.

The £3.8m IDC will be based at the National Composites Centre, a research centre led by the University of Bristol and industry to provide the composites manufacturing industry with engineers equipped with the necessary advanced technical and leadership skills required for effective adoption of new knowledge and technologies in composites manufacture.

The IDC is integral to the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Composites EPSRC Centre and will support over 30 EngD programmes, each over four years, where selected research engineers will undertake specialist training and conduct an industrially focused research project, spending 75 per cent of their time at a company. The IDC will have access to a complete range of equipment and techniques required for composites manufacturing research. It is open to all UK industry and academia and will eventually offer wide access to its bespoke taught modules.

Ivana Partridge, Director of the IDC, explained that the project demonstrates an urgent and growing need in the UK polymer composites manufacturing sector for greater numbers of technically qualified individuals. She said: “The new IDC fills an existing gap in the provision of industrially focused higher level education in the UK.”The research engineers are expected to encourage joint industry and academia collaboration to a much greater extent than is usual in classical PhD training.”

Professor Michael Wisnom, Director of the University’s Advanced Composites Centre for Innovation and Science ACCIS, said “The new IDC based at the NCC and in industry will focus on applied research at technology readiness level 3-5, and will be highly complementary to the Bristol ACCIS Doctoral Training Centre, where PhD students work on more fundamental research topics at TRL 1-3.”

The IDC is now looking for industrial projects and supervisors to run innovative composites manufacturing projects, providing a commitment of cash support for research engineer training and stipend top-up. Eligible research engineers with an engineering/science background and an interest in industrially focused composites manufacturing research should apply through idc@epsrc-cimc.ac.uk, for a position with a tax-free stipend of £20k pa.

New online mechanism for electric vehicle charging protects the Grid

May 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Researchers at the University of Southampton have designed a new pricing mechanism that could change the way in which electric vehicles are charged. It is based on an online auction protocol that makes it possible to charge electric vehicles without overloading the local electricity network.

The paper –  Online Mechanism Design for Electric Vehicle Charging – was presented this week at AAMAS 2011,  Tenth Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems, and outlines a system where electric vehicle owners use computerised agents to bid for the power to charge the vehicles and also organise time slots when a vehicle is available for charging.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are expected to place a considerable strain on local electricity distribution networks. If many vehicles charge simultaneously, they may overload the local distribution network, so their charging needs to be carefully scheduled,” said Dr Alex Rogers, University of Southampton computer scientist and one of the authors.

To address this issue, Dr Rogers and his team turned to the field of online mechanism design. They designed a mechanism that allows vehicle owners to specify their requirements (for example, when they need the vehicle and how far they expect to drive). The system then automatically schedules charging of the vehicles’ batteries. The mechanism ensures that there is no incentive to ‘game the system’ by reporting that the vehicle is need earlier than is actually the case, and those users who place a higher demand on the system are automatically charged more than those who can wait.

“The mechanism leaves some available units of electricity un-allocated. This is counter-intuitive since it seems to be inefficient but it turns out to be essential to ensure that the vehicle owners don’t have to delay plugging-in or misreport their requirements, in an attempt to get a better deal,” said Dr Enrico Gerding, the lead author of the paper.

In a study based on the performance of currently available electric vehicles, performed by Dr Valentin Robu and Dr Sebastien Stein, the mechanism was shown to increase the number of electric vehicles that can be charged overnight, within a neighbourhood of 200 homes, by as much as 40 per cent.

The research follows on from Dr Rogers’ and Professor Nick Jennings’ work on developing agents that can trade on the stock market and manage crisis communications and Dr Rogers’ iPhone application, GridCarbon for measuring the carbon intensity of the UK grid.

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Bath scientists find ‘switch’ that could help design new vaccines and treatments for auto-immune diseases

May 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Researchers at the University of Bath have determined a new structure of an important complex in the human immune system that could be the key to designing vaccines and treatments for autoimmune diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Dr Jean van den Elsen of the University of Bath and Dr David Isenman of the University of Toronto show how a new understanding of the structure of this immune system complex has important medical implications. An atomic structure of the complex, which is key to the development of immunity against microbial pathogens and a potential target for the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as MS and SLE, was first published in Science in 2001, but it was recently determined to be incorrect by the two researchers.

Dr van den Elsen and Dr Isenman have spent a decade studying the complex and decided to reanalyse its structure to develop a correct understanding of its atomic details. “The research looks at a complex between two proteins, one from the complement system – a part of our innate immune system that is present from the beginnings of our lives – and another from the adaptive immune system,” said Dr van den Elsen. “It has become understood in recent years that the complement system also has a role in ‘kick-starting’ the adaptive immune system – the part of our immune system that reacts to pathogens as we are exposed to them, by developing antibodies.”

The researchers focused on a particular protein, C3, in the complement system and its molecular partner complement receptor 2 (CR2) on the surface of B cells, the antibody producing cells of the adaptive immune system.

C3 breaks down to produce a fragment called C3d when attached to a pathogenic antigen which is then able to act as a ‘bridge’ between the innate and adaptive immune systems by connecting the antigen recognition entity of the B cell (the B cell receptor, BCR) with the complement receptor.

This then boosts the immune system by increasing the production of antibodies that attack the pathogen.

The interaction between C3d and CR2 therefore acts to increase the sensitivity at which a pathogen is recognised and reacted to in the body, which is essential in keeping us healthy from disease.

This characteristic has important implications for the design of new vaccines against diseases caused by microbial pathogens

However, this process can go wrong, with the immune system mistaking a part of the body as a pathogen and attacking it, resulting in an autoimmune disease.

Dr Isenman said: “To treat antibody-mediated autoimmune diseases there is a potential to target the ‘bridging’ action of C3d with CR2, through designing drugs that would inhibit the interaction.

“However, due to the misunderstandings caused by the previous structure of the complex, over the past ten years progress in this field has been delayed.”

The findings will end a decade-long controversy regarding the structure of this important part of the immune system, and marks a turning point in science’s ability to develop treatments for a subset of autoimmune diseases.

Dr van den Elsen said: “The new structure is very different to the previous one, but its features conform to all existing biochemical data.

“With the issues relating to the structure of this complex now resolved we hope to take our research forward and use this as a platform to design inhibitory compounds that may be useful in treating antibody-mediated autoimmune diseases.”

The authors of the current study recognise that this goal will not be easy to achieve and that there is a great deal of research still to be done.

However, this discovery is a key milestone in the development of a treatment for antibody-mediated autoimmune diseases and the structural scaffold on which all future progress is based is now firmly in place.



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£2 million for brain research in Bristol

May 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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A University of Bristol academic has been awarded over £2 million by the Medical Research Council (MRC) to look into the neural network basis of learning, memory and decision-making in health and disease.

The majority of the grant will fund Dr Matt Jones’ MRC Senior Non-clinical Research Fellowship, entitled ‘Control of neuronal networks and cognitive behaviour by deep brain, transcranial and optogenetic stimulation’.

“Your brain is constantly doing sums, weighing-up past experience and the current situation in order to decide how best to behave.  Unfortunately, patients with brain diseases like schizophrenia have trouble coping with these decisions that most of us take for granted.  Electrical activity in different parts of their brains becomes subtly uncoordinated, making it difficult to see the wood for the trees,” said Dr Jones, Senior Research Fellow in the University’s School of Physiology and Pharmacology.

“This project will use stimulation techniques designed to control the brain’s electrical signalling (very carefully – you wouldn’t notice if it was done to you) to see if we can re-coordinate brain activity at important times such as during decisions and therefore improve cognitive performance,” he said.

In a second MRC-funded project led by co-applicants Professors Lawrence Wilkinson, Mike Owen and Mick O’Donovan of Cardiff University, Dr Jones’ lab will contribute to a study of schizophrenia risk genes.  Understanding the genetic basis of the disease is central to designing new therapies.

Dr Jones said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to unite the internationally recognised strengths of Cardiff and Bristol’s geneticists and neuroscientists.  This project evolved from a pilot funded by the Severnside Alliance for Translational Research (SARTRE), and we are delighted that the MRC continues to recognise what hotbed of translational neuroscience Bristol and Cardiff represent.”

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Imaging beauty down to 1nm in Bristol

February 9, 2011 by · 1 Comment
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Scientists at the University of Bristol now have a new tool that will yield yet more and unprecedented levels of information without disturbing the physical state of the object under scrutiny.

Monmorillonite particles, cut apart to reveal that one of them is hollow.

Physicists at Bristol’s Interface Analysis Centre have been using the Helios dualbeam instrument, which “unlocks the key to a whole new world,” says Centre Director Dr Tom Scott. The dualbeam looks at surface structures with a resolution of less than a nanometre – the equivalent of ten millionths of the thickness of a human hair.  The resolution of the images produced is just one nanometre, one millionth of a millimetre.

The dualbeam uses a focused ion beam (FIB) and a high spec field emission scanning electron microscope (SEM) with gallium ions derived from a liquid metal ion source that are directed at the surface in a tightly controlled beam . The ion beam can be precisely controlled to remove material from tightly defined areas – essentially performing micro and even nano-surgery on almost any material.

Unlike other techniques used for dissecting materials, the dualbeam can extract information and capture images without causing any detectable damage except over a tiny area.  It can also deposit materials such as gold and platinum, known for their conductivity, on to the surface structure, providing insights into the composition and behaviour of materials.

For physicists looking for quantum wells, biologists looking at the structure of membranes in the ears of tree crickets, and engineers keen to understand the nanostructure of exotic alloys, the dualbeam is invaluable.

A nano-wire made using ion beam milling for gas sensing applications. It also happens to look like a small-scale version of the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol

“It makes things possible which were previously considered impossible, it’s at the heart of what makes science beautiful,” says Dr Scott.  “It can do things in such a precisely defined way to such a high degree of accuracy that it really is incredible.  In fact, it’s difficult to comprehend just how small a scale this thing works on.”

Some of the project proposals under consideration that would make use of the dualbeam include an examination of the ears of Indian tree crickets, where the dualbeam could be used to slice and view in three dimensions reconstructions of cricket ears.  The findings could ultimately inform medical advancements in hearing devices for humans.

The dualbeam could also be used in quantum cryptography, to devise ways of transmitting messages in a way that is resistant to attempts to tap into the source, using emitters constructed from a single photonic light source so small and so intricately encoded as to be virtually undetectable.

In biochemistry, researchers are looking at making actuators – “gold sandwiches” with a polymer filling which could swim through the bloodstream, collecting information that could be used to inform medical approaches to human disease.

Dr Scott is keen to seek out other collaborations that will test the boundaries of every discipline:  “The dualbeam instrument is a clear example of the University’s commitment to groundbreaking developments in research,” he said. “If we are going to be the leaders in the UK and internationally in terms of research we need to be pushing the boundaries of what is technically possible, and this new piece of equipment will certainly enable us to do that.”

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Bath’s ‘green’ buildings in £8m TSB study

February 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Two of the University of Bath’s innovative buildings are to be tested for their green credentials.

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is funding a total of 17 developments in the first phase of a four-year, £8m programme that aims to help the construction industry as a whole to better understand the performance of different building types, design strategies, construction methods and occupancy patterns, and the relative contribution of various factors to the eventual performance of the buildings.

Dr Andy Shea, from the University’s Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, will be undertaking an in-depth, two-year study of the buildings within his research group BRE Centre for Innovative Construction Materials. “This research will allow us to look in very fine detail at exactly how each of the buildings is performing,” he said. “Typically there is a significant difference between the calculated environmental standard of a building on paper and that achieved once a development is in use. This research will be enormously helpful in not only advising the University of any changes that could be made to the two buildings, but also in providing the industry as a whole with information that can be applied to future developments.”

The research will involve a team of people examining in detail the exact way both buildings are used, the functions performed in them and the equipment used.

“The findings of our research into energy consumption and building usage of Woodland Court will be quite unique and have the potential for impacting on student accommodation design across the country,” said Dr Shea.

Research at the University of Bath will begin in April and continue for two years

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Bristol opens new £2m research data centre

February 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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‘BluePeta’ to safeguard research data

Bristol University has worked with IBM to develop a £2m data facility that holds approximately one petabyte of information — the equivalent of 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text or 13.3 years worth of HD-video footage. The ‘BluePeta’ project is to safeguard the research data assets of the University, which is one of the first higher education institutions in the UK to install a high-capacity data storage facility on this scale.

BluePeta has been specifically designed for the University through a collaboration with technology suppliers SCC and IBM in response to the increasing volumes of research data being created and the need to curate this information securely over the long term.  The facility will enable researchers from a wide range of disciplines to improve the security and efficiency with which their data is accessed, stored and retrieved.

“Bristol is a leading research-intensive university and our academics are involved in some of the world’s most challenging and groundbreaking research,” said Professor Guy Orpen, Pro Vice Chancellor for Research at the University. “The data we generate is fundamental to our operation. We have invested substantially in an enterprise-grade storage solution which will ensure the knowledge our researchers create is preserved in a resilient, cost-effective, scalable and secure environment.”

Users of BluePeta will come from all disciplines, from scientists working on aspects of climate change to physicists using the Large Hadron Collider. The facility will also be used by arts and social sciences researchers who need to archive images, video files and datasets.

Research funding bodies are increasingly asking universities to retain research data to allow its use, reuse and repurposing over the long term,” said Dr Ian Stewart, Director of the University’s Advanced Computing Research Centre. “BluePeta allows this process to take place in a central and secure environment, enabling researchers to maintain data integrity — the accuracy and consistency with which they store their data.”

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