Salts shaping ice crystals ?

Well, it looks like it, indeed. Today, we report in PLoS One some very intriguing results, which kept us busy for the last 3 years. I never worked so long on a topic before publishing a paper, by the way.

Okay, some feedback first. My main occupation is this ice-templating thing, using ice the growth of ice crystals to template the porosity in various materials (ceramics, mostly). One of the issue bugging us is that the growth of the ice crystals depends on (too) many parameters. Depending on what you put in your suspension and how you freeze it, you ends up with a variety of unpredictable morphologies. In an ideal world, you want to control the morphology of the ice crystals (and hence of the pores) independently of the other processing parameters, to make your work more predictable and reproducible. So you need to control ice crystals. Easier said than done, though. You need, for instance, a compound that will interact directly with the growing crystals, in order to precisely control the growth of the crystals at the atomic level. And your problems start here. Finding such compound is no easy task.

Many people are interested in controlling ice crystals growth, from engineers to biologists and the food processing industry (ice cream, yummy), to name a few.  A number of living organisms and creatures are also very interested in controlling the growth of ice crystals, such as fishes or insects. Such control is exerted through the so-called antifreeze proteins. A whole family of proteins which can prevent, slow down or retard the growth of ice crystals and thus avoid and/or limit the freezing induced damages. How these proteins interact with the ice crystals is still under debate, and is arguably one of the toughest recognition problem in biology, though it looks like an important part of the puzzle has been solved recently. Antifreeze proteins are nice, but awfully expensive and difficult to extract. Cheap and easily available synthetic compounds are therefore highly desirable. Synthetic compounds have been developed largely based on what we understand about antifreeze proteins. All substances known to date to interact with growing ice crystals have all been macromolecules – proteins, glycoproteins or polysaccharides.

What we’ve found, by complete accident of course, is that a simple salt (zirconium acetate) can exhibit such ice shaping properties. The ice crystals in presence of this salt adopt their equilibrium hexagonal structure. In ice-templated materials, this results in the formation of faceted, hexagonal pores, like the ones below, in comparison to the usual dendritic morphologies.

This is both remarkable and intriguing. Salts have never been shown to have an ice-shaping activity on their own. The ice shaping activity seems very similar to that of antifreeze proteins. We first discovered this three years ago, by accident. And as of today, we still have no explanations of the mechanism by which this salt is controlling the growth of the ice crystals. The safest bet would be the formation of an ice-interacting network, based on the association of the ionic complex formed in suspension by the salt. And yet, we have no clues of this happening so far. We hope that these results will prompt further work from other group to investigate this more thoroughly. If you are interested or have suggestions about what’s going on, keep in touch ! We’d love to hear about it!

You can find the original paper here. PLoS One is open access, so go ahead ad download it for free. It appears that this is the first materials science paper in PLoS One ? Filed in chemistry, though.

UPDATE 10/25/11 The CNRS issued a nice press release about our work. Check it out here.

An extremely portable microscope

Love it.

We’ve also seen lots of physical additions to the iPhone camera. You can get wide-angle lenses, telephotos, and even a 12 xmicroscope lens. But a team of researchers at UC Davis has one-upped the competition by making the iPhone into a 350x microscope for very little money.

The original PLoS One paper is here. I am longing for an integration of something like ImageJ in the iPhone. You would end up with a terrific tool.


Open Access experience

I just submitted my first paper to PLoS One. I’m curious to see how it goes. It turns out that we have some very intriguing results, which could be of interest for many and disparate scientific communities. Combined with my rising interest for open access journals, PLoS One seems to be a perfect fit. There are extremely few (I could not find one, actually) materials science papers in PLoS One, although they are open to any domains of science. This could be the first one, that might be fun. Let’s see.

Computing giants launch free science metrics

Hope for a free alternative to Scopus or WoK ? Will this only be a metrics tool ? If that’s the case, I don’t really care…. What they (Google and MS) need is to improve the accuracy of their database and search tools; I have always found Scopus to be far more accurate and relevant than Google Scholar, so far. I’m curious to see how it evolves.

I was not aware of the Microsoft Academic Search. Materials science is not covered yet, alas.


“I guess I just view myself as a scientist”

In a world where we tend to all become over specialized to defend our own niche, it’s good to hear about people like Erez Lieberman Aiden.  This multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary thing that everybody’s talking about, do you know what I mean ? Well, this kind of people are actually doing it. Fascinating. Reminds me of Peter Lu, also at MIT.

His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in ‘interdisciplinary’ problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines.

In a (scientific) world with such a wealth of information, the problem is indeed not to know everything, but know that the information that might make the difference for you exists. If you keep an eye on apparently disparate problem, you start seeing connexions which can actually make a great difference. And yet, there is very little place for people like this in our systems. Shame. More on his homepage.

Open access comes of age

A confirmation that authors are tired of paying to publishers. The whole article is nevertheless about the increase of open access journals, which I am not sure is a good sign. My personal experience is that I received maybe 15 invitations to publish in new, open access journals, during the past year only. The publishing fee is always the same, in the 500-1000$ range. And curiously, half of these new journals are published by the same publisher. So I tend to agree with one of the comments at the end of the article:

Unfortunately now too many open access journals are mushrooming & publishing low standard papers just by taking money


Because nearly all the must-have journals still charge subscription fees, the rise of the author-pays model actually imposes an extra expense on research funders

If you publish 5 to 10 papers a year in such journals, you clearly need to allocate some funding for it.