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Clean Stuff: the Latest from NOVA's "Making Stuff" Mini-Series

February 4, 2011 - 3:27pm


After yet another Snowpocalypse, everyone’s beginning to think spring. Presumably that includes Punxsutawney Phil, who called for an early one this week . . . even though the groundhog’s home was under a winter weather warning at the time.
David Pogue, host of PBS’ MAKING STUFF series, has also begun to think spring. Specifically, in an episode that aired last Wednesday, the same day Punxsutawney Phil failed to see his shadow (possibly because he doesn’t actually see much of anything . . . or perhaps because few shadows show in blinding snow), Pogue described ways that researchers are Making Stuff: Cleaner.
The episode, the third in Pogue’s four-part series on materials science, focused on the developing science and business of clean energy. For instance, he talked to Vilas Pol, a researcher at the Office of Sciences’ Argonne National Laboratory, who could be said to have taken the advice of the movie The Graduate, “Plastics.” since his work focuses on transforming plastics – say from grocery bags – into carbon nanotubes and spheres, which can then be used in lithium-ion batteries, as well as an array of other applications.

SEM of Carbon Spheres
(Photo credit: Argonne National Laboratory)

Pogue also talked to Jay Keasling, the Chief Executive Officer and Vice President of Fuels Synthesis at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), who is working with genetically modified bacteria that eat plants (biomass) and turn it into fuel. As Keasling noted in the attached video, the same technology can be used to produce the anti-malarial drug artemisinin thereby reducing its price, and increasing its availability, to people in the developing world.

JBEI is one of three Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers established and supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. All three – JBEI, the BioEnergy Science Center led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center led by the University of Wisconsin Madison in partnership with Michigan State University– are working on the scientific breakthroughs needed for practical solutions to the challenge of producing biofuels from nonfood plant fiber. Ideally, since the carbon dioxide emitted when biofuels are burned will be absorbed by the next round of plants grown for fuel, the same amount of carbon that goes in will be the same amount that comes out; a component of what David Pogue called a “zero waste world.”
Many other researchers inside and outside of the Office of Science are taking on the challenge of creating a cleaner world . . . even if they’ll probably never clear out their cluttered offices. For instance, Pogue met with scientists making tires out of orange peels and growing batteries from viruses. And in a real coup, he came across Professor Richard Wool from the University of Delaware, who has found a cheap way to make hydrogen cars potentially safer via charred chicken feathers – a real example of clean energy . . . from fowl fuel.
If you missed Wednesday night’s episode, check your local listings for a re-airing. After all, Making Stuff: Clean will keep you thinking spring . . . at least until the next Snowpocalypse.
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Charles Rousseaux is a Senior Writer in the Office of Science