SciTech Now Episode 343

In this episode of SciTech Now, a competition called CineSpace invites filmmakers to create original short films using footage from NASA; a look into the cybersecurity issues of 3D printing; a day in the life of a chemist; and saving California Condors.


[ Theme music plays ]

Coming up, creating films with the help of NASA...

The whole cool thing about this was being able to incorporate this great history of NASA and all this archival imagery they have, whether it's photography or video.

...the cyber risks of 3-D printing...

Stealing of those designs can be very expensive for companies that lose the intellectual property.

...a day in the life of a chemist...

Chemistry is literally everything.

Like, you are made of chemistry.

...saving one of the rarest birds on Earth.

To send them off, and to know that they're free flying, that's why we do this program.

That's my favorite part of it.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

The Houston Cinema Arts Festival holds a competition called CineSpace, in which filmmakers from across the country create original short films using footage from NASA.

Last year, one of the top entries was directed by a creative mind from Space City itself.

Take a look.


There is no real-life sci-fi better than NASA.

As a kid, I loved science-fiction movies, stories, exploration.

Anything to do with robots and different planets and different worlds, I was fascinated with.

[ Static ] To be an adult and be able to kind of still dabble in that genre, and to develop these kind of 'What if?' concept stories is a lot of fun.

HAM-1, You have exactly 10 minutes to final marker.

I got into filmmaking about 10 years ago.

Digital filmmaking really was a huge game changer.

Going from film to digital made what I thought years ago was gonna be kind of impossible to do much more affordable.

So, when the CineSpace film festival came up, I thought, 'Oh, this is a great opportunity to try and do something NASA-related.'

That's the whole cool thing about this, was being able to incorporate this great history of NASA and all this archival imagery they have, whether it's photography or video, into a project and develop a story.

It's like being a kid.

You know, you get to play like you're in space.

You know, if we can't go up there, at least it's the next best thing.

It's a 12-minute film.

The process for the entire project was five months.

And so what we did is, we start initially with research and developing a story line.

Today would have been my mother's 50th birthday.

So, I wanted to create a film that had an international flair to it, an international feel.

Uju Edoziem, the actress that plays Anuli in our film, and she is from Nigeria.

So I immediately got that connection going.

And then we knew that we wanted to do something based on water.

Water is life, and it was a really nice continuing theme throughout.

Even out here, so far from Earth, I still carry a piece of home with me.

But the post-production was what took a long time.

It was about three months of just post-production work.

Everything that's happened in my life has led to this moment.

'Cause we're taking this NASA imagery and integrating it into the story.

And one of the things we had a challenge was finding 4K-resolution footage to use.

And we couldn't find a lot of that, so we used a lot of photography.

There are about 50 shots in the film that are visual-effects shots based on some type of NASA imagery.

About 30 of those shots are based on photography, and 20 are based on video footage.

We took Space Station imagery and then just built our own International Space Station Mars off of that, 'cause we figured it would not be the same space station, necessarily.

The non-linear editing software is just tremendous for doing these films.

It's a great way to create big-scale-looking films for very little money.

I didn't think there would be a whole lot of music in this initially, but for this it was that element that really tied it together.

6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0.

There is that sense of wonder and excitement that comes with space exploration.

The discovery of water on Mars, that was in our film before that was ever announced.

Which is kind of neat.

And the exploration of Mars by mankind has just been announced this September.

So much research, so much stuff that went into the story, it enlightened me more, and got me more excited about NASA again.

3-D printing is pervasive across many industries, from medical to automotive to aviation to tech, and more.

But are there security risks associated with 3-D printing?

Can 3-D printers be hacked?

Here to discuss the cybersecurity issues of 3-D printing is Nikhil Gupta, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at New York University.

We're hearing that 3-D printers are going to become something that we might even have at the corner drugstore, or even in our own homes in the future.

So, what's the risk of hacking if it's just a small plastic part that I'm building?

It's really not the small plastic part.

But a lot of industrial parts have a lot of development time that goes into it.

So these are high-value parts.

And 3-D printed parts are now flying on space stations, they are making the space flights possible.

Automotive companies are using them to design new heat exchangers, new types of forms are being designed.

So these are high-value parts where a lot of engineering goes in, so stealing of those designs can be very expensive for companies that lose the intellectual property.

So, what about the idea of just modifying a design without your knowledge?

You've got a few different examples here.


So, what we are trying to do is we are trying to say that... Cybersecurity is a very difficult field.

You know, security has been breached for even the most protected assets.

So our idea is that, once the designs are stolen, there's nothing in the design that stops it from being printed by the people who steal it.

And in hardware sector, the problem is that the design of a component remains the same for many, many years.


So, once it is stolen, people can re-create the entire system based on just a few parts' design.

So, that's the idea that, how do you protect these designs not just from being copied by people for unauthorized sale, but also from re-creating these high-value components like jet engines or space-shuttle parts?

Right now, is there an instruction for the printer to say which direction something should be printed or painted?

Not exactly.

A lot of times, what people do is they put a lot of these components on build plates so that they can make the optimized use of these build plates and keep the cost low.

But what we have seen is that the print orientation actually makes a big difference in the properties of these printed parts.

So, I mean, when we think of printers, and landscape versus portrait mode, right -- how your résumé's gonna look or whatever.

But in your examples here, it can make a big difference.

Yeah, it can make a big difference.

And we have shown that this difference can be up to 20% to 30% in the strength of these parts.

Or you could get two different parts altogether.

So, the first couple pieces that you had on the left, there?

So, in this case, what we have done is we have incorporated some design features.

And these bars are printed exactly from the same CAD file.

And if I flip it over, you can see that this one part in my right hand, it's solid from the back side, but this part in my left hand is hollow from both sides.

So if you don't do the printing correctly, you can end up with something that is completely different from the design intention.

And that means that the part in the left hand was much weaker.

It's much weaker, and it will fail very quickly.

How do you secure 3-D printing design files?

So, when I showed this example, that they are printed from exactly the same file, what we have is a security feature in this design file.

So if you know exactly how to process this file, and in which orientation you should print it, you will get this high-quality part which is solid from the back side.

But there are numerous other combinations of printing process that will give you a defective part like this.

And it will not function the way it was intended.

So, really, the design is part of the encryption or the coding.


Just knowing exactly which direction, which way to print it is a way to protect it so that the person who's trying to steal a part, they're gonna print it incorrectly.


So, in companies, mostly mechanical designers are not much worried about cybersecurity, and that's where we are trying to run a campaign to make sure that people understand that the cybersecurity runs into the design stream.

It is not a job only for cybersecurity professionals.

Nikhil Gupta, NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you very much.

I appreciate it.

[ Theme music plays ] [ Computer keys clacking ]

Chemistry surrounds us, whether we know it or not.

In fact, human beings are actually made of chemistry.

But what does that mean, and what do chemists really do?

Up next, we go inside the lab with two chemists to find some answers.


When you're in the STEM field, you can continue to push boundaries.

And I think that that's what is really intriguing about the entire field as a whole.

Chemistry is literally everything.

Like, you are made of chemistry.

And, you know, the water you drink is chemistry.

So it's in every industry that you could possibly think of.

I am one of those people that will stand in the grocery store and read all of the ingredients on the back of my shampoo.

You can't help but notice it in your daily life when you have bulk chemicals in front of you every day.

I was always that girl getting dirty, playing with lots of stuff, looking at bugs, all that.

So it's kind of been one of those things that, ever since I could go do it, I was in it.

PVS Nolwood is based out of Detroit, Michigan.

We're a chemical distributor, so the operations that happen have a lot of varied things.

We have a lot of shipping and receiving.

We'll bring in already-packaged materials from different suppliers, and those will get warehoused on the floor so that we're able to ship them to other customers.

We have a lot of breaking bulk, so we bring in bulk chemicals in railcars and tank trucks, and that'll get broken down into what we call tote bins or drums or smaller containers that our customers can manage.

When I came upon this position, it was an opportunity to be a problem solver.

We deal with a very large variety of customers.

You talk about a customer who originally started providing chemicals that, now, when you look back, are not approved.

They're not safe for humans.

And as regulatory things evolve, you find ways to remove those chemicals out of the environment and replace it with safer chemicals.

And so one kind of common goal or common question that comes from those types of industries is that, 'Okay, listen, I want to take these chemicals that are now considered unsafe, I want to remove them, and I want to bring something safer, to not only an industrial setting, but maybe an institutional setting, or right to our tables at home that we're cleaning from.'

And so you get that opportunity to work with the customers and find the best fit.

Every day is different.

Whether I am out on the floor working with operators, or if I'm working with admin or customers or salespeople, every day presents a different challenge.

And that keeps it interesting, because you're looking at different aspects of the business that you're in and how it impacts other businesses.

PVS Nolwood has a very diverse line of chemicals, and so the opportunity to even be a part of working with a diverse line of chemicals is always fun.

But the most important thing is that it's done safely.

There's a team on board that brings in chemicals, puts the chemicals and organizes them together.

There's blending going on.

There's people working internally on paperwork, there's people working internally on a lab, there's people calling vendors.

I mean, it's a full working unit.

And when you see everybody working together, the job gets done.

It's very rewarding, mainly because you're working as a team.

PVS has a very family feel to the organization.

And so when you're able to pull different people from their different jobs and help everyone see how their pieces come together in a process to get things out the door, and hopefully making things more efficient and keeping everyone safe... When they have kind of that 'Wow' moment of what the full process is, that's really kind of impactful when you're kind of managing.

It's extremely rewarding.

And, honestly, you build relationships and friendships throughout the journey.

I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe in chemistry, and in the chemicals that we have here, and the service that it is to our customers and to kind of everyone in the community.

[ Computer keys clacking ]

In the early 1980s, the California condor population dwindled to fewer than two dozen worldwide.

The greatest-known killer of these highly endangered birds is lead poisoning caused by ingesting small amounts of lead from decaying animals killed by lead bullets.

New efforts are now underway to once again try to save the condor.

Our environmental reporting partner EarthFix has the story.

Cradled under a soft, simple towel, Kelli Walker holds one of the rarest animals anywhere.

In fact, one of the last of its kind on the planet.

Come over and grab his legs.

Please. Thank you.

With luck and a lot of hard work, it could grow up to have a 10-foot wingspan...

She's just getting her primaries in.

...and join the largest land birds in North America -- the California condor.

The first time we actually get our hands on those chicks is at 30 to 45 days old, when they have to get their West Nile virus shots, some blood drawn.

We put it in DNA sexing so we know if it's a male or a female.

If everything goes right, that frightened gray face will grow up bright and multicolor.

But still just as bald.

It's colorful, and it changes colors, and you can read so much about their attitude.

They are pretty.

They're much prettier than turkey vultures.

These magnificent scavengers used to fly and live along the Columbia River not that long ago.

We know this from Lewis and Clark's journals -- the sketch and descriptions they made of the 'buzzards of the Columbia.'

Now the only condors in Oregon reside inside large cages.

The Oregon Zoo has built a facility in rural Clackamas County for one purpose -- to breed condors in captivity.

Its goal is not to raise them for zoos.

He's hefty.

Condors here are destined to be released into the wild, so they want as little human contact with them as possible.

Kelli Walker is the senior condor keeper.

It's very unpleasant for them, which it should be.

It's scary.

But we like to see that reaction.

You want any wild animal to fear people.

Close-up exams are rare.

Most of the times, keepers remain invisible, hiding behind one-way glass, peeking through peepholes, or relying on remote-control cameras to see how the condors are doing.

It's a gang.

It is a gang.

The Oregon Zoo is one of four facilities in the national effort to breed condors to bring them back from the edge of extinction.

Truly the very brink.

In the late '80s, their population had plunged to just 22 birds left in the entire world.

In a last-ditch effort, federal biologists captured every last one of them in the Southwest to keep the species alive.

Captive breeding is bringing them back.

Yeah, you started out with 22, and now you're almost at 400.

Still a very limited population, but that's pretty phenomenal in itself.

To send them off, and to know that they're free flying, that's why we do this program.

That's my favorite part about it.

This project would be a success if it was a self-sustaining population, but it's not, because they're being poisoned.

Despite so many successful released, condors continue to die prematurely.

They're eating lead.

That is the primary and almost only problem in this program, is the lead.

1/4 of the birds raised at the Oregon Zoo and then released have perished, most of them from acute lead poisoning.

It only takes a tiny, tiny bit of lead to affect these birds.

It's the biggest issue The highest mortality is from lead ammunition in condors, by far.

The National Rifle Association disputes that bullets from hunting game can be linked to the condor deaths.

But a study released in 2012 from the University of California found that lead swallowed by condors had to come from bullets based on identical matches detectable at the molecular level.

For the blood from this bird, that ratio of those four isotopes look exactly like the ratio in this fragment.


The vast majority of cases, all of the birds that are lead poisoned, their lead fingerprint looks exactly like the lead fingerprint from lead-based ammunition.

It's not that the condors are being shot.

It's what they eat -- the gut piles that hunters leave behind after killing and cleaning their game.

For scavengers, it's the perfect meal.

Hunters are actually great for condors.

Hunters are fantastic.

It provides a food source.

It's awesome.

So if it wasn't tainted with lead, it'd be fantastic.

Deaths from lead poisoning have become such a problem that conservation teams in California put out food for the wild condors now flying free to ensure they get clean meat.

But it's not enough.

They can fly over 150 miles in a day and still feed on lead-tainted animals.

Then biologists have to lure the condors back in with food and re-capture the birds.

They take them to the Los Angeles Zoo, where they get nearly a week of treatments for lead poisoning.

Have we pulled fragments from birds that ended up being lead ammunition?

Yeah, plenty of them.

Have birds regurgitated fragments that, after they were analyzed, turned out to be ammunition?

Yeah, we have all of those things.

No way would we have imagined that we'd be taking care of 15 birds at a time that are wild, that are just coming in because of lead toxicity.

Mike Clark at the L.A. Zoo told the filmmaker of 'Shadow of the Condor' that they cleanse their blood of the toxins, but they never manage to get the lead levels to completely disappear.

We can't keep doing this.

There's no end in sight until there's no lead.

I don't think most people understand that.

You know, that it's that critical.

[ Gunshots ]

How many times should your bullet kill, you know?

It should kill once.

It should kill the animal you're trying to kill, and never kill anything beyond that.

And that's kind of what we're going for here.

The Yurok Tribe of Northern California has revered the condor for centuries.

It would like hunters to change from lead to non-lead ammunition.

So it brought rifles, free ammo, and a shooting demonstration to Grants Pass to encourage hunters to switch to non-lead bullets voluntarily.

...copper, or whatever are non-lead...

A lot of them come out thinking that we're a bunch of bunny-huggers.


Loaded and ready.

And when they realize that all of us are hunters, as well... [ Gunshot ] ...and that there is something behind this, and they talk to us about hunting, and they talk to us about firearms and they get that, then they start opening up a little bit more.

I can't afford $30 or $40 for a box, so...

Copper bullets often cost 40% to 50% more than lead ones.

So the tribe offered a free trade out -- lead for non-lead.

Cool. Deal?

So there you are.

Barnes 30-06 and Barnes 223.

Hey, thank you very much.

Thank you.

Just was a great deal to come and make an exchange.

But what these hunters really wanted to demonstrate was what happens when bullets hit their target.

[ Gunshot ] A barrel full of water jugs stops the bullet and makes it easy to see what's left behind.

There's the bullet.


I'm not seeing any fragments yet.

The copper bullet comes out in one piece...

Here's the main mass.

...the lead ammo in hundreds.

So, if you guys want to all take a look in there... When you pull everything out of there and you look in, and you see the entire bottom of the barrel strewn with tiny fragments of lead, just like a gray sand scattered across the bottom of the barrel.


I see a lot of lead.

A lot of fragments, yeah.

We pour it out and we filter it through coffee filter, and then you can take that and you can weigh it.

Tilt it a little more.

Okay, that's about everything right there.

That's it?

Here's what's left of our lead bullet.

Shattered copper casing and just lead everywhere.

If that's not enough to convince the skeptics, they fire again... [ Gunshot ] ...into a slab of gelatin, which mimics the muscle tissue of big game.

The lead bullet explodes, leaving a long, visible trail of fragments.

Those fragments can spread out through the animal, away from the wound channel, and taint the carcass.

It can taint the meat that a hunter eats, and it can also taint the gut pile if the hunter shoots into the vitals.

Are you concerned about lead in the meat?

No. No, I spit it out whenever I find it, every once in a while.

[ Laughter ]

Well, it's interesting.

I think it's worth looking into.

I think it's gonna be the future, whether we're prepared or not.

You know, I just think it's environmentally a better idea to use non-lead.

There is a pretty powerful lobby pushing against change in the ammunition industry.

Copper is relatively new.

Most people don't know that much about it.

And in the hunting community, tradition is a big thing.

When hunting waterfowl, lead shot is already banned nationwide.

As for bullets, California has banned hunting game with lead ammunition in the region where condors are released.

The NRA condemns lead-bullet bans as anti-hunting.

In Oregon, hunters can shoot game with anything.

There are no restrictions, and the state has none planned.

Try that.

The Oregon Zoo takes no position on the ammunition, knowing it's a political hot potato.

But zoo Curator of Birds Michael Illig says lead bullets are the prime reason why the condors raised in Oregon are never released here, in their historic native range.

It's not gonna be logical to release them until we have a handle on the lead.

It's a shame, yeah.

But we're hopeful that we'll have this project long enough that they will see them released here.

There is little doubt that condors would be extinct if an immense, collective national effort had not orchestrated their salvation.

More than 400 are free again.

But they still get so much help from humans it's hard to call them wild.

We know that the field crews are doing their darndest not to let anybody die of lead.

So... But we know they're going to.

We're just losing too many of them, or having to treat too many of them.

So if we could stop doing that, the program would be a success.

You just keep fighting the good fight.

What else are you gonna do?

You wish them luck, and let them go.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪