SciTech Now Episode 344

In this episode of SciTech Now, a look into a technological innovation that has evolved to transform the timber industry; Science Reporter Dave Mosher speaks about his experience inside a nuclear reactor; a regenerative medicine repairs damaged tissues and organs; and an architect’s plans to re-envision the future of the Houston Astrodome.

TRANSCRIPT

[ Theme music plays ] ♪♪

Coming up... timber technology...

The fact that a chainsaw now becomes a lot cheaper and a lot more easy to manufacture has to do with this new industrial infrastructure created as a consequence of the war.

...nuclear batteries for NASA's most adventurous spacecraft...

We made a nuclear-powered rocket engine.

It worked. It worked great.

It was twice as efficient as chemical rockets and is still twice as efficient.

...military medicine's new frontier...

So, this is actually a 3-D-printed nose scaffold.

...the future of a famous stadium.

So I thought, 'Well, let's remove the exterior envelope and celebrate the structure.'

But then you have this kind of problem where, 'What do you do with that?'

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.

In the forests of the Northwestern United States, one technological innovation has greatly impacted the logging industry -- the chainsaw.

Up next, our environmental-reporting partner, EarthFix, looks at how this mechanical tool evolved to transform the timber industry.

Take a look.

The chainsaw.

[ Chainsaw buzzing ] The most iconic modern symbol of logging.

But it wasn't always the case.

For a century in the Northwest, men in the woods labored with axes and handsaws, launching a massive industry.

The timber brought capital.

The timber brought a transportation network.

Timber brought people.

The beginning of the Northwest as a region had everything to do with timber.

But cutting and preparing trees for transport to the mills was slow, needing large crews.

As demand grew, companies quickly cut through all the easy-to-access forests.

Timber bosses looked to innovation to move deeper into the woods and speed up the cut.

But it took a great war to push the iconic chainsaw into the hands of the Northwest logger.

[ '40s-era big band plays ]

We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin.

The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President Roosevelt has just announced.

The war and the chainsaw set the industry up for the largest timber harvest in modern U.S.

history.

Timber was a major commodity of war.

Wood was needed for every aspect of the war effort -- for airplanes and hangars... barracks and buildings... trucks, bridges... warships and barges... and shipping crates.

The acute need for wood prompted the United States to exempt loggers from the draft.

A timber-industry workforce that was decimated by the Great Depression suddenly had more work than it could handle but still some of the most clunky and rudimentary tools available to get the job done.

At Wayne's Sutton's Chainsaw Museum, the entire history of the saw is on display.

If you were talking the chainsaws prior to the war, you would be someplace where they had typically an electric machine, they had big generators mounted on crawlers or tractors of some sort, and the cords were the size of a garden hose.

These were two-man monstrosities, and there was some hesitation on the part of loggers to take them on.

One of the things they complained about was the noise.

The early chainsaws were loud, they were nasty, they spit oil, they spit gas.

But the war helped change that mentality.

And those people that went into the war, the young guys, came off of farms.

They've been working with horses and many of them -- very little knowledge of equipment, machines.

But when the war came along, they were exposed to other kinds of equipment beyond what their wildest dreams were.

Some men were even given chainsaws to use in the war effort, clearing paths through European and Asian forests for troops and equipment.

At the request of the military, a small Wisconsin company called Mercury built that saw using a German saw as a model.

They went into the civilian market as soon as the war was over, and he sold piles of them.

The technology and manufacturing capacity was improving because of the war effort.

The two-man chainsaws were giving way to lighter, one-man versions, thanks to the development of aluminum and magnesium alloys -- strong, light materials.

But the fact that a chainsaw now becomes a lot cheaper and a lot more easy to manufacture has to do with this new industrial infrastructure created as a consequence of the war.

With a trained workforce, the chainsaw, and other technology, the timber industry was primed and prepared for the postwar economic boom.

Paul Skirvin had been too young to enlist, but when World War II ended, he started a logging company that was in business for a half-century.

He got his first chainsaw in the late 1940s.

Doing it this way, you got tired.

The sweat rolled off, too.

[ Laughs ] After you got a power saw, man, just zip it a lot faster -- 10, 5, 8 times faster.

The timber boom was huge in the prosperity that followed the war.

Some businesses are moving to the low-rent outskirts... and so are families which can afford houses in the country.

They hollered about progress, you know, but they kept building more houses, and you had to keep producing more 'cause they'd build more houses.

And the saws come into existence, well, man, it made you even more productive.

Yeah, you could do a lot more, shorter length of time.

Billions of board-feet were being cut from Northwest forests.

If you live in a house made in the 1950s, 1960s, could almost guarantee it's Washington or Oregon lumber that built that house.

And those forests have paid an ecological price for the heavy harvest of the postwar era.

Fish and wildlife habitat was decimated.

By the mid 1990s, as much as 90% of old-growth forests were gone.

Now the cut is lower and much more regulated.

As a result, an industry that transformed itself with the chainsaw is once again looking to technology to adapt to new environmental expectations.

And there's still room for newcomers to make their mark.

Matt Hegerberg is the newest generation of logger.

Essentially, what we do are the more sensitive and more difficult jobs.

These thinning, restoration, and fire-treatment jobs are available, and it's innovative equipment that makes his business work.

Because we do deal with smaller timber, we aren't dealing with great, big trees with no limbs on them.

It takes a lot of work to get the volume.

One man can cut down a tree in just a few seconds, then it only takes a few more to shear off the limbs and cut it to length.

But, still, it's a man with a chainsaw that's called in when the ground is too steep, the brush is too thick, or the ecosystem too fragile for large machines.

It plays a very important role in what we do.

We keep one in every single one of our pickups.

We use them almost daily.

And even today, when logging is more hands-off than ever before, no self-respecting logger would go to a jobsite without a chainsaw in tow.

♪♪ [ Keyboard clacking ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪

That's a very interesting question.

Currently, there's a debate about how many planets there are in our solar system, but that's because we're not entirely sure what to call a planet.

Generally, we think of a planet as something that is large enough that its gravity has made it into a spherical shape, like the Earth or the moon, but that is orbiting the sun and not orbiting another planet.

By that definition, there are literally hundreds of planets that have been discovered so far, and we'll probably discover more, but all of those additional planets that we'll discover are what we would now call 'dwarf planets.'

So we have the main planets -- Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune -- and then dwarf planets such as Pluto and Ceres.

♪♪

Dave Mosher is a science reporter who has written for newsanddiscovery.com.

Throughout his career, he's watched humans and robots launch into space, flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse, and toured a cutting-edge nuclear reactor.

He joins me now to discuss firsthand experience inside a nuclear reactor.

Most people don't know that we were decommissioning one or we had one to decommission.

Yeah, so, this is actually -- it's sort of a side tour to what I was actually going out to, NASA Glenn, which is in Cleveland, Ohio.

But NASA had a nuclear reactor -- its first, last, and only nuclear reactor.

It was called the Plum Brook facility.

And that's where they were investigating nuclear-powered rocket propulsion.

And it's funny because nuclear is so tied into the space race.

You know, you think about nuclear weapons, I mean, the reason we got to the moon is because we wanted to also have the ability to annihilate our opponents with nuclear weapons.

So there's a very strong parallel between those things.

So NASA built this facility to test nuclear-powered flight, or the principles of it, and, as part of that story, that lab also works with nuclear batteries -- you know, radioisotope power supplies, as they call them, or RPSs.

So, how far did we get in this pursuit of nuclear-powered rocket propulsion?

So, this is the earlier thread of NASA's sort of tie-in with nuclear.

And we got very far.

We made a nuclear-powered rocket engine.

It worked. It worked great.

It was twice as efficient as chemical rockets and is still twice as efficient.

And it would be a fantastic technology to travel through space with.

The problem is people are very spooked about nuclear technology.

They don't quite understand it.

It's very complex.

You know, I've been spent many days trying to understand it myself.

So we kind of petered out in, I think, the '60s, maybe early '70s, and that program was shut down.

What NASA has done now is they've transitioned to these radioisotope power supplies, which are nuclear batteries.

They don't like that term, but it's plutonium-238 from the Cold War.

This is a byproduct.

They put it in this heat-to-electric sort of device.

They put it on the spacecraft, and then you can have something last for 40 years in deep space.

That's how we have Voyager.

That's how we have Pioneer.

That's how we Cassini, which is still around Saturn.

And what is the facility like that they were decommissioning?

So, the facility they were decommissioning and the program that they were tying into was called NERVA.

I can't remember the exact acronym for that.

But it was very hollowed out by the time I got there.

They had ripped out all the display panels, all the reactor equipment itself because it was radioactive from years of use.

And it takes a very long time to scan every square inch of a facility like this, determine whether or not it can be put in a landfill or it needs to be casked and put into a mountain or a salt mine or something.

So it was very empty and very eerie-looking.

They were just about ready to tear it down, but I had the opportunity to tour this facility and see how they moved material from one part to the other and how they were exploring this idea of making a nuclear-powered rocket.

And people used to work there once.

Yeah.

There's really great archival photos, and that's part of the work I did for was showing, 'Okay, here's what it looks like now, and here's what it used to look like at its heyday when they were researching this technology.'

And there are some out there who still believe that we should pursue this.

Mm-hmm.

You just run hydrogen through a nuclear core, it gets really hot, and it blows out of a rocket engine.

And it makes a really efficient power source.

But, of course, the risk is you're putting uranium or plutonium or whatever you want to use for that nuclear core on a rocket, and rockets can blow up.

Rockets can re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, and so that's a risk.

And not to mention the humans that might be sitting on top of the rocket, trying to get somewhere, if that explosion happened, along with all the humans for several miles around them, right?

That's right.

So, is there a sense in the people who guided you from this tour -- I mean, are they kind of sad that it's over?

Or this is just part of doing business?

This is the -- I mean, I think they must have had some sort of a 'hall pass' from the nuclear agencies to be able to have this place running, right?

Yeah, so, I think that there's definitely a lot of pride about the facility.

It worked, you know?

They broke a lot of ground.

They provided the basic science that allowed them to actually build and engineer a rocket-engine system that worked.

So there was a lot of pride from the people who were touring me around.

There's also a sort of disconnect, too, because it was back in the '50s and '60s and just its heyday had come and gone.

And so... But there was a sense that, 'Yeah, you know, we should --' This is still a really good technology, and it still works, and it's still one of the most efficient ways we can get into space.

Obviously, there are companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, who are trying to figure out reusable rockets.

But in terms of deep-space travel, nuclear is a pretty good way to get to Mars and back without spending years and years stuck inside of, you know, a living-room-sized spacecraft.

[ Chuckles ] Dave Mosher.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Imagine a world where doctors could repair damaged tissues or organs with a patient's very own cells.

Well, one laboratory in North Carolina is working on just that with support from the United States military.

Up next, a look at the groundbreaking science of regenerative medicine from the PBS documentary film 'Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield.'

♪♪

Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in these laboratories at Wake Forest University, scientists have discovered how to grow new human organs and tissues outside the human body.

It's a breakthrough in regenerative medicine.

You know, so, this is a bio-printed ear scaffold that you see here and...

Dr. Anthony Atala, the lab's director, and his teams, are working on more than two dozen bioengineered tissues and organs and building these kidney... ear... and nose-shaped structures.

So, this is actually a 3-D-printed nose scaffold that we would use basically to re-create the shape as we print these structures.

Atala's first scaffold, or framework, was for a human bladder.

We go to the patient, and we take a very small piece of tissue from the deceased or injured organ.

We then grow and expand those cells outside the body.

Once we have enough cells for our construct, we create a three-dimensional mold that is shaped like the organ, and we place this in an incubator which has the same conditions as the human body, let it cook, if you will, and then we take it out and implant it surgically back into the patient.

So far, Atala has successfully implanted 20 regenerated bladders as part of a clinical trial.

Other organs are not advanced enough for a human transplant.

♪♪ To build more complex organs, researchers here are experimented with bio-printing.

Instead of ink, cells from a patient are combined with a biodegradable polymer, making a gel-like substance that is slowly layered until a regenerated tissue or organ, like this simulated piece of jawbone, emerges.

Basically, when we print these structures, we actually are printing both the cells and the materials together.

So then what happens is that the cells themselves start taking over the material.

And as the material goes away -- 'cause these are all resorbable -- then the cells take over and form the new tissue.

The Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, established in 2008, funds much of the research here to find new ways to treat battlefield injuries and perhaps to save lives by reducing the need for organ transplants.

How can we actually generate new skin?

How can we actually make sure that we can cover our wounded warriors that get burns?

All these challenges that appear because of our wounded warriors lead then to studies that aim to replace and regenerate and heal those tissues as much as we can.

To see the full documentary, 'Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield,' visit pbs.org/militarymedicine.

[ Keyboard clacking ] ♪♪ ♪♪

I'm 'Zz.'

I'm a vice president at ROKO Labs, and I work on product and marketing.

I'm Samantha Nasser, and I'm the Head of Client Development at ROKO Labs.

ROKO Labs started out as a development shop, and then we created a suite of SDKs which we were using for our internal clients, and we decided to 'productize' them.

And then, last fall, we came up with this idea called InstaBot.

And so we've sort of pivoted from a dev shop into becoming a chatbot designer and creator platform.

Chatbot can mean a lot of different things, actually, and it's, I think, a swiftly moving landscape.

So it could be Amazon Alexa, which is an audio chatbot.

It can be KanyeBot, which is on Facebook so you can pretend to talk to Kanye.

But our chatbot helps make apps better, so it's a chatbot that fits inside a mobile or web application in 30 minutes or less.

And it allows you to leverage the data you already get, it makes it more powerful, and it becomes a 'choose your own adventure' story.

So you gather feedback from users, and then you push them through your app differently, based upon their choices.

So, we're primarily working with companies that have an existing platform and are struggling with different pain points like, for example, onboarding users and not understanding why people fall off at certain phases.

So we want to work with people that have some kind of platform and want to be able to communicate with their users about those problems.

Mm-hmm.

And that could be anything from a really small developer to a large company.

We're talking to people who are giant content providers to apps that you use all the time for maybe transportation to e-commerce people, so it can really range, I would say.

Like, everybody has these problems so...

We came up with the idea for InstaBot.

I brought it to our product-management team, and we just started creating it.

And then I met Samantha, and she's amazing at being able to -- One, she loves technology.

Two, she's amazing at breaking it down to people.

And so she was just a natural fit for our team, and she's been amazing at getting the word out and explaining what InstaBot is and how it's best used.

Yeah, and Zz really invented InstaBot.

It's really her baby.

So it was just an idea that she kind of came up with and that it's been really exciting to see go from an idea to this thing that's actually being used in apps right now and getting awesome feedback so...

Yeah, it's been really fun.

This kind of functionality is really different than what people have seen and even what people think of when they think of chatbots.

And so I think -- I hope that, with InstaBot, people will start to think of chatbots as something that's really useful to them and as a useful way to communicate with their users, not like a fun, frivolous thing, you know, that's on the side.

I just read an article that said 78% of people have never even heard of what a chatbot is.

And so I hope, a year from now, people really understand what it, they're excited about it, and they start building their own, and I hope they use us to build it.

Follow us on Twitter @ROKOLabs -- R-O-K-O L-A-B-S.

And you can also go to our website, rokolabs.com.

The Houston Astrodome is the former home of many Houston sports teams, but it's gone unused for the past decade.

Now a local architect has a plan to re-envision the future of the stadium.

Here's a look.

The striking new Astrodome is the new $31 million home of the Houston Astros.

♪♪

Been around since 1965.

A dome stadium, it holds nearly 50,000 for a baseball game.

♪♪

People grew up going to ballgames there.

All kinds of events happened there.

Plastic ceiling makes it an all-weather stadium.

♪♪

When it was built, there was nothing like it.

There was nothing even close to the 643-foot span.

It was never done before.

The winner by a technical knockout and still heavyweight champion of the world, Cassius Clay!

What I think is really important about the dome is that it has these kind of individual meanings for different people.

It has to do with what went on inside, what event you saw, who you were with.

And as the Astrodome gets ready to shut its doors after 35 years of hosting Major League Baseball...

I realized this building is very important to Houston, and I started thinking about it as an architect, and, the more I looked at it, the biggest innovation in the dome is in the engineering.

So I thought, 'Well, let's remove the exterior envelope and celebrate the structure.'

But then you have this kind of problem where, 'What do you do with that?'

I've worked for a lot of architects all over the world, and the ones that I really enjoyed working for are ones who kind of look at every problem differently and come up with different solutions.

North and South boulevards are very famous for the live oak trees.

It's kind of like an unexposed structure.

And then, on top of that, it has a kind of infrastructure that lives on it, which is incredible.

It has ferns and birds and squirrels' nests, and it's just a really amazing experience just to walk under those trees and experience the shade, also, that you get from it.

It's not quite an enclosed space, and it's not quite unenclosed.

That's what the dome would become.

It's just an enormous scale.

♪♪ So that became the 'A-Dome' park.

I have a partner in this, Ben Olschner.

Architects want to make the world sort of a better place.

♪♪ This is a concept.

I'm not saying this is what's moving forward.

The dome is currently surrounded by parking.

There's 26,000 parking spaces.

And what happens is the sun shines down on that black asphalt, and the heat actually radiates off the asphalt.

Actually, the temperature rises.

There's a term for it called a 'heat island.'

So, we surround the dome with a park, almost 40 acres, so that park space would be a shaded, cooled space with water-absorbing grass surface around it.

One of the highlight features of it would be a ramp that goes all the way to the top of the dome.

So you could imagine running up there in the morning.

It would be almost a two-mile run to the top of the dome.

You could imagine walking or running up there in the morning and seeing the sun rise over the gulf.

And then the center of the dome, we call this other piece of infrastructure the 'Great Floor.'

And the Great Floor would be a place where any kind of event can happen -- a rock concert, the rodeo, anything you could imagine.

To have the dome unenclosed and to have this infrastructure in it would be really an incredibly unique feature for the city.

It would be like the Eiffel Tower of Houston.

We've had tremendous response to our project.

People feel like that would be a very attractive thing to do with the Astrodome.

You know, it's not a baseball stadium anymore.

They play downtown.

It's not a football stadium.

There's a football stadium right next to it.

So what is it?

That's the question, right?

♪♪ ♪♪

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... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪