SciTech Now Episode 226

Tiny satellites called CubeSats have democratized space science; blended learning combines in-person teaching with tech; a high school student and a science corporation pave the way for easier use of ethanol as renewable energy; and a mouse-like creature with massive hind legs teaches us about the growth of human bones.

TRANSCRIPT

COMING UP... SMALL-SCALE SCIENCE EXPLORATION.

SO, YOU CAN SEND THEM TO LITTLE ENVIRONMENTS THAT YOU MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO SEND BIG, EXPENSIVE SPACECRAFT, AND YOU CAN ALSO DO A LOT OF DIFFERENT SCIENCE IN DIFFERENT PLACES IF YOU HAVE A LOT OF LITTLE CubeSats.

A UNIQUE MATH CLASSROOM.

WHEN THE STUDENTS ARRIVE, THEY DON'T KNOW WHICH TEACHER THEY'RE GONNA BE WITH OR WHAT PART OF THE ROOM THEY'RE GONNA BE IN.

SO, THERE ARE SEVERAL TV SCREENS, AND IT LOOKS SORT OF LIKE AN AIRPORT TERMINAL.

IT HAS YOUR NAME.

YOU LOOK FOR WHERE YOU'RE GOING THAT DAY AND WHAT KIND OF THING YOU'LL BE DOING.

HIGH SCHOOL CHEMISTRY GOES GREEN.

I WAS ABLE TO FIND TWO BACTERIA THAT COULD BOTH LIVE TOGETHER, AND ONE WAS ABLE TO BREAK DOWN CELLULOSE INTO GLUCOSE, AND THE OTHER ONE WAS ABLE TO FERMENT THAT GLUCOSE INTO ETHANOL AT A HIGH RATE.

AND, FINALLY, A RODENT WITH MIGHTY LEGS.

THE FASTER-GROWING BONES IN THE JERBOA HAVE LARGER CARTILAGE CELLS, AND THAT MUCH WE KNOW.

BUT WHAT WE REALIZED EARLY ON WAS THAT WE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW HOW THESE CELLS WERE GETTING BIGGER TO BEGIN WITH.

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.

FOR ALMOST 60 YEARS, MANKIND HAS BEEN PLACING SATELLITES IN ORBIT.

THEY'RE USUALLY LARGE, COMPLEX, AND VERY EXPENSIVE.

BUT SINCE 2003, A CLASS OF TINY SATELLITES, CALLED 'CubeSats,' HAS BEEN DEMOCRATIZING ACCESS TO SPACE BY GIVING RESEARCHERS, ACADEMICS, AND EVEN SCHOOLKIDS THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO SPACE SCIENCE.

HERE'S A LOOK.

♪♪

TODAY, A NEW MOON IS IN THE SKY, A 23-INCH METAL SPHERE PLACED IN ORBIT BY A RUSSIAN ROCKET.

OCTOBER 4, 1957 -- A SMALL METAL SPHERE THAT DOES NO MORE THAN EMIT A BEEP USHERS IN THE SPACE AGE AND QUICKLY LEADS TO TECHNOLOGICAL WONDERS IN COMMUNICATIONS, SCIENCE, NATIONAL DEFENSE, AND MUCH MORE.

TYPICALLY, SATELLITES ARE LARGE, VERY COMPLEX, AND VERY EXPENSIVE SPACECRAFT.

THE COST TO DEVELOP, DESIGN, BUILD, TEST, LAUNCH, AND MAINTAIN ONE CAN BE HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS.

BUT IS IT POSSIBLE TO DEMOCRATIZE ACCESS TO SPACE?

ENTER CubeSats.

A CubeSat IS BASICALLY A TINY SPACECRAFT, A TINY SATELLITE.

THEY COME IN UNITS OF CUBES THAT ARE 10 CENTIMETERS ON A SIDE IN EITHER ONE, TWO, THREE, OR SIX UNITS.

THE IDEA FOR CubeSats ORIGINATED WITH AN ACADEMIC EXERCISE.

DR. BOB TWIGGS OF STANFORD UNIVERSITY IN THE LATE '90s WALKED INTO A CLASSROOM WITH A BEANIE BABY BOX AND ASKED HIS STUDENTS FOR YOUR FINAL PROJECT TO DEVELOP A SPACECRAFT WITHIN THIS BOX THAT COULD DO SOME TYPE OF SCIENCE ON AN ORBIT.

AND FROM THAT, IT JUST TOOK OFF.

PEOPLE STARTED BUILDING MORE AND MORE AND MORE OF THEM.

AND SO, THE STANDARD KIND OF STUCK.

OF COURSE, DEMOCRATIZING SPACE MEANS GETTING THINGS INTO ORBIT CHEAPLY.

FOR CubeSats, THAT MEANS HITCHHIKING A RIDE.

TODAY, THERE ARE TWO WAYS THAT WE CAN GET CubeSats INTO ORBIT.

THE FIRST IS TO FLY THEM AS AUXILIARY CARGO ON AN UNMANNED ROCKET THAT'S GOING INTO SPACE TO CARRY A LARGER PRIMARY SPACECRAFT.

THE SECOND IS TO FLY THEM UP TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION AS CARGO AND THEN DEPLOY THEM.

BECAUSE ALL CubeSats ARE BUILT TO A STRICT SIZE STANDARD, ENGINEERS WERE ABLE TO DESIGN A SIMPLE, INEXPENSIVE DEPLOYER.

SO, WHAT WE HAVE HERE IS THE POLY PICO ORBITAL DEPLOYER, OR 'P-POD' FOR SHORT.

IT'S 30x10x10 CENTIMETERS ON THE INSIDE FOR THE SPECIFICATIONS OF CubeSat.

AND ONCE A SIGNAL IS RECEIVED FROM THE LAUNCH VEHICLE, IT WILL RELEASE ITS BULK.

THE DOOR WILL COME OPEN, AND INSIDE IS A PUSHER SPRING THAT PUSHES THE CubeSat OUT.

AND THEN IT'S ON ITS MERRY WAY TO GO DO ITS SCIENCE.

SINCE THE FIRST CubeSats WERE LAUNCHED IN 2003, SEVERAL HUNDRED HAVE FLOWN.

MANY HAVE BEEN DESIGNED AND BUILT BY UNIVERSITY TEAMS.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE EXAMPLES IS GRIFEX.

AND GRIFEX WAS INTENDED TO GO DEMONSTRATE A VERY SMALL IMAGING CHIP THAT WAS BRAND-NEW, NEW TECHNOLOGY THAT JPL WANTED TO USE ON A LARGER, VERY EXPENSIVE SPACECRAFT.

BY FLYING THIS LITTLE CHIP ON A CubeSat AND DEMONSTRATING THAT IT WORKED WELL IN LOW-EARTH ORBIT, THEY WERE ABLE TO BUY DOWN A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF RISK BEFORE THEY ACTUALLY GO TAKE THIS NEW PIECE OF TECHNOLOGY AND INVEST IT INTO A HUNDREDS-OF-MILLIONS-DOLLAR SPACECRAFT.

ADDIE DOVE IS DEVELOPING A CubeSat THAT WILL LIKEWISE PROVIDE VALUABLE INFORMATION TO FUTURE SPACECRAFT DESIGNERS.

OUR CubeSat IS CALLED SurfSat, A SATELLITE THAT'S GONNA BE STUDYING SURFACE CHARGING.

AND WHAT THAT MEANS IS WE'LL HAVE DIFFERENT TYPES OF MATERIALS ON THE OUTSIDE OF OUR LITTLE CubeSat.

THIS IS VERY PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR ANY SATELLITE ORBITING THE EARTH TO UNDERSTAND IF IT'S GONNA HAVE A STATIC-DISCHARGE EVENT THAT COULD RUIN THE ELECTRONICS ON THE SPACECRAFT OR RUIN THE OUTSIDE OF THE SPACECRAFT.

AND SO, WE WANT TO COME UP WITH WAYS TO UNDERSTAND WHEN THAT'S GONNA HAPPEN AND WAYS TO MITIGATE THAT OR PREVENT IT FROM HAPPENING.

JOSH COLWELL IS BUILDING A CubeSat CALLED Q-PACE.

THIS IS AN EXPERIMENT TO RE-CREATE THE CONDITIONS IN THE VERY EARLY STAGES OF OUR SOLAR SYSTEM, OR ANY PLANETARY SYSTEM, AND UNDERSTAND THE VERY FIRST STEPS OF PLANET FORMATION.

SO, THE MAIN COMPONENTS OF THE EXPERIMENT ARE A MICROCONTROLLER -- THAT'S THE COMPUTER THAT OPERATES THE EXPERIMENT.

WE HAVE BATTERIES THAT ARE POWERED BY SOLAR PANELS ON THE OUTSIDE OF THE EXPERIMENT.

AND THEN THE EXPERIMENT ITSELF IS A CHAMBER WITH PARTICLES THAT IS MOUNTED ON SPRINGS, FLEXIBLE SUPPORTS.

AND WE HAVE THREE SOLENOIDS THAT WE USE TO CAUSE THIS TEST CELL TO VIBRATE.

AND THOSE VIBRATIONS CAUSE THE PARTICLES IN THE CHAMBERS TO MOVE AND BOUNCE OFF EACH OTHER.

AND THEN WE FOLLOW WITH OUR CAMERA THE EVOLUTION OF THE VELOCITIES OR THE SPEEDS OF THOSE PARTICLES AS THEY COLLIDE.

Q-PACE IS A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF HOW A SPACECRAFT CAN BE BUILT INEXPENSIVELY.

WE FIRST MAKE A 3-D DESIGN USING CAD SOFTWARE.

THEN, WE MAKE A 3-D PRINTED PROTOTYPE TO MAKE SURE THAT THE DESIGN THAT WE'VE GOT ON PAPER ACTUALLY WORKS.

AND THEN, USING COMPONENTS SUCH AS THE SOLAR CELLS, WE'RE USING SOME COMMON CONSUMER COMPONENTS -- THE GoPro CAMERA TO COLLECT VIDEO, A RASPBERRY PI MICROCONTROLLER.

CALDWELL'S Q-SAT PROVES THAT A VERY SMALL SPACECRAFT CAN DO VERY BIG SCIENCE.

ONE OF THE BIG QUESTIONS THAT I THINK WE FACE AS A SPECIES IS, ARE WE ALONE?

AND ONE OF THE BIG PIECES OF THAT PUZZLE IS, HOW MANY PLANETS ARE THERE OUT IN THE REST OF THE GALAXY?

WHAT KINDS OF PLANETS ARE THEY?

ARE THEY CLOSE TO THEIR STARS?

ARE THEY FAR AWAY?

DO OTHER SOLAR SYSTEMS LOOK LIKE OUR OWN, OR IS OURS RELATIVELY UNUSUAL?

SO, UNDERSTANDING THE PROCESS OF PLANET FORMATION WILL HELP US ADDRESS THOSE QUESTIONS, HELP US UNDERSTAND HOW UNIQUE OR COMMON A PLANETARY SYSTEM LIKE OUR OWN IS IN THE GALAXY AND HOW COMMON A PLANET LIKE THE EARTH THAT IS HOSPITABLE AND HABITABLE FOR LIFE MIGHT BE.

GOING FORWARD, CubeSats WILL CONTINUE TO DEMOCRATIZE ACCESS TO SPACE.

AND THEY HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO PROVIDE BREAKTHROUGHS IN BOTH SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY.

I THINK THE FUTURE OF CubeSats FOR SPACE SCIENCE IS VERY BRIGHT.

AS WE GAIN MORE EXPERIENCE WITH THE LIMITATIONS OF THE FORM FACTOR, THE COST WILL COME DOWN.

WE'LL UNDERSTAND HOW TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE SIZE.

SO, YOU CAN SEND THEM TO LITTLE ENVIRONMENTS THAT YOU MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO SEND BIG, EXPENSIVE SPACECRAFT.

AND YOU CAN ALSO DO A LOT OF DIFFERENT SCIENCE IN DIFFERENT PLACES IF YOU HAVE A LOT OF LITTLE CubeSats.

AND THE ABILITY TO PLACE LARGE NUMBERS OF CubeSats INTO ORBIT TO WORK TOGETHER OPENS UP VAST POSSIBILITIES.

IF I PUT A CONSTELLATION OF SMALL SATELLITES THAT SERVE AS INTERNET NODES FOR COMMUNICATION, THEORETICALLY WE CAN CREATE A SITUATION WHERE YOU CAN GET ONLINE USING A SMALL ANTENNA FROM ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD.

THAT'S A CAPABILITY THAT DOESN'T EXIST TODAY.

AND IT MIGHT DO A LOT TO HELP AREAS IN THE WORLD THAT ARE UNDERSERVED BY THE INTERNET.

I THINK OUR IMAGINATION IS THE ONLY REAL LIMIT, IN TERMS OF MAKING USE OF CubeSat AND THE CubeSat PLATFORM TO DO A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT THINGS.

[ BEEPING ]

BLENDED LEARNING COMBINES CLASSROOM TEACHERS WITH COMPUTER-ASSISTED LESSONS TO FACILITATE LEARNING.

AT AN INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, A COMPUTER SYSTEM ORCHESTRATES HOW MATH CLASS UNFOLDS BASED ON DAILY STUDENT INPUT.

HERE TO EXPLAIN IS NICHOLE DOBO, EDUCATION REPORTER AT SO, WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE PICTURE OF THIS CLASSROOM, AND YOU SAY THERE'S 150 KIDS IN THERE, IT MAKES ME WONDER, 'WAIT A MINUTE.

HOW ARE THESE KIDS LEARNING, AND WHAT DOES A COMPUTER HAVE TO DO WITH THIS?'

RIGHT.

THERE WILL BE SEVERAL TEACHERS WITHIN THIS ROOM, AND EVERY DAY AT THE END OF THE CLASS, THE STUDENTS TAKE A QUIZ ON THE COMPUTER.

AND THAT SETS THEIR SCHEDULE FOR THE NEXT DAY.

SO, THE NEXT DAY, WHEN THE STUDENTS ARRIVE, THEY DON'T KNOW WHICH TEACHER THEY'RE GONNA BE WITH OR WHAT PART OF THE ROOM THEY'RE GONNA BE IN.

SO, THERE ARE SEVERAL TV SCREENS, AND IT LOOKS SORT OF LIKE AN AIRPORT TERMINAL.

IT HAS YOUR NAME.

YOU LOOK FOR WHERE YOU'RE GOING THAT DAY AND WHAT KIND OF THING YOU'LL BE DOING.

SO, YOU GO TO A DIFFERENT SECTION OF THE CLASSROOM BASED ON WHAT THE COMPUTER PROGRAM HAS DECIDED BASED ON YOUR SCORE YESTERDAY.

THAT'S RIGHT.

OKAY, SO, WHEN YOU GET THIS ASSIGNMENT, IS THAT ALMOST LIKE AN INDIVIDUAL PLAN, BECAUSE THE COMPUTER'S TRACKING WHETHER YOU GOT A CONCEPT OR NOT, RIGHT?

THAT'S RIGHT.

YES, AND IT'S ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT IN A SUBJECT LIKE MATH, WHICH BUILDS UPON ITSELF.

SO, IF A STUDENT, SAY, IS BELOW GRADE LEVEL, THEY CAN TAILOR LESSONS TO FIT THE STUDENT WHERE THEY ARE AT THAT MOMENT.

AND HOW DO THE TEACHERS LIKE IT?

YEAH, THEY SAID IT TOOK SOME GETTING USED TO BECAUSE THEY'RE SORT OF PLANNING A LESSON OVERNIGHT.

THEY NEVER KNOW WHERE THEY'RE GONNA BE THE NEXT DAY.

SO, IT TAKES A LOT OF TEACHER TRAINING TO MAKE THIS WORK.

AND HOW MANY STUDENTS ARE INVOLVED IN THIS?

RIGHT NOW THERE ARE MORE THAN 10,000 STUDENTS.

WOW.

YEAH, NATIONWIDE.

SO, IS IT WORKING?

YEAH, THEY'VE HAD SOME RESEARCH DONE WITH THE TEACHERS COLLEGE AT COLUMBIA, AND THE RESULTS WERE QUITE STRIKING.

THEY WERE ABLE TO MAKE SIGNIFICANT GROWTH.

SO, DOES THAT MEAN IN JUST TEST SCORES, OR DOES IT MEAN ON A CLASS-BY-CLASS BASIS?

IS THERE KIND OF AN A/B TEST TO SAY, 'LET'S LOOK AT THE KIDS WHO DIDN'T TRY THIS APPROACH AND KIDS WHO DID?'

YEAH.

THE RESEARCH KIND OF TAKES A LOOK AT WHAT THEIR EXPECTED GROWTH MIGHT BE, BASED ON THE GRADE LEVEL, THE DEMOGRAPHICS, AND WHAT THEIR ACTUAL GROWTH WAS ON TEST SCORES.

AND WHAT KIND OF TECHNOLOGY ARE THEY USING?

IS IT PROPRIETARY SOFTWARE?

IT COMES FROM NEW CLASSROOMS.

IT'S A NONPROFIT.

IT ACTUALLY STARTED IN NEW YORK CITY, AND WHAT THEY DO IS THEY CREATE THIS CURATED LIST OF LESSONS FROM ALL KINDS OF DIFFERENT COMPANIES.

AND WHAT THEY'RE TRYING TO DO IS FIND THE BEST LESSON FOR EACH INDIVIDUAL SKILL.

OKAY, SO, THESE LESSONS -- THE TEACHERS KIND OF PICK THESE LESSONS OUT AND KIND OF CREATE A PLAYLIST FOR THEMSELVES?

RIGHT.

WHAT HAPPENS IS, IN THE HOME OFFICE, THEY GO THROUGH TENS OF THOUSANDS OF TEXTBOOKS, AND THEY FIND DIFFERENT LESSONS.

AND THEN, WHEN THE TEACHER GETS THEIR CLASS ASSIGNMENT FOR THE NEXT DAY, THEY'LL BE ABLE TO SEE WHICH RECOMMENDED LESSONS THERE ARE.

AND DO YOU THINK THIS IS GONNA CATCH ON?

YOU KNOW, BLENDED LEARNING, WHICH IS A COMBINATION OF IN-PERSON INSTRUCTION AND TECHNOLOGY, SEEMS TO BE DOING BETTER THAN, SAY, A FULLY VIRTUAL SCHOOL, WHERE KIDS ONLY LOG ON, SAY, FROM HOME AND USE THEIR COMPUTER TO GO TO SCHOOL.

THE RESULTS SEEM TO BE BETTER THERE.

AND THIS CONCEPT OF TEACHING INDIVIDUAL LESSONS -- IT'S NOT NEW.

IT'S BEEN AROUND EVEN BEFORE COMPUTERS.

COMPUTERS MAKE IT POSSIBLE BECAUSE THEY CREATE AN EFFICIENCY.

IT WOULD BE VERY DIFFICULT FOR A TEACHER TO WRITE INDIVIDUAL LESSON PLANS FOR EVERY SINGLE STUDENT EVERY NIGHT.

YEAH, ABSOLUTELY.

NICHOLE DOBO, EDUCATION REPORTER AT THANKS SO MUCH.

THANK YOU.

CLEAN, RENEWABLE ENERGY -- IT'S ONE OF THE KEYS TO SOLVING GLOBAL-CLIMATE ISSUES.

AND THE SOLUTION MIGHT BE ONE OF HUMANITY'S OLDEST TECHNOLOGIES -- FERMENTATION.

WHILE MANY LOOK TO ETHANOL, A FUEL MADE BY FERMENTING CORN AND OTHER FEEDSTOCKS AS ONE RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCE, CORPORATIONS ARE RACING TO DEVELOP A NEW VERSION, USING THE CORN PLANTS' UNUSED STALKS, LEAVES, AND COBS.

BUT A YOUNG MAN WORKING IN A HIGH SCHOOL CHEMISTRY LAB IN AURORA, ILLINOIS, MAY BE AHEAD OF THEM ALL.

HERE'S THE STORY.

NEVADA, IOWA -- THE HEART OF AMERICA'S CORN BELT.

DUPONT IS CELEBRATING THE OPENING OF THEIR NEWEST ACHIEVEMENT, A CELLULOSIC ETHANOL PLANT.

AS MOST OF YOU KNOW, THIS FACILITY IS UNIQUE IN THAT IT TURNS THE LEAVES, STALKS, AND COBS LEFT OVER AFTER THE CORN HARVEST INTO CELLULOSIC ETHANOL, A CLEAN, HOMEGROWN, AND TOTALLY RENEWABLE FUEL.

ETHANOL IS A FUEL MADE BY HARNESSING THE POWER OF ONE OF HUMANITY'S OLDEST TECHNOLOGIES, FERMENTATION.

MOST ETHANOL IN THE UNITED STATES IS PRODUCED BY FERMENTING THE SUGAR, OR GLUCOSE, LOCKED IN THE STARCH, FOUND IN CORN KERNELS.

THE PROCESS IS SIMILAR TO THE ONE USED TO CREATE ALCOHOLIC DRINKS.

CELLULOSIC-ETHANOL PLANTS ARE THE FUTURE OF THE ETHANOL INDUSTRY, AND THE FUTURE OF CELLULOSIC ETHANOL MAY HAVE BEEN DISCOVERED 300 MILES AWAY, IN AURORA, ILLINOIS.

CHEMISTRY TO ME IS SOMETHING THAT'S VERY RELAXING.

SO, JUST DOING, FOR EXAMPLE, THERMOCHEMICAL EQUATIONS AND UNDERSTANDING HOW MUCH IS THIS GONNA HEAT UP, OR, LIKE, UNDERSTANDING THE RATES OF REACTIONS AND IMAGINING THE DIFFERENT PROCESSES THAT WORK OUT.

TAVIS REED IS A 17-YEAR-OLD HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR AT THE ELITE ILLINOIS MATH AND SCIENCE ACADEMY.

ONE OF HIS SCHOOL RESEARCH PROJECTS UNEXPECTEDLY TOOK HIM DOWN THE SAME PATH AS DUPONT -- TO CELLULOSIC ETHANOL.

I DIDN'T REALLY, LIKE, KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ETHANOL BEFORE I TALKED TO ONE OF MY PROFESSORS ABOUT WHAT'S A GOOD PROJECT TO DO IN BIOLOGY THAT WOULD BE SIMPLE FOR A SOPHOMORE TO DO.

AND HE SUGGESTED ETHANOL.

GROWING CORN TO PRODUCE ETHANOL IS HARD ON THE ENVIRONMENT.

IT REQUIRES MILLIONS OF ACRES OF LAND AND OCEANS OF WATER AND CHEMICAL FERTILIZERS.

CREATING ETHANOL FROM THE LEFTOVER STALKS, LEAVES, AND COBS OF THE CORN PLANT, CALLED 'STOVER,' REDUCES ETHANOL'S ENVIRONMENTAL FOOTPRINT.

BUT THIS TOUGH, FIBROUS MATERIAL IS NOT EASY TO PROCESS.

IT'S MORE DIFFICULT TO MAKE THOSE SUGARS FROM BIOMASS THAN IT IS TO MAKE THEM FROM STARCH.

YOU AND I MAKE SUGAR FROM STARCH ALL THE TIME.

WE EAT TOO MANY DOUGHNUTS OR WHATEVER, TOO MUCH STARCH, BUT WE CAN CONVERT THAT STARCH TO SUGAR VERY READILY.

NOW, CONVERTING BIOMASS TO SUGAR IS A LOT MORE DIFFICULT.

THAT'S WHY A COW HAS FOUR STOMACHS AND NEEDS TO TAKE A LITTLE BREAK ONCE IN A WHILE AND CHEW THINGS TWICE.

AND SO, THAT'S KIND OF WHAT HAPPENS HERE.

THIS IS SORT OF THE EQUIVALENT OF THAT COW, WHERE THINGS ARE PROCESSED A LITTLE BIT MORE INTENSELY.

DUPONT'S CELLULOSIC-FERMENTATION PROCESS RELIES ON AMMONIA TO BREAK THE STOVER DOWN AND SPEED UP THE FERMENTATION PROCESS.

TAVIS ALSO LOOKED TO NATURE AND FOUND AN INNOVATIVE WAY OF SOLVING THE PROBLEM.

I WAS REMINDED BY A VIDEO I HAD WATCHED IN FRESHMAN BIOLOGY, WHERE THESE TWO ORGANISMS -- A FISH AND A SHRIMP -- WORKED TOGETHER IN WHAT'S CALLED A SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP TO IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF LIFE FOR BOTH OF THEM.

I WAS ABLE TO FIND TWO BACTERIA THAT COULD BOTH LIVE TOGETHER, AND ONE WAS ABLE TO BREAK DOWN CELLULOSE INTO GLUCOSE, AND THE OTHER ONE WAS ABLE TO FERMENT THAT GLUCOSE INTO ETHANOL AT A HIGH RATE.

I WAS ABLE TO WORK TO CREATE THIS PROCESS THAT REDUCED THE COST OF CREATING ETHANOL BY 85%, DECREASED LAND USAGE BY 87%, AND INCREASED PROFITS BY 891%. YOU COULD USE THE GRASS IN YOUR FRONT LAWN.

YOU COULD USE THE LEAVES THAT FALL FROM TREES.

YOU CAN USE ANYTHING THAT'S ALREADY AVAILABLE IN OUR MODERN ENVIRONMENTS AND OUR CURRENT FARMS.

THE CONSTRUCTION OF A CELLULOSIC-ETHANOL PLANT, LIKE DUPONT'S, IS DRIVEN BY THE QUEST FOR A SOURCE OF CLEAN, RENEWABLE ENERGY.

WE'RE AT HEART A SCIENCE COMPANY, AND THIS IS AN APPLICATION OF SCIENCE.

THIS IS ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE OUR SCIENCE AND APPLY IT TO THE WORLD'S PRESSING PROBLEMS -- THE NEED TO FEED PEOPLE, THE NEED TO PROVIDE PEOPLE WITH MORE ENERGY THAT'S SUSTAINABLE, AND TO PROTECT THEM.

YOU CAN START TO SEE CLIMATE CHANGE HAPPENING A LOT MORE.

IT'S A LOT MORE VIVID NOW WHEN YOU SEE THE POLAR ICE CAPS MELTING OR OTHER PROBLEMS OF THE ENVIRONMENT, LIKE EXTREME WEATHER.

TO KNOW THAT I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING TO STOP THAT, I'D HAVE TO LIVE WITH THAT.

THE CONSTRUCTION OF DUPONT'S CELLULOSIC-ETHANOL PLANT TOOK SEVERAL YEARS AND COST $225 MILLION.

TAVIS DOESN'T HAVE A FRACTION OF THAT BUDGET, BUT HIS RESEARCH IS ALREADY SHOWING RESULTS.

I ENTERED MY PROJECT INTO THE COMPETITION CALLED 'AFRO CULTURAL, TECHNOLOGICAL, SCIENTIFIC OLYMPICS OF THE MIND,' OR 'ACT-SO' FOR SHORT.

SO, THAT'S A LOCAL AND A NATIONAL COMPETITION.

I WON GOLD LOCALLY FOR MY WORK MY JUNIOR YEAR, AND THEN NATIONALLY I COMPETED JUST THIS PAST SUMMER AND WON THE NATIONAL GOLD MEDAL FOR MY RESEARCH.

TAVIS' CELLULOSIC-ETHANOL PROCESS IS STILL EXPERIMENTAL, BUT IT MAY SOON BE SOMETHING THAT'S HAPPENING ON A HUGE SCALE.

I DO HAVE MY PROVISIONAL PATENT, AND I'M WORKING AT GETTING MY FULL PATENT.

I DON'T HAVE A WHOLE BUNCH OF FUNDING OR A WHOLE BUNCH OF LAB SPACE.

BUT RIGHT NOW I'M TRYING TO STICK TO THINGS THAT I KNOW I CAN SOLVE SO I'M NOT JUST SITTING HERE IN THE LAB, MAKING SMALL PROGRESS ON A BIGGER SUBJECT BUT MAKING BIG PROGRESS IN A SMALLER SUBJECT.

AND THAT'S WHAT EXCITES ME.

THAT'S WHY I TAKE CLEAN ENERGY AS MY FIELD OF RESEARCH, BECAUSE I REALLY WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT WHEN I'M DONE, MY PROCESS HAS HELPED THE EARTH.

IT DIDN'T HARM THE EARTH.

UP NEXT, WE MEET A RODENT WITH A UNIQUE FEATURE -- LONG, VERY SPRINGY LEGS.

ABOUT THE SIZE OF A LARGE MOUSE, THE JERBOA HAS TWO MIGHTY BACK LEGS THAT CAN HELP IT JUMP AS HIGH AS THREE FEET IN THE AIR.

NOW, SCIENTISTS ARE LOOKING TO THESE INTERESTING APPENDAGES TO HELP US BETTER UNDERSTAND AND MANIPULATE THE GROWTH OF HUMAN BONES.

MEET THE JERBOA.

♪♪

THE JERBOA YOU CAN SORT OF THINK OF AS A FURRY, LITTLE RODENT VERSION OF A TYRANNOSAURUS REX.

THEY'RE ABOUT THE SIZE OF A LARGE MOUSE.

THEY HAVE THESE REALLY STRIKINGLY LARGE EYES.

THEY HAVE FOUR LIMBS, WHICH PEOPLE SOMETIMES OVERLOOK BECAUSE THEY'RE TUCKED UP UNDERNEATH THEIR JAW.

THE HIND LIMBS ARE REALLY, REALLY LONG AND DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENT.

THEY ARE CAPABLE OF JUMPING THREE FEET STRAIGHT UP IN THE AIR.

THEY'RE VERY SPRINGY.

AND BECAUSE OF THIS TAIL THAT THEY HAVE, WHICH IS ALSO REALLY, REALLY LONG, THE KAZAKH PEOPLE LIVING IN NORTHERN CHINA CALL THEM 'LO MEIN TUK-TUK,' WHICH IS TRANSLATED TO 'NODDLE HOP-HOP.'

OF THE MANY UNIQUE FEATURES OF THE JERBOA, IT'S THEIR HIND LIMBS THAT ARE PERHAPS THE MOST INTRIGUING.

WHAT LOOKS LIKE A BACKWARDS-TURNED KNEE IS ACTUALLY THEIR ANKLE, AND THAT LONG BONE STRETCHING DOWN FROM THE JOINT ISN'T THEIR SHIN.

IT'S THEIR FOOT.

AND WHAT YOU MIGHT THINK IS THEIR FEET IS ACTUALLY THEIR TOES.

THIS UNIQUE MORPHOLOGY IS QUITE A DEPARTURE FROM THEIR ANCESTOR, THE COMMON MOUSE.

THE MOUSE HAS WHAT WE CALL THE ANCESTRAL BODY FORM OF ARMS AND LEGS THAT ARE THE SAME LENGTH.

THE JERBOA HAS TAKEN THAT BASIC BODY PLAN AND HAS MODIFIED IT EXTREMELY TO HAVE LONG LEGS AND LONG FEET.

WHAT WE REALLY HOPE TO UNDERSTAND IS HOW DO YOU GET SKELETAL ELEMENTS -- BONES -- THAT REACH DIFFERENT LENGTHS IN A BODY?

DO THE BONES GROW FASTER?

DO THEY GET LONGER BECAUSE THEY GROW FOR A LONGER AMOUNT OF TIME IN DEVELOPMENT?

TO ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS, SIMPLY TAKE A SKELETAL ELEMENT FROM A RECENTLY DECEASED JERBOA AND EMBED IT IN A SMALL BLOCK OF ICE.

USING A CRYOSTAT, WHICH IS BASICALLY A VERY HIGH-TECH DELI SLICER, SHAVE OFF A TINY PORTION AND PLACE IT ONTO A SLIDE.

USE A SERIES OF SPECIAL DYES TO STAIN THE BONE ELEMENTS.

ALIZARIN STAINS THE BONE RED WHILE ALCIAN STAINS THE CARTILAGE BLUE, MAKING EACH EASIER TO IDENTIFY AND STUDY.

THEN, POP THE SLIDE UNDER A MICROSCOPE AND OBSERVE.

THE CELLS IN THE CARTILAGE ARE CALLED 'HYPERTROPHIC CHONDROCYTES.'

'HYPER' IS FAST, ELEVATED.

'TROPHIC' IS GROWTH.

AND THEY'RE CHONDROCYTES, WHICH IS THE CELL TYPE THAT MAKES UP CARTILAGE.

SO, THE HYPERTROPHIC CHONDROCYTE IS A CARTILAGE CELL THAT GETS VERY, VERY BIG VERY, VERY FAST.

THE FASTER-GROWING BONES IN THE JERBOA HAVE LARGER CARTILAGE CELLS.

AND THAT MUCH WE KNEW.

BUT WHAT WE REALIZED EARLY ON WAS THAT WE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW HOW THESE CELLS WERE GETTING BIGGER TO BEGIN WITH.

ANIMAL CELLS TYPICALLY ENLARGE BY MAKING STUFF -- PROTEINS, FATS, AND COMPLEX SUGARS -- AND ALSO BY TAKING UP WATER TO KEEP THE CONCENTRATION OF THAT STUFF CONSTANT.

IF THE WATER CONTENT OF MOST CELLS INCREASES BY 10%, THE CELL RUNS THE RISK OF RUPTURING.

CARTILAGE CELLS, HOWEVER, CAN INCREASE THEIR WATER VOLUME BY A STAGGERING 60%, BLOWING UP LIKE WATER BALLOONS.

THIS LETS THEM GROW BIGGER FASTER, SINCE IT TAKES LESS ENERGY AND TIME TO SUCK UP WATER THAN IT DOES TO MAKE MORE STUFF.

THE PURPOSE OF THOSE CELLS IS TO LAY THE FOUNDATION, THE SCAFFOLDING STRUCTURE, AROUND THEM.

THEN, THOSE CELLS DIE, AND THEN BONE CELLS COME IN, AND THEY REMODEL ALL OF THAT.

SO, THE MAJOR PURPOSE OF THAT CELL IS JUST TO GET REALLY BIG, REALLY FAST AND MAKE A SCAFFOLD.

IT'S LIKE BUILDING A BUILDING.

SO, NOW THAT WE'VE ANSWERED THIS QUESTION ABOUT HOW CELLS GET BIG, WE CAN CIRCLE BACK AROUND TO OUR ORIGINAL QUESTION, WHICH WAS HOW THAT GROWTH IS CONTROLLED SO THAT CELLS REACH DIFFERENT SIZES.

IF WE CAN UNDERSTAND THE MECHANICS OF HOW A BONE GROWS, THEN WE CAN BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND HOW TO MANIPULATE THAT GROWTH.

THAT KIND OF KNOWLEDGE CAN PROVE USEFUL WHEN TREATING BONE DEFICIENCIES AND ASYMMETRIES IN PEOPLE.

TREATING BONE DISEASE WAS NOT SOMETHING THAT KIM COOPER SET OUT TO TAKE ON BUT INSTEAD WAS THE RESULT OF ASKING THE RIGHT SERIES OF QUESTIONS.

IT'S NOT AN EITHER/OR THAT WE SHOULD STUDY HUMAN DISEASE OR WE SHOULD STUDY WEIRD ANIMALS.

TO ME, I THINK ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS ABOUT WHAT WE'RE DOING IS THAT IT HELPS US TO UNDERSTAND HOW ALL BODIES WORK, OURS INCLUDED.

WE'RE ALL BUILT BASICALLY THE SAME WAY.

IF WE CAN UNDERSTAND THE MECHANISMS THAT ALLOW THE JERBOA TO DEVELOP THEIR HIND LIMBS, THOSE ARE PROBABLY THE SAME FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES THAT SHAPE OUR BODIES.

WITH MY OWN LITTLE ONE GROWING AND SHAPING INSIDE OF ME, IT GIVES ME GREAT COMFORT JUST UNDERSTANDING THESE PROCESSES, KNOWING HOW REMARKABLE IT IS WHEN EVERYTHING GOES WELL.

FOR 'SCIENCE FRIDAY,' I'M CHRISTIAN BAKER.

AND THAT WRAPS IT UP FOR THIS TIME.

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UNTIL NEXT TIME, I'M HARI SREENIVASAN.

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