SciTech Now Episode 240

In this episode of SciTech Now, how farming companies are using a carbon rich material to enhance soils and purify waste water; can the Japanese art of paper folding, known as “origami,” save lives?; using apps to improve the lives of low-income Americans; and a look at innovative robotic technology being developed in Tokyo.



Coming up... Rediscovering sustainable agriculture through ancient technology.

I really feel that biochar is the future of, you know, sustainable agriculture.

You know, it's something that's obviously regenerative.

It's gonna be there for the long-term.

It could be the next big thing, in my opinion.

How origami saves lives.

Engineers consulted origami artists, and they said, 'Look.

We have this doughnut-shaped airbag.

How do we fold it so that it's this small and that it deploys effectively?'

Tech for civic good.

We think that low-income Americans have access to smartphones at a large and growing rate, and that provides an unprecedented opportunity to bring products and services to them at scale.

And finally, a robot that wins every game of rock paper scissors.

In near future, the high-speed imager can easily use in this application at no cost.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


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.

Like the ancient Amazonians of centuries past, farming companies today are using a carbon-rich material to enhance soils or purify polluted wastewater.

It's called biochar.

Up next, we take you to Florida where farmers and geochemists are creating biochar through an age-old practice.

Here's the story.


Our company's name is GreenDreams, and we're an edible landscaping company focused on regenerative and holistic practices.

GreenDreams Landscaping at Sandhill Farm is located near Spring Hill, Florida.

Their farm is on some of the poorest soil you can find -- sand.

The basis of our farming technique is to build the soil and build soil life.

Organic farming really revolves around soil microorganisms and beneficial fungi.

As organic farmers who use a holistic approach, also known as permaculture, they were looking for ways to improve their soil amendment to make them more permanent.

The answer -- biochar.

It's using waste products that we're having problems to get rid of, that are difficult to dispose of -- often people are paying money to dispose of them -- and we're turning it into a product that's, you know, carbon-neutral and carbon-negative.

It's, you know, building soil.

It's providing a home for this crucial soil life.

The success of biochar at Sandhill Farms led them to make their own biochar from lumber scraps they recycle from a local mill.

They made a kiln designed to burn organic material in a low-oxygen environment.

The kiln that we're using is called an inner retort chamber, and that's basically a two-stage process.

There's an outer chamber, which is a large stainless-steel container, and an inner chamber is a sealed stainless-steel container, and the process is called pyrolysis, where the outer container is vented.

It's allowing air to come in through the bottom and out the top through a chimney, and that inner barrel, it's surrounded by feedstock, surrounded by wood or other flammable materials, and that's heating up this inner sealed barrel, and through that process, you're basically gasifying that wood and turning that wood into pure carbon or charcoal.

It takes about three hours to complete the process and end up with char.

After being allowed to cool, this carbon product is charged with biological material used at their organic farm.

So what we have here is about eight batches of finished char.

This is the finished product.

Our next step with this would be to crush it and then charge it with a compost tea/manure slurry.

A quality finished char should sound like glass.

[ Char clinking ]

Owner Pete Kanaris has invested heavily in biochar.

I really feel that biochar is the future of, you know, sustainable agriculture.

You know, it's something obviously regenerative.

It's gonna be there for the long-term.

It could be the next big thing, in my opinion.

This next big thing has attracted the interest of scientists.

Andrew Zimmerman is an Associate Professor and an organic geochemist at the University of Florida.

I got started thinking about and studying about how microbes eat organic matter or don't eat organic matter.

That led me to my interest in charcoal, which is really combusted organic matter, the product of fire, because that's a very refractory type of organic matter.

That means it stays around a long time.

It's hard for microbes to eat it.

Dr. Zimmerman's research entailed an in-depth examination of material used to create biochar.

My first studies were to look at different types of biomass, so plants and grasses and different types of wood and grasses, and make those into biochar or charcoal at different temperatures, and then look at what types of variations in the chemistry of it, as well as how stable it was.

He creates his biochar in a controlled environment.

I take different types of biomass and I put it in an oven.

It's constructed in the shape of a tube, so I can run gas -- nitrogen -- You know, if I run nitrogen through it, that gas does not react, and it really keeps the oxygen out.

I make biochar typically at temperatures ranging from 250 Celsius to 700 Celsius, and the higher the temperature, the more pure your charcoal.

The biochar is then evaluated for chemical properties.

To do that, we have to dissolve it, and then we can put it into an instrument like a chromatograph to look at all the molecules.

We also are interested in what can naturally leach from the biochar.

When you put it out in the fields, you're gonna have rain and water flowing through it.

If we're gonna be able to use it for carbon sequestration, we certainly have to know how stable it is.

One potential major use for biochar is carbon sequestration, where CO2 is prevented from entering the atmosphere.

Instead of letting our residues from agriculture and from lumber decompose and return back to the atmosphere and be CO2, where we don't want it, we can make it into charcoal and then put it in soils, and it will stay there a long time, and we can actually build up the carbon in the soil and keep that carbon out of the atmosphere.

When biochar is really widespread, say, through the United States, it could probably offset maybe 10% to 20% of the country's carbon emissions.

The use of biochar is an ancient practice.

♪♪ It was recently discovered that pre-Columbian Indians in the Amazon developed a rich, organic soil called terra preta over the course of thousands of years.

Terra preta actually means 'black earth,' and these black soils that are rich in organic matter and very good for growing things, unlike most tropical soils.

Dr. Zimmerman has traveled to South America to see these soils firsthand.

People living in the Amazon a thousand years ago had some technology, some way of adding the carbon to the soil so that it retained the nutrients and served as a good agricultural soil, and so we're trying to rediscover that technology and apply it -- you know, have new applications for it.

The folks at Sandhill Farms are using biochar because Florida's sandy soil has a low ability to hold in nutrients.

The biggest component of biochar that makes it so important is a term called 'cation exchange capacity,' and this is a term that basically means the soil's ability to hold nutrients.

So we could put out a truckload of manure and organic fertilizers, and that would be great, the plants would grow, but it's quickly getting leached through the system by our heavy rains we have here, and it's not really getting stored long-term in that soil.

Biochar has many, many times greater cation exchange capacity.

Once that biochar is put into the ground, any of those nutrients are stored there and provide food for that beneficial soil life, and then are slowly released back into the system for thousands of years, potentially.

♪♪ [ Chimpanzee vocalizing ]

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, and a self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She's calling for big changes in science education and just launched a new podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

Here to discuss one of her latest episodes called 'How Origami Saves Lives' is Ainissa Ramirez.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

When I think of origami, I think of paper cranes that I maybe learned how to do and now have forgotten in elementary school, certainly paper airplanes, which I can probably still throw...


...but these are all examples?

Even the paper bag.

Origami's pretty ubiquitous.

Pizza boxes, fancy napkins -- that's all origami.

Anything that's kind of an intricate folding is origami.

But what I found out when I was putting this podcast is that origami saves lives, and the way that it does that is in the airbag.

Airbags are folded in a way that are based on origami methods so that it can be stored within the steering column, but also can be deployed without failure.

So I kind of have what an airbag would look like.

It's a doughnut shape, and so it has to be folded in intricate ways so that it looks like a box with small points.

That's the method that origami artists suggested to engineers so that they could put this within the steering column, and it would work without failure.

Okay, so how does this one fold?

This isn't an airbag.

This one is just from a manufacturer, and it's packaged very simply so that it will be a square.

This is not the proprietary way that you would put an origami --

Got it. know, the origami way of doing an airbag.

Was origami used for that design specifically for an airbag?

That's right, and what's great about origami, it's a merger of science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

Engineers consulted origami artists, and they said, 'Look.

We have this doughnut-shaped airbag.

How do we fold it so that it's this small and that it deploys effectively?'

And so the artist said, 'Okay.

Well, we do origami.

We see that the way to do this is through this technique.'

And so origami is the way that they fold it.

Is there an inherent efficiency in this particular folding that maybe the computer's aren't thinking that way?

Well, first of all, we have this body of knowledge in the origami art, and, mathematically, they couldn't figure it out because they wanted to make sure that things moved in a certain way in a certain sequence.

Origami artists already knew this.

It's all about the sequence.

This is all they do.

They know about sequence, they know ways to fold things so that it will come out to a certain shape.

Are there other things besides airbags where we're not thinking about origami?

Well, origami's actually a serious enterprise.

The National Science Foundation has funded several grants to the tune of a couple of million dollars where they put together engineers and artists, origami artists, to come up with solutions, and so they have solar arrays that fold out in certain ways, antennas that you can put into a small area, and then when they need to be deployed, they come out in a certain way.

They're using nanotechnology.

It ends up that there are small layers of materials called graphene that are sliced in certain ways that they use in origami to make it look even longer to have more of an accordion shape.

So they're kind of doing a couple of neat things with origami on the small scale and on the big scale.

All right, graphene is on the very, very small scale, and it's interesting that on the satellite level -- so when a satellite gets launched and how it actually pops open, it's not just a...

That's right.

And you don't have much real estate within the satellite.

You're like you have this much space to put all of your experiments.

So you got to use origami in order to make that thing spread out and do what you need it to do.

All right, Ainissa Ramirez.

The podcast is called 'Science Underground.'

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.


Mobile apps have taken off in the past decade, and one company is focused on using apps to improve American lives.

Jimmy Chen and his team at Propel are designing software for the 45 million Americans who benefit from food stamps.

Jimmy Chen, thanks for joining us.

Nice to be here.

A lot of start-ups and things within the tech world are created by and often for people with at least comfortable incomes.

You're kind of taking a new approach looking at an audience, a low-income audience.

So why did you go that direction and what challenges is that bringing?

Yeah, we think it's a little bit of an unconscious bias that exists in the tech community.

People tend to build technology that solves their own problems.

It's the natural way to go.

But we think in 2016, the users of technology are really diverse, especially smartphone technologies being used at basically every end of the income spectrum, and so this is a case where people have smartphones and what they need is the software to kind of address the day-to-day challenges that they face.

So, at Propel, what we really aim to do is to bring the best-in-class in software development to a user base that's not primarily served by Silicon Valley.

You're doing that with food stamps.

How did you choose to go that route and what does that kind of look like in the app form?

So, in the summer of 2014, my team and I did a lot of research into how low-income Americans use technology and the different challenges they faced, and one of the issues that sprang up time and again was how folks navigated government programs.

We realized as a team that we didn't know much about programs like the Food Stamp Program, and so we applied for food stamps ourselves every day for a couple of weeks to learn more about what it was like to apply for food stamps, and from that kind of sprang the opportunity that we turned into our company.

What did you learn from that process?

We learned a couple things.

The first is that, you know, in talking to the people that are applying for food stamps, these are incredibly brave and resilient folks.

We noticed that the Food Stamp Office is full of folks who actually are sitting there kind of waiting to be seen by a human social worker, and they pass the time the same way that I do when I am waiting in line somewhere, which is I pull out my phone.

So you've got lines of hundreds of people waiting in line to fill out a paper form and see a human social worker when they actually have the tool to kind of address that in their own pockets.

In the past, it was a little hard getting the accessibility, overcoming the hurdle of certain families not having computers or Internet access at home.

Are smartphones kind of bridging that gap or is there still an accessibility gap there?


Smartphones are really changing the game here, and it's happening really quickly and faster than most people imagined.

Our latest data shows that around 70% of people on food stamps have access to a smartphone that has a data plan.

So smartphones are not only, you know, a popular way to reach this demographic, they're increasingly the best way.

Are there many other start-ups and apps and other things in the works for this population?


We think there's a large and growing set of companies that are focused on helping low-income Americans become more financially healthy and more physically healthy and to become more connected to the resources that they need.

It all springs from people who notice that there's a really large opportunity to serve tens of millions of Americans through software.

Do you have to approach the back-end process any differently or the financing in order to keep it best tailored for low-income Americans?

Well, you know, we actually built our company a lot like a traditional Silicon Valley-style start-up, and we do that very intentionally.

The space that we work in of helping low-income Americans navigate their benefits is not a new one, it's just one that's traditionally worked on by nonprofits and governments.

We think that by applying kind of the Silicon Valley-style start-up methodology to this particular problem, there's actually a lot to be gained, and so by that, I mean, you know, we want to accept venture capital money.

We want a business and a product and a user base that's scaled at the volume of Silicon Valley.

That's really what we're focused on.

Do you see other gaps in the tech economy and the tech world of needs that are not being addressed?


We think that low-income Americans have access to smartphones at a large and growing rate, and that provides an unprecedented opportunity to bring products and services to them at scale.

You know, there are not a lot of Silicon Valley-style companies trying to address the challenges of low-income Americans, and that's because it's hard to empathize with someone else's lived experience, and so if I was to give any advice to aspiring founders and entrepreneurs, I would say, if you can walk in the shoes of low-income Americans, you'll identify some of the challenges that they face.

We did this by applying for food stamps ourselves and spending time at the Food Stamp Office, but there are a number of other ways you can try to empathize with the experience of somebody who's not the same as you.

So, are there other future plans for expanding Propel's services?

Propel's really focused on making our current product, Fresh EBT, the best it can be to serve the 45 million Americans on food stamps.

Our future vision really involves turning Fresh EBT into an antipoverty platform.

We think that helping low-income Americans connect to the government services they need is really critical, and that's kind of the first thing that we're focused on, but in the future, we also want to connect low-income Americans to the public-sector/ private-sector nonprofit services that allow them to become more financially healthy.

Jimmy Chen, thanks for joining us.

Thank you very much for having me.

♪♪ [ ] [ ] [ ]

Next we head to Tokyo where a robot hand-programmed to win every game of rock paper scissors could provide the basis for driverless cars and battlefield droids.

Leo Lewis of takes us into the lab where this innovative robotic technology is developing.

25 years ago, Professor Ishikawa started work on what is currently the world's fastest high-speed image processor.

15 years ago, he started research on the world's fastest actuator.

Together, 40 years of research have resulted in this -- a robotic hand.

At the moment, the hand looks innocent enough.

It plays the classic game of rock scissors paper, or as it's known in Japan.

But Ishikawa's creation has a dark secret.

It cheats, and it cannot lose.

At first, I developed the same performance as a human being.

However, to support a human, the same performance is not enough.

We have to develop a higher than human.

The image processor tracks your hand's movement more quickly than the human eye can register.

Before you even know that has happened, it sees what sign you have made, and has sent the winning move to the actuator -- a few milliseconds of process that have been four decades in the making.

Moving very, very quickly.

That's extraordinary.

It's a fine parlor trick, but so what?

Well, what matters is not the game, but what the technology behind it could ultimately be used for.

In near future, the high-speed imager can easily use in this application at no cost.

Ishikawa says his sensors would come in very handy on a self-driving car, in a high-speed manufacturing plant, or even for sports television.

But others, especially those involved in military innovation, see even more potential -- intercepting missiles, battlefield robots, and super-responsive drones.

Ishikawa is against this, and so, for the last 70 years, have been most of Japan's state universities, but across town, at Japan's Defense Ministry, momentum and API government policy is building towards a change.

For the public in Japan, robots have always been less about the military industrial complex and more about humanoid creations like this, Honda's ASIMO, which is now advanced enough to march out of the lab and into the real world.

To make a robot like this hop represents thousands and thousands of hours of robotics development.

Yes, it's a bit of fun, yes, it was here to entertain the crowds, but what's going on behind this is really significant, and what Japan does with these robotics in terms of practical applications -- that's what the world needs to be watching.

By studying a human walking, we can get to the walking theory to support the human by using robotics technology.

[Speaking indistinctly] passing wire to patient who suffered from a stroke.

Kana Inagaki took the sixth generation of Honda's assisted walking devices for a test-drive.

So, when you first wear it, it's actually hard to tell the difference, but when you keep on walking, you can feel the pressures on your legs and also on your hips.

When you actually climb the stairs, you can feel the pressure helping to lift your legs naturally.

So, the robots Japan rolls out are impressive, cute, and fun.

Honda and its rivals have spent millions, and they've caught the public imagination.

Now, finally, the technology is making its way into the daily life of ordinary people.

It's incremental rather than revolutionary, but there's no doubt that the tipping point for robots has come.

The big question for roboteers like Ishikawa and the engineers of Honda is how far they want things to go.

Every day, Professor Ishikawa receives hundreds of e-mails from companies around the world interested in the potential commercial applications for his technology.

He also told us at the end of every international conference, he's approached by people who are interested in the potential military applications for his technology.

Tokyo University has placed a ban for 70 years on its professors engaging in research that could lead to military applications, but there are people who want that to change.

So the robot that we watch today that could beat me every time at rock scissor paper -- could we one day be seeing that on the battlefield?


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... ♪♪