SciTech Now Episode 323

In this episode of SciTech Now, MycoWorks uses mycelium from fungus to create leather-like goods; metal 3D printing; altering the process of photosynthesis; and a woman driving the automotive industry.

TRANSCRIPT

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Coming up, making leather from mushrooms...

My hope is that this will become a globalized industry, that well beyond my lifetime or even what MycoWorks is setting up that this will just become a standard way that human beings are going to figure out how to provide for themselves.

...a metal twist on 3-D printing...

You're building up metal layers, taking a laser beam or an electron beam, and moving that over powder and locally fusing the powder to create a two-dimensional shape, which is then used to build the three-dimensional shape one layer at a time.

...perfecting photosynthesis.

There are definitely some changes we can make in the photosynthetic process that would adapt the plant to be able to producer more under warmer conditions.

...women driving the automotive industry.

When I joined the automotive industry, I knew I would be a member of a minority.

I knew that women were definitely less represented in the automotive industry, but that wasn't gonna hold me back.

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.

Working professionally with mushrooms tends to be the domain of mycologists and chefs, but a San Francisco-based start-up called MycoWorks is toying with the lattice-like roots of mushrooms, called mycelium, to turn the living organism into a substance as tough and pliable as leather or as rigid as wood.

'Science Friday' has the story.

The lowly mushroom... a primordial growth sprouting from decay... perhaps a tiny morsel... or deadly distraction.

But look deeper.

We may find the humble fungus has much to provide.

As a designer and a thinker about form and space, they're fascinating.

You can witness a living fractal in how it behaves to the environment.

They can take our greatest resource, which is human waste, and turn that into something that's really valuable for us.

They have the ability to give us everything that we want.

This is Philip Ross, and he's the Chief Technology Officer of the San Francisco-based start-up MycoWorks, a company seeking to harness the powers of fungus...

It can go on to replace so many aspects of our generated world right now that we extract from things that can't be regenerated.

...things that seem obvious upon reflection.

So, this -- this -- this strange background behind me is actually the hide or the skin of a type of mushroom -- Ganoderma lucidum.

This is a traditional type of fungus that has been used in medicine in Asia for millennia that we grew at MycoWorks.

And this behaves and acts a lot like animal skin.

So, this is really the starting point, is imagining it as leather.

This takes two weeks.

It's crazy. [ Laughs ] Mushrooms grow at an exponential rate, so it's more, how fast can we keep up with the organism?

By comparison, a piece of cowhide the same size takes two years to grow.

And that takes a lot of resources, and a lot of food and a lot of time to create that animal for our use.

Our materials start off as agricultural waste -- corn cobs, hemp hurds, paper-pulp waste, rice hulls, sawdust.

So, all these bags of white stuff behind me -- that's the mushroom that is eating the sawdust.

This is the last bit of sawdust, and you can see the encroaching network of cells that are all coming around that.

These cells are known as mycelium.

Mushroom mycelium is the root-like fibers that grow underground that are part of a mushroom.

It's out of these colonies of mycelium that specialized tissues can bloom.

In this thing, you know, has the diversity of types of materials that you ultimately can create, things that look like they're enameled, that look like insect skin, and things that are very hard, things that are kind of soft and leathery, things that are porous.

And all these really different expressions of the organism are all part of the same thing.

And by manipulating various conditions, you can transform mycelium from the its basic state.

We give the mushroom types of food that it might like or dislike.

And then the other things we do is manipulate its immediate environment -- its temperature, the humidity levels, the amount of light, and then the exchange of gas.

And that's it.

It's a low-tech solution for creating what MycoWorks believes to be a more-than-perfect leather substitute.

For the consumer, it's gonna have benefits that will be unlike other things, that you're gonna have patterns and colors that would be impossible with actual animal hides and qualities that can be grown directly into it.

So, we can grow fasteners directly into ours.

You don't have to use glue, necessarily, or even seaming.

It is breathable.

Similar to animal leather, it's water-wicking, and it's naturally antibiotic.

This is without any chemistry added into it at all.

They've already created some stylish prototypes, but they're still testing various aspects of its production.

We've only been working with this material for about three months.

And so we've started first to test it for tensile strength.

In that time period, we've taken it from being as strong or stronger than lamb, sheep, and synthetic leather, and now we actually have it as strong as deerskin.

And while they're touting its strength, MycoWorks has no plans to stop at leather.

Another thing that these types of mushrooms here can make are, you know, kind of synthetic woods.

So, it's really hard.

This thing that started off as waste sawdust is able, you know, to crush a metal object.

How about furniture?

This chair that I'm sitting in -- the walnut legs are from salvaged wood.

And then we took sawdust, and then we transformed that with a local version of this mushroom to grow this chair.

To Philip Ross, the possibilities are endless.

My hope is that this will become a globalized industry, that well beyond my lifetime or even what MycoWorks is setting up, that this will just become a standard way that human beings are gonna figure out how to provide for themselves.

Eventually, you will be growing your solar panels and telephones and other types of things like that out of fungus-based substrate.

To me, that is why I keep on pursuing them.

I have witnessed it, and I know it is a truth, so I'm following that truth.

But in the meantime...

We welcome all the vegan biker gangs to come and find us.

The possibilities of 3-D printing seem to be endless.

At the cutting edge, Jack Beuth, professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

He argues that in the next five years, metal 3-D printing will provide key advances that could revolutionize the fields of aerospace defense, alternative energy, and more.

Jack Beuth, welcome to the program.

Oh, thank you.

So, when I think of 3-D printing, I think of something that's actually being pressed from nothing, right?

And for me, it's -- I've seen plastics and powders.

Metal -- I think of, you know, huge molten lava that's kind of constructed in a foundry.

How did you get these pieces to happen?

Yes.

I have a couple of parts here.

The way that the metal parts are fabricated -- it's very similar to the way that polymer parts are fabricated in the maker machines.

A lot of people are acquainted with those.

Essentially, you take a three-dimensional shape, and you divide it into very, very thin layers.

And that three-dimensional shape is built up one layer at a time.

And what's different with the metal processes is you're building up metal layers, and that's being done by taking a laser beam or an electron and moving that over powder and locally fusing the powder to create a two-dimensional shape, which is then used to build the three-dimensional shape, again, one layer at a time.

So, you are melting, so to speak, at whatever temperature that laser is, but it's not the type of metalwork that we're all familiar with.

Yeah, in fact, this is done at a very, very small scale.

We're talking about a melt pool.

Think of, like, welding, a pool that you have when you're doing welding.

It's a fraction of a millimeter in width, and that melt pool is moving back and forth across to actually fill in a two-dimensional shape of a layer.

All right, so, let's take a look at one of the objects you have here.

How long does it take create something like that?

So, something like this, on one of our machines, is about two to three hours.

Now you can gain some productivity by having multiple parts within the build volumes.

Well, from the outside, it looks like it could be blades of a fan or something, but when you turn it around --

Yeah, this an impeller, is what they call it, right?

And, in fact, probably your hair dryer has an impeller in it.

Impellers are used to move air.

Yeah.

And, yes, if you look at it from the outside, you will say, 'Well, that looks like a traditional design.'

We use this in some of our training courses.

With 3-D printing, you can imbed three-dimensional cellular meshes.

And those cellular meshes, it's like a honeycomb, a bee's honeycomb in that it's strong and it's stiff, but it's very light.

And so they may look like they're solid on the outside, but it's really just a shell.

And then you've designed in a three-dimensional cellular mesh on the inside to give you the properties that you want.

So, you, as of course all good engineers, have to come up with top-10 lists of where this could change the world.

And I noticed high-performance racing cars was on top of this list.

How is that possible?

The original adopters of this -- in fact, the lead adopters are the aerospace industry, particularly the jet engine companies.

GE is leading the way there.

But over the past -- in fact, originally, it was aerospace and then also medical implants, like knee implants, hip implants, making customized implants.

But over the past year, things have broadened substantially.

So, we see every type of company that makes metal parts is now interested in 3-D printing.

And the automotive industry is really the next one to start adopting the techniques.

Because the lighter the car, the more fuel-efficient it is.

Well, usually there's a cost advantage if, by using 3-D printing, you can create a part that you can't make by traditional processes, particularly if it's something that increases the performance of the overall system.

So, an example of that would be, GE has created a fuel nozzle for their jet engines.

The fuel nozzle used to be 20 parts.

Now it's one part.

It's one 3-D-printed part.

But the key point is, by redesigning that fuel nozzle, they made the whole engine more efficient.

Hmm.

And in the jet-engine industry, making a jet engine more efficient is the key thing to selling it.

When you say hip implants and knee implants -- so, there is a future not too far away where, if you get one of those replacements, it could be customized to exactly what you need versus, 'I'm getting this part put in.'

Correct.

So, you could have a customized implant.

And another thing that could be customized is the fixturing that's used to hold the bones in place, for instance, while the implant is being installed.

And if that's customized, then it's much more likely that the surgery's going to be effective and successful.

We're not gonna have 3-D metal printers in our garages anytime soon, are we?

I mean, this still seems industrial-scale.

You still need a bit of infrastructure.

But think 5 years out, 10 years out.

3-D printing of metals will be all over the place, except one caveat to that is that you're dealing with very fine powders, and so you have to be very careful.

Some of those powders can be fire hazards or explosion hazards, and it's not good for your lungs.

So, they're inhalation hazards.

So, these are industrial processes, but it's very realistic that you could have -- For instance if you go to an automotive-parts store, you could order a part, and they could -- there would be some maybe regional place where they can 3-D-print your part and get it to you by the end of the day, for instance.

Wow. That's fantastic.

So, is there an industry that you see that won't be affected by this?

I mean, it's basically, if it has metal in it, there's a chance it could be customized.

Yes.

So, at our next manufacturing consortium, our next manufacturing center at Carnegie Mellon, we have a number of companies that are supporting our research.

And from everything we see, every company that makes metal components is at least looking at 3-D printing.

And the key issue is not to just look at the processes as they exist now.

But, again, look out 5 or 10 years and see where they're going to be.

And each of those companies -- and some of them may conclude, 'Well, it's not really for the products that we make.'

Some may conclude, 'Well, not now, but maybe in five years.'

But everybody's taking a very close look at it.

You know, one of the questions you always get is this mix between technology and jobs.

And as these new technologies come online, I'm thinking that person who might be designing the old-fashioned fan that went into the hair dryer --

Yeah, the one that looked like this.

The one that looked that -- from a solid part, that machine is maybe gonna get replaced.

But the worker that goes with that machine now has to learn kind of a different set of skills.

So, it's true that 3-D printing can replace some things, like what's called CNC machining, which is numerically controlled machining.

You go 'Well, the person that does the CNC machining may go out of business.'

But it ends up that the 3-D-printed part also has to be post-processed, typically.

So, there's usually some type of surface-finish work that has to be done on these parts.

There's heat-treating.

There's something called HIPping, which lets you close up pores in the parts.

And it's just learning to say, 'Work on a 3-D-printed part in a post-processing mode,' as opposed to creating the entire part from scratch.

All right, Jack Beuth of Carnegie Mellon, thanks so much for joining us.

Okay. Thank you.

Photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn sunlight into food, is crucial to crop production and our food systems.

What if we could increase the yield of food crops by improving photosynthesis?

Steve Long, professor of crop sciences and plant biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, joined Andrea Vasquez is a Google Hangout to discuss the genetic altering of plants.

Steve Long, thanks very much for being with us.

Thank you.

So, for those of us whose memory from science class is a little hazy, can you explain -- what is the process of photosynthesis?

Well, arguably, the process of photosynthesis is the most important process on the planet.

It's the source of all of our food, many of our fibers, and, indirectly or directly, most of our fuels, as well.

So, it's the process by which plants convert solar energy -- sunlight energy -- into food.

Then of course it is the source of oxygen on the planet, as well.

Okay.

So, the plant is taking in the sunlight and using that to fuel its process to feed itself.

Yes.

I mean, technically, it's taking in sunlight, using that energy to split water, which is then used to reduce carbon dioxide to carbohydrate.

Wow.

So, it's taking in carbs just like we do, more or less?

It's building carbs.

Building carbs.

So, how are you proposing to alter this process of photosynthesis?

Okay, so, we've looked at the process in a lot of detail.

And when we look at what our crops are doing, they are properly only getting about 10% of the theoretical efficiency.

We think in theory that photosynthesis should be capable of capturing about 10% of the solar energy that it receives into food.

But in practice, even our best crops are more like 1% or 2%. So, there appears to be quite a lot of headroom there to improve it.

And we've been looking at where we might be able to improve it in theory for some years now.

And now we've begun to convert some of those things to practice.

So, what are some of the things that can be getting in the way of the plants really optimizing the sunlight they're getting?

Leaves in the field are going in and out of shade.

So, they may be going in the shade of other leaves as the sun crosses the sky or wind moves leaves around.

Leaves in full sunlight are receiving more light than they can use.

And, in fact, that excess light they have to get rid of.

Otherwise, it becomes damaging to the leaf, rather like sunburn.

Oh.

They induce a process called non-photochemical quenching.

And basically what this is, is it's a change in the leaf that allows the leaf to get rid of the excess light as heat.

The problem is when the leaf goes into the shade and now it needs all the light it can get.

it carries on converting quite a lot of that limiting light to heat, and it takes many minutes, even half an hour, for the leaf to recover.

So, we mimicked a crop canopy on the computer to work out, you know, 'Well, what does this cost to plant?'

And the answer the computer came up with was, depending on the plant type and the day, something between 8% and 40%. So, it's losing a lot of potential productivity.

The next step was to then look at, 'Well, are there ways we might be able to speed this up?

What are the genes involved in this relaxation process?'

Mm-hmm.

Again, these were identified by metabolic modeling, and then we've up-regulated those in tobacco.

We've now taken that to field trials, and the field trials, over the course of the growing season, showed us that by up-regulating these genes, we could get between a 14% and 20% increase in yield.

So, would the crops that are altered in this way -- would that be considered genetically modified?

Yes, it is.

What we've done is genetic modification.

But these are genes the plant already has.

So, to speed it up, we're adding more of those same genes.

Is there the possibility that there could be other side effects of increasing the number of those genes within the plant?

There's always that possibility.

We've looked at the major photosynthetic proteins.

And it hasn't affected the levels of any of those.

The plants that were grown in the greenhouse and in the field appear perfectly normal, just bigger.

So, in times of climate change, as this is really affecting sort of seasonal highs and lows and weather, can this kind of alteration be adapted to maximize our crop yields in times of fluctuating climate?

There are definitely some changes we can make in the photosynthetic process that would adapt the plant to be able to produce more under warmer conditions.

And, in fact, what one of the colleagues in my team is doing is the process of photorespiration.

Photorespiration uses some of the carbon which has been recently fixed and releases it.

It's basically because the enzyme which takes up carbon dioxide can mistakenly take up oxygen.

We think crops like rice, wheat, soybean may lose about 30% of their productivity through photorespiration.

Those mistakes increase with temperature.

So, what my colleague here is working on is a system where photorespiration would take less energy.

And so that would certainly adapt the crop to warmer temperatures.

Steve Long, thanks very much for being with us and explaining this research that you're doing.

Thank you for your interest.

According to a 2012 report by the U.S. congressional Joint Economic Committee, only 14% of U.S. engineers are women.

This disparity has not deterred Meghan Lloyd, who from a young age knew she wanted to work in the automotive industry.

She now encourages young women interested in math and science to explore a career in STEM like she did.

I am an account manager at TE Connectivity, where we are a world leader in enabling connectivity through all different industries.

Me personally -- I am in the transportation solutions division, and we're providing terminals, connectors, sensors, cable assemblies, mechatronics, and high-speed data solutions in the automotive industry.

One of the reasons I love my job and I love working in this automotive industry is that it's so global.

So, on a day-to-day basis, I am speaking in the maybe early morning with Europe, maybe during the day with North America, and then possibly late in the evening with Asia.

So, on a regular basis, I'm having meetings in multiple time zones a day, working and collaborating with teams both technically and commercially around the globe.

It is a lot of cross-functional collaboration between getting a request from a customer.

Maybe it's a request for quote.

So, receiving that information, I immediately would go to my product management team, who's responsible for the design and development and what we'd be able to offer.

Now, they are then passing on our interface directly with the plant, who is then working on the feasibility of manufacturing a product and what we can do, where is best to build it.

At TE Connectivity, we certainly have catalogues of our off-the-shelf components.

We've established a long history of products that work well as is and can be adapted if needed to meet a customer's application.

But we also are doing new designs.

So, we can do anything that's customized for the exact needs of the customer, the exact needs of the function, where it's going on the vehicle, what parameters it needs to meet.

And so that's what I have a lot of the samples of -- my off-the-shelf products that have already been proven in the field.

They can be then used in multiple different areas, different parts of the vehicle.

When I joined the automotive industry, I knew I would be a member of a minority.

I knew that women were definitely less represented in the automotive industry, but that wasn't gonna hold me back.

And I would honestly say it has not been an issue.

It has not been even something I notice.

Yes, obviously I can see that there's a few more men in the office, but it's never been anything that holds back my work or my ability to work with my co-workers.

I mean, there's a lot of past precedent that's maybe following old systems that females were meant to go one way, males to go the other.

But I think we're past that.

I think we're at a point when we can see the -- the affinities that our kids have at an early age.

And we just need to promote that.

Even at a young age, I was very much enjoying science and math, knew I wanted to maybe go into that area.

But really it locked it in when I was 10 years old and my father brought home a Viper from work.

So, took one look at that car, knew I wanted to be a part of the automotive industry.

Whether it be in engineering or any other aspect, I knew that's where I wanted to be, but engineering is what really caught my eye.

Any degree you're pursuing, any higher education you're pursuing, they all equally have their difficulties or their workload, for sure.

They all do.

But when I chose engineering, I knew it would be a workload that would have a lot of lab time that maybe doesn't count in your credit hours.

So, it is a little more intensive in terms of your time commitment to your education.

But for the most part, if you can enjoy math, if you can enjoy working with other people -- 'cause right from the start, from your first classes, they put you in teams.

They want you to emulate an environment that you're gonna be working in, in the future, which is a lot of teamwork, a lot of collaboration.

So, any engineering degree, you're gonna be working in teams, whether it's lab groups or project teams where everyone has to pull their own weight, everyone is expected to go above and beyond 'cause then that just makes the whole team result that much better.

So, I think college is a time that, while you do define your major, you're able to still take the time to do internships, to do maybe a job shadowing, to make sure you know this is what you want to pursue.

Automotive industry was great for me.

It's what I knew I wanted to do, so immediately in college I pursued an internship to be sure and to know, what area of the automotive industry did I want to be?

Did I want to be working with a supplier?

Did I want to be working with one of the OEMs, one of the big three local here?

What did I want to do?

That could only be really determined by trying it out.

The importance of STEM in our country is mainly because you can't find any aspect of life that doesn't involve some portion of science, technology, engineering, or math, whether it's medical, whether it's engineering, whether it's your connected life.

Our world is becoming more and more connected from the time you wake up to the time you're going to sleep.

And in order to keep that perpetuating and going forward and evolving and continuing with innovation, we need more and more people to go into these careers that are gonna keep the ball rolling, keep our whole world cycling in a very smooth and even more connected way.

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...