SciTech Now Episode 507

In this episode of SciTech Now, discover the vegetable of the Sea; a company creating a safer and more efficient workplace; creating art from fire and Gas; and preventing wildfire destruction.



Coming up... the vegetables of the sea.

You can throw it in any sort of sauce like you would spaghetti.

Using data to safeguard manufacturing workers.

We call these people industrial athletes, and we want to keep them proud, protected, and productive.

Creating art from fire and gas.

When an electric current passes through the rare gas, there's a very, very efficient exchange of energy.

Preventing wildfire destruction.

You're driving through areas where they're completely burnt out and black.

It looks like a bomb went off.

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.

From the Long Island Sound to the coast of Connecticut, a new method of American agriculture has been created.

Green Wave, an organization that promotes ocean farming, is developing kelp growth, creating a new form of a sea vegetable.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

Unlike sort of salmon aquaculture and other things, there just isn't much to see.

You just see some buoys floating, but, you know, you can imagine it as sort of this underwater garden.

It's farming just like somebody who has a tomato farm or, you know, some sort of vegetable garden.

It's just I do it out on the water instead of on land.

It's one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, so we can grow incredible amount of sea vegetables in small areas.

And we don't have to add any fertilizer at all.

We're just kind of taking something that's happening naturally and trying to organize it into one location so that we can make the most of what's growing.

My name is Suzie Flores, and I am an executive market-development manager at McGraw-Hill Education, and, on the side, I am a kelp farmer.

I had heard about seaweed farming, and I wanted to grow some just for consumption.

The more that I looked into it and the more I read about it, I realized that it's also a fantastic thing to do for the environment.

And then, once we saw that there was a possible economic upside for it, we decided to give it a shot.

My name is Bren Smith, and I'm a 3-D ocean farmer.

You know, I came into this as a commercial fisherman, and I had to be sort of a nurturing arugula farmer in a way, and it was a psychic shift for me.

When I first showed up here 15 years ago, my patch of ocean was this barren water, and now it's this whole thriving ecosystem with mussels, clams, oysters, kelp.

The challenge is, is imagine growing in an environment where the soil turns over 1,000 times a day.

I mean, we're just getting currents and changeover and nutrients, and that dynamism is what grows sort of a beautiful sea vegetable, but it also makes it difficult for a farmer.

The kelp we grow is called sugar kelp.

Which is a native seaweed that grows all along the East Coast corridor.

And what we do is, every fall, we go out and collect a few pieces of kelp that are reproductive and bring it back to our hatchery, and the little spores attach to pieces of string.

And then we take it back out into the ocean from whence it came, and we out-plant it on our long lines, which are submerged about 3 feet underneath the water.

The turbidity of the water, the murkiness of the water, could impact how much sunlight is actually getting through to the kelp.

Kelp gets everything from the water, so, as the water current, you know, goes through our kelp farm, it's also bringing with it all of the nutrition.

Kelp needs a mix of, like, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, and sunlight, so my job with the kelp is to find that sweet spot where we capture the nutrients and also the sunlight.

We harvest the kelp in the spring season, before all of the other competing species are going to be around.

All the junk that grows on the kelp, the epiphytes, the sea squirts, all these different things that, as the water temperatures increase in the ocean, essentially wake up, they attack the kelp.

And it doesn't render it completely useless.

You still could use it for fertilizer and things like that, but it does mean that it's not pretty enough for people to consume.

But this is a good thing.

I mean, we're creating a foundation for the ecosystem, for everything to come eat, hide, and thrive.

The economics of kelp farming and ocean farming are, in some ways, the most powerful piece.

Land, [Chuckles] especially in this area, is not cheap, but leasing space in the ocean, It makes much more economical sense.

The fact that overhead is so low when you don't grow fish opens up opportunities for regular folks like me to be out here and starting our own farms.

We grow about 10 to 20 tons per acre in basically a four- to five-month time.

It is one of the few crops that could be used for food consumption, that could be used for fuel, that could be used for fertilizer.

I mean, kelp, people think that disgusting thing on the beach, but what we're trying to do is really make kelp the new kale and reimagine the seafood plate of the future.

There's no fish flavor to it at all.

It's very mild and subtle.

You cut it into noodles, and you boil it.

It turns a really beautiful bright green color, and then you can throw it in any sort of sauce like you would spaghetti.

Luckily, in the U.S., this is one of the great sort of culinary moments of our history with all these brilliant chefs all around the country thinking of kelp as not seafood but as a vegetable.

We need to push beyond sustainability in our food system and our agricultural system into restoration, into regenerative crops.

Kelp, for example, captures five times more carbon than land-based plants.

And one of the things that it likes to absorb through the blades is nitrogen, so it can offset other algaes from blooming.

As nitrogen runs into Long Island Sound, for example, it creates these dead zones.

Our kelp can actually breed life.

It can capture that nitrogen.

This nexus of job creation, economic opportunity, food justice, and environmentalism, that's the sweet spot.

You know, what's exciting for me, who's been out here doing this for a long time, is to see Jay and Suzie Flores.

They're energetic.

They're talented.

They care about both the economy and the ecology of this, and they're just exactly what the future of ocean farming should be.

I never thought that I would be a kelp farmer.

I hope that I'm at the forefront of a larger wave of aquaculture, and I hope that people continue to learn more about this sea vegetable and think about ways it can be infused into our economy and into our diets.

[ Computer keys clacking ] ♪♪

Workplace injuries cost the United States up to $250 billion a year.

Now the company StrongArm Technologies has created a platform that collects and analyzes data to create a safer and more efficient workplace.

Michael Kim, C.T.O. and co-founder, joins us to discuss.

So, what is it that you're trying to do?


So, what we're really trying to do is to keep blue-collar workers -- you know, people call them manual laborers, anyone that is using their physical body to provide for their families -- we call these people industrial athletes, and we want to keep them proud, protected, and productive.


And how do you do it?

So, a couple different ways, but using our data platform right now, we have wearable sensors that people would wear on their torso and kind of like a Fitbit for industrial workers.

As they're working throughout the day, moving and picking up boxes, it's collecting data about how they're moving, as well as their environment, and we're capturing all this information in real time and analyzing it to understand how they're doing in terms of safety and some of the things that are around them that affect them and how they work and using that data to provide the individual, as well as the organizations that employ them to make better and smarter informed decisions about safety and workforce management.

So, what kind of sensors are we talking about?

What's on there?


So, there's a couple different sensors, but kind of the core one that we're using for lower-back injury and musculoskeletal-disorder detection is a 9-axis IMU, similar to what you have on your phone.

When you turn your phone sideways, the screen changes.

It's just detecting all of these motions in nine axes, and we're able to understand when someone is bending forward or twisting, moving side to side, and then there's also environmental factors, so temperature, humidity, location, as well as kind of the noise exposure around you and all of these things that affect your cognitive ability to work and be safe, and we're using all of that information to figure out what's actually going on.

So, somebody wears one of these for a day or an hour or whatever it is, and then they can sit down with their boss and say... Well, what happens after that?

What we want to do is, if there's a dangerous lift or some sort of exposure that is unsafe, we let both the individual know on body with alerts, a vibration, noise, or anything like that -- lights -- and then we also alert their manager or the safety-focus person to say, you know, 'There's something going on here.

You should probably go talk to this person.

Here's what you should go talk to them about.'

First and foremost, you're trying to prevent that person from having a back injury.


But then why are companies interested in using something like this?

Number-one thing, I think, is people are starting to understand that taking care of your workers and making sure that they're happy and working in a safe environment pays dividends that are insurmountable, and second thing is these injuries cost quite a bit of money.

They can range anywhere from $8,000 up to a $1 million, and not to mention these injuries also have lifelong effects on the workers.

So I think it's a two-sided effect where people are realizing, you know, this is the right thing to do, and there's also cost implications that are there, so it's a win-win situation.

So, when you are seeing these patterns, when you have it with a specific company, but all the competitors in that company might be performing tasks similarly, what are you learning, and what are you able to extract from this that you're able to help other companies think about?


Safety is an interesting concept, especially in the industrial world.

I don't think people think about safety as a competitive edge, and I think what's interesting is, in the industry, there's a lot of people that come together and create communities and committees around safety, and there's a shared understanding and knowledge transfer that goes beyond this competitive landscape between different corporations.

And I think people are looking for that, especially in safety, because there's not a lot of it around, and having best practices shared about safety to care about people in their workplace is something that's very open and transparent amongst various organizations, and I think people that we've worked with certainly are open to that and are looking for that, saying, you know, 'How are other people doing it?

What are things that you've seen that work best?'

And kind of having this platform and looking at us as the experts to figure out, you know, what to implement.

So, if you can figure out the wrong way to lift something, I'm assuming that you can reverse that and say, 'Here's the way to lift something.'


Right, or, 'Here's a more productive way of moving through this particular task.'


You're absolutely right, and I think lifting techniques and what's safe has been defined, you know, many years ago from a biomechanical standpoint and the dynamics of someone's body and lifting, and all we're really trying to do is help people to adhere to that.

People inherently know how to do it safely, but if you're moving thousands of packages or moving through the warehouse when you're really busy, you tend to forget about these things, so, with the sensor and the data, we're actually just helping them remind themselves what to do right and to do it safely on body.

All right.

Michael Kim of StrongArm Technologies, thanks so much.

Thank you.

Combining science with art can lead to endless possibilities.

New York Artist Kenny Greenberg takes us inside his studio for a look at what gives neon signs their spark.


Definitely looking for a combination of art and science.

I don't know where I thought neon came from, but you don't think about it.

You know, you don't look at a light bulb and think about how it's made, and when I learned that every single neon sign that you've ever seen anywhere was made by hand, that just really attracted me.

I think, also, what I loved then and still love about it is it's actually a very old technology.

[ '20s-style show music plays ] What we do today is not that much different from what was going on 100 years ago.

We're taking matter and making light.

We're turning matter into light energy, and we do that every day kind of casually, but it's kind of really thrilling.

The first production I worked on was the original Broadway 'Miss Saigon.'

There was a period where, on average, I was doing 12 a year.

We kind of have a reputation for getting the job done.

You know, the joke is sometimes I'll get called by one of the scenery shops, and they go, 'We've got a lot of time for this one this time.

We've got two weeks,' you know?

I'll basically trace over the design on the computer, and, you know, I do what I call 'neonizing' it, and then that becomes a template.

We actually reverse it because neon is bent so that its face is always flat, so we're bending it from behind.

All right.

What should we make?

[ Upbeat music plays ] We seal it, but we allow a port to come out of it.

It's going to kind of collapse a little bit.

So when I'm blowing it... it's blowing it out to preserve the channel.

♪♪ Matching it to the pattern.

Just blocking it down a little bit.

♪♪ ♪♪ We can pull all of the air out of it, and we actually heat it while we're doing that so that we really make sure we get all of the matter out of it, and we try to achieve as close to an outer-space emptiness as possible inside the tube.

Turning off the vacuum pump, engaging the manometer.

And then we fill it with a rare gas, and it's filled at a low pressure.

And when an electric current passes through the rare gas, there's a very, very efficient exchange of energy.

What happens is... I mean, it's not this simple, but a simplified explanation is that the electricity knocks electrons off of the atoms, and these electrons bounce around and knock into other atoms and electrons and get pushed back into the atom again, and, at the moment that it's pushed back into the atom, the atom has to release energy in order to absorb it, and that energy is light.

That's air lighting up.

Well, the gases themselves, there's really only four or five rare gases, and the color range is not that much in the gases themselves.

And, in fact, in most neon that you're seeing, we're really only using one of two gases.

And one gas is giving us a red light, and the other gas is giving us a blue light that has a lot of ultraviolet in it, as well.

But if the tubes are coated with phosphors that react to the ultraviolet light, we start to see additional colors coming from the ultraviolet light affecting the phosphors, and there are phosphors that are green, that are purple, that are, you know, all different colors, and, at the same time, some of the blue light filters through the phosphor because it's a thin coating, so you get a mix of whatever the phosphor is putting out and the visible blue light.

Add to that, you can also actually have different colored glass, so the glass can kind of intensify the colors.

I think, at last count -- I usually use a number of saying there's probably about 200 to 300 colors that are available.

If we're working with hand-blown glass, you can get dimensional with it, as well.

I mean, I think the variations are kind of endless.

[ Computer keys clacking ] ♪♪

Southern California experiences wildfires every year.

However, in December of 2017, the area experienced the largest wildfire in California's modern history -- the Thomas Fire.

Let's take a closer look at how this fire drastically devastated communities and vegetation and what's being done to prevent wildfire destruction in the future.

Southern California, December 2017.

Several massive wildfires attacked the region from all corners, from Southern San Diego County all the way to Northern Ventura County and Santa Barbara.

There were four major fires north of Downtown Los Angeles: the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, the Creek Fire in Sylmar, the Rye Fire in Santa Clarita, and the Skirball Fire on the Sepulveda overpass in West L.A.

The combination of these fires scorched hundreds of square miles and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, forcing both mandatory and voluntary evacuations throughout several counties.

Any wildfire could have devastating consequences -- the loss of life, the tremendous financial toll.

Then there's the environmental toll.

Scientists explain these disasters can destroy forested areas, damage the habitat of plants and animals, deplete natural resources, cause heavy smog.

The smog from the Thomas Fire can be seen hovering over this hillside.

That's because the ferocious Santa Anna winds have carried this massive plume of gray smoke miles from where the fire is burning.

One of the problems that firefighters have been having is the fact that, here in Southern California, there have been hurricane-force-like winds near 70 miles an hour.

This is something that the SoCal area hasn't seen in decades.

Traveling north on the 101, we eventually arrive at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

That's where firefighters established their command post.

As exhausted fire crews return from the line of fire, a new shift takes over to do battle with the Thomas Fire.

It's a 24/7 effort -- no rest for the weary.

Our news drone gives you an idea of the enormity of this team effort.

There are more than 500 engines from all over California stationed here with more than 2,500 firefighters.

Chris Harvey is a firefighter here at the command post.

Harvey is with the Sacramento Fire Department and part of CAL FIRE.

We're talking about a fire that's over the size of the City of Detroit at this point.

It's likely to be much larger than that.

It is like a war zone.

You're driving through areas where they're completely burnt out and black.

It looks like a bomb went off.

Gretel Compton lives in Ojai.

She explains the Thomas Fire has surrounded her town.

I want to go home.

I want to see what the damage is.

We have lost part of our house.

I'm just so up in the air.

I don't know what to do.

Where do you start?

I have no water.

I have no power.

I'm on a well, you know?

All of that stuff is burnt.

Other friends and neighbors have lost everything, everything, and now they have to start from scratch, and it's just so heart-wrenching.

After leaving Gretel, we take a tour of The Thacher School in Ojai.

The Thomas Fire has scorched the land around the private high school.

We evacuated all faculty and students Tuesday morning at 1:00 a.m.

When are the students going to be back here?

Decision was made that, given the recovery period and recovering from smoke damage and other things, that we just decided to say the semester was over, so the students will not come back until January.

You're surrounded by the fire.

Uneasy? Not worried?

How you feeling?

Well, you know, initially very, very uneasy.

This is not part of the actual Thomas Fire raging near The Thacher School.

These firefighters are taking preventive measures to stop the Thomas Fire from scorching this hillside next to the school property.

They're conducting a controlled burn.

This is where firefighters prep an area so it burns safely.

Firefighters basically burn this area off so it doesn't burn in an uncontrolled fashion later.

Chris Harvey explained some of these preventive measures when we spoke with him at the Ventura command post earlier.

There's brush-clearing.

We also have some livestock vegetation management where, where possible, we'll get sheep and goats out in these areas to try and graze and knock some of those fire fuels down.

We do use live fire where possible, and, when we can safely do it, We will reduce fire fuels by doing controlled burns or prescribed burns, and then there's physical -- actual removing the fuel, so disking, mowing, plowing, felling trees, removing low-hanging branches.

They'll often cut branches up higher so they can't be ignited -- what we can call ladder fuels, where a fire on the ground will ignite those low-hanging branches.

So there's a number of different techniques that we can use to get those fire fuels reduced.

Wildfires, particularly forest fires, can actually the environment.

They can rid forested areas of dead and decaying matter and provide natural fuel during drought periods.

They can also help the ecosystem balance because they destroy diseased plants and dangerous insects, and the fires even regenerate seeds because of the increased sunlight.

Unfortunately, the Thomas Fire is just wreaking havoc with a perfect storm of conditions to devastate Southern California.

We hiked through part of the Ojai Valley wilderness.

This highway has just been closed off to pedestrians and motorists.

There have been mandatory evacuations all throughout this area.

There are many homes on the other side of this hill, and it's kind of eerie not seeing anyone out here.

This snapshot of the Thomas Fire is a good example of what fire crews are battling from the ground all throughout Ventura County and Ojai.

When you mix urban sprawl with a wilderness setting, this is what you get, and because of the drought that we've had here in Southern California for so many years, the entire Southern California region is now an inferno, and this is how it begins.

Firefighters have left this area because they were concerned that there was, moments ago, a 40-foot wall of flames here.

We decided to drive through here just to give you a look.

I need the mask.

It's bad out here.

Pretty concerned.

We live only about a block-and-a-half away from where we are standing right now.

We have three small children, and, you know, obviously, our first priority, and we have three animals, So our first priority is, you know, us being away from the area and being safe.

While neighbors like the Kellys get their view of the Thomas Fire from the ground, NASA is getting its view of the fire from 70,000 feet aboveground.

A team of NASA scientists is using this high-altitude aircraft to survey the Southern California region to study the environmental impacts the fires are causing.

The aircraft is equipped with a high-tech imaging spectrometer built in NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

It's called AVIRIS, the Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer.

AVIRIS collects images through smoke and dust to study the ground surface below -- things like trees and other foliage that become fuel for wildfires, water content in leaves, particle matter in the air produced from the smoke, and it accurately measures fire temperatures.

While this technology helps scientists learn about wildfire cause and prevention and the collateral damage to the environment, it is still ultimately the boots on the ground that have the best perspective.

We've had a long history of destructive and catastrophic wildfires in Southern California.

We do take a very personal feeling to what's going on here, so I hate to say this, but this could continue to be a very explosive and expansive event.

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... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪