SciTech Now Episode 508

In this episode of SciTech Now, discover how to grow coral; learn which NASA level technology exists on our cell phones; explore fashion forward science, and dive into the science of the perfect beer.



Coming up, growing coral.

We are working with propagating and restoration with the ultimate goal of helping corals in the wild to be self-sustaining.

NASA-level technology in our cellphones.

Every year, four billion of these cameras are being made.

Fashion-forward science.

I think it's -- We're at this very exciting moment where fashion and glossy fashion and design meets science.

The science of the perfect beer.

I think, for me, brewing is like 90 percent science and 10 percent magic.

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.

According to a 2017 study by the UN, coral reefs may cease to exist by the end of the century.

In an effort to save these vital ecosystems, biologists at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta are growing coral in labs.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.


I love working with corals because of the diversity of them, the brilliant colors that they have, the different textures that they can create.

Coral is a colony, and each polyp is actually an individual animal itself.

And when you start to see those animals do what they naturally do, when it comes to reproduction, you feel pretty privileged to witness such a beautiful process and just hope you can help.

♪♪ We do a lot of work here at the Georgia Aquarium with corals.

Part of my role here is to help create habitats.

So, behind me, you see one of our creations, which is the Indo-Pacific Reef tank.

It's about 16 feet deep.

It's 164,000 gallons.

It's pretty cool.

I work with a team of biologists to take what we've learned with caring for corals in this setting and be able to bring it out into the field and be able to help the wild population.

We are working with propagating and restoration, with the ultimate goal of helping corals in the wild to be self-sustaining.

First of all, corals are actually animals.

They're in a group called cnidarians, but within their tissue, they have algae cells called zooxanthellae that are photosynthetic, but it's a symbiotic relationship.

The coral itself provides a home for those cells to live in, and the by-product of those cells give nutrients to the coral itself, too, so it's kind of a win-win for both sides.

You hear that term 'bleaching,' corals are bleaching.

Bleaching is the process of the zooxanthellae leaving the tissue of the coral, and if it doesn't reabsorb zooxanthellae quickly, then, unfortunately, the coral will actually die because it does need the nutrients and the by-product of the zooxanthellae to continue to be healthy and to survive.

♪♪ We work with the Coral Restoration Foundation in the Florida Keys, and what they have out there is an underwater nursery.

Corals have a very unique reproduction style.

The two species that we specifically work with, which is the staghorn coral and the elkhorn coral, reproduce only one week a year.

It's crazy.

So, they're basically cued on the tide, the lunar cycle, and the temperature of the ocean.

They wait for the high tide at night because that's when the current is the strongest, so when they release their eggs and sperm, they have just the right conditions for them to mix and find each other.

But, unfortunately, right now, there's a lot of distance between the corals, so they're having a hard time finding each other when they are ready to reproduce.

So that's where we come into play.

We work as a team in the collection of the gametes.

We basically separate out the sperm and the egg so we know we're getting a different genetic makeup, and then we combine the eggs and sperm to produce a free-swimming planula -- or larvae, so to speak -- and then we bring the planula back out onto the reef, and we disperse it out into the reef for them to just survive and thrive and grow.

So, the main goal out there is to get a large, diverse genetic population so over time they can do it all on their own and we don't have to be out there to help them find each other.

We basically take a small subset of what we were able to fertilize in the wild and bring that back to do our own research so we can know what it needs in the wild in order to survive.

What you see right here along these shelves are plugs and tiles that are in the process of being seeded.

So, we utilize subadults to help provide the zooxanthellae to the baby corals when they're placed in here after spawning.

And it takes a while for that coral and algae to grow on that material, so we try to give it as many months as possible.

So, what we're looking at right now is one of our settled corals from coral spawning down in Key Largo.

We have named him Baby Groot.

And some of the things that we look for when we check on him -- the coloration of the tissue, number of polyps that have developed.

We also look for the base of the coral to be encrusting along the settlement material, which he's doing right now, which is good.

This is probably about nine years' worth of work trying to get to this point, but he looks really, really good right now.

He looks beautiful today, actually.

I think it certainly is an uphill battle, but it's a battle that I think we have to fight for them.

They need our help.

As a biologist, you have to be very comfortable with failure, but with failure comes success.

We might not know what's going to happen to the reefs, but I want to make sure that, in the future, I can look at my daughter and say, 'I tried.'

♪♪ ♪♪

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

She is the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

She joins me now to discuss how satellite cameras made by NASA became the cameras in our cellphones.

I mean, I -- I... You know, I haven't picked up my old-fashioned camera in a long time.


This is the default camera that I use.

Right, right.

And they're everywhere.

They are.

They're ubiquitous.

But that technology for the camera, you have NASA to thank for that.

How did it get from NASA to here?

Well, NASA had a problem.

Just like you're packing up a car and you're trying to fill up the trunk, or if you're trying to put stuff in the overhead, they have a limited amount of space that they can put up there, and they had a camera called a CCD camera -- charge-coupled device camera -- that was quite large.

Some of them are as big as a washing machine, and that's not going to work.


So, there was a very smart scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This is the time when microelectronics are becoming hot.

He's like, 'Well, look.

Why don't we figure out how to make a camera on a chip?'

And so that's what he made.

It's called a CMOS chip.

It's complementary metal-oxide semiconductor, and all that's doing is telling you what it's made out of.

Scientists are not particularly good at marketing names, but that's what it's called.

And so, this chip became ubiquitous.

It was used in satellites.

Before, they used to be able to take pictures at one angle, but now they can take it at multiple angles with the satellite.

But then it started to have other uses, as well.

It's in your cellphone.

And, every year, four billion of these cameras are being made.

Are these cameras, the lenses, are they going to get better and better and better?

Have they plateaued?

Or are there just different use cases for them now?

Well, they're making better cameras.

So, they... I don't know what the next generation entails, because they wouldn't share that with me, but they are always making better cameras.

You can have greater sensitivity.

You can have different types of lenses.

But I don't know what the next gen is -- all the specifications for the next generation, but I do know that they're working on it.

Is it influencing how we communicate?

It seems that images have become more and more important to try and get a point across.

I think we're definitely in this visual era.

I mean, we used to be more where we listened to things.

You would read a book or you would hear someone, maybe a lecture, but now it's all visual, and that seems to be the way that we communicate.

You know, sometimes you can get a text, and it doesn't even have a message.

It's just a picture.

What happens -- Now, this is the camera that NASA had years and years and years ago.

It's finally in our cellphones.


What have they got now, and how long does it take to get that?

Well, they had both.

They don't bring them back.

I mean, they're... [ Both chuckle ] It just keeps going.


You know, and that's the reason why it was great to have the technology, to have digital cameras, because if they had film, they would take pictures, but we would never get them back because we can't process them.

You know, what I always wonder about is the satellites that NASA had sent up into space decades ago...


The images that we're getting back from these far-off places, those are with pretty old, old, old camera technology.

Yeah, it's those cameras that, you know, when your uncle had that was this -- that huge.

I mean, that's the CCD camera.

So the satellites we're sending up today will obviously have at least the off-the-shelf technology, if not something better.

They'll have better.


All right, Ainissa Ramirez.

Thanks so much.

Thank you.

Fast fashion is all the rage, but there are environmental consequences to making clothes quickly and inexpensively.

In this next segment, a team of scientists look to plants and solar energy for a new way to create nylon.

Here's the story.

In the fast-fashion industry, it's all about quick turnaround from trendy design to take-home garment.

That's why nylon is a preferred fabric in this arena.

It's strong, shrink-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, and cheap to produce, but it's not environmentally friendly.

Nylon is a kind of plastic created from chemicals found in petroleum, a natural but nonrenewable resource, and the energy that fuels the chemical process to create nylon is also mostly generated from coal and natural gas.

It's actually the same...

Now scientists are changing the fabric of fast fashion.

Researchers at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering are developing a more sustainable nylon.

They start by using chemicals from plants to create the nylon.

The team would also use solar energy to power the production process, making this material even more environmentally friendly.

They call it the Solar Textiles Project, and it's already generating buzz.

The team received a 2016 Global Change Award research grant for environmental sustainability in fashion from the H&M Foundation, the nonprofit arm of global fast-fashion retailer H&M.

Assistant Professor Miguel Modestino heads up the project.

The concept behind Solar Textiles is trying to go from CO2, sunlight, and water, and then create a textile.

Instead of starting with petroleum, Modestino's process would start with plants.

So, you have a plant of corn.

Then you take the corn out, and then you use that corn for food, but then you have the plant left behind.

So people, what they usually do is they cut them and then they throw it away, or they use it for, like, you know, not-high-value products.

So, we can take that and chemically transform it into diesel that you can use to run your car, and then the waste that is produced in the diesel-production process, we can take and then transform that into nylon.

Just starting the process with plant waste would prevent carbon emissions from hitting the air, simply by not working with petroleum by-product.

To put this in perspective, Modestino says if all the nylon in the world was produced from plants, approximately 4.7 million tons of carbon dioxide would be captured by textiles each year.

Then there are the carbon emissions typically generated from transforming petrochemical by-product to the nylon fabric.

These chemical processes require electricity and heat that would usually pull energy from a grid, energy often created by coal and natural gas.

In Modestino's process, these steps would utilize energy from the sun.

As you can imagine, having now a solar farm that is capturing your energy from the sun, that is attached directly to a chemical plant on the side, that is producing the chemicals that you want.

Modestino also envisions using the sun to generate heat for two thermochemical reactions that turn chemical compounds into nylon.

He proposes using a solar concentrator, a mechanism that focuses the sun's heat in the way a magnifying glass would be used to start a fire.

You use a solar concentrator to provide the heat necessary for those two steps to produce an acid and a base that will react and produce a salt, and that salt you can polymerize into nylon also through a thermochemical step.

The result is a sticky substance that will be rinsed, melted down, and spun into thread.

So, this is nylon that polymerized in the interface.

You grab it, and you pull it out, and then you can, like, roll it like this.

On a molecular level, this eco-friendly nylon is exactly the same as the nylon in these jackets.

For the H&M Foundation, it could be an important step toward their goal -- a more environmentally-sustainable fashion industry.

If we can make nylon, which is an oil-based product -- if we can make that not from oil but from something else, and it's the same product, so it does not mean a compromise for you as a customer, then that's a whole-new avenue in how to produce things.

Bang says this would be a tremendous innovation for the fashion industry.

Not only that, but the plant-based method would be of particular interest to the retail arm of H&M.

They plan to become climate-positive by the year 2040, meaning the company will reduce more greenhouse-gas emissions than it emits.

I think it's -- We're at this very exciting moment where fashion and glossy fashion and design meets science, and it's where these super unexpected and interesting junctions and where new solutions come alive and where people start to think outside of the box.

The Solar Textiles team is still in the research phase, but they plan to start approaching companies that produce nylon through the connections the team has made via the H&M Foundation.

And for them, it's magical, right, because they believe in a fast-fashion production process -- the H&M company.

So, of course, they're highly unsustainable, but if you manage to create your clothes from CO2 that you capture from air, then by producing clothes faster, then you're contributing to alleviate the environmental issues faster.

♪♪ ♪♪

Ever wonder how your favorite beer is made?

Experts and amateur brewers alike use a combination of chemical and technological techniques to achieve their perfect beer.

Here's a look.


I used to say, earlier on in my career, 'If you master the art, the science will naturally follow.'

That's kind of true, because in order to understand how to make beer, you're dealing with science almost if you're not knowing you're dealing with science.

Once you get to this level, consistency and quality is such a major factor in what we do that the science is now helping us create a better product.

So, we're Willow Rock Brewing Company.

He's Kevin Williams.

I'm Rockney Roberts.

We started this, basically, from a love of home brewing.

We home brewed for about eight or nine years and decided eventually that, you know, we didn't want to work for a living and we wanted to make beer for the rest of our lives.


I decided to get into home brewing because I really needed a winter hobby.

Winters here in Syracuse are long and gray, and it's... You know, I definitely got to a point where I knew I needed something constructive and productive to do during the winter, and, you know, pretty much love at first malt.

[ Drill whirs ] One of the interesting things about home brewing is that the general process is really not that different on a home-brew scale or a professional scale.

You're really trying to accomplish the same thing.

So, step number one, creating your water profile, is one of the most important things you can do.

We have to put our water, our brewing water that we use, through a reverse-osmosis system mainly because the village of Cazenovia, the water here naturally is so hard, they soften it at the municipality.

Well, how do you soften water?

You do that by adding sodium to it.

Certain levels of sodium are okay in brewing beer, but high levels of sodium are not okay for brewing beer, and when it comes to sodium, once it's in there, it's in there, and you have to remove it.

So, we put that through reverse osmosis, and what that does is it basically gives us a clean slate to work with.

What we'll then do is we'll go and look through water profiles that we're trying to achieve, be it a certain region of the world, or certain beer styles are known for certain water profiles.

We'll then go ahead and add minerals and salts back into the water before we use it to brew.

What you're doing, really, is you're using your malts to get your sugars, and that's gonna be very important later on in the process.

You do that by soaking your malt in a hot bath, essentially, and that draws the sugar out from the grain.

So, you can do it in multiple vessels.

So, you have your mash tun, which is a separate vessel which you mash in.

You heat the water, you add it, you add the grains.

I like this for its simplicity.

You only need your kettle.

I mash in here, and when I'm done mashing, I'll bring out the bag with all the grains still in it, leaving behind the nice, sugary wort, and then I can just start up the boil right there in the same kettle.

So, what we're doing now is very manually mixing in grain with our treated strike water.

What we're looking for here, basically, is a certain temperature range where we get some enzymatic action that's gonna turn the starches in the malted barley into sugars, because that's what we're gonna be looking for as we move through the rest of the process to make the alcohol.

We're specifically targeting beta and alpha amylase because what that'll do is that'll assist in breaking down some of the longer chain starches so that we get more maltose, which is an easily fermentable sugar.

It just makes it easier for your yeast, and it allows your beer to finish kind of dry and crisp.

All of those variables change with the temperature of the water that's coming in, so what we're targeting now in the batch that we're making is the lower end.

So, we're looking for a lot of those easily fermentable sugars so that we do get a nice, dry, crisp final product.


Nice semi mash.

Kind of like a porridge.

So, in this beer, we target 151 degrees, so you'll see our mash is pretty good right now.

Kevin'S done a great job of kind of mixing everything together.

You'll see that, as he stirs, there's no clumps or anything like that.

So, basically, you're making sure that all of the available starches in the malt are exposed to the proper temperature of liquid, because that's what's gonna get you the maximum conversion efficiency.


You take the grains out, and you have this nice, sugary liquid left over.

You boil that, and during the boil, you add hops.

These will add components of flavor and aroma, and they also provide the very important bitterness that balances out the initial sweetness of the wort.

Hops contain an acid inside of them that's called alpha acids that's created when the hops are grown.

That alpha acid is contained inside a little -- what's called a lupulin gland inside the cone of the hop.

That's where all the goodness is, and that's really what you're trying to extract.

Again, that flavor and aroma will not be pulled out of that lupulin gland or that alpha acid unless it's at a certain temperature, so the boiling process is gonna help you determine, as I stated earlier in the process, what your beer is gonna actually taste like.

And it used to be thought that you should never dry hop during active fermentation, but what they're discovering now is that if you put in hops during active fermentation, the yeast actually interacts with the hop oils in such a way that it creates new flavor compounds.

When you're done, you get to add your yeast.

Yeast is a living organism, and then that goes to town on all the sugars in the liquid.

The yeast eats sugar, and then the by-products of that is alcohol and CO2.

So, this is the stir plate.

Built this using a computer fan and rare-earth magnets.

And...once you have your starter in here, there's a stir bar, and it's magnetized, and it'll be stirred -- literally stirred around by the magnets attached to the computer fan.

[ Stir plate rattling ] ♪♪ And what that does is it keeps the yeast in solution so it keeps eating away at the sugars in there, and it keeps oxygen being introduced.

It keeps it at the right stage for the reproduction.

When you get to this level, technology becomes important because of consistency.

You know, you can brew very basic -- you can have very basic systems, but the problem that you run into is if things aren't being done exactly the same way exactly the same time by whoever's making the beer, you're gonna notice slight inconsistencies.

Technology helps us be consistent as far as temperatures and controls and gallonage of water and speeds at which things move throughout the system in order to create a consistent product.

That's very important, again, once you get to this level.

Your customer, if they grab your IPA off the shelf and they really like it, the next time they go back to that six-pack, they want it to taste the same as it did the time before.


Normally, mashing would be done in a single vessel.

Given the uniqueness of our smaller brewing system, everything is kind of done in two separate tanks, and we manifold it all together.

It's not the most efficient way to do it.

However, it does allow us to make the largest volume of beer given...the small vessels that we have.

As far as hops go, there's a lot of technology that's advancing with hop oils, CO2 extracts that are gonna... You know, we're gonna see less and less actual hops, and we're gonna start dealing with more oils and things of that nature.

Those are gonna help in a number of ways as far as efficiency goes.

I think that's where things are mainly gonna trend.


Flavorings -- There's a lot of technology on where you're trying to -- people are trying to make beers that taste like things that really aren't beer -- you know, like pumpkin beer for example, or, you know, cherry beer, those types of flavorings.

There's labs all over the country that are working on developing those flavors to make it easier for us to make beer taste like things other than just using that actual ingredient, and there's nothing wrong with using those actual ingredients.

In fact, I'm a big fan of that, and we do that quite often, but, again, it comes to efficiency and consistency in quality, where those technologies are gonna start helping us out.

[ Pump whirs ]

I think, for me, brewing is like 90 percent science and 10 percent magic.

It's probably 100 percent science, but I don't have a strong science background, so there's, you know, a magic portion to me.

But, really, you don't know exactly what you're getting, especially on a home-brew level, until you pop open that bottle and after you taste the finished product.

And it's just a lot of fun to explore and make something that really is your own.



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... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪