SciTech Now Episode 605

In this episode of SciTech Now, the periodic table as a podcast, fostering next generation sustainability, the science of surf forecasting and the quest to unlock fusion energy.



Coming up, the periodic table of elements as a podcast...

If you take each element on the periodic table, somebody had to go find those, or we've had them for thousands of years.

...fostering next generation's sustainability...

They're very dedicated, and they're honest, wonderful people.

...the science of surf forecasting...

We can plan our lives a little bit better knowing that, hey, you know, in 3 days, the wind and the swell is going to be here.

...the quest to unlock fusion energy.

Fusion is, in many ways, an ultimate source of energy.

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 and technology and innovation.

Let's get started.

It's a familiar sight in every chemistry class: the periodic table of elements.

But beyond the chart, with its symbols and names, there's a separate and sometimes surprising story about every element.

Our guest, Thomas Appleton, tells those stories as host of the podcast 'The Episodic Table of Elements.'

He also works with us here at WNET as part of our Membership Department.

Thank you for joining us.

Thank you for having me.

All right.

So, how in the world can you get an entire podcast out of every element?

It sounds like the most boring thing in the world, this thing that you've seen in every science classroom since fifth grade.

But that's only kind of because of the way we've looked at it.


If you take each element on the periodic table, somebody had to go find those, or we've had them for thousands of years, so there are dozens of stories.

I have not yet come across an element that didn't have a lot that I needed to leave out.


So probably the most common -- and you've got some props here -- elements that we kind of interact with, let's say it's table salt and sodium that's on every table that we're sitting at or aluminum for aluminum foil.


Or as the Brits say, 'Aluminium.'

Aluminium, yes.

Why did it become so popular?

It's cheap, and it's light, and that's a huge advantage over something like iron, especially if you are trying to perhaps go to space or build an airplane.

For the longest time, we didn't even realize it was locked up in this form called bauxite, which is a kind of clay, and it's the most abundant source of aluminum on the planet, but it takes a tremendous amount of energy to get it out into something like this.


Two guys on either side of the Atlantic simultaneously discovered that you can get this wonder metal for cheap.

Both of them patented it and got in a series of legal disputes.

Where does that debate of aluminium to aluminum... How did that name change?

So the chemist who kind of isolated it first, Humphry Davy, he was rather undecided on the issue, and, at the time, whoever discovered an element kind of got naming rights.

He started with 'alumium.'

He was persuaded to say, 'Aluminum,' for a while and, 'Aluminium,' by other people.

Aluminium was actually the preferred pronunciation in the United States for the longest time until the late 19th century when that patent battle came up.


The man who had patented his process and wanted to sell the most aluminum may have accidentally left out that I at first, but he realized aluminum sounds kind of like platinum.

Platinum is very expensive.

Maybe I can make a couple extra bucks by making this sound pretty good.

So, really, it's just a marketing tool.

Like so many things.

Like so many things.

And so as you go through this periodic table, what's been the element that has been most interesting to you so far?

The one that I think about the most is probably nitrogen because in the episode on nitrogen, I spend some time talking about Fritz Haber, who is half of the team that came up with the Haber-Bosch process that allows billions of people in the world to eat.

It's synthetic fertilizer, but he didn't invent that process out of the goodness of his heart.

He was a German in the early 1910s who wanted to make sure that Germany could produce bombs whenever they needed them, and this was a chemical process that assisted the German army in World War I, and he went on to basically invent chemical weapons.

So the same person that gave us chemical weapons also gave us the nitrogen in fertilizers, but it was really in the by-product of trying to build better bombs.


So there's all these sort of unintended consequences that come from this research into doing something really bad, but we actually get this thing that's incredibly important.

He's a difficult man to get your head around.

He's responsible for the deaths of millions and the lives of billions.

Huh. All right.

Thomas Appleton, podcaster extraordinaire, 'The Episodic Table of Elements.'

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you very much.

And now, here's the story behind one of the elements in the periodic table.

We learn more in this excerpt from 'The Episodic Table of Elements' podcast.

You're listening to 'The Episodic Table of Elements,' and I'm T.R. Appleton.

This week, we're taking a look at element one: Hydrogen.

We send a lot of different kinds of things into space -- GPS and communication satellites and Mars landers and even other people.

But, in 1946, what physicist Lyman Spitzer wanted to put in orbit was a telescope.

Terrestrial telescopes are great for looking at objects that are relatively close to Earth like the moon or other planets in the solar system.

But when trying to observe bodies farther out in the Milky Way and beyond, the job becomes a lot tougher.

Factors like light pollution and atmospheric refraction and bad weather all make it extremely difficult to get a clear picture of these dim and distant objects.

The vacuum of space suffers none of these problems.

So, under Spitzer's guidance, NASA proposed the Hubble Space Telescope.

The telescope was finally actually ready for launch in 1986, but when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January of that year, all planned missions were scrubbed until further notice.

For the Hubble, this meant it would remain earthbound until April 1990.

After such a long wait, NASA was champing at the bit to show off what their new toy could do.

A public relations officer invited the press to witness the transmission of Hubble's very first photograph.

Unfortunately, the photograph was quite remarkable for how bad it was.

Stars that should have appeared razor-sharp were far from it.

On December 2, 1993, almost 4 years after Hubble's launch, astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavor began their mission to fix the Hubble.

It required a record-setting five space walks over 11 days performing delicate, complicated tasks all while wearing a space suit that makes it exhausting just to move.

The astronauts completed their mission without incident.

The Hubble would go on to take hundreds of photographs that would amaze the viewing public.

It would capture entire galaxies colliding in slow motion, photograph nebulae that looked like enormous, watchful eyes, and peer so deeply into space that it revealed a time when the universe was brand new.

But perhaps the most famous photograph the Hubble ever took is one that makes an appropriate place for us to end our journey.

Only a few months after its repair, the telescope turned its eye to a region of the Eagle Nebula, revealing enormous columns of hydrogen gas towering light-years high.

The image was poetically named 'The Pillars of Creation,' and that's quite appropriate.

A collection of hydrogen gas like this is sometimes called a stellar nursery because, over time, that hydrogen will coalesce and condense under its own gravity, culminating in a series of bright nuclear explosions that herald the birth of a new star.

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Students from Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, California, are working towards environmental sustainability by organizing community trash pickups and trying to shift the culture for the next generation.

We get the story from PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Lab.

Climate change and global warming are very controversial topics often discussed today.

Public interest in this controversy has grown over the past century.

However, a majority of the momentum has come from the past decade.

With the increase of concern for the environment, many are looking to transform societal ways for the better.

At Canyon High School, the environmental club Eco-Chicos promotes clean environmental habits, volunteering time to improve their natural surroundings, and influencing other teens in the community to do the same.

The main purpose of this club is to promote sustainability, increase or raise awareness of the environmental crises and also encourage students to be better stewards of the environment, engage them directly in being part of the solution.

Not only are students learning how to become a part of the solution, they're actively working towards resolving environmental issues that are prevalent in their community.

This past year, we've done many different projects locally and also close to our community.

So we started off with the River Rally, in which we went out and cleaned at the Santa Clara riverbed.

The next project, we went to Santa Monica Beach, which is our closest beach, our local beach, if you will -- so a lot of students and residents go there.

So we went out and then cleaned up the beach, which will reduce the amount of pollution, plastic, and trash that will go into the ocean.

Along with hosting large-scale community cleanups, they also have other plans for helping our environment, which are beneficial in more ways than one, such as hikes and tree planting events.

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, environmentalist and executive director of a community hiking club, has been working with Eco-Chicos on stewardship events for the past few years and has witnessed the hard work and dedication of these young students.

Eco-Chicos is an amazing organization.

I've been doing stewardship events since I was 2 years old, and now that I'm getting to this older age, I'm worried that no one else is going to be doing that.

You know, it's very difficult to get people to go out and plant trees and pick up garbage, and Eco-Chicos has just been an amazing organization.

They've helped me pick up micro-trash to help save the condors.

They've gone on hikes with me and picked up trash, and they're very dedicated, and they're honest, wonderful people.

As time passes, younger generations are rising to address environmental issues that have come rampant in communities worldwide.

But what motivates these young men and women to take action against these issues?

Teens are interested in becoming more engaged and directly involved in groups like this because they feel that they can give back.

They can actually participate, and I feel that they feel more of an urgency to do so, perhaps more than previous generations.

Teens feel that this is their cause.

The environmental challenges, the crises that we're confronting, this will be something that they're going to be inherited.

As a result of the efforts of student volunteers, visible improvements in local ecosystems are widespread.

Not only that, the club has effectively changed the culture when it comes to environmentally friendly habits.

We've seen that more and more, students are recycling.

More and more students are using reusable bottles.

We see that they're willing to give up their Saturdays and Sundays to go out and clean up, you know, the riverbed or the beach or restore an area.

So we see that the community is a little bit cleaner due to our efforts.

With the rise of environmental awareness, clubs and organizations like Eco-Chicos will continue to form to fight this ever-growing issue, but, more importantly, current generations will carry their awareness to future generations, as well.

We have to protect our water.

We have to protect our oceans.

We have to protect our trees, and they're doing that.

They can't go to Africa and save the rhinos or save the elephants, but they can do it here.

They can stay here in our little corner of the world and make our place a little bitter.

And when it comes down to it, it's all about taking care of your own backyard, taking care of your own local community.

If we all do our part around the world and we apply that, we would have a better, cleaner, safer, and more just world.

Surfers might not know it, but every day, they benefit from research done decades ago by legendary oceanographer Walter Munk.

Up next, we hear about how Munk pioneered surf forecasting.

The water level is definitely higher.

23-year-old Taylor Moreheart scans the ocean at San Diego's Tourmaline Surf Park between Pacific Beach and La Jolla.

This guy has got a really good wave.

Really, it's kind of, like, looking at it and seeing who's having the most fun and kind of, like, feeding off their energy, really.


Moreheart started surfing here when she was 7.

It was something she did off and on since then, and now she counts it as one of her passions.

I think the connection you feel with the ocean... The ocean controls my mood.

Moreheart has had plenty of company through the years.

72-year-old Lynn Sparks has been dipping his toes in the San Diego surf for six decades.

When he started, it was quite an effort to get to the beach.

We just carried the board, double carried down the hill here, and we went in the water no matter how bad it was, and we got really cold.

And we had to run all the way down to the beach to a Food Basket that was down there on Garnet to get a bunch of wooden crates so we could come back here and make a fire just so we could go out one more time.

Sparks and his friends didn't enjoy the luxury of wet suits or surfing forecasts.

He actually didn't know until he got to the beach what those conditions would be like.

You just had to come down and check it out.

Until you got a car, you just went down and whatever there was there, you went out and had fun with it with all your friends.

Hitting the beach when the waves were rolling was a gamble in the old days.

It was all quite hazy, and no one really knew when the waves were going to be good.

Scott Bass reports on surfing conditions for KPBS.

He says, 'Committed surfers allow the uncertainty of the ocean to shape their lives.

People actually chose jobs, schools, or even partners that were flexible enough to let them change plans at a moment's notice if good waves were hitting the shore.'

Bass says, 'Science has changed that.'

We're not so much at the beck and call of a hope and a prayer that we're going to be there when it's good.

We can plan our lives a little bit better knowing that, hey, you know, in 3 days, the wind and the swell is going to be here, and so you don't have to worry for the next 2 days.

You can actually get your responsibilities taken care of.

Surf cams beam current conditions over the Internet, and forecasts have become much more sophisticated.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher Dale Stokes credits famed oceanographer Walter Munk.

Walter's work was instrumental in figuring that out, and it forms the basis of a lot of surf predictions that you see online today.

They've just sort of tweaked the calculations a little bit based on Walter's original theories, and that's what we use to model surf hitting the coast all around the world.

Munk pioneered his surf forecasting models for the military.

He famously predicted wave conditions on D-Day, clearing the way for the Allied invasion of German-occupied France, but Stoke says it was Munk's far-reaching work after the war that cemented his title as the 'Father of Surf Forecasting.'

He set up research stations from stormy Antarctica to Alaska and tracked the waves as they moved across the Pacific.

Where oceans swell and where waves originated and how they travel around the world, and Walter was instrumental in solving some of those problems.

Munk's illustrious career ended earlier this month with his death, but his contribution to a signature Southern California passion will live on well into the future.

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Scientists have been working to unlock fusion energy for nearly 70 years.

Now, a lab in New Jersey may be close.

We go into the lab to get the details.

What if there was a way to recreate the process that powers the sun and the stars, a way to bottle it on Earth as a new source of energy for the world?

Sounds impossible, but scientists have been working to achieve fusion energy for nearly 70 years.

What happens in the center of the sun is you have really, really hot and dense conditions, really high pressure, and atoms in those conditions are forced together, and when they collide, they collide with enough force that they fuse and turn into heavier atoms.

So hydrogen turns into helium, and in the process, a whole lot of energy is released, and so what we're trying to do for fusion energy is to recreate those same kind of conditions on Earth.

Plasma physicist Andrew Zwicker gave us a tour of an experimental fusion device at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the United States' national laboratory for fusion energy.

It's managed by Princeton University for the Department of Energy.

This type of device is called a tokamak.

So how do scientists think they can use it to recreate the process that's happening in the sun on the Earth?

Here's how it works.

We start off with something that's shaped more or less like a hollow doughnut, but it's made out of stainless steel, and that's our vacuum vessel.

We take all of the air out of that so that we recreate conditions close to what's in outer space.

We then put a small amount of hydrogen gas into this doughnut, into this vacuum vessel, and the reason why we are doing this is because we want them to fuse.

We want the hydrogen to fuse into helium.

So the way we're going to do that is we're going to heat it up so that the hydrogen moves faster and faster and faster until when they collide, they collide with enough kinetic energy to fuse into helium, and then they give off some energy.

For them to fuse, they have to be traveling at an incredibly high speed, which is equivalent to a temperature of 150 million degrees, 10 times hotter than the core of the sun.

And then, we need to hold on to it, and the way the sun does that is with gravity, but we can't do that here on Earth, so we use very powerful magnets.

And so the blue bars that are going this way or some of the red ones over here are powerful electromagnets, and that allows us to hold on to this hot plasma and create a magnetic bottle.

And so if we can hold on to it with our magnets, if we can heat it up hot enough for fusion to occur often enough, then we are creating a fusion reactor.

What makes it an attractive energy source compared to current forms of energy?

The raw fuel is the starting point, so the raw fuel for fusion is hydrogen.

We can extract hydrogen from the oceans.

We have enough for many billions of years -- so, essentially, forever -- and the process itself doesn't need very much fuel.

Just 100 pounds of fuel would power a city of 100,000 people for over a year.

Fusion does not contribute to global warming.

It doesn't produce any greenhouse gases.

Unlike solar, it doesn't need the sun to shine, and, unlike wind, it doesn't need the wind to blow, and, unlike fission, which is what most people think about when they think about nuclear energy, it doesn't have any of this long-lived dangerous radiation that we have to worry about what we're going to do with when we're done burning it in a fission reactor.

So fusion is, in many ways, an ultimate source of energy -- clean, unlimited, safe.

New Jersey has been a leader in fusion energy since the 1950s, around the time this laboratory was built.

It grew significantly in the '70s, during the energy crisis in the Carter era.

There were experiments in the early '70s, the Princeton Large Torus, that actually demonstrated we could get the plasmas to the temperatures that we need for fusion to happen, and that really opened up the possibilities for fusion worldwide.

A big challenge is being able to produce more energy than it requires to run a device.

Thirty-five countries, including the Unites States, are working together to build what they believe will be the first industrial-scale fusion energy tokamak.

It's called ITER.

The countries working together represent more than half the world's population.

Each is designing multiple pieces of ITER.

We're very supportive of ITER.

ITER still has some research needs that we're contributing to solving before it operates.

The head of communications of the ITER organization believes they will have an operational machine by 2025, and he says, 'You could potentially start building commercial machines by the 2040s if funding keeps pace.'

Tokamaks have been done around the world, really, since the very, very late 1950s, and they've always... There have been hundreds.

However, they've always been too small.

The tokamak we're building, it's going to weigh about the same as the Empire State Building, but it's just a lot, lot more compact, and you need that size in order to achieve the output over the input.

But not all scientists believe ITER is the best way to achieve fusion energy.

Private companies like General Fusion, which is backed by big investors including Amazon's Jeff Bezos, believe they can take different approaches to get a result faster and cheaper.

There's been a real wave of private companies emerging and developing, and all of them, including ourselves, are looking at time frames, which are on or around a decade, so early 2030s, to get to a practical power plant.

You could go to sites which maybe have an old coal plant that's be decommissioned, and you can use the transmission infrastructure that's there to build a fusion power plant and plug right in, and so, in that way, it's really friendly in terms of working with the grid that we have.

Then, you have LPPFusion in Middlesex.

It's a grassroots operation working out of a storage facility.

It isn't as grand a production as others around the world, but Chief Scientist Eric Lerner believes his team can create a device that generates more energy than it consumes, and they hope to have it completed by 2021.

If we get to that point, we estimate that a development program to turn this device into a generator that rolls down an assembly line like a car would take 3 or 4 years with adequate funding.

Instead of using a tokamak, he's working with a device called a dense plasma focus.

So this device was invented about the same time as the tokamak in the 1960s, but decisions were made, which I think were... and many people think were wrong decisions to concentrate all the money on the tokamak.

There are about 40 other groups around the world who work with this device, but as far as we know, we're the only one that's actually aiming for fusion.

So this is the actual size of the heart of the machine.

His target generator would be about 3 tons.

To put that into perspective, ITER weighs about 365,000 tons.

That's actually an advantage because that gives you distributed power.

That means that huge blackouts become impossible because each neighborhood, each town has its own generator.

Every one of those concepts has got a different twist on how we're pursuing it, and every one of them has risks involved, but you have to look at the whole field and say, you know, 'What are the odds that one of us or more than one of us are going to succeed in that time frame?'

and we think it's pretty good, and, of course, we really like our chances.

So while everyone is betting on their device to succeed, each person we spoke with was supportive of the work being done.

So the competition here is Mother Nature, not each other.

It's referred to as the largest and most complex science experiment with the potential to change the world.

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, and, until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪