SciTech Now: Episode 619


[ Theme music plays ]

Coming up, how scientists found a giant reservoir of water beneath the ocean floor.

How much water are we talking about here?

We've estimate over half the volume of water in Lake Michigan.

Careers in material sciences.

You have students going and building aircraft parts, F-35 parts, carbon-fiber prosthetics.

Fighting cancer with re-imagined tech.

We talked about extending the application from breast cancer detection to skin cancer.

Citizen science in Alaska.

You put it out there, people get to learn about it, and maybe there's somebody out there that knows more than you do about it.

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.

Scientists searching off the coast between Massachusetts and New Jersey made a surprising find recently.

There's a gigantic aquifer of relatively fresh water trapped in the porous sediments below the ocean floor.

It's believed to be the largest such formation ever found.

Joining me now is the author of the study of the ocean aquifer.

That's Chloe Gustafson.

She's a PhD student in geophysics at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory So, the I think the basic question -- what do you mean there's water under the ocean?

So, this is obviously under the seabed.

How do we know it's there?

Well, first, we know it's there through drilling observation.

So, in the '70s, both oil companies and scientists have drilled there to look at the sediments, and both groups of people found freshwater down there, but these drilling locations are really just pin-point measurements, so people have tried to interpolate between these measurements to infer groundwater might extend farther offshore, but up until our study, no one really knew the extent of offshore groundwater off New Jersey.

How did you map it?

So, we used electromagnetic methods.

So, basically, we use a giant antenna and create an electromagnetic field, and that field induces a response in the seafloor, and it's basically --

You're almost dragging it down along the bottom.

So we're actually towing a transmitter and also four receivers on the ocean surface.


And you can imagine salty water would conduct electricity better than not Salty water.

Salty water has ions in it.


So, basically, there's a different electromagnetic signature between salty water and fresh water.

So, people are gonna say, well, how did the freshwater get there in the first place?

So a lot of the water probably got there during the last glacial maximum.

So, the earth was colder.

A lot of ocean water was taken up by ice sheets, so continental shelves, which are sort of the fringes of continents that were once marine settings, are now terrestrial settings.

And so, much like modern terrestrial aquifers, rain and rivers can fill up sediments with water.

And then in the case of Martha's Vineyard, it's at a high enough latitude where the Laurentide Ice Sheet actually extended all the way down to Martha's Vineyard.

So, melt from the base of the ice sheet and also in front of the ice sheet filled up sediments with fresh water and then the earth warms back up, more sediments are deposited, the ocean rises, and some of that water gets trapped within the sediments.

How much water are we talking about here?

So, between New Jersey and Martha's Vineyard, given the similarity of our two profiles that we mapped, if it is indeed continuous between our two surveys, we've estimated 2,800 cubic kilometers of water.

That's about, well, a billion Olympic swimming pools or over half the volume of water in Lake Michigan.


So, it's a lot of water, and it's likely that north of Martha's Vineyard, there is more freshwater because the Laurentide Ice Sheet was also covering that portion of the continental shelf.

But we really need to go map it.

Now, I said relatively fresh a couple times because it's not the kind that you get out of your faucet.

There's still a little bit of salt in it.

There's still a little bit of salt.

So, drilling on shore in Martha's Vineyard, in some places, it is freshwater.

But as you move off shore, it's less than half the salinity of sea water, but there is still some salty component to it.

It's like brackish water.

So, do you see -- Well, then that would be easier to filter out, right, than pure ocean water.

It would cost less energy to do so.


So do you see some future where people are drilling for water to get that out as a resource?

Because we're seeing lots of parts of the planet that are running dry.


So, maybe on the East Coast of the United States, not so much because we're not really water deprived here right now, and it still would be expensive to establish the infrastructure and then to drill the water and desalinate it, but as we run out of water on land from conventional aquifers, the more expensive offshore aquifers could be a resource.

But there's definitely still a lot of work that needs to be done as far as investigating, is it sustainable?

What happens when we pump out a lot of water from the offshore environment?

So, that's that's definitely a growing field of research right now -- investigating the consequences of extraction.

So, is there something that you're learning or patterns that you're seeing that scientists around the world could look at and say, 'Well, maybe we should look off of our shores around the same areas, that maybe we might have these, as well?'

Well, there's been drilling that has identified offshore low-salinity offshore groundwater on all continents -- or inferred.

There's like a few different categories, but, basically, there's strong evidence that there's this offshore groundwater everywhere.


So, it's your mapping technique could help them now.

Yeah, exactly.

So, the evidence is there, and now we just need to go map it, and we've demonstrated that our technology's a really quick an effective way to do that.

So, what's the next step?

Next step would be write more proposals to get the funding to go map offshore groundwater around the world.

And when you detected this the first time, when you realized that your map was kind of providing you the first look at a connected system, what went through your head?

I mean, it was really exciting.

Our first inversion image that we got, which is basically just a 2-D cross section of the sediments, we were really excited to see that there was still some like fine tuning you can do, playing around with the data, but right away, we saw that this was an extensive, robust system and that our method worked.

This proposal went through, I think, five iterations before it finally got funded because it was sort of a new idea to use this technology to map offshore groundwater.

And once we saw our result and that it matched with what previous drilling had seen.

So, where we thought there was low-salinity water matched up very well with where drilling identified low salinity-water.

That was really exciting.


Chloe Gustafson from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

NASA has captured a new infrared image of the center of our Milky Way galaxy, revealing details that have never been seen before.

Scientists have tried for many years to peer through the dense swirls of dust obscuring many of the Milky Way's fascinating features.

SOFIA, NASA's telescope on an airplane, observed our galaxy's center in infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes but pierces through the dense dust.

Now we can see new details in the curves surrounding the Arches Cluster, the densest concentration of stars in our galaxy.

Also visible is the Quintuplet cluster, with stars that are a million times brighter than our sun.

Our galaxy's supermassive black hole takes shape with a view of the fiery looking ring of gas surrounding it.

NASA created the panorama by combining SOFIA's new crisp image with previous data from the Herschel and Spitzer space telescopes.

Scientists will use the image to study previously hidden facets of our Milky Way galaxy, including how many massive stars are forming here, and to set targets for telescopes of the future, like the James Webb Space Telescope.

Composites are used to create a wide range of items, from kitchen sinks to aerospace parts, and this high-demand industry needs new workers.

In Utah, Weaver State University and Davis Tech are curating programs to help students get hands-on experience in this growing field.

We learn more in this next segment from American Graduate: Getting to Work -- a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Just about anything can be made out of composites now, so things in your home bathtubs, hot tubs, sinks, aircraft parts.

I mean, I could continue going on for hours on things that are made out of deposits.

Composites are two or more materials that are dissimilar that are combined together to make one product stronger than they would be by themselves.

There's some basic things that it takes to make a composite.

You got to have a fiber, and we worked with carbon fibers, Kevlar fibers, and fiberglass fibers.

And then you have to have a matrix system, which is the resin.

And we work with epoxy resins, and it's just a two-part system.

It's got a resin in the hardware that makes makes it solidify when they're mixed together.

If students are interested in manufacturing, in engineering, in composites, when they get that trade school certificate, those technical certificates, they're gaining a lot of hands- on experience.

So, that will make them a lot better engineer.

They take a lot of the technical courses and go through technical programs.

They're gonna have that foundation of how to actually build things, and that reinforces what they learn here.

One of the things I like about our program the most is our philosophy on using fun to teach students how to build all these different parts and operate this advanced equipment.

I've got a guitar right here.

We can teach a student how to build a guitar while teaching them the techniques to build, say, an F-35 part.

Students can go into any of the industries that are using composites.

You have students going and building aircraft parts, F-35 parts, carbon-fiber prosthetics.

There's a lot of outdoor industry here.

There's a lot of aerospace here.

They hire a lot of students out of this program to go work at those companies.

And we have meetings with industry twice a year to make sure that we have the equipment and materials to teach the students how to stay up to date.

If you look at the industry, they're looking for people that are learning not only what is the touch of, how do you put this thing together, whether it's an infusion or a resin transfer mold or a pre-preg.

But the main thing is the why?

'Why does it do what it does' type of thing?

'Cause then you can understand when it comes time to make the next thing.

Composite has two phases.

Well, a composite worker should have two phases also -- the figuring it out and the one that's touching it and doing it.

And those are the best students.

In high school, I took some concurrent enrollment classes, and I had to take them at advanced learning centers.

I didn't like design, so I decided to go into manufacturing, and my dad had been working with plastics and composites, so I did an internship with him at his company and found that I loved composites and everything is moving towards that.

So I knew I'd be guaranteed a job.

So, I decided to go through the plastics and composites, and I just keep falling in love every class I take.

Coming out of high school, didn't really have anything to look forward to as far as, like, football or basketball because of my education.

So, I decided to join the Job Corps program.

They had a nice little college program at Davis Tech here.

So, I joined manufacturing program, which has pretty much the core trades, including composites, and as soon as I got into composites, I loved it.

You have the opportunity to, like, build stuff that you wanted to.

What's nice about Weber itself is, the classes are small, and so there's two of us in one of these classes, and instead of taking exams, she's now helped us bring out some of our wants and desires that we want to build.

And so I've actually been able to make my own sole of a shoe.

It's got the Weber State 'W' on it so every time I walk, it'll imprint Weber State 'W', but I will also have the opportunity to build the rest of the shoe out of composites, as well.

So I'll be able to lay up and see if I can figure out how to make the straps and then the mid-sole and the sole itself.

So, it's really cool.

Being a female in the male- dominated industry, it was hard because girls adapt really well in their environment, but with engineering in a male-dominated field, it's intimidating, especially because most of the teachers are male, as well.

So, the one thing I'd want at least, for sure, females to know is that you're just as smart as them.

And working together is way better because you have different ways of looking at things.

I've learned a lot more than I thought I would have because of the people I'm surrounded by.

A technical education is a good way to pursue a career faster.

I only took like a year to do all compositors, and I'm ready to go into the industry, make some money for myself and after this, go to college.

I think it will be a good stepping stone to better yourself.

A team at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey is working to make skin cancer detection less invasive by reimagining breast cancer scanning technology.

Here's the story.

Finding a spot on your skin can be scary, and the process of identifying skin cancer from a run of the mill mole can make the experience even more unsettling.

That's why researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, are working to replace the current method of detection with a scalpel-free scan.

Associate professor Negar Tavassolian heads up the project.

Currently the way they do it, so if you see a lesion on the skin, you can go to the dermatologist's office.

The dermatologist checks it.

It's a visual inspection, and there's a lot of error in there.

Tavassolian says doctors can miss malignant tumors or may incorrectly flag a benign spot for biopsy.

If it's a benign tissue that doesn't need biopsies, there's a lot of costs involved.

So every year, many, many cases of benign tissues are unnecessarily sent out for biopsy.

So, this has a lot of cost for the health care system.

And on the other hand, it's uncomfortable for the patient.

They have to wait for a while to get their biopsy results back.

It makes them nervous.

So, what's going wrong?

And then it turns out that it was benign.

Alternatively, she says, if a lesion is malignant and the doctor misses the diagnosis, a patient is sent home with undetected cancer.

The biopsy process cannot be replaced entirely.

Tavassolian says the procedure is required for further cellular evaluation of cancerous skin, but a doctor's initial assessment of what sites require a biopsy can be made much more scientific.

We want to eliminate as many unnecessary biopsies as possible and also eliminate many missed cancer tissue as possible.

That's where the team's new scanning device comes in.

Tavassolian says electromagnetic waves have been used to scan for breast cancer for a few decades.

The scanning process is similar to that of an airport security scanner differentiating between a body and other objects.

Waves hit the body and are reflected back.

The backscatter, as it's called, appears differently based on whether, in the case of an airport scanner, the rays hit organic or inorganic or metallic matter.

In the case of a breast cancer scan, backscatter differentiates between normal and cancerous tissue.

We thought about extending the application from breast cancer detection to skin cancer detection.

Actually, in the area of breast cancer detection, there's a lot of work that's being done, but it's mainly stops there, and they don't explore other kinds of cancers or other kinds of diseases with these kinds of rays.

Unlike with breast tissue, it was unknown whether skin tissue would demonstrate an obvious contrast between normal and cancerous cells in its backscatter.

So, first, the team tested their theory on surgically removed skin tissue samples.

We collected over 100 samples from Hackensack University Medical Center, and we measured their reflections, electromagnetic reflections over malignant tumor frequencies from normal and cancer tissues, and we saw that there is a statistically significant contrast between normal and cancer tissues.

From there, the team experimented.

The rays used for scanning skin tissue could not penetrate as deeply as the ones used to scan breast tissue.

But tweaking the frequency of these millimeter waves had to be done without hurting the final images resolution.

Then a mechanism was created to conduct testing.

So, this is a sample of the tissue we collect from doing surgery, and the whole setup is this part.

An analyzer helps generate the millimeter waves, which are then radiated through four antennas.

These rays hit the tissue sample and the backscatter created is then collected by the analyzer.

The reflected and analyzed waves are imported into the computer where they're viewed as an image of the detected tumor.

We collected 21 samples, 13 basal cell carcinomas eight squamous cell carcinomas from Hackensack University Medical Center.

They were all collected after removal surgery, and we were able to do imaging on free samples.

The experimental scanners detection of cancerous tissue, Tavassolian says, was very accurate.

The images created by the team's device were compared side by side with the tissue samples correlating histology images, close up pictures of microscopic cells.

These were provided with the samples by Hackensack University Medical Center for reference.

So, here is a tissue we collected from Hackensack, and these are the images we got, and this is the real histology image of the tissue.

So, the histology shows that we have two tumors.

We can see that two tumors in our images.

The findings are exciting, but more work needs to be done before skin cancer scanning devices can become part of a visit to the local dermatologist.

Our set-up, as I said, is big, is very expensive, and is very slow.

So, we couldn't do real-time images, but we showed that it's possible to see the images.

So the proof of concept is done.

The next step is to make the scanner smaller, faster, and user friendly.

Tavassolian says the team is still a few years away from that goal.

Our hope is that we can minimize the size, we can minimize the costs.

So, our hope is to have a handheld device that is so cheap every doctor can buy one.

And if that happens, patients will no doubt be relieved to get answers about spots on their skin in a matter of seconds rather than brave the wait for biopsy results.

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The local Environmental Observer Network in Alaska helps citizens share their knowledge and observations about unusual animal environment and weather events on land and sea across the state.

Up next, we get the story from PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs.

LEO Network, which stands for Local Environmental Observer, is open to anyone who wants to participate.

And you set up a profile, and you can use your phone or your camera or your computer.

You can post an observation, and then it goes into the system and can be shared with other members.

So, we can see both what's happening at the community, but in broader areas, as well.

It's kind of a...grassroots, maybe.

You get to be part of something.

You don't get to just send something in.

You also get a little bit back, and you learn something.

You know, good chance to see what's happening not only in Alaska, but, you know, other countries, as well, that has anything to do with climate change or anything that deals with the land and the sea.

They've had a lot of erosion in the past year.

This is June 3, 2014.

They just move these racks for hanging bearded seal.

Last year, there were 60 feet from here...all the way out by the four-wheeler.

For example, someone might notice that there's been a die-off of an animal species.

I'm standing here in Jakolof Creek, close to Seldovia.

And this creek -- Every year, my family and I come up here, and we fish for pink salmon.

We've got a cabin pretty close to here, and if you look around me, there's not a lot of pink salmon this year that are gonna be good to catch.

This year, we have no snow and no snow melt.

So, the fish are coming up being brought in by the tide, and they're getting up to here, and as soon as the tide comes out, there is no water for them to sit in, so they're just dying right here, and they're not even spawning.

They're not getting up to their normal spawning grounds.

So they're just getting to the lowest points, where there isn't any water, and they're just dying there.

There's maybe new animals showing up that haven't been there before.

Tropical fish that shows up in someone's salmon net.

And that might sound really far fetched, but it actually happened here in Alaska, when the ocean temperatures got really warm.

So, they can post it to LEO, and then we'll try to help them engage with the monitoring platforms and people that are working on those areas.

This was in April of 2011.

She posted this observation about a seal pup found near Port Heiden.

And she writes, 'This breed is not usually born or sighted in Port Heiden and has longer hair and rounder eyes and different head position.

And she provided some really great pictures of the seal pup that came up on the beach.

It's really become kind of a meeting place for lots of different people to share knowledge.

You've put it out there.

People get to learn about it, and maybe there's somebody out there that knows more than you do about it.

So you get that information back, and, you know, people can start having discussions about things.

For me, it's just being able to observe our community, the land, and what's happening.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website.

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You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

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