Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the more or less weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on September 28th, 2009. I am Steve Mirsky. In this episode, we'll search New York City and the metropolitan area for elusive crickets and katydids, and we will test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. But first, something I've been holding for at least, for awhile, we will hear from Scientific American daily podcast correspondent Cynthia Graber about a very interesting contest at M.I.T.
Steve: The M.I.T. Clean Energy Prize competition—What is that? I know it's pretty new; this was only the second year.
Graber: Yeah. It was fascinating, actually. It was even more interesting than I expected it to be. Last year, in the first year, it was just M.I.T. and this year they expanded it to universities around the country. So there were 113 student groups from 40 universities competing for a number of prizes. There were five categories that they were competing in. One is biomass; one is something called clean hydrocarbons and nonrenewables. Then there is the renewables category, there is energy efficiency and infrastructure; the last one is transportation. And the winners in all those five were the finalists for the $200,000 prize, but each one of those companies—the student groups—won a certain amount of money. They won some advisory assistance, they won some office assistance. Because these are real companies, these are students who are expecting to go to the market with what they brought to the competition.
Steve: The scientists, students at the various institutions, worked in coordination with business students or the business schools at those institutions.
Graber: Exactly. It's, you know, a lot of times the ideas were kind of driven from the business schools, where the business schools said, "Okay, we can come up with something that's marketable" and then they went to the scientists or the engineers and said, "Okay, you are doing something really interesting; let's figure out how we can make this into a company." Sometimes it was the other way around, it was engineering or science students, who then thought, "Okay, this is something that we can make a company out of." So it worked both ways. There were definitely business students involved, it was part of the business school at M.I.T.—Sloan, the business, the MBA program—and you just had some really fascinating winners.
Steve: And let's just make it clear that the $200,000 was not for the students to go have a big party with.
Graber: No, no!
Steve: That money is designed as, part of the prize terms is that it gets rolled back into the company for development of that company and that technology.
Graber: Absolutely. This is meant to be a very serious competition to really encourage new companies out there in clean energy, and so the money goes back into the companies and to help the companies bring their product to market. These students really expect to be able to bring their ideas to market within the next few years.
Steve: And the grand prize winner, we actually did a 60-Second Science daily podcast about the grand prize winner. Why don't I play that now, because we ran that back on May 27th, so people have either forgotten about it or never heard it in the first place. So let me play that now and then we can talk about it a little bit more.
(excerpt from 60-Second Science daily podcast)
The fridge is one of your home's biggest energy hogs. Better insulation can make refrigerators much more efficient. And a panel encasing a vacuum is one of the best insulators known. But vacuum-insulated panels are too pricy for widespread use.
Enter some University of Michigan students. They took something called rice husk ash: the leftover husks from processing rice are burned for energy, and the ash remains. It's high in silica and carbon. So they tinkered with the ash and developed a new core material for vacuum insulated panels. It's about 50 percent cheaper than what's currently available and the resulting panels are such good insulators that swapping them into refrigerators could lead to about a 50 percent energy savings. They're space efficient too: a one-inch-thick ash panel equals today's four-inch-thick polystyrene panels.
Then Michigan business students partnered with the scientists to create a company called Husk Insulation. They entered the invention in the M.I.T. Clean Energy Prize competition. And on May 13th, Husk Insulation won the competition's first prize—a cool $200,000, which will be invested in further research and development.
Steve: So Husk Insulation—this almost feels kind of low-techie, but actually it's very high-tech in what they do with the husks.
Graber: Yeah. This is one of those cases where it started off with the business school; you know, students at the business school knowing what was happening at the university. This is at University of Michigan and they said, "You know, there's something, this has real potential in the marketplace. It's great that this is happening in a lab; now let's really do something with it." It turns out that, you know, refrigerators are the number two appliance in a household in terms energy use and that there's a lot of application, already companies that make commercial-size refrigerators are interested in this type of product because [there are] significant energy savings. And it's fairly low-tech just in a sense of what it's coming from that you have these rice husks and you know they are already out there and they are not being used from anything, and here is a really good market.
Steve: What's the single biggest energy usage appliance in a house, is that heating and cooling?
Steve: And so, Husk Insulation, very interesting. There was another one of the individual category winners: Levant Power. Levant did something really—it's one of those things that when you look around at all the energy that gets wasted; like I always say, love to have all the exercise cycles and StairMasters and treadmills and all the gyms across the country wired up.
Graber: Well, amusingly, you know, they are doing that in Portland. I actually visited that a few weeks ago.
Steve: Is that right?
Steve: That's you know, why not? Why not at least they could run the, you know, maybe the lights in the gym with that. But Levant Power is one of these outfits that's trying to harness the energy that gets wasted, but in a really interesting way. Why don't you talk about that? And apparently a lot of the judges thought they were going to win because some of them, I mean not the judges, the other people, other journalists covering it, because they were already writing up their stories.
Graber: I probably shouldn't admit that, but that was part of, you know, M.I.T. themselves. This was an M.I.T. team as opposed to University of Michigan team, and I think they had some inside knowledge; they thought that Levant was going to win. I think Levant came in first in a different competition that happened within the next few days, but they did not come in first in this one. Still it was fascinating. They are a bunch of undergrads actually and they were sitting around in their dorm rooms, and they're tossing around ideas, and they started to think about the power of motion. You know, kind of what you were talking about in gyms, but the idea of a vehicle. Vehicle goes up and down, it has shock absorbers, and they thought "I bet we could use that, we could use that motion." So they designed something they called GenShock, and it uses this motion to generate electricity, so it makes the car, the alternator on a car, do less work and that saves fuel. And they think they can boost fuel efficiency for commercial trucks and military vehicles by about 2 to 10 percent, and I have to say it doesn't sound like a lot to me, but when you are talking about cars and trucks that are quite inefficient, it ends up saving a lot of fuel, and the military is really interested in this already. They have a patent, they are already working with the military, they are going after heavy trucks and hybrid vehicles, and they say that these shocks could eliminate—this is what they say, 10 million metric tons of carbon a year just in the U.S.
Steve: So these kids were in their dorm room obviously, jumping up and down on the beds.
Graber: Yep, pretty much.
Steve: And they say, "Hey we are wasting a lot of energy, why don't we harness the energy of jumping up and down?" and they translate that over to Humvee use and the next thing you know, you have all these savings and the kids win the prize.
Graber: Yeah, they are doing really well, and they are pretty excited. They've been getting a lot of attention for their ideas.
Steve: That's pretty cool. So one of the other winners in the individual categories, a company called Sun Point, which pretty much describes what they do.
Graber: Exactly! They are talking about pointing towards the sun. This is another one, I guess, I found all of them interesting, but I am particularly interested in renewable energy, so solar power; you know, I don't know if you've ever been out in the field but when you look at some of the big solar systems, they have these tracking devices and they are mechanized and they are meant to kind of help the PV panel or the mirror, if you are talking about concentrating solar power, to help it follow the sun.
Steve: Because you want the sunlight to be hitting the panel at as close to a 90-degree angle as possible.
Graber: Right, you want to get the optimal angle, the optimal efficiency, you really want the most sunlight. And so, you know, we are not talking about if you have one on your rooftop where it is kind of stuck there, but when you have these fields
of solar powers of solar panels, they have these trackers on them and apparently they need a lot of maintenance and they can break down and leak. And the founders of the company, Sun Point, say that they are an expensive part of the system—that's something that I hadn't known before. But they have designed something that they say can be about 30 to 40 percent more effective. They were inspired by the idea that flowers and plants naturally turn to face the sun. They call it, let's say it's something called a heliotropic effect, and it's just because of the direction that the sun strikes and they move. So, you know, they couldn't exactly mimic what plants do naturally, but this was what inspired them and then what they did is they worked in material science at M.I.T. and they took this inspiration and they had two dissimilar metals and so if one gets heated because the sunlight strikes it in a certain way, then the difference in the expansion causes the metal to pull and curve and so you end up with the same effect as what's happening in the plants, but with just the heating and the expansion and the pulling of the metals.
Steve: That's like a thermostat. That's a pretty inventive extension of that idea. So then you basically put the panels on autopilot, and they know where the sun is on their own.
Graber: Exactly. I thought it was, again I thought it was fascinating, I know I have used that word a lot already, but I just thought it makes so much sense; and [they] say it took a fair amount of engineering to figure out the right metals, to figure out how it works best, but they have engineered it so that there is the panel on top of the system and it follows the sun; there are no moving parts, no motors, no sensors, no leaking, nothing to maintain, and apparently PV manufacturers are really excited about it. So they are already working on setting up longer field tests and they think they can be manufacturing within the next, like, two years.
Steve: Very cool! And there's also a category for as you said, for clean hydrocarbons, which is, you know, something of an oxymoron, but the reality is that the cleaner hydrocarbons can be a bridge over the next few years until we can go to these more totally clean alternatives. So talk about the clean hydrocarbons category.
Graber: Well, I think that the idea behind this category—and I know that M.I.T. is doing a lot of work in clean hydrocarbons—I think the idea is, we already have them, we already use them, so we might as well try to make them cleaner. You know, it's not enough to say, okay we want renewables, we want it as much as we can, but ignore the way our system works now. So apparently for each gallon of oil that gets pumped from a well, there are about 18 gallons of contaminated water that then need to be treated. And apparently it can be really contaminated and that treatment is kind of challenging. So there was an M.I.T. student in chemical engineering, and he knew about work going on out in Ohio. So he actually partnered with some folks out in Ohio, looking at nanoengineering. It's basically like—he likened it to a kind of hi-tech sand; it has been nanoengineered so that it attracts all these organic pollutants and then dissolved acids and then just kind of soaks up with this gunk and becomes, he said almost like a gel and then you can separate it out, heat it and reverse the process. So you can get out those concentrated organics and then you can actually use them, as well; so you can burn them as fuel. So it makes the pump more efficient in general because then you can recover what was basically a contaminant, but could also be a fuel and it cleans the water of some really nasty pollutants. So again this is one that has a lot of really excited clients; there's already one client in the Gulf of Mexico who's building a huge test bed and just that test bed itself is a multimillion dollar project. You know, so the idea is that the system is cleaner and cheaper than what's currently available and it also produces more fuel and it could also mean that [existing] wells can have a longer life because towards the end, the ratio of water to oil gets even larger in favor of water, there's more water to oil. So if you can clean that water efficiently and effectively then you can get longer life out of the wells that we have.
Steve: And does that company have a name yet?
Graber: They're called Produced Water Absorbents.
Steve: And there was one more interesting company in, one of the winners in the subcategories and that had to do with UV LEDs and water purification.
Graber: Yeah. This is obviously a big deal, you know, there's a huge need for clean water around the world, and they also say that it's not just, you know, the need for clean potable water, but also purifying water in say hospitals, that this would be an important application. Students say that they were two million hospital infections a year—people who got infected in the hospital—and that the cost of that is about 30 billion dollars a year, and they say cleaning the water more effectively is one way to help fight this. They also point out that the food industry has been fighting bacteria and viruses. And so one of the ways they say that this can be solved is through their system which is as you said, a deep ultraviolet LED light that they say is significantly more effective than anything that's on the market for purifying water. Now they wouldn't talk to me on the phone, they say they're aren't talking to press yet, so I don't know any more about it than this; I don't know how it's more effective than what already exists or how they've changed it at all.
Steve: Okay, we'll let anybody who's interested hassle them directly.
Graber: I think that's a good idea.
Steve: That's Troy Research Corporation and it is called Troy Research Corp. because it's an RPI—Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—effort and they are in Troy, New York. So, kind of inspiring to see that, you know, young people in the U.S. can come up with good ideas and get them off the ground.
Graber: The students were really inspiring. They have fantastic ideas, they are practical, they are applicable, they really can make a difference. I mean, you know, it's a big market out there, and who knows if they'll succeed, but if even one or two of these companies can succeed in doing what they say they are gonna do, then that could have a significant impact. And I think it's just great to see that there are really creative people out there who are still coming up with ways to make our energy more efficient, more effective, more use of renewable power, all sorts of just really creative applications. I was really inspired.
Steve: I checked back with Troy Research on September 25th, and they still haven't gone public with their particulars.
Steve: Is that a backyard sprinkler? No that's the amazingly loud sound of what I believe to be a meadow katydid, which I recorded at about 9 p.m. the night of September 11th in the Bronx forest near the New York Botanical Garden, and which is often described as making a sound like a lawn sprinkler. Anyway, teams of pro and amateur researchers [fanned] out across the New York Metropolitan area after sunset on September 11th to do a cricket and katydid census. My team was lead by Anne-Marie Runfola, Deputy Director of the Bronx River Alliance, which works to take care of the river and its surrounding environment. But before we get to that, let's hear Allison Beall of the Marshlands Conservancy in Rye, New York, who explained the Cricket Crawl a week earlier to a group who came to the marshlands to practice.
Beall: There's a wonderful event, a Cricket Crawl, where people are going to go out and listen for the sounds of seven crickets and katydids, angle-winged katydids and cone heads and various other night insects that are singing and you can go to our website and then you can send in your data from your own backyard.
Steve: So that's why we were all gathered in the Bronx, the evening of September 11th. In this first short clip, Scientific American Online editor Robin Lloyd and other participants try to identify species as Anne-Marie trains our team with some prerecorded clips of the various critters we'll be listening for. The traffic noise is courtesy of the Bronx River Parkway.
Runfola: Okay, I think that's the fall field cricket, but I am not sure. Each chirp is a brief trill of three to five pulses. I'm pretty sure that's the fall field cricket.
Voice: Fall field cricket. Yeah, okay next.
Voice: I'm looking for, is that …
Runfola: No, this is a new one … Okay that, I'm gonna go with …
Voice: Hold on—we'll go with the ticking first.
Runfola: Oh! The ticking, I don't know. But the other cricket, I think it's the jumping bush.
Voice: Is this not the last one? Go back to the last one.
Runfola: This is the ange-wing.
Voice: Anglewing, yes.
Voice: The tick-tick-tick is anglewing?
Voice: Jumping bush.
Voice: 500 points…
Voice: That, I don't know what that this.
Runfola: This is another anglewing.
Voice: It is.
Runfola: Well, it's is the oblong-winged katydid.
Voice: Oblong-winged katydid…
Runfola: No, no, no…
Voice: Lesser. This is the lesser anglewing.
Voice: Now what would you call that, a chi-chi-chi … tick-tick-tick… we're calling it a tick?
Runfola: It's not a tick.
Voice: What is it? A dzt-dzt-dzt?
Voice: Yeah, dzt-dzt-dzt…
Runfola: They do say that, the dzt, staccato dzt. Greater anglewing has a staccato dzt, dzt-dzt-dzt. And it also has a rapid series of higher pitched ticks lasting several seconds.
Voice: Yeah and this doesn't have those ticks.
Runfola: This is the lesser wing.
Runfola: Here it goes. It is a brief, raspy rattle, usually in a group of two to three with about a second of silence between each call. Each rattle [is] composed of three to five pulses; time between song bouts can be very long.
Steve: What was that again?
Runfola: That's the lesser anglewing.
Voice: We can get that, okay, we are moving on.
Runfola: Right, move on.
Voice: Is that the greater anglewing?
Voice: It's [a] katydid.
Runfola: Oblong-winged katydid.
Voice: Yeah, yeah, oblong-winged… okay.
Runfola: It's got a very long pause in between.
Voice: A pause every few seconds. It's unique from all other katydids, so it's going to sound different, which is good, that oblong sounds, kind of…
Runfola: Yeah, it's kind of a scratch and then a pause.
Runfola: And those are car katydids.
Steve: Here Anne-Marie explains to some park police just what the heck we're doing.
Runfola: We're listening for cicadas and crickets.
Voice: Crickets and katydids.
Voice: Cicadas are during the day, right?
Voice: Oh, I learn.
Runfola: This is going on around New York City tonight; American Museum of Natural History started it and they want citizen scientists to come out. One of the goals is just to get outside and listen to things that you hear everyday but don't pay attention to and then try and identify them for fun and just enjoy your place and talk about why these things are important; something that you may never see and don't really think about.
Steve: And here we're listening for everything we can hear in a minute with our position recorded for the study.
Runfola: One, on your mark, get set, wait, go.
Voice: That's the jumping bush, greater anglewing…
Runfola: Jumping bush!
Voice: Jumping bush. I hear jumping bush.
Steve: It could be…
Voice: Greater anglewing!
Voice: You have anything else besides those two?
Runfola: No except for—you hear a constant buzz over there; I think it is cicadas …
Voice: Which can be out at night.
Voice: They can.
Runfola: But what's this one? One pause…
Voice: Jumping bush.
Voice: Is it the oblong?
Voice: No, I think it's a jumping bush, calling at the other one at a higher pitch maybe.
Voice: As they do, sometimes will answer in a slightly higher pitch for some of the species, so I read.
Voice: So just jumping bush and greater anglewing.
Steve: I am happy to report that the study found a lot of evidence for the presence of the common true katydid in New York City, which had not been confirmed to be present in the city, in the scientific literature, since at least 1920. Initial reports found all the species we were looking for. The team has also noted the presence of numerous other insect species and at least three people running around the woods in the dark without their clothes. There are eight million stories in the naked city. For all the results, go to www.discoverlife.org/cricket or just google cricket crawl.
Now it's time to play TOTALLY……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: A patent was just issued for a battery made from cellulose.
Story number 2: A strange kind of neutron star, called a rotating radio transient, was discovered by a high school student.
Story number 3: A 44-square-foot textile that went on display September 23rd at the American Museum of Natural History is composed of silk from over a million Madagascar spiders.
And story number 4: Closing your eyes while scary music is playing during a horror movie is a good way to keep from getting more scared.
Time is up.
Story number 1 is true. The cellulose battery was reported in the journal Nano Letters. Cellulose from algae where the much bigger surface area than the cellulose found in one of the mill, sorry paper, was key. It's coated in a conducting polymer and, well, you get a battery. So Christmas presents of the future might be powered by the wrapping paper.
Story number 2 is true. West Virginia high-school student Lucas Bolyard was part of a National Science Foundation project in which students analyzed data from the Byrd Green Bank Telescope. Bolyard reported his finding, which was later confirmed as being only the thirtieth example of this kind of object. It's like a pulsar, a rotating neutron star, only its pulses are sporadic instead of regular. Again, that is called a rotating radio transient.
And story number 3 is true. Over a million female, golden orb spiders made the silk that made the cloth that's now on display at the museum. Eighty humans spent four years weaving that silk into the cloth. You can see photos of the tapestry at www.amnh.org.
All of which means that story number 4, about the beneficial effect of keeping your eyes shut during scary-music portions of a scary movie is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Because researchers found that shutting your eyes while the spooky music is playing can intensify the emotional reaction to the music. The study appeared in the journal Public Library of Science ONE. So you might want to keep your eyes open, like I do at scary movies, at the concession stand.
Well that's it for this episode of Science Talk. Check out ScientificAmerican.com for the latest science news as well as, speaking of scary movies, George Musser's blog item on the new Bruce Willis sci-fi movie, Surrogates. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
Scientific American podcast correspondent Cynthia Graber talks about the M.I.T. Clean Energy Prize Competition. And we take part in the recent Cricket Crawl, an effort to take a census of crickets and katydids in the New York metropolitan area. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.amnh.org and www.discoverlife.org/cricket