Friday, February 27, 2015

The Next Big Thing?

Periodically, science stories hit the news. Universities have PR departments churning out press releases (articles about current research). Researchers also must publish their findings in scientific journals (this is what is meant with the phrase "publish or perish"). In order to get funding, scientists need to communicate the value of their work to the public. 

We see these stories in the news, get excited, and most of the time, nothing comes of it. Why?

There are a variety of reasons. There is an entire subset of science that focuses on "proofs of concept". The systems described in these studies aren't necessarily ready for commercialization. For example, lead-based piezoelectric materials perform great and could do a lot of good if we could put materials with similar piezoelectric properties in the human body. Unfortunately, they contain lead, a poison. A recent article in Time magazine discussed a method of turning solar energy into liquid fuel. Unfortunately, the cell described was only ~1 % efficient. Since commercial solar cells are often ~10-20 % efficient, this technology is nowhere near ready for prime time. The scientists state this. For transportation uses, it would be nice to have liquid transportation fuel (quicker re-fueling, large volume and mass energy densities), so it is seeking a worthy goal and, for technology using bacteria to produce fuel, it is a major step forward.That being said, there is a long way to go. As it currently stands, it is more difficult to see how this technology will catch up to solar cell with battery technologies. It captures the imagination and could play a role in the future. In the image above from Bell Laboratories of the 1950s, solar cells were a similarly raw technology not ready for commercialization. They have only recently became competitive with fossil fuels in many areas. No one knows what the future will bring. Even technologies that do not make it can spur on other technologies and innovations. For example, research into conducting polymers and dye-sensitized solar cells has really helped research into perovskite solar cells. Many technologies that "don't make it" benefit the development of still other technologies, either by capturing the imagination of future and current researchers or by adding to facts and data known. Somehow, an interest in cosmology when I was 10 led to me now studying materials that are useful for engineers here on Earth. While the real-world benefits of cosmology are not readily apparent outside of a science fiction, the ability of the field to inspire researchers and get people thinking of new and creative things cannot be discounted and really is an asset to the scientific community.

Monday, February 23, 2015

How did you get interested in science?

As a kid, I always enjoyed building things and seeing how things worked. I also had major softball and basketball obsessions. Some of my scientist friends grew up with a love of photography, music, or dance. We all had mentors and role models (some more official than others) who nurtured our curiosity and guided our interests. For a period of time, I was obsessed with MacGyver, a tv show in which the Angus MacGyver, a freelancer, gets all sorts of people out of extreme situations using only the items around him (duct tape, a swiss army knife, a shoe string, and his wits). It was an adventure show that featured creative problem solving.

It looks like they are trying to create a new MacGyver-like show to highlight the exciting things that can be done with a science and engineering background. Check out the website! Pitch an idea for the new show!

Who are some of your heroes and role models? How did you get interested in science and engineering?

Thursday, January 29, 2015