A podcast about the surprising ways that science evolves. Through conversations with scientists, we trace the technology, theories, and products we see around us today back to early discoveries in the lab, while also imagining where future breakthroughs could take us. Hosted and produced by Aliyah Kovner at Berkeley Lab, aka Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Why isn’t more plastic actually recyclable? Why don’t compostable forks actually compost? And when are we going to solve our waste problems?
This episode features three scientists working to manage the planet's plastic addiction by developing smarter materials that avoid the pitfalls of 20th century plastics. We talk about the challenges of the current recycling and composting systems, philosophies of materials design, why trying to recycle some things is just "wishcycling," and why we can allow ourselves to feel a little optimism — even though the news paints a pretty bleak picture sometimes.
My guests are:
Brett Helms, a materials scientist at Berkeley Lab's Molecular Foundry. Helms leads a team that invented an infinitely recyclable plastic and is now working to bring it to the market.
Ting Xu is a senior materials scientist and chemist at Berkeley Lab and professor at UC Berkeley. Her lab is developing non-toxic compostable plastics that stay durable when in use, but break down easily in the environment.
Corinne Scown is a scientist in Berkeley Lab's Energy Technologies Area and director of Techno-economic Analysis at the Joint BioEnergy Institute. She performs techno- economic and lifecycle analyses for Brett, Ting, and other scientists, meaning that she models the inputs, outputs, prices, and environmental impact of materials so that we can understand how they will perform on an industrial scale before they actually get to the industrial scale.
Hydrogen: The Original Alternative Fuel
The smallest element in the universe has big potential for clean, sustainable energy. In fact, we’ve been using it as a fuel for vehicles here on Earth and NASA vehicles out exploring the solar system for many decades. So why aren’t we living in a hydrogen utopia already, and how can we get there? In this episode, we discuss the past, present, and future of hydrogen energy, including the dirty side of hydrogen production and the current push for zero-emissions hydrogen to power our daily lives and decarbonize big-ticket industries like steel manufacturing.
Adam Weber, a chemical engineer who studies fuel cells, electrolyzers, batteries, and solar fuel generators. Adam is the lead of Berkeley Lab's Energy Conversion Group and Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies, and co-director of the Department of Energy Million Mile Fuel Cell Truck Research Consortium. He is a senior chemist/engineer in Berkeley Lab’s Energy Technologies Area.
Hanna Breunig, an environmental engineer who performs modeling and systems analysis to study the social, economic and environmental impacts of emerging energy technologies. Hanna is a research scientist in the Energy Technologies Area and deputy head of Berkeley Lab's Sustainable Energy and Environmental Systems Department. She also holds a position in Berkeley Lab’s Earth Systems and Society Domain in the Climate and Ecosystem Science Division.
More info on electrolyzers, the devices that use electricity to produce hydrogen gas by splitting water molecules.
More info on fuel cells, which are the opposite of electrolyzers. These cells share many features with a battery, and use hydrogen gas to generate electricity. Water is made in the process.
Green Machines: The natural and artificial photosynthesis powering the planet
What is photosynthesis? Oh, no big deal, just the key to life on Earth as we know it! Join me as I take a deep dive into this amazingly sophisticated chemical process. Hear fascinating details they didn't teach you in school and get a crash course on how natural photosynthesis inspires the development of renewable energy technologies that could someday replace all petroleum products.
Featuring Jan F. Kern, from Berkeley Lab's Biosciences Area; and Joel Ager, from the Energy Sciences Area and an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley.
Produced and hosted by Aliyah Kovner
Inclusion in STEM: the Name Change Initiative
A Day in the Half-Life explores what working in STEM is really like, and that means conversations about inclusion. So to celebrate Pride Month, we're releasing a special episode about making research & academia culture more inclusive for transgender scientists.
Publications are an essential part of career growth for scientists. But what if you no longer use the name on past work? How can you claim your intellectual labor? Transitioning to one's preferred identity can be challenging on its own. Journals and Institutions shouldn't make it harder.
The Name Change Initiative, launched in 2021, aims to make the logistical hurdles to accomplish this as simple as possible for our transgender colleagues – and anyone else whose identify changes during the course of their career. The Name Change Initiative is a coordinated effort among U.S. National Labs and publishing institutions, led by Berkeley Lab, that focuses on making it easier for transgender scientists to change their name on published works.
In this interview recorded last year, two initiative leaders join a transgender scientist who has faced the difficulties of transitioning openly and changing her name on past work, to share their stories.
For decades, scientists have been able to predict future Earth conditions, like rainfall and temperature, with impressive accuracy using computer programs called climate models. These models are helpful at telling us what might happen to our weather depending on how much we curb greenhouse gases emissions now, and they can be used to study how much human-driven climate change plays a role in big events such as Hurricane Harvey or last year’s Pacific Northwest heatwave, compared with our planet’s natural processes.
We hear about climate models all the time, but how many of us know how they actually work? In this episode, we peel back the curtain, discussing where these models came from, what they can do amazingly well, and their current limitations. And our guests talk about what it's like for them, personally, when their work is doubted, minimized, or politicized. After all, climate scientists find themselves in the hot seat a lot more often than other scientists. Today's guests are experts not only in the science itself, but also expert at staying cool under pressure, communicating their science with the public, and laughing off the negativity.
Jennifer Holm, a research scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Climate and Ecosystem Science Division. Her work focuses on modeling terrestrial ecosystems, with an emphasis on tropical forests.
Michael Wehner, a senior scientist in the Applied Math and Computational Research Division. A veteran in the field, Michael used to write climate models, and now uses them to study how human-caused climate change impacts extreme weather events like hurricanes.
More Microchips, Moore Problems
The race to make smaller and smaller electronic chips is coming to an end, after many decades of creative engineering. Individual transistors are now just a few nanometers (that’s billionths of a meter) in length, so there’s not much more shrinking to be done. But there is still a lot of room for improvement. The 20th century effort to pack transistors onto tiny silicon wafers transformed clunky, heavy early electronics into the sleek, portable devices we see today. The challenges of the 21st century will be to make these microelectronics energy efficient and to push the boundaries of what’s possible in a world increasingly integrated with technology.
This episode's guests are Sinéad Griffin and Ramamoorthy Ramesh
Informative and Inspiring!
Excited that this podcast exists!