Invisibility cloaks. Spider silk that is stronger than steel. Plastics made of sugar that dissolve in landfills. Self-healing military vehicles. Smart pills and micro-robots that zap diseases. Clothes that monitor your mood. What will the future bring, and what will it be made of? In NOVA's four-hour series, "Making Stuff," popular technology columnist David Pogue takes viewers on a fun-filled tour of the material world we live in, and the one that may lie ahead. Get a behind-the-scenes look at scientific innovations ushering in a new generation of materials that are stronger, smaller, cleaner, and smarter than anything we've ever seen.
"Making Stuff" is produced in cooperation with the Materials Research Society (MRS), an international organization of nearly 16,000 materials researchers from academia, industry, and government, and a recognized leader in promoting the advancement of interdisciplinary materials research to improve the quality of life.
Making Stuff: Cleaner
PBS Airdate: February 2, 2011
DAVID POGUE: Imagine a world with buildings that can ride out earthquakes; bacteria that make gasoline; tiny devices that repair individual cells, even DNA; gossamer threads strong enough hold up a bridge; or an elevator to the stars.
These visions of the future are based in the discoveries of today, as a new science of materials emerges from the elemental building blocks of the universe, promising a future in which we can create virtually anything we want atom by atom.
I'm David Pogue...
Do you have trash around here?
PETER KENDRIGAN (Waste Management, Inc.) : Yep, absolutely. You can throw it right in.
DAVID POGUE: ...and I'm on a quest to turn garbage into gold—okay, maybe not literally gold—more like turning trash into electricity...
Eighty-eight thousand homes are being fueled by their own trash?
...corn into cars;...
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI (Ford Motor Company) : This is growing your own car parts.
DAVID POGUE: I think you've been smoking too many mushrooms.
...bags into batteries.
Chicken feathers in your gas tank.
No, no come back. Come back. I got you. I'm not going to hurt you. Stay calm. It's science.
Material Scientists are taking tips from Mother Nature...
Everybody clear the building. It's going to blow!
...to turn worthless waste into stuff we can use, stuff that disappears when we're done with it.
And everybody's getting in on the act.
JAY LENO (Talk Show Host and Car Collector) : I think this is the car of the future. This is how we'll all be getting around: electric.
DAVID POGUE: This is the car of the future?
We're on the road to a zero-waste world, all part of Making Stuff Cleaner , right now, on NOVA.
I've got to confess, watching these powerful machines do their thing is a guilty pleasure.
I love the aluminum foil heat protector he puts on the windshield. Do you think he's got fuzzy dice too?
The engines in some of these cars put out 450 horsepower and can easily hit 200 miles an hour.
Apparently it's got great pickup and the least storage in its class.
I'm David Pogue. I write about technology for the New York Times. Usually I stick to gadgets like laptops and cameras but these meet my most fundamental journalistic criteria: I want one!
Cars represent power and freedom but also waste.
While they're up and running, these monsters eat up gasoline and spit out carbon, which heats up our atmosphere, all the while just going around in circles. And when they crash, like most cars, they turn into broken down heaps. Many of their parts wind up permanently parked in landfills.
That's because much of the stuff that goes into cars is plastic.
Both waste problems—petroleum and plastic—converge on cars. And both break Mother Nature's Golden Rule: we can have what we want, as long as we clean up after ourselves.
For example, my plant and I are in perfect harmony. I breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.
She takes in carbon dioxide and puts out oxygen. Together we make a beautifully efficient circle of life.
Imagine if all the stuff we use could be paired in such perfect harmony. That's called a zero-waste world.
My mission is to uncover some cool stuff to get us there, starting with cars.
I decided to consult with one of the foremost experts, well, at least one of the funniest, Jay Leno. Most people don't know it, but this is Jay's day job: restoring antique automobiles.
His collection of nearly 200 cars spans 100 years of history, from a humble 1941 fire engine to a ritzy 1925 Doble steam-powered convertible, once owned by Howard Hughes,...
It's like a giant furnace on wheels.
JAY LENO: This is 2,000,000 BTUs of heat.
DAVID POGUE: ...from classic American muscle cars, to a jet-powered sports car. Every car here is street-legal, and Jay likes to drive a different piece of history home each night.
JAY LENO: When you're in show business, you have drugs, women or find something else to do. This is something else to do.
DAVID POGUE: While doing his something else, Jay has become a guru of auto technology, and he's got some insider info on the car of tomorrow.
JAY LENO: I think this is the car of the future. This is how we'll all be getting around: electric.
DAVID POGUE: This is the car of the future?
JAY LENO: Well this is a 1909 Baker electric. Uh, there's no pollution. This was high tech back in the day.
DAVID POGUE: Talk about back to the future. The 1909 Baker runs on energy stored in batteries.
JAY LENO: You have six batteries in front.
DAVID POGUE: As with today's electric cars, you charge the batteries by plugging the car in.
I'm going to stop exactly at 10 bucks.
But in those days, electric cars were commonplace. There were charging stations all over New York City.
JAY LENO: This is one of the original charging stations. Sort of like Frankenstein, you'd throw these levers, and electricity would surge through.
DAVID POGUE: Did, would you have to laugh like that to get it to work?
JAY LENO: Yeah, you had to laugh. You had to do that every time. See that's one other reason that it died. People just hated doing "ha ha ha..." doing that every, every single time. That got to be very annoying.
DAVID POGUE: Everybody's a comedian.
JAY LENO: You want to go for a ride and see what it's like?
DAVID POGUE: Yeah! This runs? You don't take it on...
JAY LENO: Of course it runs. You seem so stunned by...
DAVID POGUE: I like this. You've got the user's manual on the seat. That's a good, good sign.
JAY LENO: Yeah, but I'll show you how, sort of, maintenance-free these are. All you do is turn the key, and you are, uh...
DAVID POGUE: That's the wheel?
JAY LENO: ...ready to go.
DAVID POGUE: Oh, my god. No way.
It's a great ride, really quiet because there's no roaring engine, just the hum of an electric motor.
So in this car, I see a meter down there. That's your, your fuel gauge so to speak?
JAY LENO: Volts and amperage, yeah.
DAVID POGUE: What's your top speed in the Baker?
JAY LENO: Twenty-two.
DAVID POGUE: Twenty-two?
JAY LENO: About 22.
DAVID POGUE: Just right for L.A. traffic jams.
JAY LENO: Don't forget, though, when this car was built, the speed limit was 12. I mean that's what it was. There was no paved roads. I mean you had cobblestones, so...
DAVID POGUE: A fully charged battery is good for 60 to a hundred miles, more than enough for an excursion around early 1900s Manhattan.
JAY LENO: Nobody really went much out of Manhattan. Only rich people had these; and taxicabs. They'd run for three or four hours, go back to the, uh, charging station, take another car while that was being charged. So, it worked out quite well.
DAVID POGUE: Well, at least until you wanted to drive anywhere outside of New York, because for providing power on the go, batteries just can't beat gasoline.
JAY LENO: Gasoline is almost the perfect fuel. A gallon of gas gives you so much power, even though you need this much battery to get the power of this much gasoline.
DAVID POGUE: If the electric cars of the 21 st century are to avoid the fate of the 1909 Baker Electric, they'll need a better battery.
JAY LENO: This seems to be the future, but you know, electricity is like sex: people have no compulsion about lying about it. You know?
I mean every electric vehicle that I get, "Oh, this will go a hundred miles." Well 48 miles later, I, I'm stuck by the side of the road.
DAVID POGUE: But it's no lie that more juice and a longer lasting charge are essential in a battery.
In all batteries, electricity is created by a chemical reaction. There are two metals, called electrodes, that want to exchange electrons. But between them is a third material, called an electrolyte, that keeps the electron transfer in check.
But, if we give those electrons an easier path from one electrode to the other, like through a circuit, say the bulb in your flashlight or the electronics in your phone, the flow begins, creating an electric current.
In a car battery the electrodes are made of lead and lead dioxide, and the electrolyte is sulfuric acid. That's enough juice to spark ignition and to power forklifts and golf carts, but not the engine of a car. They just don't hold or put out enough power.
JAY LENO: Electricity is like an animal. You put it in a jar and it either escapes or it dies. You take a battery that's fully charged and you put it on the shelf, you come back in three weeks, the electricity went away. Where did it go?
DAVID POGUE: But now scientists are mixing up materials to get more bang out of batteries, like zero to 60 in less than a second,...
...packing the power of 150 car batteries onto this small frame.
The wobble you see in the picture is our TV camera's way of saying "Woooooo!"
With over 500 horsepower, this bike is one of the fastest electric motorcycles in the world. Its battery pack could easily power an electric car. And I know where this baby comes from!
The facility we're about to visit has been considered by some the global headquarters for the future of electric vehicles in America. I just hope I can make it through security.
The juice we're looking for may be here, in suburban Denver, hidden behind this garage door.
Here it is.
Looks like you guys are into bikes or something.
BILL DUBE (KillaCycle) : Yeah, we like electric ones, that's for sure.
DAVID POGUE: Bill Dube and Eva Hakansson are C.E.O.s, V.P.s of R. and D., actually everything from A to Z, at an electric motorcycle company called KillaCycle.
Not the normal motorcycle.
BILL DUBE: No.
DAVID POGUE: I know that my hog looks very different from this.
BILL DUBE: Does it?
DAVID POGUE: Yeah.
Bill has agreed to share the top secret technology responsible for Killacycle's world speed record.
BILL DUBE: It's just a giant cordless drill with wheels.
DAVID POGUE: You're a colorful man, Bill.
BILL DUBE: It is! It's that simple.
DAVID POGUE: A giant cordless drill, okay.
BILL DUBE: It's that simple. It has a battery, which we can take out of here, right? It has a motor. And it has a throttle, right? Okay? This has the battery down here, right? It has the motors, right here. And it has a throttle.
DAVID POGUE: Okay, but what makes the Killacycle faster than an electric drill is the battery. More than a thousand of them live underneath this panel. Bill and Eva make them fit underneath by welding individual cells together.
They get the batteries from a company called A123 Systems. And the reason A123 can pack so much punch into these little cells is because of the stuff they make them with. Instead of the lead used in traditional car batteries, they use lithium. Lithium is a great choice because its atoms are so small. It's the third smallest element on the Table of the Elements.
Smaller atoms means more flowing electrons and more electricity that can be generated by the battery, but what makes these A123 batteries even better is the internal structure of the electrodes.
There are so many nano-scaled nooks and crannies, they provide more pathways for electrons to move through the battery and into the wires. That means more power, faster charging and a longer lifespan.
Bill has a different explanation. He calls it "the Slurpee ® and the straw."
BILL DUBE: With a Slurpee, you have a certain amount of juice in the cup. That's the specific energy.
DAVID POGUE: Okay.
BILL DUBE: The energy it holds is how much juice there is in the cup. Then, the power is the size of the straw.
DAVID POGUE: So the battery's storage capacity is like a super-concentrated Slurpee, and its high power output is like shooting the juice with a lot of pressure through a really wide straw, all in a small compact container.
BILL DUBE: It's unbelievable. Cells this big around putting out more power than these big cells, it's...
DAVID POGUE: No wonder you're cackling like a madman.
And no wonder these Killacycles are some of the fastest electric bikes in the world. But there is one last question that I have been dying for them to ask.
EVA HAKANSSON (KillaCycle) : So, do you want to take one of our electric bikes for a ride?
DAVID POGUE: Yeah.
EVA HAKANSSON: Okay, let's go out here.
DAVID POGUE: Not this one?
EVA HAKANSSON: No, not that one.
BILL DUBE: Let's get it out of the race trailer for you.
DAVID POGUE: It's in here?
BILL DUBE: Oh, yeah.
DAVID POGUE: Oh, oh, oh.
My motorcycle is in the trailer behind that Exercycle?
BILL DUBE: No, this is the one we're going to have you ride. You've got to start somewhere.
DAVID POGUE: Everyone's a comedian.
Bill assures me that you just pedal it to get started.
It's not quite the same thing.
Okay, here we go.
Vroom, vroom! You have to supply the noises with your mouth.
'Bye, guys. I'm off to the market.
This is not electric. Oh, my god. Whoa! Oh, my god! You want to tell me how it works? Jeez!
You didn't really explain how you stop it.
Clearly, I'm not ready for the big bikes.
With that much power stored in such a small space, could these supercharged lithium batteries supply the juice we need for electric cars?
The batteries do have a few drawbacks. They are still expensive, and like petroleum, lithium is a limited resource. But A123 is opening the largest lithium automotive battery factory in the U.S. right outside the motor city, Detroit. So if electric vehicles catch on, these little guys could be the next big thing.
But there could be an even more radical solution to the power problem, using one of the most abundant materials in the universe: hydrogen.
General Motors has about a hundred of these hydrogen-powered SUV's out on the road. They're being test driven by ordinary folks, ordinary folks aaaaand Jay Leno!
JAY LENO: I've been driving this for two years, and it's fantastic! It is zero emissions, not point one per billion, zero!
DAVID POGUE: And when Jay says "zero," he means zero!
JAY LENO: I mean, if you went into the garage, shut the garage door, sealed it, turned on the engine, and sat in this car, you would starve to death before anything else happened to you.
DAVID POGUE: Jay offers to show me where the magic happens.
JAY LENO: Not a lot to look at.
DAVID POGUE: Not going in here with your screwdriver.
JAY LENO: No, but as you can see, there's a lot of technology here. And it's American technology, which I like.
DAVID POGUE: The technology he's talking about is called a fuel cell. Like a battery, a fuel cell creates electricity through a chemical reaction. The fuel, in this case, is hydrogen, which the fuel cell combines with oxygen from the air. The result? Electricity to run a motor. Nothing comes out the tailpipe but a little water vapor.
Those are the kind of emissions we could live with.
STEPHANIE WHITE (Project Driveway Participant) : All right, come on, let's go.
DAVID POGUE: And for people who drive a lot, like Stephanie White, no pollution is great, and great mileage is even better.
STEPHANIE WHITE: So this is my old car: about 30 miles to the gallon...
Come here. Hop in. Good boy.
...and the Chevy Fuel Cell Hydrogen vehicle: about 55 miles to the gallon.
DAVID POGUE: The hope is that someday hydrogen won't cost any more than gasoline does today, and your mileage will double.
That clean, economical future is one reason why Stephanie applied to be a test consumer in General Motors' Project Driveway, a program that puts hydrogen fuel cell cars into real world conditions.
But there are a few problems.
Getting hydrogen into a usable form takes energy, and right now there's only a handful of places to fill up.
While the process looks familiar, it requires very different equipment since the hydrogen has to be pumped into the tank under pressure.
STEPHANIE WHITE: The system pressurizes the tank to a certain level, and then it switches to another tank that's at higher pressure. So it goes about four times, and that brings it up to 10,000 P.S.I.
DAVID POGUE: Speaking of hydrogen under pressure, remember the Hindenburg? That was the German hydrogen blimp that exploded with 97 people on board.
Hydrogen may not have had anything to do with the fire; it may have been the skin of the blimp that fueled the flames, but hydrogen still makes people nervous.
A more realistic problem is how far the hydrogen car will go on a tankful. Right now, it's only about 250 miles, which is not as far as a tankful of gas will take you, but materials scientists may have a solution to that problem.
Here it is folks. The future of American hydrogen storage: chickens! Or, more specifically, their feathers.
You see, there's this scientist in Delaware...
RICHARD WOOL (University of Delaware) : Here we go. A little hydrogen lift here.
DAVID POGUE: ... who says if we cook the feathers at just the right temperature, we can turn them into high-tech hydrogen storage devices.
This is, uh, how your students get around town?
RICHARD WOOL: They're riding on pure hydrogen, zero waste output.
DAVID POGUE: And zero waste output is exactly what Professor Richard Wool is after. He gave me a quick primer on hydrogen and chicken feathers.
RICHARD WOOL: Hydrogen is a gas that likes to be free. It likes to occupy a lot of space. And so, to compress it into a small space, like the size of your gas tank, you know, 20 gallons, requires enormous pressure.
DAVID POGUE: Take a look at the hydrogen tank on top of this bus. It's almost as big as the bus itself!
So how can we get more hydrogen into less space without a lot more pressure? That's where the chicken feathers come in.
RICHARD WOOL: So the chicken feathers are like a sponge and draws the hydrogen gas closer, and that drops the pressure in the tank.
DAVID POGUE: So Richard took me to the nerve center of his research to show me how his feathered friends are helping him with the solution to the storage issue.
RICHARD WOOL: Well, this is my plant. This is where I grow the materials for, uh...
DAVID POGUE: Your plant?
RICHARD WOOL: Hi, guys, we're back.
DAVID POGUE: Before we can catch the hydrogen, we've got to catch the chicken.
Uh, I've never caught a chicken, but it can't be all that hard.
RICHARD WOOL: It's very easy. I'll show you. You need to walk over very slowly.
DAVID POGUE: Slowly, okay. Oh, no, no. Come back, come back. I've got you. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm not going to hurt you! Everybody stay calm. It's, it's science. Arghhh! You, right there, right there. Stay.
I almost had it.
RICHARD WOOL: So this is a feather. You see the quill and then you see the hairs. And the hairs are hollow.
DAVID POGUE: And when you heat up the hollow hairs, they become nanoporous. That means they have lots of really, really small pores that provide more places to store hydrogen atoms with less pressure.
But there's a more basic question.
But why chickens? I mean, surely there are bigger bird breeds with better feathers.
RICHARD WOOL: We could do this with any bird; it's just a question of the volume of raw materials. The chicken is the largest processed bird in the U.S.A., and there's about six billion pounds of waste material.
DAVID POGUE: Wait, wait. They throw away the feathers?
RICHARD WOOL: They throw away the feathers.
DAVID POGUE: I know; it's upsetting to me too.
Richard figures he can recycle these wasted feathers into a storage material for hydrogen fuel.
Can you say hydrogen? Hydrogen?
He took me along to his lab to show me how they do it.
First, they remove the quills. They are left with the fluffy feather fiber.
RICHARD WOOL: So what we do here is we take this feather fiber and then we heat them up to this much higher temperature, and that's when we get an enormous increase in surface area. And so, this black carbonized chicken feather fiber then becomes this sponge, to soak up hydrogen.
DAVID POGUE: When you heat them to 750 degrees Fahrenheit, the chicken feathers become over 200 times more absorbent, because trillions of tiny little caves developed in the fiber. You got it: nanopores. They give the hydrogen atoms a place to nestle.
In theory, this material could fit enough hydrogen into a normal-sized gas tank to allow 300 miles of travel between fill ups and almost no pressure.
But cooking chicken feathers?
It seems like a lot of trouble and steps to go from the chickens to the stuff we're putting in our hydrogen cars. Isn't there some manmade synthetic way that would be faster, just as good?
RICHARD WOOL: Oh, you can. You can absolutely make these using things like carbon nanotubes and other materials. The difference is that this process is almost for free, whereas the carbon nanotubes and other such materials would cost you the equivalent of about a million dollars for your gas tank.
DAVID POGUE: Yeah, that would put a small damper on car sales in this country.
RICHARD WOOL: So these are cheap, cheap, cheap.
DAVID POGUE: If we want to make hydrogen a viable fuel, Richard Wool and his fine-feathered friends may have found a cleaner way, and all for the cost of chicken feed.
Cars with electric motors, fueled either by hydrogen or super-charged batteries, could cut the cord to gasoline. But once upon a time, gas-fueled cars were seen as a way out of another environmental hazard: horse pollution. And if you don't believe me, you can hear it straight from the freakishly knowledgeable comedian's mouth.
JAY LENO: The car was seen as the great savior of the American horse because in, in the early 1900s you had thousands of tons of horse manure on the streets of New York every day. People dropping dead from dysentery and, and just the smell.
If the horse collapsed in the street, they just cut the reins, and they'd walk, and they'd leave a dead carcass. So, consequently, you had New York City garbage men and stuff going around, picking up hundreds of dead horses in New York City every day. The horses literally worked to death. So when the car came along, oh, my god, this was the, as I said, the great savior. Instead of horse manure you get a little puff of blue smoke occasionally, and that didn't seem so bad.
DAVID POGUE: Yeah, until millions of gas-powered cars started spewing blue smoke filled with lead, sulfur and other pollutants.
Over the last 50 years we've cleaned up a lot of these toxic pollutants. Today, we're mainly left with invisible carbon emissions that are a by-product of burning gasoline and a contributor to global warming. As Jay reminds me, this is not the fault of our cars and engines, the problem is the fuel.
JAY LENO: You know, there's nothing wrong with internal combustion engines. We just don't happen to like the fuel. Why throw away 150 years of proven technology? Internal combustion works; we just don't like the fuel or the byproduct. So, change the fuel and the byproduct.
DAVID POGUE: Wait, does Jay know something we don't? Is it possible to run our internal combustion cars with a fuel that doesn't come from oil?
Materials scientist Jay Keasling has created genetically modified bacteria that do just that: they eat plants and make gas.
JAY D. KEASLING (Joint BioEnergy Institute) : These microbes are miniature chemical factories that take in something very inexpensive, like a sugar, and turn it into something really valuable, like a fuel.
DAVID POGUE: A fuel like gasoline.
My plant can explain. Her body, like all living things, is made from carbon. When her ancestors died, millions of years ago, they took the carbon in their bodies with them safely underground. Over the years, that carbon fossilized and became oil. When we burn this fossil fuel, we rapidly release millions of years of buried carbon back into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
But Jay's process is carbon-neutral. His microbes make liquid fuel from plants that are growing now, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. It's called "biofuel," and, unlike ancient fuel, burning biofuel doesn't add any new carbon to the atmosphere.
It's got all the power of fossil fuel, without the fossils.
JAY D. KEASLING: So if you think about the infrastructure that we have in the U.S., if we can make fuels that are identical to the petroleum-based fuels, then we can use all of that infrastructure for this new fuel.
DAVID POGUE: Existing biofuels have been criticized because they're made from food crops, like corn. But Jay's microbes can eat stuff we can't, like switchgrass and wheat chaff. And the gas they make is good to go as diesel, right into our cars, trucks, trains. It doesn't have to be refined, which takes energy.
Okay, biofuel, better batteries and hydrogen: three cleaner alternatives to petroleum. But I'm the gadget guy, and even I don't know which one to choose. I defer to my car guru who says the innovation that takes us there, will be obvious only in hindsight, and won't catch on until we're ready.
JAY LENO: I remember when I was a kid, in 1964, we went in to buy a new Ford, and my Dad said to the salesman "Does this car have seatbelts?" And the salesman: "Seatbelts? Hey, Louie, we got a racecar driver here. He wants seatbelts. What are you going to crash? What are you a bad driver? We got a driver, what? You going to go 100 miles per hour?" Just humiliated my father. You know you can't, you can't sell something before its time.
DAVID POGUE: In time, clean technology will be like seatbelts, standard equipment. And solving the petroleum fuel problem in cars will drive us a long way down the road to a zero-waste world.
Petroleum makes a powerful fuel. There's a lot of energy stored in the strong atomic bonds between hydrogen and carbon.
For that reason it's also used to produce super strong material, starting where the rubber meets the road.
The stuff in our tires? We call it rubber, but it's really not. Real rubber comes from trees. This stuff is a synthetic material made with petroleum.
It's one of the hardest materials to break down. That's good for driving but bad in a zero-waste world. But my nose tells me there's something different about these babies.
I understand that these tires have something more than plain black rubber in them.
SAM KWA (Yokohama Tire Corporation) : That is correct. They actually have orange oil, in them.
DAVID POGUE: Orange oil?
SAM KWA: Yes.
DAVID POGUE: Just to give them a zesty citrus aroma for the race?
SAM KWA: No, we haven't gone that far to provide an actual natural orange oil smelling tire. But what we've done is we've replaced petroleum oil with orange oil. So it reduces our petroleum footprint. So it's an eco-friendly racing tire.
DAVID POGUE: An eco-friendly tire, so, less, petroleum in these tires?
SAM KWA: That is correct.
DAVID POGUE: Regular tires use about a barrel of oil per tire. Mixing in orange oil reduces that petroleum use by 20 percent. And while reducing petroleum use is good, replacing it with bio-degradable orange oil is better. Best is when that replacement material was getting thrown away anyway.
So, pretty cool; you're rescuing orange peels from the landfill, and you're using them to replace petroleum in actual useful products. But that's a very high-tech use of oranges. You want to know what a good low-tech use of orange is?
SAM KWA: Sure.
DAVID POGUE: Breakfast.
SAM KWA: Great, thank you.
DAVID POGUE: Imagine if eco-friendly ingredients could replace more eco-enemy car parts, beyond tires. It's an idea almost green enough to eat.
Okay, so this is a, uh, attractive car. I can't say it looks any greener than any other car, but you're telling me there's something green about this car that last year's model didn't have.
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI: This is a 2011 Ford Fiesta, and we're just launching this vehicle. What I'm most proud of...it has the soy foam seats in it.
DAVID POGUE: It has sea foam?
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI: Soybean foam. So, we replaced the petroleum materials with soybean oil. Give it a try. Let me know what you think.
DAVID POGUE: Professional cushion tester, David Pogue.
And in cars, the cushions are just the tip of the plastic iceberg.
Yeah it, it feels, like a carseat. It feels comfortable.
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI: Now, look around you. Do you see anything that's not plastic?
DAVID POGUE: Oh, my gosh. Plastic, plastic, plastic, plastic, plastic.
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI: Everywhere.
DAVID POGUE: Yeah.
About 300 pounds of plastic in an average American car. The problem with plastic as a material goes deep, like, to a molecular level.
Plastic is a polymer, chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms that are so strong, it takes bacteria thousands of years to decompose them. Plastic achieves this unnatural invincibility because, a) it's made from petroleum and b) it just ain't natural. It's a manmade molecule, the first stuff in the history of the world that is totally synthetic.
Materials scientist Leo Bakeland invented it in 1907. He became a very rich man.
Originally called Bakelite, the name didn't last as long as the material.
First, Bakelite found a foothold in industry as wire insulation, high precision gears, and even machine guns. Eventually, it caught on with consumers as jewelry, rotary dial telephones, radios, and, yes, car parts.
Today its descendants are everywhere, but that may change. Ford is already replacing 10 percent of that petroleum-based plastic with stuff that's much easier to digest: food.
I look at this and I don't say to myself "car seat." How, how does something like this get to be plastic?
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI: We take the soybeans and we press them, and you get soybean oil.
DAVID POGUE: So, instead of using hard-to-decompose petroleum-based plastic, Ford is substituting soy and other vegetable oils to make bioplastic.
Fifty grams, all right.
PATRICA C. TIBBENHAM : Going to mix it for 30 seconds.
DAVID POGUE: And after we're done with this can I have a blueberry smoothie?
Other than the ingredients, there's not much difference in the process.
Oh, my god. Everybody clear the building! It's going to blow! The soy foam is taking over!
Ford is using bioplastic not only in soft foam seats, but also for hard plastic surfaces like the dashboard. And they're making other car parts from stuff that's left over from harvesting wheat.
Eighty percent of all plastic car parts are made using an injection mold process. The difference here is the wheat.
It seems like a scene from Willy Wonka . Whahahaha!
The machine takes a wheat-straw-plastic mixture, melts it, and pushes it into a mold. The mold cools and pops out a plastic part.
So we've gone from this to this, in 400 easy steps.
This is just a test strip, but this bin for the Ford Flex is made of wheat grass. It decomposes, it's carbon-neutral, and it's already saving tons of petroleum a year.
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI: Even this small part on only the Flex conserves about 30,000 pounds of petroleum each and every year.
DAVID POGUE: And there's actually more than one way to mold car parts. They can actually be grown.
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI: This is mushroom mycelium, so, the root of a mushroom plant.
DAVID POGUE: Wait, wait, this stuff is made from mushrooms?
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI: Yes, so what happens...
DAVID POGUE: Come on.
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI: This is really cool.
DAVID POGUE: Ford mixes a little mushroom mycelium together with some other plant matter, like the wheat straw, and they put the mixture into a mold shaped like a car part. They close the mold and the mushroom mycelium grows because it's feeding on the plant matter.
After about a week, it's filled the mold, they take it out, and it's in the shape of a car part. Just cover it with a little bioplastic and it's ready to go.
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI: This is growing your own car parts.
DAVID POGUE: Okay, now, I think you've been smoking too many mushrooms.
Growing cars from plants is the ultimate green auto technology, but the proof of the pudding is in the driving.
Shall we see what she's got? Going to be some bumps. Whoa! And yes, folks, the soy-based seat cushions are performing well at 40 miles an hour.
On the road to cleaner stuff, reducing the use of a limited resource and replacing it with stuff that can be replenished, makes a lot of sense. And it could have a surprising added benefit.
There's a handy bonus if you're ever, like, crashed on a desert island, and there's nothing to eat, you can always go for a little soybean.
DEBORAH F. MIELEWSKI: I don't think so.
DAVID POGUE: Mixing plant-based ingredients into plastics is a tasty idea, especially to Mother Nature. She's got an appetite for decomposing organic things, like plants and animals, you know? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But, we're never going to eat our way through the world's plastic waste.
We produce more than 300 million tons of plastic every year. Of this smorgasbord, only a third can be replaced with bioplastics. The rest of our plastic buffet is artificially flavored with, polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene. These materials are called thermoplastic, the flimsy petroleum-based stuff that's so cheap we throw it away: milk bottles, plastic bags, cups, bottles, knives, forks, and packing peanuts.
But some materials scientists are dreaming of transforming cheap plastic bags into valuable stuff. That kind of alchemy is what's cooking here. Chief wizard in charge is Vilas Pol.
What are you some kind of James Bond villain?
VILAS POL (Argonne National Laboratory) : Uh, do you want to cook your plastic?
DAVID POGUE: Oh, boy, do I! All day I've been saying I want to cook my plastic.
VILAS POL: So let's do that.
DAVID POGUE: Now, my mom always told me you don't put plastic bags in the fire because it releases poisonous chemicals, and that's true. If you just heated the plastic on the stove, carbon-based chemicals like benzene could get into the air, creating a cancer risk.
But Vilas has created a thermoplastic reactor, a closed system that uses extreme heat to break down the chemical bonds and transform the resulting carbon into a valuable material.
The recipe is simple: cut many plastic bags of any color into small pieces,...
Okay, I feel like the environmental Martha Stewart here.
...put the pieces into the reactor, add a pinch of cobalt acetate.
You, you want to try not to spill.
Set the temperature to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, insert the reactor, throw the switch, and cook for three hours.
Okay, so three hours have elapsed, and we're going to take a look at what you've cooked up.
VILAS POL: Okay.
DAVID POGUE: It looks a lot like black powder, but Vilas has another name for it: carbon nanotubes. Nanotubes are 1/50,000 the thickness of a human hair, conduct electricity 10 times more readily than many metals, and store five times as much energy. That led Villas to find a really practical application for his plastic-bag-formulated nanotubes: batteries.
He coats very thin slices of copper with the former plastic bag material, adds lithium and layers them with plastic spacers.
My experience with this is limited to, like, ham, Swiss and turkey. You'll have to forgive me.
He squeezes it all into a little case, and when we test it...
Okay. I touch it, and look at that! Two dollars and eighty-nine cents.
VILAS POL: No, that is a voltage.
DAVID POGUE: That's the voltage, okay.
But Vilas isn't stopping here with these little power cells. He's already producing rechargeable lithium batteries for cell phones.
He calls this process—transforming wasteful plastic bags into valuable batteries—"upcycling." He could be ready within the next year to go into large-scale production. Not only could upcycling help solve the plastic waste problem; it could also make someone a fortune.
Won't you be the guy who becomes the billionaire?
VILAS POL: Uh, hopefully me and you.
DAVID POGUE: We'll talk about the investments later.
But while upcycling may be a giant mind-shift toward cleaner stuff, it's just one small step toward a zero-waste world.
In fact, if we could eliminate all plastic and all carbon emissions from all the cars in the world, we would still be only a third of the way there.
By far, the biggest contributor to our energy problem comes from very close to home. In fact, it is our homes and the places we work. Every time you turn on a light, you draw electricity from the "grid" —a complex network that delivers electricity to homes, offices and factories. And when the fuel that makes that electricity is coal, oil or even natural gas, more of those planet-warming carbons pour into our atmosphere.
Here in Peekskill, New York, the Wheelabrator plant burns trash instead of fossil fuel to make electricity.
PETER KENDRIGAN: Hi, Dave. How you doing?
DAVID POGUE: Okay, how you doing?
PETER KENDRIGAN: Nice to meet you.
DAVID POGUE: Do you have a trash around here?
PETER KENDRIGAN: Yep, absolutely, you can throw it right in.
This is our fuel. The main purpose is to change the energy from trash into energy.
DAVID POGUE: What about all the nasty emissions you get from burning garbage?
Well, Wheelabrator has figured out that if you burn garbage hot enough, long enough, in a nearly closed system, then almost no carbon or pollutants are released into the atmosphere.
PETER KENDRIGAN: The furnace is designed to burn around 2,000 to 2,500 degrees. That's going to ensure complete combustion, and that way, there, the emissions that come out of it will be minimal to begin with.
DAVID POGUE: So you burn it. You're burning trash here?
PETER KENDRIGAN: Absolutely, yeah.
DAVID POGUE: But doesn't that release nasty toxic stuff into the air?
PETER KENDRIGAN: Uh, no. The specific design of our boilers prevents that.
DAVID POGUE: The technology is new but the principle is as old as a 19 th century locomotive. And the process is quite simple.
Trucks unload household garbage; giant cranes toss it, ten tons at a time, like a giant mixed salad, ensuring that an even mixture is combusted in the 2,000 degree furnace.
PETER KENDRIGAN: Take a peek inside. You can see the whole process happening, right in front of your eyes.
DAVID POGUE: Oh, my god! It's the gates of hell, fueled by pizza boxes.
The heat rises, boils water in a network of thousands of tubes, and creates steam that turns a turbine that generates electricity.
And this is the real payoff, right?
PETER KENDRIGAN: Absolutely. This is our clean, green energy going right off of the grid.
DAVID POGUE: Electricity that you are selling back to the electric company.
PETER KENDRIGAN: Correct.
DAVID POGUE: The electricity is cleaner than coal-burning plants.
There are already over 400 of these waste-to-energy plants in Europe and about 100 in the United States. And just this one, here, in Peekskill, New York, burns enough trash to fuel the electricity needs of 88,000 homes.
Eighty-eight-thousand homes are being fueled by their own trash?
PETER KENDRIGAN: Absolutely.
DAVID POGUE: But even if we burned all our trash, we still wouldn't generate all the electricity we need. And one of the biggest problems with our grid is that we have to keep fueling power plants, even when we're not using the energy, so a lot of electricity goes to waste.
But what if we could store that electricity in really big batteries? And what if we could make those giant batteries dirt cheap?
DONALD SADOWAY (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) : And the only way I know to make something dirt cheap is to make it from dirt. And so that's the approach I'm taking with my group.
DAVID POGUE: Make it from dirt?
DONALD SADOWAY: Make it from dirt, from American dirt.
DAVID POGUE: The dirt Don Sadoway has in mind is aluminum, the most abundant metal in the Earth's crust.
He's rethinking the old-fashioned aluminum smelter, the giant boiling cauldron used to extract molten metal from rocks.
DONALD SADOWAY: ...aluminum smelter is just, basically, a large bath and two electrodes.
DAVID POGUE: The aluminum smelter is already two thirds of the way to being a regular battery. One electrode is the molten aluminum at the bottom, sitting in an electrolyte bath of salt. As the second electrode, Sadoway adds a lighter molten metal that floats on the top and has just the right chemistry to react with the aluminum and salt.
Three layers of cheap molten minerals forming an electric battery: just charge it up with the unused electricity we already generate during hours of low demand and Sadoway's battery will store that energy until it's needed.
DONALD SADOWAY: There are estimates that we can increase the effective generating capacity of this country by 15 percent without building one power plant.
DAVID POGUE: Giant batteries could also solve one of the biggest problems with sun and wind energy: what to do when the wind don't blow and the Sun don't shine. A giant aluminum battery could store the Sun and wind power and deliver it to the grid when we need it.
But the power plant and grid model is actually an incredibly wasteful way to supply electricity. Nobody wants a giant power plant or smelter in the backyard, so they have to be located far away. And by the time the power travels over wires to the cool gadgets in our homes, nearly half of it is wasted.
And a third of the people on the planet don't even have access to electricity because they're nowhere near a grid. So, imagine if all the people of the world could get clean electrical power without a grid. That's what one scientist, K.R. Sridhar, is trying to achieve.
He calls his invention a battery with a twist, but officially it's called a Bloom Box. It works on the same principle as a battery, but it's made with different stuff.
K.R. SRIDHAR (Bloom Energy) : So this is the electrolyte. This is the quote-unquote "acid" in your battery.
DAVID POGUE: Yeah, I'd much rather have this sitting near my children.
K.R. SRIDHAR: I'd rather have this. I can't do this with a, I can't do this with lead acid, you know, sulfuric acid.
DAVID POGUE: You, you can, you would just be dead, yeah?
K.R. SRIDHAR: Right, exactly.
DAVID POGUE: As in a battery, the electricity is created by a chemical reaction.
But, as in a fuel cell, that reaction is created by two gases flowing in from the outside; in this case, natural gas and oxygen on opposite sides of the card.
The reaction pulls electrons from the oxygen atoms, which generates an electric current.
And how much electricity can this puny little playing card generate?
K.R. SRIDHAR: Today it produces 25 watts, enough for a big bright light in your house.
DAVID POGUE: This, this one thing?
K.R. SRIDHAR: This one thing.
DAVID POGUE: Well.
Bloom Energy piles these small fuel cells into stacks, which will have a big effect. Just two stacks are enough to power an average American house. They'd fill a box about the size of a window air conditioner.
Bloom Boxes the size of a parking space are already producing enough electricity to power offices and factories of some Big Fortune 50 companies like FedEx, eBay and Google.
K.R. SRIDHAR: It is generating enough juice for about a 20,000-square-foot office building.
DAVID POGUE: That's, like, a whole office building?
K.R. SRIDHAR: Whole office building.
DAVID POGUE: Or a small factory, right?
K.R. SRIDHAR: Or, or a small supermarket.
DAVID POGUE: Small supermarket.
K.R. SRIDHAR: Or four Starbucks.
DAVID POGUE: Four Starbucks or one of my house.
K.R. SRIDHAR: Right.
DAVID POGUE: I'm kind of a gadget freak.
Electricity from the Bloom Box costs 40 percent less than power from fossil fuel power plants, with only one-third the pollution. For now, the Bloom Box still has to be hooked up to a natural gas line. But K.R. has plans to tap into a source of unlimited power that comes with no strings attached: the Sun.
And chief materials scientist, Mother Nature, has already invented a way to harness that power: my plant. She converts sunlight into energy, which she stores as sugar in her cells. That's photosynthesis.
We tap into that energy by burning or eating plants.
But what if we could imitate that process by making like a leaf?
That's what Nate Lewis is doing.
He's got a major grant from the United States Department of Energy to convert sunlight into chemical fuel. It's what he calls artificial photosynthesis, and he claims he can do it better than my plant.
NATE LEWIS (California Institute of Technology) : We have systems already in the lab that do show that we can capture, convert and store the Sun's energy into chemical fuel, more than ten times more efficiently than the best plant on our planet.
DAVID POGUE: The power of the Sun is no secret.
More energy from the Sun hits the Earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on our planet in an entire year. We already have solar panels that convert sunlight to electricity, but they're fragile and expensive, because the silicon they're made of has to be very pure.
But Nate's got a cheaper, more durable way to make solar cells, modeled on the leaves of the Aspen tree.
His silicon is shaped like veins of a leaf, embedded in a conductive plastic film. The shape allows electrons to flow through the veins, even if the silicon has impurities. And Nate's silicon leaves are cheap to grow and flexible enough to be rolled out like a solar blanket.
All right, so this is the big moment. As I understand it, that is Nate's magic microwire: rollable, cheap, solar panel material.
NATE LEWIS: So this is making electricity just like the panels would make on your roof. There's no current when there's not much light, and then it sees the nice California sun, then we get more current.
DAVID POGUE: Now here's the artificial photosynthesis piece of the puzzle, the energy storage.
NATE LEWIS: The best way to store energy is in chemical bonds. That's what nature does in photosynthesis. That's why we call this artificial photosynthesis.
DAVID POGUE: Nate puts his silicon leaves into regular old water. The electric charge generated by these tiny solar panels splits the H 2 0 into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen.
NATE LEWIS: You can see, if you just flip the switch, and then we will see the bubbles coming off of that as it does that chemical process. So, be my guest.
DAVID POGUE: I'm going to turn on the Sun?
NATE LEWIS: Turn on the Sun.
DAVID POGUE: This always happens, people say, "Here comes David Pogue. It's like the Sun coming out." Okay.
Whoa! So, those are bubbles of?
NATE LEWIS: Hydrogen gas.
DAVID POGUE: By converting sunlight into storable energy, Nate has figured out how to imitate what plants have been doing for billions of years: photosynthesis.
If this scales up, the hydrogen produced could be useful in fuel cells to power our cars, homes and factories.
And now, my plant is happy and so am I.
She takes my carbon dioxide and uses it to grow, giving me oxygen in return, and scientists are learning to make energy and materials in the same sustainable way, inspired by the perfect circle of life, bringing us closer, step-by-step to the ultimate dream of Making Stuff Cleaner .
Making Stuff: Cleaner
- David Pogue
- Written by
- Gary Glassman
- Directed by
- David Huntley
- Executive Producer
- Chris Schmidt
- Executive Producers
- for Powderhouse Productions
- Field Producer
- Doug Gordon
- Associate Producer
- Sonia Weinhaus
- Edited by
- Dickran H. Manoogian
- Additional Editing by
Kristine Young Gaffney
- Director of Photography
- Gary Henoch
- Additional Photography
- Jason Longo
- Sound Recordists
Giovanii Di Simone
- Grips and Gaffers
- Production Assistant
- Daniel V. Parsons
- Lunch Special Music
- Edgeworx, LLC
- Additional Animation
- Production Managers
- Post Production Supervisors
- Assistant Editors
Eric P. Gulliver
- Online Editor / Colorist
- Julie Kahn
- Audio Mix
- Heart Punch Studio, Inc
- Heather Scudellari
- For Powderhouse Productions
- Post Production Manager
- Melissa Walter Richards
- Senior Production Coordinator
- Carlin Corrigan
- VP of Production
- Daniel Miller
- Senior VP of Production and Post
- Robert Kirwan
- Senior VP of Sales and Development
- Seanbaker Carter
- Archival Material
BlackLight Films / Footage Search
Footage Provided by Thought Equity Motion
Footage courtesy The WPA Film Library
Streamline Films, Inc.
- Special Thanks
- Producers gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the Materials Research Society.
Richard A. Souza
Sandra DeVincent Wolf
- Special Thanks
U.S. Department of Energy's
Argonne National Laboratory
Big Dog Garage, LLC.
Waste Management, Inc.
Professor Stephen Sass, Cornell University
- NOVA Series Graphics
- yU + co.
- NOVA Theme Music
- Additional NOVA Theme Music
- Post Production Online Editor
- Michael H. Amundson
- Closed Captioning
- The Caption Center
- Steve Sears
- Kate Becker
- NOVA Administrator
- Kristen Sommerhalter
- Production Coordinator
- Linda Callahan
- Sarah Erlandson
- Talent Relations
Scott Kardel, Esq.
- Legal Counsel
- Susan Rosen
- Post Production Assistant
- Darcy Forlenza
- Associate Producer Post Production
- Patrick Carey
- Post Production Supervisor
- Regina O'Toole
- Post Production Editor
- Rebecca Nieto
- Post Production Manager
- Nathan Gunner
- Compliance Manager
- Linzy Emery
- Development Producer
- Pamela Rosenstein
- Supervising Producer
- Stephen Sweigart
- Business and Production Manager
- Jonathan Loewald
- Senior Producer and Project Director, Margret & Hans Rey / Curious George Producer
- Lisa Mirowitz
- Coordinating Producer
- Laurie Cahalane
- Senior Science Editor
- Evan Hadingham
- Senior Series Producer
- Melanie Wallace
- Executive Producer
- Howard Swartz
- Managing Director
- Alan Ritsko
- Senior Executive Producer
- Paula S. Apsell
Produced by Powderhouse Productions
A NOVA Production by Powderhouse Productions for WGBH
Â© 2011 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved
- (David Pogue)
- ©WGBH/Mark Ostow, ©iStockphoto.com/Pinosub, Bottom right: ©iStockphoto.com
- Bill Dube, Eva Hakansson, Jay Keasling, Peter Kendrigan, Sam Kwa, Jay Leno, Nate Lewis, Deborah Mielewski, David Pogue, Vilas Pol, Don Sadoway, K Sridhar, Stephanie White, Richard Wool