Let’s Get Mental by Dustin Driver
Super Wood

Super Wood

June 28, 2020

A new treatment process could make wood stronger than steel.

In 1940 the de Havilland aircraft company introduced the Mosquito—a combat aircraft made almost entirely out of wood. A few years later the famously fastidious Howard Huges built the Spruce Goose out of, well, spruce (and other woods). In the ‘60s the British automotive manufacturer Marcos built its GT car using mostly plywood. Tons of other manufacturers have made aircraft, boats, and cars using wood or wood composites. But why isn’t wood construction more mainstream? Cars are steel (or aluminum). Bikes are steel (or aluminum). Skyscrapers and warehouses have bones of cold, hard steel. The stuff is simply stronger and tougher than wood. Until now. 

Materials scientist Liangbing Hu at the University of Maryland has invented a method of treating wood that makes it stronger than steel, and even some titanium alloys. If their methods are proven out, we could see more cars, planes, and even skyscrapers built out of wood. It could reduce our reliance on energy-intensive steel and aluminum, giving us a low-carbon alternative. 

Wait, what’s all this about carbon? I’m just going out on a limb here, but it’s becoming more and more clear that we need to actively reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Growing trees is a great way to do it. If wood can be a good alternative to steel, there’s even more incentive to grow more trees. And once that carbon is locked away in wood, it’s not going back into the atmosphere—unless you burn it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s leave this alone for now.

So how does this special treatment work? First they boil the wood in a solution of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfite. This boil removes some of the lignin and hemicellulose polymers in the wood, but leaves the cellulose intact. And cellulose is the strong stuff you want to keep around.

After the boil the researchers compress and heat the wood, making a much more dense version of the original thing. The cellulose fibers actually fuse together on a molecular level, creating a material that’s much stronger than the original. The stuff is three times as dense as regular wood, fifty times more resistant to compression and just about 20 times stiffer.  In simulated tests the new compressed wood actually stopped bullets. It’s not as tough as traditional kevlar armor, but it’s only about a fifth of the cost. 

So what else could you do with this new compressed wood? It’s strong enough to be used in cars (just like that Marcos), buildings, airplanes, whatever. It would be cheaper and lighter than steel, and it would be totally renewable. Sure, you can melt steel down and use it again, but it’s an energy intensive process. Need more wood? Plant some trees. If you plan it right, you could grow more than enough to meet manufacturers needs. Plus, trees are a carbon sink. Remember that bit about climate change earlier? One great way to reduce carbon concentrations is by planting trees. Sure, it takes a while, but trees capture and hold on to a lot of carbon. 

Hu would like to work with engineers to scale up his new process to make it commercially viable. Who knows, maybe in the future your Tesla will be made largely from wood. 

I stole this story from author Sid Perkins in Scientific American. Go give it a read. Sid goes into more detail about the chemical process and explores a few other futuristic materials made out of wood—including transparent wood.

Should You Wear a Mask?

Should You Wear a Mask?

June 22, 2020

Yes, yes you should.

RNA Editing and Squids

RNA Editing and Squids

June 13, 2020

When you edit DNA, it’s permanent. The cell you edit will be changed forever, or at least until it dies. But what if there was a less-permanent way to edit genes? 

There is, actually. It’s called RNA editing and it happens quite a bit in our own cells. RNA is the go-between in protein synthesis. DNA codes to RNA, which then codes to specific proteins. Proteins are what we’re all about, so if you alter anything in that production chain, you can potentially change the entire organism. In nature, RNA editing happens in that stage between DNA and protein synthesis. Here’s how it works:

Imagine protein synthesis: DNA unravels and pairs up with messenger RNA. That RNA breaks off and goes to assemble some protein. Before it can, some sneaky enzymes jump in and make some changes to the RNA. Thanks to those changes, the RNA makes a new protein—one that isn’t coded in the DNA. 

Why would this happen? Multicellular organisms like you and me are super complicated. We require lots of different kinds of proteins to function—more than our DNA actually codes for, in fact. RNA editing is a way to get more variety out of a limited amount of DNA. It gives us more adaptability.

For example, we’ve found that liver and intestinal cells share the same DNA for a particular protein, yet make different versions of it. In the liver, the protein carries cholesterol in the bloodstream. In the intestine, thanks to some RNA editing magic, a shortened version of the protein absorbs lipids—like a fat sponge—before they move into the bloodstream. Same DNA, different protein.

Last episode I said we’d be talking squids. Scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts discovered this RNA editing in squids a few years back. An article published in Wired in May suggests that the discovery was recent, but Joshua Rosenthal and his colleagues announced their discovery in March, 2019. At any rate, they found this kind of RNA editing in squid axons—the long skinny filament-like cells that connect neurons in the brain and nervous system. It’s the first time anyone has seen so much of it. They estimate that more than 60,000 cells in the squid’s brain use RNA editing, giving them a tremendous amount of adaptability. 

Is this even more evidence that cephalopods are from another planet? Or perhaps they are actually earth’s supreme species, more advanced than us talking monkeys. But probably not. They are definitely more well adapted to life in the ocean, and they may be more genetically complex, but they’re not more advanced. In fact, the term “advanced” is meaningless in evolutionary terms. There are just too many factors to measure. Are we talking smarter? Or better at adapting to the environment? If it’s smarts, we win. But bacteria win when it comes to adapting to their environments, no contest. 

But I digress. 

Rosenthal and his colleagues hope to figure out how RNA editing works in squids so they can do the same thing in other animals and humans. Like some kind of Island of Dr. Moreaux scenario? Not really. Many genetic diseases could be treated with RNA editing. And because you’re not changing cell DNA, your changes wouldn’t be permanent.

Wait, wouldn’t you want to permanently fix a genetic disorder? We simply don’t know the long-term effects of modifying DNA directly. A DNA treatment could reverse a genetic disorder, but cause cancer down the line. We just don’t know. RNA editing, on the other hand, would be safer. If doctors encountered any issues with the treatment, they could stop right away without causing permanent damage. 

“RNA editing is a hell of a lot safer than DNA editing. If you make a mistake, the RNA just turns over and goes away,” said Rosenthal in the Wired article.

You can read the article by Eric Niiler at Wired.com, and you can learn a ton more about RNA editing at Chemical Engineering News. Links in the show notes. 

I also found an awesome YouTube channel that delves into the nitty-gritty of RNA editing.  Shomu's Biology goes over RNA editing in a clear and concise manner, using nothing but a headset and a white board. I was definitely able to follow along, even with only half a dozen college biology courses under my belt. Go check him out if you want to nerd out about RNA editing and biology.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

May 30, 2020

The doctors in Star Trek have an assortment of devices that can heal your ailments in seconds with beams of light or energy. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) uses high-powered magnets to beam energy directly into your brain. Proponents say the magnetic fields—and the electric currents they induce—can treat depression.

Serotonin and Depression

Serotonin and Depression

March 10, 2020

Prozac was a miracle cure for my depression—until it wasn't. In this episode I explore serotonin's role in depression and why people like me experience "Prozac poop-out syndrome." Featuring Dr. George Keepers, Professor of Psychiatry at the Oregon Health and Science University's School of Medicine.

Hydrogen Cars

Hydrogen Cars

January 11, 2020

The 2002 General Motors Hy-Wire was a hydrogen fuel cell car built to represent the future of GM—and automobiles in general. I got to drive the thing way back in 2002 during a press event. The Hy-Wire represented decades of research by engineers, and turned out to be a pretty good prediction of the future.

Metal Powder Energy

Metal Powder Energy

November 26, 2019

Even if we stick solar panels on every roof in the world, we’d still need a way to store energy to use when it gets dark. And a way to use that energy later to do more than just power a lightbulb—to do things like power construction equipment or move a cargo ship across the Pacific. Metal powder may be a great way to do it.

Pandora Moth Invasion

Pandora Moth Invasion

September 11, 2019

I caught the tail end of the Pandora moth outbreak on a recent visit to Bend, Oregon. I lived in Bend for almost five years without seeing a single Pandora moth. This summer I saw thousands littering the streets and parking lots, mostly dead or dying. When I asked friends about the moths, I got shrugs. Nobody really knew what they were or where they came from.  I was fascinated. Was this a foreign invader, a ravenous beast that would defoliate the state? Would its larvae overwhelm the town come spring?

Blueprint for a Solar Economy with John McCone

Blueprint for a Solar Economy with John McCone

July 18, 2019

In this podcast I talk to scientist and philosopher John McCone about his excellent article “Blueprint for a Solar Economy.” John outlines a way to transition from fossil fuels to solar power using some of our existing fossil fuel infrastructure and existing solar technology. He paints a pretty hopeful picture of a solar-powered society that produces almost no carbon emissions. 

It’s a hopeful picture of the future, which is something we all really need right now—and I really need—especially after the last podcast on the pending global climate apocalypse. 

We talk about a lot of really interesting things, including using existing gas pipelines in the solar-powered world, and jet engines that run on powdered iron.

You can read John’s article on his website: Blueprint for a Solar Economy

Climate Apocalypse

Climate Apocalypse

June 14, 2019

For the first time in human history, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 415 ppm. But what does that mean? Are we doomed to suffocate under a blanket of carbon, slowly cooking to death as the planet melts away beneath us? It’s not quite that bad, but it does not bode well for humanity.

Listen, and head over to NY Mag and read David Wallace Wells’ article The Uninhabitable Earth. It’s masterfully written and utterly terrifying.