MAKING STUFF CLEANER

How about bacteria that make gasoline? Threads that can hold up a bridge? Garbage making electricity? Chicken feathers in your gas tank? We learned about these in “Making Stuff Cleaner,” the third episode in the PBS “Making Stuff” series hosted by New York Times tech columnist David Pogue.

This episode was the densest of the lot, but perhaps the most rewarding. There was plenty of science, interspersed with fun stuff. We saw talk show host Jay Leno’s antique car collection and took a spin on a 1909 Baker electric car. Back then, Leno said, there were charging stations all over New York City.  But the cars only went 22 miles per hour, tops. Average speed in New York City today: 12 miles per hour.

Besides his antique cars, Leno has been driving a hydrogen car for two years, and so have some drivers who signed up for General Motor’s “Project Driveway,” to test hydrogen sports utility vehicles. The catch with hydrogen is that it likes to be free; it takes enormous pressure to compress it into a gas tank. What’s a light atom to do?

Scientist Richard Wool of the University of Delaware is experimenting with hydrogen and chicken feathers. It turns out that the hydrogen atoms will lodge tightly together in the feathery fluff, after the feathers have been heated to create “nano pores,” little caves for the hydrogen atoms.

Vilas Pol, a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, is turning cheap plastic bags into batteries. First he cuts them into small pieces. Then he puts them into a reactor, adds a pinch of cobalt acetate and cooks them for three hours at 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. What comes out is carbon nanotubes, 1/50,000 the thickness of human hair. These conduct electricity ten times better than metals and store five times as much energy.  To make batteries, Pol adds lithium to the carbon nanotubes and uses layers of plastic spacers. He says his rechargeable lithium batteries will power cell phones in a year.

Watch the video or read about the show here.

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