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As we close 2021, we revisit the tech topics and innovations that got us talking through the year. We covered a solution to keep plastic waste out of our oceans, a method to harvest drinking water from the air, NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter and much more. The year was filled with eye-opening listen and learn moments as SwRI engineers and scientists shared their insight and expertise.
Listen now as we recap an informative and inspiring year on the podcast.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for clarity.
Lisa Peña (LP): Today a look back on the SwRI technology, breakthroughs and innovations that got us talking in 2021. From developing a COVID therapy to recycling plastic for fuel and exploring Jupiter. The insightful and inspiring conversations of 2021, next on this episode of Technology Today.
We live with technology, science, engineering, and the results of innovative research every day. Now, let's understand it better. You're listening to the Technology Today Podcast presented by Southwest Research Institute. Transcript and photos for this episode and all episodes are available at podcast.swri.org.
Hello and welcome to Technology Today. I’m Lisa Peña. It’s been an enlightening year on the podcast. So many highlights, including learning about rheology, a field of science you may not have heard of, but likely use every day. We discussed a technique to harvest water from the air, machine learning tools to identify chemicals, NASA’s Juno Mission to Jupiter and much more. We heard from experts at the top of their fields. Now, let’s revisit our most intriguing listen and learn moments of 2021.
We’re kicking off our year in review with SwRI scientist Jonathan Bohmann on developing a drug therapy to treat COVID-19. Back in January on episode 27, before Delta, before Omicron, we discussed virus mutations and their impact on research.
Lisa Peña: So just to recap, though, what you said, generally, when viruses mutate, they become less dangerous. So the thought is coronavirus, the COVID-19, will follow this same pathway?
Dr. Jonathan Bohmann (JB): Yeah, and that's what makes them more-- so the mutations, the virus doesn't think or do anything other than replicate. It's barely alive because it can't replicate by itself. But yeah, exactly, the ones that you're going to see more often are the ones that are more infectious.
LP: So do these mutations change your research in any way?
JB: No. And this is the good news, is that those mutations, the ones that we know about, are on the spike protein, which controls viral recognition of the host cells. And our target is in the lifecycle in replication within the cell. So after a cell has been infected with the virus, then the virus multiplies. That's replication. And our treatment would interfere with the replication, not the recognition. And so the changes that are being observed are in the recognition domains of the spike protein mainly.
Bohmann explained the drug testing and approval process is lengthy. In an update this month, Bohmann shared that the drug therapy has advanced to safety testing in animals. And in the next phase of testing, researchers will learn how effective it is against COVID-19.
We discussed fast and fascinating 5G, or fifth-generation mobile network technology in February on episode 28. Jody Little, SwRI R&D manager and Executive Program Manager of the Joint Base San Antonio 5G Experimentation programs, explained… 5G capabilities extend way beyond your smartphone and gaming devices.
Lisa Peña: So what you're saying is that a robot, a surgical robot, could conduct surgery a great distance away, because somebody far away can be operating that robot with 5G?
Jody Little (JL): Absolutely.
LP: That's insane.
JL: It is.
LP: In the best way.
JL: There's barriers to overcome. It has to be highly resilient, because you can't have the communications loss going down in the middle of it. And it has to be able to support different communications networks to get there. But 5G enables that sort of thing because of all the data. So imagine a patient has sensors attached to their body, doing all the various things you see when you're in an operating room. That data is being transmitted in real time back to the doctor at a different place. Now, the doctor's also got multiple high resolution HD video, where they're looking at the patient or they have it attached the robot looking inside the patient, also being transmitted. They're also able to do real time control simultaneously with high fidelity to that robot while they're doing the operation. And they're able to communicate with the medic in high fidelity, with the medics that are supporting the operation in the field. So that's fairly significant amount of data that requires what I refer to as low latency, to make it work all in conjunction. And that's very exciting. This really, from the medical side, this is our medical partner saying, this is going to save lives.
5G will one day save lives. Little explained 5G medical applications could be especially useful for military personnel in areas with limited health care resources.
Our next tech topic in 2021- machine learning tools Floodlight™ and Searchlight™ changing the way chemicals are detected and rescuing chemists from data overload. On Episode 29, SwRI analytical chemist Kristin Favela discussed the wide range of testing possibilities with the software.
Lisa Peña (LP): So are you talking about lotions and shampoos, or I don't know, food containers, or what type of products are you analyzing?
Kristin Favela (KF): So pretty much anything you come into contact with on a daily basis could be a candidate for this type of analysis. So anything from personal care products to clothing, there's carpeting and upholstery, all of these materials are made of chemicals. And in many cases they're a very complex mix of chemicals. So now, with these advances in the technology, we're able to characterize these fully. And this is important, not only for exposure science, so knowing what people are exposed to, but also for other industries, such as forensics. So for example, a particular manufacturer may have a process, something that they produce, and then suddenly it's out of spec. And they want to know why. So these techniques can be really helpful for the full characterization of samples for that reason. You may also think of pretty much any time you want to know what is in a sample. So if you think of the pharmaceutical industry, they are very interested in knowing, obviously, what impurities might be present in pharmaceuticals. So it's not just exposomics in consumer products. Really, the sky's the limit here.
R&D World recognized Floodlight with a 2021 R&D 100 award, naming it one of the top 100 innovations of the year. More on the honor and the other two winning SwRI technologies later in this episode.
Next up, SwRI chemical engineer Eloy Flores told us about the global plastics problem and an SwRI solution to turn piles of plastic waste into useful fuel. Episode 30 in April was truly eye-opening.
Eloy Flores (EF): However, most of these places end up - they're actually third world countries. They have a difficult time even receiving the material, much less sorting it. And so as a result, they have piles and piles of waste plastics that ultimately just end up either being washed in the ocean. Or sometimes, even worse, they'll burn them as a heat source, which actually causes other environmental issues with air pollution.
Lisa Peña: So they were buying our waste plastic in bulk, hoping to make a profit. And that doesn't always work out. So then they have to they get rid of the plastic piles, any way they can. And a lot of that ends up in our oceans. So this system obviously is broken. It's not working. In 2018, there was a big change, as you mentioned. These countries were no longer accepting our waste plastic. So at that time, your team had a great solution to handle the overflow of plastic waste. Tell us about what you guys did.
EF: Yeah, so, I mean, we've had a long history of working with our clients, doing pilot plant and process development work and with technologies that are in different areas of pyrolysis. So we've done a lot of pyrolysis on things like heavy oil, coal, all type of biomass. And that - so it was a natural transition for industry and for us to look at what opportunities this pyrolysis process had to convert waste plastics into pyrolysis oils. And these pyrolysis oils, they can then be used as a feedstock for all kinds of different things to produce chemicals or make fuels directly.
With the pyrolysis process, SwRI engineers are developing a way to break down plastic waste and turn it into useful chemicals and fuels, keeping it out of landfills and oceans.
In May, we learned about Integrated Corridor Management, or ICM, an SwRI smart mobility solution that reduces traffic tie-ups. On episode 31, SwRI Project Manager Clay Weston explained how ICM optimizes the flow of traffic after a disruption like an accident, getting drivers on their way.
Lisa Peña: What is integrated corridor management, or ICM?
Clay Weston (CW): Sure, so integrated corridor management is a derivation of incident management that we already do. So we only work with Departments of Transportation to run their software that allows them to respond to an incident on the highway. So if an accident happens, we currently will tell a user or a traveler there's an accident ahead, two left lanes closed in two miles, or something like that. Then they make their own decision. Maybe they use Google Maps, maybe they stay in the congestion because they think it's going to clear soon. They make their own decision about what they're going to do. Integrated corridor management takes that and moves it to the next level of actively telling people a different direction that they may take in order to minimize their travel time. So we're actually going to change traffic signal timing patterns along predefined diversion routes, in order to give them more green lights in the direction they're going, get them off of the highway before they encounter congestion, and onto the highway after wherever the accident or incident occurred. And that way, you get less people entering congestion, more people going along the arterials, and getting those green lights to flush them down the arterials and back onto the highway.
LP: I mean, that sounds amazing. That's wonderful news for drivers. And it sounds a lot safer, because you won't have drivers sitting there trying to make decisions when they rushing to work. So I'm sure there are plenty of advantages and benefits to ICM. What are some of the top benefits you see with the system?
CW: So the top benefits is mainly just reduced congestion, and reduced travel time for people to get where they're going.
SwRI's ICM technology is currently in use in Florida and Tennessee, with plans underway for expansion into other areas.
From the flow of traffic to the flow of matter. We learned about rheology on episode 32 in June. As SwRI Sr. Research Engineer Dr. Carlos Sanchez explained, rheology is everywhere.
Lisa Peña: So why do we need rheology? Why is it important to have this type of data available when you're putting out products we use every day?
Dr. Carlos Sanchez (CS): Rheology basically gives a number or a value that can be used to describe certain phenomena for a particular product. Think of how honey is able to be poured out of a jar or a container, or how something being able to squeeze out of a container, or how motor oil is able to flow through your engine. All those behaviors relate to how it's going to perform in that system or how it's going to look in appearance on a shelf, or on your food, on your plates. Being able to characterize that is very important so that these products behave the way they need to, and they remain consistent from batch to batch, process to process. The appearance and stability of a product that, if it sits on a store shelf, it needs to go from the store to your house and have the same type of consistency. It needs to have a certain shelf life. It needs to last months on end. It's not going to collapse on itself. Likewise, it needs to perform well in a real system. Say an engine oil running through your engine, it's able to lubricate the parts and flow properly, and likewise, lasts a very long time. You don't want have to change your engine oil every week or so. It needs to last over several thousands of miles. And rheology helps us to better understand those materials, to make sure that they're going to behave that the way they need to at certain temperatures, certain pressures, and certain shear rates, or forces, being acted upon them.
LP: It ensures our condiments aren't clumpy and our motor oil flows smoothly. What other roles does this field play in our day to day lives?
CS: Rheology is used in a lot of industries. It's a very universal science, but it's not very well known.
Next time you are enjoying candy, beverages or using condiments or cosmetics, remember the contributions of rheology testing. On episode 33, we learned about harvesting water from the air, pulling enough of it to drink, wash hands and more. The process can help communities experiencing drought and water shortages. SwRI Engineer and Program Manager Kevin Supak explained how it works.
Kevin Supak (KS): But you know we've also all probably enjoyed a cold beverage on a hot day, a humid day. Or maybe even at our grandma's house, how we forgot to put a coaster under a cold beverage, and we left a water ring around it. We are directly condensing water out of the atmosphere there. And we all may not know this, or maybe a lot do, but the air conditioners in our home today are atmospheric water harvesters. They are doing that, day in and day out. Air conditioners in your home can produce on the order of like 5 to 10 gallons a day of water, any given day, that we could use to help flush toilets, maybe to help water plants in our yard.
And commercial companies have taken this type of technology, and they're actually offering atmospheric water harvesting to communities in the US, and communities around the world. Where people are using this technology to help bring clean water to areas that may not have had it before. Well the big challenge with a refrigeration based system, so having cold coils that condense water, is that when the humidity level gets so low, like in an arid environment, like a desert, it basically renders these units inoperable. You have to drive the temperature so low that they don't work anymore, they don't produce water.
And so what we're looking at is a second form of atmospheric water harvesting. And that's actually using a desiccant material to directly absorb water vapor, in it's gaseous form, into these materials. And we're all familiar with desiccants, just like we're familiar with air conditioners. Desiccants are in our daily lives, like rice, or the silica gel packets that you see in the equipment that you buy, or in shoes that you buy too.
The SwRI water harvesting technology in development uses silica gel and is about the size of a mini-fridge. It can pull water from the air in exceptionally dry environments, even the desert.
Preventing structural failure was the focus of episode 34. We spoke to SwRI Engineer Tim Fey who is the director of the Institute’s Structural Engineering Department. He discussed the methods used to analyze structures for safety. Robots are one of their tools.
Lisa Peña (LP): Are you using robotics in your work?
Tim Fey (TF): Yes. We do. We, in many cases, want to know the condition of a structure. If we can identify something that's going on, whether it's a flaw that was there during manufacture of that structure, or if there is something that's occurred through corrosion, or fastener rubbing with the material, we want to be able to inspect. And a lot of times, you can't just be there as a person, because of the environment around you. So we have built robotic systems with our sensor techniques and our sensors that we build and the analysis systems that go with that. But we integrate that with robotic systems. Most recently, we've worked with a robotic system that will inspect a tank wall for corrosion. And that tank is a fluid tank that's land based. And basically, if that were to corrode through, we would have a environmental concern of the contents getting into the environment. And so when we can't get there with people, that may have a hazardous environment in this case, radiation that may be occurring, and so we put that on a robotic system that will then track like a tracked vehicle to crawl into this space and do inspection of that structure.
SwRI’s Structural Engineering Department assesses a range of structures for safety including highway barrier systems, aircraft, water vessels, rocket components and more.
Next Stop Jupiter and a fascinating perspective on NASA’s Juno Mission, On Episode 35 we spoke to associate vice president of the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division, and Juno Principal Investigator, Dr. Scott Bolton about exploring the fifth planet from the sun.
Lisa Peña: Why the focus on Jupiter? How did this planet become the centerpiece of the Juno mission?
Dr. Scott Bolton (SB): So, the reason Jupiter is so important is because it's the largest of all the planets. It's more massive than all the planets put together. In fact, they would all fit inside Jupiter basically. And so when you're trying to understand the recipe of how you make a solar system, and how did we get here on the Earth, and what happened in the early solar system, Jupiter is really the first stop. And it's because it must have formed first. If it had formed after the solar system was already created, and the other planets, it almost certainly would have disrupted everything. So, most scientists believe it must have formed first. So that's the first step in planetary formation. After the sun formed, then the first planet must have been Jupiter. And so, when you want to kind of investigate and understand where we came from, how planets are made, how other solar systems are made when we look out at exoplanetary systems, we look, and we basically compare it to Jupiter. And so, Jupiter is the really giving us the clues.
LP: Juno launched in 2011 and jumped into Jupiter's orbit in 2016. You've been collecting data and images for five years now. What do you consider the most significant discoveries of Juno's primary mission?
SB: So that's a long list, and I'll try to take them in the order that we realized them when they were happening. So, the first thing was is Juno is really the first spacecraft to go over the poles of Jupiter. So, it gave us the very first view of what Jupiter's north and south pole looked like, and it didn't look like any like anything that anybody had expected.
Juno’s extended mission continues through 2025. Check out episode 35 to hear the full conversation and what Bolton had to say about Jupiter’s moons, the planet’s well-known red spot and Jupiter’s giant hail.
SwRI’s new Advanced Fluids for Electrified Vehicles Consortium is a research program focused on the fluid and lubricant needs of electrified vehicles. SwRI engineer Rebecca Warden told us on Episode 36, researchers are looking toward the future.
Lisa Peña: What are you currently seeing in the industry that motivates you to take this type of research on right now?
Rebecca Warden (RW): Right now, what we see in the industry is just the tip of the iceberg. What's coming is right now below the sea, but it's coming quick. Every model that you look at, electrification, both on hybrid electric as well as electric vehicles, is the future, is going to be our pathway to net zero. And there is a ton of research happening on both the hardware side as well as the lubricant side. The reason that we want to focus on it from the lubricant side is there's so much changing in the hardware, and what the vehicles look like today is not what the vehicles are going to look like in five or 10 years. And we want to help develop the tools for the formulators so that they can formulate the products for what the vehicles are going to look like into the future. So that's not only going to allow them to get ready and have the best products available on the market, but it's also going to allow the tier one suppliers and OEMs to have those lubricants available in their actual development process. One thing this industry has always had a problem with is generally, we're developing tomorrow's lubricants on yesterday's hardware, and we're developing tomorrow's hardware on yesterday's lubricants. Well, when you're using the wrong lubricant in an application you can end up making very expensive design decisions in order to overcompensate for that lubricant problem. So we want to try and help move the industry as a whole together so that both can develop together into the future.
Go to afev.swri.org for information on the consortium. And check out Episode 36 to hear the entire conversation with Warden and SwRI engineer Peter Morgan.
In November, episode 37 was dedicated to SwRI’s three R&D 100 award winners. SwRI engineer Cary Henry discussed the revolutionary catalyzed diesel exhaust fluid. Computer scientist Michael Hartnett spoke about expanding Floodlight applications. And SwRI engineer Sankar Rengarajan told us about the advantages of connected and automated vehicle technology.
Sankar Rengarajan (SR): One of the fundamental drawbacks has been that they have completely been decoupled from the powertrain technology. So that is where our technology comes into play where we operate at the intersection of connected vehicle technology, automated technology, and then how to improve powertrain efficiency by using the advanced sensing, as well as information that is available through these technologies.
Cary Henry (CH): And so it really is a unique technology, because typically in the automotive space and with respect to internal combustion engines, you're either improving greenhouse gas and fuel consumption while making increases or resulting in increases in criteria pollutant emissions or vice versa. And this particular technology has the ability to improve both greenhouse gas emissions as well as criteria pollutant emissions at the same time.
Michael Hartnett (MH): So right now I mentioned that we're working with exposomics and the health effects of chemistry. We also want to look at environmental chemistry, like emissions from manufacturing plants. We're also looking at forensics applications as well. How we can keep ourselves safe. Just trying to get more application of these tools to better the world around us.
All of our winning technologies are certainly making the world better. The awards are presented by R&D World. SwRI has won 50 R&D 100 awards since 1971.
And that wraps up this episode. Thank you to all of our guests who made 2021 a memorable and groundbreaking year! Thank you to our listeners for learning along with us all year. More technology talk to come in 2022! You can hear all of our Technology Today episodes and see photos and complete transcripts at podcast.swri.org. Remember to share our podcast and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.
Want to see what else we're up to? Connect with Southwest Research Institute on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. Check out the Technology Today Magazine at technologytoday.swri.org. And now is a great time to become an SwRI problem solver. Visit our career page at SwRI.jobs.
Ian McKinney and Bryan Ortiz are the podcast audio engineers and editors. I am producer and host, Lisa Peña.
Thanks for listening.