Ask Scientists

Hey everybody! We’re back, and our column’s changed a little! New title, new organization and that’s about it. But it feels distinctive enough, so we’re doing things a little differently for this first column of the semester. Rather than answer a question (which we 100% intend on continuing), we here at the Ask Scientists column thought we’d kick things off by having one of our writers, me, describe their work, but with a twist. We came across this idea at a conference called the “Up-Goer Five text challenge,” where a scientist is challenged to describe their work using the 1,000 most-used words in the English language. The idea being that if you can do that, pretty much anyone can understand what you do. Fair assessment perhaps? I figured I’d give it a crack.

Frankly, this endeavor was brutal, and I think still reads awfully. Give me the next 1,000 words for Pete’s sake! But I digress. Despite its challenge, it put a lot of my ideas into perspective. Talking about science is hard, not only when using its more technically rigorous terminology, but it’s even harder with language that’s easy to understand. That being said, I’ll be talking about my work. Can I use any of the words I want? Nope. Is it going to be confusing because of this? I hope not, but let us know in the comments!

Begin Challenge

Have you ever wondered where the stuff you put in your car that lets it turn on comes from? Turns out that the way we get that so-called “car food” has a lot of problems! When we first make this "car food" from the ground, there's a lot of stuff we don’t need or want that comes up with it. Most of the stuff that comes up with car food is actually water. And all that water has to be dealt with. Most of the time we put the water back it in the ground. But that causes all sorts of problems. Sometimes the ground shakes when it happens! Other times, that water gets all over the ground and kills things. And that could hurt a lot of people if you don't do things right.

So it would be nice if we could use that water again somehow so that we don't have to put it back in the ground. Turns out that we can, or at least I've been working on it. What if I told you that we can actually take some of that water and turn it into something we can use to make more power? Like ... maybe more food for cars? Or food for houses? Or food for your phone! My group has figured out a way to do that, and we did it using "little" life. Life you can barely see with your eyes. This idea all started a long time ago. Like more than a hundred years ago. I love talking about this story, too, because it’s crazy what people could do so long ago. Anyway, there was this person who made power using these little guys, and he gave them normal food, though food that was pretty sweet. He put this little life in a box that people had been studying to make power, and when he did it, he got power! But, when he tried making power again without the life, his box didn't work. So he knew that the life he put in his box had to be making the power.

Today, this idea has really gotten a lot of attention. We need power still, and the total water we're making has grown a lot. Not just the water I talked about before, but all sorts of water we don't want any more. We can use it again if we want, right? But there are a couple of problems still. This water is not clean—like ... at all. It has a lot of things in it that little life doesn't like very much. So we've got to be sure that we make the right little life, and make sure they're happy at all times. That usually means that we have to take some, but not all, of the stuff out of the water first. 

But there are still lots of problems with our power boxes. Sometimes you can give this little life a little too much food all at once, and they get full. When they get full, they stop making as much power, which would be really bad if we're trying to make, you know, more power! So you have to give them food the right way or else it doesn't work. We can change how we give them food pretty easily, of course, but figuring out the right way is hard. For something like the ground water that we want to learn about, no one really knows how to best give this stuff to our little life. All we know right now is that they like it ... kind of.

But it gets ever harder! Our boxes work not just because of what they eat, but how the box is made. So you then have to figure out how you can make the best box! Some boxes are big, some are small. Everyone making boxes thinks their box is the best. Which one is going to be the best? We all think we'll figure out how the make the best box, and someone will get to it first.

In a perfect world, we would be turning all of the stuff we don't want into power. That would be nice, making something we want out of something we don't is always good. And we know that some stuff might work better than others. What's the best way to go about making power with our ground water? I don't know, no one does. It's really fun trying to figure it out though!

We’d encourage any scientists to try this out. Maybe you’ll do a better job than us. Have a question for the Ask Scientists column or want to contribute? Email our head editor at: ssatinov@vols.utk.edu

Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.

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