Horizon Science Special

More from this show

In a Science Special on Horizon, we look at an Arizona State University program to develop a flexible video display, talk about the future of nuclear power and hear from Seth Shostak, a lead scientist from SETI, where extraterrestrial life is being sought.

Ted Simons: Good evening. Welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Researchers at Arizona State University are working on a couch potato's dream. A flat, flexible video display. Mike Sauceda and videographer Scott Olson tell us more about the work going on at the flexible display center at ASU.
Ever since television was invented, people have envisioned a flat flexible display. Flat screens in our home now, the dreams of a flexible display is being made a reality.
The flexible display center was founded a little over five years ago with a substantial contract from the army. And in the first five years, it represents about $100 million in investment, about evenly split between the U.S. army and Arizona State University, taxpayers of Arizona. The purpose was to try and accelerate the solution of engineering problems associated with making flexible displays a reality.
Tested and developed by the army -- it signed up for another five year, $50 million contract.
They have made significant progress. It is somewhat stunning to me how much progress they have made over the last five years. I foresee greater progress in the future, getting more into the domain of color, and reducing the power demands that go into the devices to make them really rugged and portable so that we can give them to our soldiers in the field in the future.
Exciting thing from the university's perspective is that this is a new way for doing business because the way that this problem was articulated was very different than I think some -- many others, which is the articulation of what the technological application would be without all of the science worked out, technology not work out, manufacturing not worked out, meaning some of the science not worked out. Please do all of those things together at the same time rather than in a linear process --
The army is a driving force for the work going on, the school has many industrial partners some who provide material used for displays. The result has been small flat screens made on stainless steel and now plastic.
The steel is heavier. It is electrically conducting which provides additional headaches from a technical point of view. Tendency to crease and dent in ways that compromise the mechanical robustness of the display. You can't see through it which turns out to be important in the architecture of some display technologies. And all of those things motivated the migration to plastic.
Flexible displays use three types of technologies. Two use materials that reflect light instead of producing their own. A still image can be on the screen with no power required. Power required only to change the image.
We have three core electro-optic materials. The primary one is a technology, a company out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and there is black and white bulbs suspended in a microcapsule. Apply a voltage on the back plane, you are able to write the image back and forth much like the appearance of newsprint and so it has been coined by many in the industry E-Paper as part of that work and it is very low power, very good in direct sunlight and very rugged. The ink itself is a plastic material laminated -- it is an all-plastic display and fully integrated and built. Second technology, Kent Displays, Kent Ohio, and liquid crystal technology, and reflective technology but here the -- there is a liquid crystal material, not very much different from liquid crystal materials in your flat-panel TVs at home -- it reflects light at certain wave lengths. You either block the light or allow the light to pass through and you get either a black and white or black and gray image that is a part of that.
The first two technologies -- black and white made into a color scheme, the third -- constant power to maintain an image because it produces its own light.
Organic emitting display. They are full-color, video rate tip displays, very much like the displays in your living rooms today. The big difference, instead of using a back light and using color filters to let the light through, it displays -- they are pixelated red, green, and blue -- what that allows, organic materials integrated, and you make a very low power flexible full-color display.
Materials to turn the plastic disks into displays are deposited -- thin layers of metals allow vaporized metals to condense on the plastic. A few traditional semi-conductor manufacturing line to work out the challenges of putting a display on a flexibility material as opposed to a rigid surface.
We work in two -- first we had to lower the manufacturing temperature to be compatible with the plastic. It melts at 200, 210 centigrade, and we had to spend a year working on these processes to make sure that nothing came out warped, bowed, melted, burned as part of the process. The second challenge was the glass is atomically smooth. Plastic -- while it looks smooth, scratches very easily. And so we worked very closely with our partner to develop a coating on top of that plastic that makes it as smooth as glass, even through some handling, like a hard coat property to allow regular handling before you get it into the manufacturing process to avoid all of that -- excuse me, any of that defectivity.
The dream is to eventually make everything flexible and have a device totally flat and flexible.
-End package-
Ted Simons: Imaging arrays, variety of different electronic platforms that can be integrated into fully electronic flexible systems. You can have the flexible memory, flexible power, and flexible display all on one substrate.
The nation's largest producer of nuclear energy is located right here in Arizona. It can produce 4,000 megawatts of electricity a year. Earlier I talked to an associate professor at the school of electrical computer and energy engineering about nuclear power in our state and in the country.
Ted Simons: What is the state of nuclear power, nuclear energy, in America and in the world?
Keith Holbert: Let me start with the world just a little bit. In terms of the world, we always like to think of ourselves in the U.S. as being ahead technologically. The new, what is referred to as generation three nuclear power plants, we are actually a little behind. There is four in Japan, two almost nearing completion in Taiwan. There is two more in Europe of a different type that -- a few years out now to be built. Here in the U.S. we have not built anything or finished a power plant, nuclear power plant since 1996. But if you go back and look at the reason for that, a lot of people would point to the Three Mile Island accident. But if you take a closer look, Three Mile Island was in March of 1979. But if you back yourself up a few years to 1973, and use that as a reference point, a few years before that, we were growing electric use-wise tremendously, like seven percent per year. If you look and think okay I'm growing at seven percent per year, when am I going to double? I will double my electric use within 11 years. We are going to have to build a lot of large power plants and build them fast. Oil embargo of 1973, use of electricity dropped to 2.7%, suddenly we did not have that need any longer.
Ted Simons: Interesting. You mentioned the new generation of power plants, how do they compare and contrast with what you remember being built decades ago?
Keith Holbert: Well, I would think of them as evolutionary, not revolutionary. Revolutionary meaning we have the technology, let's build upon it rather than reinvent the wheel. More passively safe power plants, meaning that it doesn't require activation of some system to keep the plant safe.
Ted Simons: As far as -- I got a quote here and I want to get your comment on this. The chairman of the regulatory commission says he sees no need to build new coal or nuclear plants. Is he right?
Keith Holbert: I don't think he is right. I think he is pointing towards green energy renewables, and I think that is a very good thing to do is to have green power plants, but when we start looking, we need a balance, a portfolio, if you will, of power generation, and purely to have green energy we have to think about the two leading green would be solar and wind. The wind does not blow all of the time. The sun does not shine all of the time. Which means we need something that is available, what I would refer to as despatchable-- you can turn it on and off as needed.
Ted Simons: We have a graphic that shows how much electricity is produced by different forms. And nuclear is up there. Do you see this kind of thing, as we see here, a lot of little lanes up there and you have coal and you have natural and you have nuclear, do you see more of those little slices getting bigger or how do you see this?
Keith Holbert: You look at the graphic. If you go through the top three real quick. Coal is half of our electricity. Natural gas and nuclear, basically 20% each. 90% of our electricity coming from those three. Hydro throws in another 6%. The hydro won't change. We are not going to build any new large-scale hydro units. Looking at coal, if we're serious about climate change, we will have to do something about the coal. We will have to have the carbon --
Ted Simons: Nuclear facilities just cost prohibitive. To build one doesn't make economic sense.
Keith Holbert: I would disagree with that. They are capital-intensive. I would liken it to a hybrid car. You are going to have to pay more up front, but once you have that vehicle, in this case power plant, you are going to pay less for the fuel. The government has recognized the fact that they -- the nuclear power plants are capital-intensive and the energy policy act of 2005, they allocated $18.5 billion for really loan guarantees. The Department of Energy right now has a whole list of applicants. They are narrowing it down to three nuclear sites that they are going to guarantee the loans for building the power plants.
Ted Simons:We have a graphic on proposed sites for nuclear facilities here in America. These again aren't sites that are on line. These are proposed.
Keith Holbert: Correct.
Ted Simons: You know, we talk about cost prohibitive and that criticism. The other criticism comes to safety. It always seems like it is there. Just -- where does that stuff go? Where does the waste from a power plant, nuclear power plant go?
Keith Holbert: Right now it stays there at the power plant. Initially after it comes out of the reactor core, it sits in what is called the spent fuel pool. And it cools down thermally and radioactive-wise. At a certain point after a few years it is cool enough thermally and radioactive wise to put in dry cast storage at the plant site. Ultimately the government has guaranteed that they will take possession of the nuclear waste, as electric consumers, you and I have been paying for the last 25 plus years on our electric bill, and the government has amassed about $30 billion, $9 billion of which they spent at Yucca mountain and they promise to take the nuclear waste.
Ted Simons: Okay. There still is -- have they -- the technology today that is considerably better in terms of safety than 20 or 30 years ago?
Keith Holbert: Nuclear waste issue, a political football in my mind. The safety issue, we're becoming smarter technologically and able to engineer things to be safer. When you look at even the Three Mile Island accident, the biggest loser was the utility in terms of the loss of their investment.
Ted Simons: What is the future of nuclear energy in Arizona? We will start here -- and in the rest of the country?
Keith Holbert: In Arizona, we won't see a new nuclear unit for a few years, 2022, something like that. Where we will see new nuclear units will be in the southeast within the United States.
Ted Simons: Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? A question many consider but few actively try to answer. One working and wondering is Seth Shostak. He recently wrote a book about his -- Confessions of an Alien Hunter, a Scientist Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence. I recently spoke to him about his search. Thank you for joining us.
Seth Shostak: It is a pleasure.
Ted Simons: SETI Institute, what are you looking for? Are you looking for noise, beings, what are you searching for?
Seth Shostak: We are really trying to prove that we're not the smartest things in the Cosmos. There is not only life out there, but life that is intelligent. We're looking for mostly radio signals, flashing lights, telling us if there is somebody clever enough to build a radio signal.
Ted Simons: Looking for radio signals. Are you having false alarms? The --
Seth Shostak: 1977, Ohio State had an antenna scanning the skies, 24 hours a day, sat there and collected static from the Cosmos. One astronomer came in and looked at the computer printout, 1977 that is how you recorded the data on paper, and he saw this very big signal. And he wrote wow next to it. It has become famous. This is the triumph of marketing over the product.
Ted Simons: Do we know what the wow was?
Seth Shostak: We don't. But I have to say that the instrument was designed so that it would look in the same spot in the sky a little over a minute after anything had happened. The signal was found, 70 seconds later it was looked at again and nothing was found. So, you know, maybe that was E.T. and he went on vacation, took a coffee break, who knows, you can speculate, but the facts are that you couldn't claim that as a detection if you didn't see it again.
Ted Simons: Without that prerequisite, how otherwise do you decide where to look? That is a big sky out there?
Seth Shostak: It is. The universe is vast. That is a fairly trite statement. Most people recognize that. The number of planets in our own milky way is estimated to be on the order of a trillion. That is a lot of real estate. Some of them might be nice like earth. How do we choose where to point the antennas? Fundamentally we look at stars that might have planets like the earth and we start with the nearest ones because it would be more interesting to find E.T. nearby and the signals would be stronger.
Ted Simons: Signals are basically what? Something out of the ordinary? Something that suggests that there might be something other than everything else out there?
Seth Shostak: Yeah, you have to look for a signal that is clearly artificial. We're not worried so much about the message. We're looking for a signal that is restricted on the radio dial. It is at one frequency, more or less. Nature does not make signals like that. Nature makes a lot of radio noise, but it doesn't make a signal that is at this spot on the dot. If you find something like that, and if it comes from a spot in the sky that is just rotating around the earth with the stars, you say, okay, I don't know what they're saying, but there is somebody out there clever enough to build a transmitter.
Ted Simons: If there were something or someone out there, you would detect it by way of radio signals? Is there any way they could skip around those type of signals?
Seth Shostak: They may not be using radio. That is always possible. We also look for very brief pulses of light. Maybe they have big lasers and they're trying to get our attention by flashing us every now and then. That could be. There are experiments to do. There are other experiments as well. Radio one is the most important search.
Ted Simons: Talk about the Allen telescope array in California and how important that is to your ideas.
Seth Shostak: That is a new instrument, a new set of antennas at the SETI institute -- 42 antennas in the Cascade Mountains. Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft, supplied most of the money to get that started. The real point of all of this is speed. We have been always having to borrow somebody else's antennas when we do a search. That is like trying to do cancer research but always having to borrow a microscope, very slow. By having our own instrument, the search will speed up enormously in the next 10, 20 years.
Ted Simons: Where do you focus and how do you decide? So far, how much of the sky have you searched?
Seth Shostak: Trivial, a very tiny amount. The number of star systems we have looked at carefully, like 750. This is in a galaxy with a few hundred billion stars -- you land, you look at one square yard of real estate and say I don't see any rhinos, hippos -- that is the wrong conclusion. The new instruments will be faster than what we have had in the past. I think it is not unlikely in the next dozen years we will hit a signal.
Ted Simons: That comes to mind the idea that we don't have the instruments to figure out -- there could be a bombardment of messages, we're just unable to detect it?
Seth Shostak: Maybe that is true, they're signalling some other way that we can't detect or signalling with radio and light in ways that we can't detect. All of that is possible. What you try and resist, at least I try and resist, the temptation to say, okay, there are lots of ways we can fail, so we don't try. If you don't try, you are almost guaranteed to fail. It's like saying to Christopher Columbus forget the wooden ships --
Ted Simons: What happens if you try and you succeed? What do we do? How do we respond? How do we decide how to respond?
Seth Shostak: Responding is a secondary consideration, because it is very likely that anybody you hear will be hundreds of light years away, maybe a thousand light years away. Which means any response you make may take hundreds of years to get to them, maybe a thousand years, and it is another wait to get their response to your response if they respond. There is no hurry to grab the microphone in some sense. This television program and many others going out into space right now anyhow. In some sense we have already responded at some level. They will recognize that. They will know it is one-way communication. Consequently, if they deliberately target us and want us to understand them, they will send everything at once and we will get an encyclopedia of information.
Ted Simons: Back here on earth, are we ready in case someone does respond?
Seth Shostak: I don't think that -- I don't think there is any particular worry there. We have, in particular, we have television, FM radio, all signals going out into space. Radar, we are sending those into space. You might want to check at the local airport, you are worried about the radar signals going into space and alerting the aliens. I think you would rather land at night with radar.
Ted Simons: My question is not so much are we ready for them, because it doesn't matter if we're ready for them, are we ready amongst ourselves, to deal with the idea after all of these centuries of thought, religious thought, ideological -- if we find out otherwise, that could be a jolt of the system?
Seth Shostak: I think so. I don't think it is such a big jolt. Maybe I am wrong on this. Polls have been made, and something like 80% of them think extraterrestrials are out there. About a third of them think the extraterrestrials are visiting earth -- I think if they were to pick up the newspapers and hear on the news that a signal had been found coming from 500 light years away, I don't think they would panic. I think most people actually already believe that extraterrestrials exist and all you have done is substantiate something they already believe was true.
Ted Simons: That's it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

An armed forces bugler playing the trumpet in front of the United States Capitol building.
airs May 26

National Memorial Day Concert 2024

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 26

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

Rachel Khong
May 29

Join us for PBS Books Readers Club!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: