Alternative to the Pyramid Scheme of “Aspirational content”

Youtube put out a caution about burnout. Penny arcade summed it up. “Creators: you’re feeling burned out because you are light bulbs. And there are always more light bulbs. You create young, energetic light bulbs with every video you make.”

Good educational content is distinct from aspirational content. As a chemistry professor, my primary job is to produce more chemists (and educate non-chemists who need the background). The point is not to generate a great many more chemistry professors. Complexly and the Scishow folks make great educational content. Aspirational content is the opposite: it endeavors to sell the idea that you too can become an aspirational content producer. Mostly by watching more aspirational content.

The second problem with aspirational content on youtube and social media is that it’s not a fair portrayal of creators’ lives. Aspirational content is a slice, not the whole (!) and it’s dangerous to interpret the images that content creators project as an achievable lifestyle.

Achievable, enjoyable lifestyles require care and nurturing. Those activities are not easy to capitalize, replicate and automate. But they have huge value.

I lived a good example of this. I had good roommates for most of my twenties, but none of us were very good at doing the work of repairing, maintaining, and cleaning. I can imagine a different story. Imagine six young adults who are good at these skills. They trust one another to do the repairing maintaining and cleaning in their relationships and their shared space.

With those skills and commitment, a group can build up savings, live comfortably (albeit in close proximity and with limited privacy), and have lots of fun with limited resources. Each of the young adults living separately can barely afford a studio apartment and ramen.

Aspirational content needs to be an adventure. It needs constant novelty. The thing about repairing maintaining and cleaning is it’s not an adventure. It’s repetitive, and it’s boring to watch. It is highly valuable but makes a poor subject for viral marketing. But it can be pleasant and happy.

I’d been thinking about this a lot. Then it crystallized when I watched a video by an extremely popular self-proclaimed lifestyle vlogger. I’ll paraphrase: “I’m a youtuber making a living sharing his whole life online. I can say that for vloggers (and especially lifestyle vloggers) what works best on youtube is to share a happy lifestyle, a lifestyle full of excitement and smiles and beautiful things. Those videos show off how amazing life is. Millions of viewers compare what they see to their own lives. And that can steal joy.”

So people watch this kind of content, and they feel bad. What’s scary is that the implicitly offered solution is to start being a vlogger. And that’s not the best solution (except for the social media companies). I don’t know how to promote the alternative: caring labor and social capital.


Build video for the iron battery

I made a youtube video every weekday in 2017. That experience pulled me into the world of battery chemistry. Daily vlogging was hard but taught me something about social media, science outreach, and the topics that people are interested in. I was a little surprised to find that people were so interested in batteries. I like the opportunity to explore something that is of wide interest. Everyone has a battery in their pocket, and everyone wants them to last longer.

While lithium batteries are great for mobile applications, I suggest that lithium is probably not the chemistry of the future for large-scale grid batteries. Cars demand higher performance batteries and are willing to pay more per watt-hour for low weight options. They will likely be the preferred customers for the foreseeable future.

Lithium batteries are also not especially friendly to a do-it-yourself approach. They are oxygen and moisture sensitive.

Heavier chemistry that is much, much cheaper than lithium is a good match for stationary storage. If it can hit $1 per watt, utilities will buy as can be produced. By my calculation, if storage costs $0.25 per watt-hour, it looks economical for grid storage. Lithium-ion is already there.

We set out to make a battery that’s safer and cheaper than lithium and settled on iron chemistry. At least two companies have tried to develop iron flow batteries. ESS is currently developing a system as of 2018; Arotech worked on a system until 2016. The Allen Lab Cell is not a flow battery but is similar all-iron chemistry. The ability to make it without a glove box was critical.

We succeeded in making a cell. The performance is not lithium ion level (10-30x lower in specific energy). I’m still hopeful that the price might still make this cell chemistry attractive for stationary batteries. Here’s the video on how we made it.

qPCR and graphene for aptamer selection

We’ve been selecting aptamers in the lab for the last year. Having a qPCR on the bench has really helped, and so we wrote up a methods paper in ACS Combinatorial Science. The company that made our qPCR instrument has put up a blurb about it, too.

The qPCR function is great for cycle course optimization, and we have been using the melt curve analysis function of the Open qPCR (thermofluorimetry) to do a binding assay. It works pretty well. We put a dye in with the aptamer and measure the temperature at which the dye dye-DNA complex melts. The bound aptamer has a different melt temperature, so it gives a specific signal. We plot that specific signal as a function of concentration and to determine the binding constant. It’s based on the Easley lab’s method paper from 2015 with low-cost equipment.

The instrument simplifies some of the more touchy parts of the aptamer selection. Undergrads have been turning rounds pretty efficiently this year with the help of the open qPCR instrument.

We have also been using graphene oxide to try some selections. I have only heard of graphene oxide SELEX recently, but it grabs unstructured DNA to separate them from aptamers bound to target. It’s looking good. I hope to report on that soon.


Thank you to Crowdfunding Supporters

Thank you to all of the kind supporters who helped raise money for undergraduate research in iron batteries here at the U of Idaho. Together we put together $5000 that will be put toward a fellowship and materials for a student to explore this and we will put together a open source plans document next year. We’re also going to document the process with a weekly video about the project, so please do stay tuned.

Crowdfunding the iron age of batteries

I’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign to try to support a student in building an iron battery. I’ve got video up that talks about where we’ve been so far this year. We have had some success in building the battery and we’re moving to a better construction method.

We would like to test different cathode salts including a better test of potassium ferricyanide. We would also like to test different solvents such as a deep eutectic solvent and ionic liquid. The big, open question is the separator. We can try some natural gels, some in-house polymers and we can see if we can find a commercial polymer that is cheap and available enough to do the job.

I think it will be a great project for an undergraduate chemist with an interest in renewable energy. If you’d like to check out or share the campaign, the link is here: