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September 2013

Ten Hundred and One Word Challenge

An Exercise in Scientific Communication

Tyler Josephson & Ralph House

The overall winner (top) guides the reader through the conversion of solar energy into the formation of wood and the center's work to understand the wood's molecular structure so that it can be broken down and used as fuel.

The People's Choice Award (bottom) winner presented research on new materials for designing solar panels with improved efficiency.

Could you describe cutting-edge research in nanotechnology, solar power, or biofuels processing using only the simplest, most-common words? This was the task set before the Energy Frontier Research Centers, or EFRCs, in the Ten Hundred and One Word Challenge, where posters were submitted by 31 teams and presented at the 2013 EFRC Principal Investigators' meeting in Washington, D.C. Each team’s poster describes their center's research using any pictures, photos, or cartoons they wanted, but they were limited to the 1000 most-common English words plus one: energy.

This contest was inspired by a web comic of the Up-Goer Five from xkcd.com, which describes an elaborate blueprint of the Saturn V rocket using only the 1000 most common English words. "We didn't know what to expect, and we all were pleasantly surprised," says Dawn Adin, who works with the EFRCs at the Department of Energy. "The judges were very impressed, and I think that's a tribute to the EFRCs and how creative they are."

Because of the constraints of the contest, participants described a battery as a "power box," oxygen molecules as "tiny bits of air," and porous catalysts as "rocks filled with tiny spaces."

The overall winner was the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation (CLSF) led by Pennsylvania State University, with their poster titled Powering your car with sun light. This poster recounts "the story of [sun]light's second life as parts of a tree and how we might use trees to power our cars." The words are carefully crafted to guide the reader through the conversion of solar energy into the formation of wood, specifically cellulose, and the work CLSF is doing to understand its molecular structure so that wood can be broken down and used as fuel.

"We tried to catch the readers' attention with the concept of laughing sunlight," says Dan Cosgrove, director of CLSF. "That concept might have turned on some people and turned off others." The jury is in, and laughing sunlight was a definite success.

The Center for Advanced Solar Photophysics (CASP) led by Los Alamos National Laboratory was an overall runner-up and winner of the People's Choice Award. Their poster, "When small is better than BIG," presented research on new materials for designing solar panels with improved efficiency. They describe making high-efficiency solar panels from semiconductor quantum dots. Of course, all the technical jargon has to go, so an electron microscope image of a 3- to 4-nanometer wide crystal is shown with a scale bar reading "tiny" and a description that this is so small "if you put one hundred of these tiny things end to end and then did that again one hundred more times, then all of that would still only be as thick as a single human hair!"

Hunter McDaniel, a postdoctoral researcher at CASP who helped design this poster, described the process, "We can't use 'atoms' or 'electrons,' so we described it in terms of the human hair. You have to think of different ways to get your point across. It's an exercise of creativity."

Adin says, "One of the most difficult parts of communicating science is we get caught up in our day-to-day technical lives. We need to stop and go back, and explain it again from a different angle. It puts fresh perspective on it. This challenge, though it's an extreme form of communication, hopefully puts a spark in someone and gets them thinking about explaining this to someone without any previous knowledge on the subject."

The other runner-up to the overall winner was the Center for Energy Nanoscience. The "Best Science Lesson" was awarded to the Center for Electrical Energy Storage, and the "Best Tagline" was awarded to the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels. All of the contest entries can be seen here: https://www.energyfrontier.us/posters.

About the author(s):

  • Tyler Josephson is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Delaware and is a student in the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation. He is advised by Dion Vlachos. He is using computational tools to fundamentally understand solvent effects in reactions used to produce fuels and chemicals from biomass. Tyler holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Minnesota.

  • A member of the Solar Fuels Energy Frontier Research Center, Ralph is a Research Associate specializing in the use of multiple spectroscopic techniques to analyze the steps leading to the generation of solar fuels. Ralph is also helping lead the construction of an electrochemical bioreactor and is the UNC-EFRC Liaison for External Outreach and Collaboration.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.