Why isn’t more plastic actually recyclable? Why don’t compostable forks actually compost? And when are we going to solve our waste problems?

This episode features three scientists working to manage the planet’s plastic addiction by developing smarter materials that avoid the pitfalls of 20th century plastics. We talk about the challenges of the current recycling and composting systems, philosophies of materials design, why trying to recycle some things is just “wishcycling,” why consumer preferences matter, and why we can allow ourselves to feel a little optimism — even though the news paints a pretty bleak picture sometimes.


Brett Helms, a materials scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry. Helms leads a team that invented an infinitely recyclable plastic and is now working to bring it to the market.

Ting Xu is a senior materials scientist and chemist at Berkeley Lab and professor at UC Berkeley. Her lab is developing non-toxic compostable plastics that stay durable when in use, but break down easily in the environment.

Corinne Scown is a scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Energy Technologies Area and director of Techno-economic Analysis at the Joint BioEnergy Institute. She performs techno- economic and lifecycle analyses for Brett, Ting, and other scientists, meaning that she models the inputs, outputs, prices, and environmental impact of materials so that we can understand how they will perform on an industrial scale before they actually get to the industrial scale.

The smallest element in the universe has big potential for clean, sustainable energy. In fact, we’ve been using it as a fuel for vehicles here on Earth and NASA vehicles out exploring the solar system for many decades. So why aren’t we living in a hydrogen utopia already, and how can we get there? In this episode, we discuss the past, present, and future of hydrogen energy, including the dirty side of hydrogen production and the current push for zero-emissions hydrogen to power our daily lives and decarbonize big-ticket industries like steel manufacturing.


Adam Weber, a chemical engineer who studies fuel cells, electrolyzers, batteries, and solar fuel generators. Adam is the lead of Berkeley Lab’s Energy Conversion Group and Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies, and co-director of the Department of Energy Million Mile Fuel Cell Truck Research Consortium. He is a senior chemist/engineer in Berkeley Lab’s Energy Technologies Area.


Hanna Breunig, an environmental engineer who performs modeling and systems analysis to study the social, economic and environmental impacts of emerging energy technologies. Hanna is a research scientist in the Energy Technologies Area and deputy head of Berkeley Lab’s Sustainable Energy and Environmental Systems Department. She also holds a position in Berkeley Lab’s Earth Systems and Society Domain in the Climate and Ecosystem Science Division.

What is photosynthesis? Oh, no big deal, just the key to life on Earth as we know it! Join me as I take a deep dive into this amazingly sophisticated chemical process. Hear fascinating details they didn’t teach you in school and get a crash course on how natural photosynthesis inspires the development of renewable energy technologies that could someday replace all petroleum products.

Featuring Jan F. Kern, from Berkeley Lab’s Biosciences Area; and Joel Ager, from the Energy Sciences Area and an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley.

A Day in the Half-Life explores what working in STEM is really like, and that means conversations about inclusion. So to celebrate Pride Month, we’re releasing a special episode about making research and academia culture more inclusive for transgender scientists.

Publications are an essential part of career growth for scientists. But what if you no longer use the name on past work? How can you claim your intellectual labor? Transitioning to one’s preferred identity can be challenging on its own. Journals and institutions shouldn’t make it harder.

The Name Change Initiative, launched in 2021, aims to make the logistical hurdles to accomplish this as simple as possible for our transgender colleagues — and anyone else whose identify changes during the course of their career. The Name Change Initiative is a coordinated effort among U.S. national labs and publishing institutions, led by Berkeley Lab, that focuses on making it easier for transgender scientists to change their name on published works.

We hear about climate models all the time, but how many of us know how they actually work? In this episode, we peel back the curtain, discussing where these models came from, what they can do amazingly well, and their current limitations. And our guests talk about what it’s like for them, personally, when their work is doubted, minimized, or politicized. After all, climate scientists find themselves in the hot seat a lot more often than other scientists. Today’s guests are experts not only in the science itself, but with staying cool under pressure, communicating their science with the public, and laughing off the negativity.

The race to make smaller and smaller electronic chips is coming to an end, after many decades of creative engineering. Individual transistors are now just a few nanometers (that’s billionths of a meter) in length, so there’s not much more shrinking to be done. But there is still a lot of room for improvement. The 20th century effort to pack transistors onto tiny silicon wafers transformed clunky, heavy early electronics into the sleek, portable devices we see today. The challenges of the 21st century will be to make these microelectronics energy efficient and to push the boundaries of what’s possible in a world increasingly integrated with technology.

In this episode, we speak to a policy leader and a researcher about the history of piggy-banking power to spend it later, and how this field is evolving to help us prevent extreme weather-related blackouts, adopt more renewable energy, and build bigger, better, more environmentally responsible batteries.

In this episode, our experts chat about the current state of quantum computers and explain why the mind-bending theories of quantum make coming to work a lot of fun.

What do advanced medicines, renewable fuels, vegan burgers, smart fabrics, petroleum-free plastics, and cruelty-free cosmetics have in common? They’re all produced with specially engineered microbes! Yep, microbes.

In episode three, we explore the fields of science making this 21st century industrial revolution possible: synthetic biology and biomanufacturing.

In this episode, we speak with Nobel Laureate Saul Perlmutter (the co-discoverer of dark energy) and rising astrophysics instrumentation scientist Claire Poppett about what we know so far, and how new technology could finally shed (metaphorical) light on this fundamental mystery.

In our very first episode, we discuss machine learning. First developed about 80 years ago, machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence centered on programs — called algorithms — that can teach themselves different ways of processing data after they are trained on sample datasets.

Person with long, dark hair in front of a green landscape

Aliyah Kovner is the host and producer of A Day in the Half-Life and a science writer/editor based in Northern California. Aliyah loves to share STEM through fresh and informative stories that highlight moments of awe-inducing discovery and breakthrough alongside the humorous, humbling and often equally informative moments of failure and accident.

Previous to her role at Berkeley Lab, she was a reporter at IFLScience with a wide-ranging beat, though she had a special focus on deciphering health and medicine studies. When not recording episodes from her closet, Aliyah is often exploring outside with her wayward dog or watching too much TV.