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Alternative-energy team wins US Department of Energy poster competition using only small words

Penn State


IMAGE: Using only cartoons, drawings, photos, and the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language, a Penn State University alternative-energy team has taken first prize in the US Department... view more

Credit: Cosgrove lab, Penn State University

A group of Penn State University scientists from the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation has taken first prize in the U.S. Department of Energy "Ten-Hundred and One Word Challenge" contest, in which scientists were challenged to explain their research using only images, cartoons, photos, and the 1000 most commonly used words in the English language. The Penn State team's poster, titled "Powering Your Car with Sunlight," was selected as the overall winner out of 31 submissions.

"In the poster, we tried to explain a bit of science -- how energy from the sun is captured by plants and stored in plant cell walls, which have a lot of energy that could be used to power cars -- as well as the scientific/energy challenge that our center is attempting to address," explained Daniel Cosgrove, professor and Holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Biology and director of the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation.

The contest was inspired by Up-Goer Five, a web-based comic by Randall Munroe depicting the inner workings of the Saturn V rocket using only the 1000 most commonly used words in the English language. Contestants also were permitted to use one additional word in their entries: energy.

The contest was open to any of the 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers established by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to address fundamental energy issues. The Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation, established in 2009, is one of these centers. Cosgrove and his colleagues study the growth and physical interactions of bio-polymer networks in plant cell walls. Their research is designed to provide a basis for improved methods for converting biomass into fuels.

For the poster's first section, Cosgrove chose words that hint at the hidden drama in a photon's short life before it is captured by plants:

"The sun turns heavy matter into happy, chuckling, giggling, laughing light...which flies free into empty, open space...before the light is caught by trees, and put to work."

In the poster's second section, words and pictures are used to describe how trees capture light and use it to convert CO2 into their cell walls. This section also shows how useful these cell walls are, both as a material and as an energy source.

"The constraint to the 1000 most common words forced us to be creative," Cosgrove explained. "Not only were we unable to use technical terms like photon, photosynthesis, chlorophyll, or cellulose, but many everyday words we hear on the news -- gasoline, plant, fuel, global warming, environment, or carbon pollution -- also were off limits."

The poster's final section was the most challenging for the team. "We had to explain how cars use gasoline, how cell walls could replace gasoline if their structural recalcitrance could be overcome, and how our center is working to understand how cell walls are put together with the long-term aim of engineering better ways to take them apart," said Cosgrove. "That's when Associate Professor of Wood Chemistry Nicole Brown came to the rescue and found the language to explain these processes. Postdoctoral Scholar Sarah Kiemle helped to polish the text and images, and we were done."

Cosgrove was impressed by all of the other contest submissions. "Many of the posters from other centers were great -- especially the artwork -- but apparently our story line made the difference," he said. "That and maybe the mental image of laughing, giggling, happy sun light."


The team's winning poster is online at

All the contestants' posters are online at

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