Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear about the perils of global warming and the toll that fossil fuels take on the environment. Most of us, though, are too consumed with managing the daily blitz of life to do much about it.
Apart from the rising cost of gasoline, it’s easy to forget.
But Saul Griffith is making it his mission to focus on the nuts and bolts of changing the energy equation. His goal is to transform the way America generates and uses power and make alternative energy the fuel of the future once and for all.
Griffith is an inventor, engineer, scientist and recipient of a coveted MacArthur “genius” award. He also is co-founder of Otherlab, a hothouse of ideas and inventions where he and his team are developing technologies that could dramatically cut the cost of solar power, make it possible for cars to run on natural gas and change everything you think you know about robots.
Wouldn’t it be cool if…? That’s the philosophy that guides all the work that Griffith and his colleagues do at Otherlab.
“We try to skip a few generations in the things we’re working on,” says Griffith.
For example: Wouldn’t it be cool if robots were made of cloth? One of Griffith’s most intriguing ideas is making ‘soft’ machines.
“We proposed to DARPA, here is a way that we could really transform the cost of robots. We’ll eliminate all the servo motors. We will eliminate the pins and bearing and joints. And we will sew you a robot out of fabric and use pressurized fluids to make it work," he says. "And it will reduce the cost of robots 100 fold. And it will make them 10 or 100 times more powerful."
And wouldn’t it be cool if all our cars could be powered by natural gas?
Griffith wants to redesign natural gas tanks so they fit into passenger vehicles easily and cheaply.
And wouldn’t it be cool if solar energy could be as cheap as coal?
Griffith and Otherlab’s engineers are transforming the mechanics of collecting the sun’s energy. “So we’re actually utilizing a mechanism much more like the way flowers, the stems of flowers, work when they follow the sun,” he says.
It’s technology that Griffith says could cut the cost of a solar field by 80%.
The ideas coming out of Otherlab have caught the attention of a lot of agencies, including DARPA, the DOD and the Energy Department’s research arm, ARPA-E. The are all actively funding Otherlab’s far-reaching research.
“It’s tremendously important to have performers like Saul that are truly driven and that are truly daring,” says Gil Pratt, Program Manager at DARPA.