February 26th, 2013
06:18 PM ET

Saul Griffith and his 'wouldn't it be cool if?' inventions

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.

Griffith is utterly driven by the conviction that the energy crisis can and must be solved. Wouldn't that be cool if?

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Filed under: Environment • Science • Tech • The Next List • Video
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Bulah Hielscher

    When you are serious about your move to solar energy and begin using panels that sink more than 6 watts, invest in a solar controller. These small controls help maximize the efficiency of the charge cycle and prevent any wasted overcharging from occurring. When there is a lot of energy at stake, these are a must have for your solar-home.*

    Our personal blog

    April 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  2. PrashantN

    Irritating background music on NextList program is putting me off.
    Dr Sanjay, pl do something about that.
    Your program is great, I record it every week on DVr and watch it. However it's very difficult to watch it due to irritating background,

    March 4, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Reply
  3. Bill

    Very interested in the tricycle highlighted on the show. Are these available to purchase? If so, where?

    March 4, 2013 at 8:05 am | Reply
  4. JO

    Sure love your idea. I have a son with MD, whose muscle leg strength is slowly getting les and les. He Can't stand up for a sitting position in a regular chair. Sure would be wonderful if you could devise something that would give that added leg muscle strengh. Hope you very good luck and you sure have a factastic solution to so many things. Good Luck

    March 3, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Reply

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