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THE NEXT LIST

Otherlab And The Energy Revolution

Aired March 3, 2013 - 14:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Inside an old factory in San Francisco, a small R&D outfit called "Otherlab" is busy plotting an energy revolution.

SAUL GRIFFITHS, CO-FOUNDER, OTHERLAB: I am an energy nerd, yes, and don't want to just chip away at that problem, right. That is the Apollo project for our generation.

GUPTA: Otherlab is a hothouse of ideas, passion and nuts and bolts eventually. It's the brainchild of Saul Griffiths, an out-of- the-box thinker, scientist, inventor and winner of the coveted MacArthur "genius" award.

GRIFFITHS: Sometimes you have an idea and it's like such a compelling thing, now we have to do it.

GUPTA: Compelling ideas that could break new ground in alternative energy and redefine robotics as we know it.

GRIFFITHS: We're fully pressurized.

GUPTA: I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Welcome to THE NEXT LIST.

GRIFFITHS: If you think about everything, all of the consumer products, every machine that humanity has ever made, there's a completely green space of soft machines, can they be more capable or as capable or have different applications to traditional machines? And you only have to look at biology.

I mean, sharks are all soft, squid, snails, and worms, these things are profound machines that can perform high performance at profound tasks. How far can we push these ideas to create new options, technological options for a whole lot of interesting applications?

GUPTA: How far do you think what could that mean for robots like this? What are they capable of?

GRIFFITHS: The gram behind me, for example, weighs one or two pounds. It's the size of your arm. When fully pressurized, the arm could lift a human at arm's length. There are no hinges and bearings there. It's all done in these fabrics.

It really fills a lot of biological systems are built. This works much more like a fish or a shark than it is like a robot. Running this at very low pressure or very high pressure, you wouldn't escape the grip.

GUPTA: How does that work?

GRIFFITHS: We're controlling the way that fluid flows into the skins and into the various chambers.

GUPTA: The fluid is what?

GRIFFITHS: The fluid in this case is air. In the robotics industry, we're concerned with the number of degrees of freedom, right, and how much it costs for each degree of freedom being proposed.

Here's a way we can really transform the cost of robotics. We'll eliminate the motors and the pins and bearings and we will sew you a robot out of fabric and used pressurized fluids to make it work and it will reduce the cost of robots 100 fold and they believed us.

GILL PRATT, PROGRAM MANAGER, DARPA: For us it's tremendously important to have performers like Saul, that are truly driven and that are truly daring. I'm Gill Pratt, a program manager. One of the devices that he's creating could be used in a robot that gets rid of IEDs. These robots presently are very expensive. They cost around $100,000. The IEDs that they defend against cost only $10.

GRIFFITHS: Personally, something that excites us a lot is prosthetic applications of this. Prosthetics are exoskeleton, putting a wearable robot over the human skeleton either to increase the strength in power and in speed of the healthy-bodied person or as a prosthetic device to help spinal cord victims or stroke victims sort of locomote with their own legs, I think it's a beautiful application.

GUPTA: How this idea came about in terms of actually creating a softer more pliable robot?

GRIFFITHS: For Christmas, I decided give my niece an inflatable elephant she could ride on. We built a 4-foot high inflatable element and the software tools worked and it all came together. As soon as you built that thing, wow, wouldn't it be cool if it could walk. As soon as you say that to your 6-year-old niece, she bugs you every time you speak to her on the phone, where's my walking elephant, Uncle Saul. So we had to in fact figure out how to do that.

PETE LYNN, PROJECT MANAGER, SOFT ROBOTICS: My name is Pete Lynn, I'm the inflatable robotist. I'm the person who constructs and designs things inflatable. I met Saul years ago, we shared interests in cuts. It was a sort of natural progression from there to how do we make these structures more animated instead of just passively having them pushed around by the wind. How do you actually control these structures?

GUPTA: That's pretty rigid.

GRIFFITHS: You can see, you can straddle this guy and -- you know, it will carry your weight. It's actually designed to carry a couple of people.

So these are control harness. So these are things like the valves, the brain, the microcontroller. Once we hook those up then we can power it up and make all of these legs and nose and trunk, actuate them. These are just what they call bang-bang controls.

Just on and off. This one is proportionally controlled so you can do high-precision placement. In this case we've hidden the muscles on the inside and then we are now, you know, proportionally changing the pressure on either side. We're able to do that to accurately steer this thing.

Not to riddle that the technology, but in some respects, it was the desires of the 6-year-old girl and the playfulness allowing ourselves the playfulness of working that has led to us working on this technology.

We had to have a big shift from fossil fuels one way or the other. That is the Apollo project for our generation.

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GRIFFITHS: I am an energy nerd, yes, and don't want to just chip away at that problem. We are looking at the things that fundamentally change the economics in favor of low-carbon or no-carbon technologies, wind, solar.

GUPTA: People joke that solar has been the next big thing for 20 years now.

GRIFFITHS: Yes.

GUPTA: What is different about what other lab is doing and the way you're thinking about this?

GRIFFITHS: We are very narrowly focused on utility scale solar, things that replace entire coal plants, if you like and produce that amount of energy.

GUPTA: What are we looking at here? What size space is that?

GRIFFITHS: Well, this is a simulated desert and this is a mile wide field of tiny little mirrors. Traditional Heliostats are enormous, you know, building size are you know, 20, 30 feet on a side. So we're actually utilizing the mechanism much more like the way stems of flowers work when they follow the sun.

In this case, we're using fluids either air or water to hydraulically or hermetically control these, eliminating the copper wiring and enabling this very precision movement at very low cost. We're looking at reducing the field by 80 percent. LAILA MADRONE, PROJECT MANAGER, SOLAR ENERGY: I'm Leila Madrone. And I head up the solar project. I met Saul when I was at MIT. We worked at the same lab and I came to Saul and I was like how can we make solar that's cheap. And he said, you know, I have this idea that's been moving around a little bit. I haven't done anything with it. Why don't you see what you can do with it? So a year later we have a Department of Energy grant and partners and we're ready to make it happen.

GRIFFITHS: It's all over the news. There are a lot of people who are intrigued with the notion of using natural gas as a transportation fuel. How do we drive our cars with natural gas? There are incredible advantages, not only in national energy security, in terms of the amount of carbon travel. You would reduce it by half.

Restore natural gas, in tanks like gas cylinders and the gas cylinders don't fit very well into a car or truck. We had to look at the problem and came up with an interesting idea. Instead of using huge tanks to use very small tubes, pack them in like an intestine. I call it our gas intestine project. Showing an example of how you might pack it into an existing feature of the car, in this case, a door.

GUPTA: Is this something that you think is --

GRIFFITHS: We'll be building a full tank in the next six months, so a 140-liter tank.

DR. CHERYL MARTIN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, ARPA-E: It would be a transformational idea. Eventually you would have to have a natural gas vehicle that you could fuel up on using your in-home natural gas that you have in place.

GRIFFITHS: So here we're at Mechanic Talent. I was one of the founders of this in 2006. Now I have an advisory role. Without doubt, what the economy is the most innovative sort of furthest out there, most transformative new technology on the horizon. We know that the industry --

GUPTA: Can you just talk me through how it works? Let's say you're going to launch this thing.

GRIFFITHS: This thing will sit in the cradle located near to this sort of tether release system. These propellers will fire up, start spinning around. Everybody has got experience with the little quad copter. It will fly like a quad copter, fly into the sky and slowly the tether will be released.

Once it gets to the right altitude, it will transition from the launch mode to a generation mode where it will start to fly in circles. So the wind is going this way, it will fly counter to the wind. You can generate enormous amounts of energy in the tiny propeller.

You bring it down to the ground and feed it off the grid. When this works it will disrupt the entire economics of that industry and produce much lower costs of electricity than normal propeller on a stick.

GUPTA: That's what people I think of wind power.

GRIFFITHS: It's propeller on a stick.

GUPTA: Why is this better?

GRIFFITHS: Modern wind turbine that propeller and the stick are enormous. It's 300 tons of steel, aluminium and fibreglass and carbon and the copper to build that thing. The very little tip of that propeller that's moving at very high speed produces almost all of the energy, 70 percent or 80 percent of the energy at the tip.

So what they're trying to do is let's get rid of the stick because that cost money. Let's get rid of that huge gear box because that cost money. Let's even get rid of two of the sticks and just fly in circles that last 25 percent of the tip.

GUPTA: Whenever I think about projects like this, you think is it the science that drives you or with regard to energy, is it a larger moral mandate of some sort for you?

GRIFFITHS: It's a little bit of a moral mandate. I think if you read the signs, the climate signs, you have to quickly conclude that the technological challenge of this entry is redesigning the energy infrastructure for modern society. We have to have a big shift from fossil fuels one way or the other. That's exciting. That is the Apollo project for our generation. It's hard not to gravitate towards that.

I often joke that I'm not really an inventor. I just steal the ideas of 8-year-olds. And it's kind of true.

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GRIFFITHS: So I have a couple of great friends and we're all engineers. Tim Anderson who give it all in developing the 3D printer and Eric (inaudible) who founded another company with me and we all sort of set ourselves a goal of roughly inventing one or two new sports a year. By sports we mean crazy things to do that are both athletic and technology.

Kite boarding was dragging yourself across a frozen lake with a kite in the air on a skateboard with kitchen knives instead of wheels. And you would steer this skateboard with your butt like this, like a skateboard while flying this kite.

That was pretty awesome. You know, 40, 50 miles an hour across the ice. Tandem kite surfing was one of them. You use such an enormous kite for the wing that the first guy is flying 50 or 100 feet up in the air under a kite that's another 100 feet in the air and you're being towed along on a surfboard. There's one guy who gets to have this windsurfing and one guy who gets to have a paragliding experience. There's about 400 ways that this can go wrong. One guy gets pinned to the ocean floor while the other guy is struggling to fly 100 feet in the air.

GUPTA: You have a son, 3 years old.

GRIFFITHS: Yes.

GUPTA: What's your son's name?

GRIFFITHS: Huxly. What I love about being a dad is getting up at 6:00 a.m., watching the original "Star Wars" with your child, reliving the magnificence of that movie. And then having a pretend light saber battle and do all of this while mom is asleep and when she gets up, here are these two exhausted boys who is been playing Legos and light saber battles.

I often joke that I'm not really an inventor. I just steal the ideas of 8-year-olds and it's kind of true. There's no constraints on how cool the future is when you're three, five, to eight. You're like everything is still possible we have a lot to learn from them.

We're going to build a robotic bouncy castle this year. I think that might be the next sports. So the bouncy castle can walk so as the kids bounce, it anticipates where they land and then they land. Sometimes you have an idea and you're like I have the idea and now I have to do it.

It might just be that engineers and scientists feel lonely and we're trying to create more of those. How do we teach more kids to grow up to do this?

GUPTA: So this is "How It Tunes."

GRIFFITHS: This was our first book published in 2004. It is a comic book that teaches kids how to make things. Our language is comics. We integrate the instructions into the story telling. This is a really good example our most popular project, the marshmallow shooter, which is just simple PVC pipe. You can buy all this material for probably under $2 at a hardware store.

And our two main characters are a brother and sister group and she shoots her brother with marshmallows and he says, using his photographic memory, he'll go back to his lab and build his own. So he takes it and he draws up this blueprint. That's your instructions.

So if you follow the blueprint, here's how to cut the pipe. You can take this to a hardware store, get the materials and make your own marshmallow shooter.

The narrative gives you a chance to paint. Why it's exciting to learn to make these things. These are really simple parts. Just two soda bottles, rubber band drive train anchored by paper clips.

Not just a disembodied project. It's like if I build this thing, I can have that amazing experience.

How do I make my life super fun and interesting with dramatically reduce the amount of eneryg?

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GRIFFITHS: It probably makes me sound like (inaudible) environmentalist, but three years ago I was like well if I'm going to talk this talk about the energy problems, I have to actually walk it and figure out what solutions are.

Initially I looked at measured how much energy I use and I'm like, my god, I'm the plane planet-screwing hypocrite. I was using more energy than anyone. How do I make my life super fun and interesting with dramatically reduce the amount of energy?

One way we use the amount of energy is in short-distance car travel at the miles driven in America are driven less than eight miles long. I'm probably going to get in a car once a week now. I drop my son and his best friend at school every day and bring the dog to work.

The problem with a traditional tricycle is it's rigid and if you go into the corner, the central pedal acceleration throws you off. They're famously bad, but on this one, the steering can lean, so can you lean into the corners, which makes it feel like a bicycle and you can take corners at whatever speed you want. So it's super fun, super fast.

It goes 20 miles per hour, pretty much instantly. Up any hill and you get equivalent of 1,000 miles per gallon.

MADRONE: I really think Saul is a champion for his ideas and he's also a champion for all the people who are working with him. He just wants to see all of us at our ultimate. Take smart people he knows, bring them in here. Make their dreams come true and make the world a better place.

DANIELLE APPLESTONE, PROJECT MANAGER AND LEAD ENGINEER: The way that I describe him is he is a person who has made it and hasn't lost the personality and the moral drive to do things that are really good.

GRIFFITHS: The beautiful thing of working in a place like Otherlab is you're surrounded by people who are inventive and creative and capable. They've learned either through life or through school how to realize the vision of things that are possible.

We have the good fortune inventing the world that we're going to live in. It's a very inherently engaged process. We're imagining things just over the horizon. We're bringing them to fruition and we see that thing start to happen in the world and it's great. It's great to see. It's addictive. PRATT: The really great innovators in the world have the ability to transcend the application of what they see. So when somebody see as bouncy castle and they say that is a really extraordinary thing. Look at how lightweight it is, look at how easy it is to set up. And they say, I wonder what else this could be used for.

GRIFFITHS: Humanity is doing spectacularly interesting and great things. I think it is one of the best times ever to be alive. And also we have done some silly things as regards to our use of fossil fuels and the climate change and pollution. I think we really need to raise my son and his generation. We need to empower them to believe that they can in fact create a more beautiful future. It's hard to believe they won't do that.

GUPTA: One of the things that you talk about is this idea, wouldn't it be cool that -- what did you mean by that?

GRIFFITHS: I guess, what I really meant, I really mean by that is we don't advertise very well what scientists and engineers do. I mean, pretty much the job definition is one of optimism and wouldn't it be cool if. So it drives everything we do around here. Everyone is like wouldn't it be cool if we could make an inflatable bouncy castle walk?

Wouldn't it be cool if we could make solar energy cheaper than coal? That's inherently optimistic and beautiful. I think I'm imaging it more as a catch prize for the next generation. We need an awful lot of children in Huxly's generation, in your children's generation, to grow up thinking wouldn't it be cool if we did this to make the future a fabulous place to live.

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GUPTA: Saul Griffiths believes making the future fabulous means radically altering our energy habits, changing the way we produce power. We put him on THE NEXT LIST because he's leading a group of scientists and engineers who are inventing the technologies to make that happen. Dedicating their lives to making alternative energy the fuel of the future, once and for all, wouldn't it be cool if?

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for watching THE NEXT LIST. Hope to see you back here next week.