Saul Griffith, founder and CEO of Otherlab, has a habit of building cool things, from a kite-like wind turbine to a smart rope that can sense strain and report frays. The MacArthur Foundation, which awarded Griffith a “genius” grant in 2007, has called him “a prodigy of invention in service of the world community.”
Griffith’s latest venture, Otherlab, is a research company reminiscent of the “invention factory” created by Thomas Edison. It operates in a former pipe organ factory in San Francisco, where redwood bannisters, multi-paned windows, scattered organ parts and plenty of machinery create the sense that a 19th-century inventor like Edison might feel perfectly at home tinkering in the lab’s sunlit rooms.
Among several projects in the works here are two energy technologies that could unlock a future of cheap solar power and mainstream natural gas cars. “The ultimate environmental problem to work on,” Griffith says, “is the way we create energy and use energy.”
In an upstairs room, just past a large, inflatable boxing robot, an Otherlab team is working on a new way to tilt mirrors for concentrating sunlight at large solar plants. The design positions a mirror atop plastic containers, which stretch and scrunch—but don’t buckle—as their internal pressure is adjusted using compressed air. The idea is to cut costs by using plastic and air to aim small mirrors instead of the motors and steel typically used today to tilt billboard-sized mirrors.
For natural gas cars, Griffith’s team wants to eliminate the bulky, cumbersome, and expensive fuel tanks used in natural gas cars today. Otherlab’s solution takes long, thin tubes and bends them like intestines into tightly packed shapes that conform to the available space in a vehicle. The company has received a $250,000 grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program for moonshot energy projects to develop the design over the past year.
Griffith has pursued energy inventions that seem like long shots before. In 2006, he co-founded a company called Makani Power, which devised an airborne wind turbine. Tethered like a kite at the end of a string, an aircraft flies in circles at high altitude. Wing-mounted rotors capture the rushing wind and convert it to electricity using small generators. The tether transmits this electricity to a station on the ground.
Griffith spoke with Smithsonian.com about the ingredients for energy innovation, why he’s excited about natural gas cars, and his vision for a massive network of small labs.
When did you start thinking about applying your skills toward energy problems?
The focusing moment probably came after I started Makani Power, which was a wind energy company. It was difficult to convince people why it was worthwhile doing this crazy sounding technology: We’re going to fly 767s at the ends of pieces of string and generate electricity from wind 5,000 feet up. Everyone just looks at you like you’re a space alien.
We knew it was totally possible and have now proven that it’s possible and in fact, we’re doing it. But in the early days, you need a lot of money to do these types of energy technologies. And when you’re trying to convince people to give you that money, you need a very good story. So that made me contextualize just how much transformation the energy system needs at the civil infrastructure level to meet the needs of climate change.