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Special Report
Saul Griffith’s latest venture, Otherlab, is a research company reminiscent of the “invention factory” created by Thomas Edison. (Otherlab)

Saul Griffith’s Fascinating Ideas About the Future of Energy

Intestine-like natural gas tanks and a solar technology based on air and plastic are two projects in the works at Griffith’s Otherlab

There absolutely are. If you have 3 to 4 percent parasitic leaks from the wellhead, then it’s net-zero better than gasoline.

Nevertheless, I’m super excited about it. I think the role of engineers in society is to provide technology options for society to choose yes or no. And as much as engineers would like to be the judge, jury, and executioner, we have to work with what society wants. So, I believe it’s worth developing this capacity because I think we can solve the wellhead problems of natural gas. I think it’s very important to have higher energy independence, so you have to weigh the moral conundrum of fracking, versus the moral conundrum of fighting oil wars in foreign nations.

The same technology that we’re developing in those tanks is also useful for large-scale compressed air and compressed steam energy storage. So we’re creating a technological capacity that’s useful in other domains in energy.

How did you decide to approach the problem of natural gas cars from this particular angle, with tanks that can be conformed to the shape of a car?

In general, as an engineer or scientist, you have a certain set of tools, a certain set of hammers, and you bang all of the nails you see with that set of tools and hammers.

Within this building, we happen to be very good at geometry and computational geometry, and some arcane areas of mathematics, such as space-filling curves. Turns out, we were also do a lot of work on pressure vessels, because we were working on inflatable objects for a long time.

Through serendipity (I think we should ascribe a lot more of society’s invention to serendipity than to anything else) just because we were thinking about energy and space-filling curves and pressure vessels, this all came together. Because you needed to sort of be aware of those three things to have the insight to produce the particular new technology tanks that we’re doing. In some respects, every project in the building has an origin that’s serendipitous like that.

You’ve written recently about the value of a research model based on a multiplicity of small, independent labs. Would you explain that?

The modern research model isn’t in fact the modern research model. Up until World War II, a majority of research was done in independent labs and commercial laboratories, and a little bit at universities. National labs really didn’t exist.

The two world wars and the success of the Manhattan Project and the Apollo mission kind of convinced everyone to centralize all the R&D resources into a set of national laboratories and into universities. Elite universities would become research universities.

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