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."

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February 22nd, 2013
11:55 AM ET

Forging a new future in fashion with technology

Editor’s note: Diana Eng is a fashion designer and self-described geek who blends fashion and technology in surprising ways. Watch Diana’s full profile this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on CNN’s “The Next List.”

By Diana Eng, Special to CNN

New York Fashion Week has just wrapped up. It's an event that reminds me twice a year of the moment I knew I was meant to be a fashion designer (as opposed to a computer programmer or electrical engineer).

The first time I attended Mercedes Benz Fashion Week was for the Project Runway, season two show at Bryant Park. I sat in the front row and felt like royalty as a bunch of reporters came up to ask me questions; “Do you know how lucky you are to be sitting in the front row?” “Is this the best day of your life?” “Who do you think will win?” “Tell me a secret about the show without violating your contract.”

I was still trying to get over the fact that I was actually at a fashion week show. Debra Messing walked by and said “Hi Diana” and I was like, “OMG, Debra Messing, you know my name!”

And then two men came out and removed the plastic covering the runway, the lights started to dim and there was finally a hush. It was like unwrapping a present. The show was about to start and I was filled with excitement, pride and anticipation. At that moment there were so many possibilities, anything could come down the runway. I thought, “I am so excited to be a fashion designer!”

Not everyone can relate the rush of fashion week, but we all have a personal relationship with the things we wear. They are our second skin. When someone sees us for the first time, our style conveys the first impressions about our personality.

Clothing can also say a lot about the world around us. In the 19th century, women would have conveyed their personal style with hoop skirts and bustles made possible by new advances in steel making. We’ve made many technological advancements since the Bessemer process. In the 21st century, what will your fashion say about you?

I like my fashion designs to make people stop and think twice. And I think that, like the hoop skirts of the 19th century, today’s technology can lead to new looks.

Using a laser cutter I am able to distress t-shirts in lace patterns, adding a delicate touch to an otherwise rugged style. I create scarves with snowflakes that appear and grow in cold weather. I play with electronics - LEDs, electroluminescent wire, microcontrollers - to make clothing that reacts to sound and motion. I work with technicians to program fully fashioned (3D) knitting machines to automatically knit lace created by the Fibonacci number sequence.

I’m excited to see what possibilities the next generation of designers will come up with. I’ve had the privilege of teaching the Click@MoMA: Wearable Technology class for high school students through Eyebeam. My class toured the Museum of Modern Art to view paintings by Picasso and Mondrian, and we discussed how shapes could augment the human body. Then the students built inflatable clothing to augment their bodies. We viewed Monet’s Water Lilies to see how Impressionist artists used color and texture to express different seasons and moods. The students created videos to project images on to dresses so that the dresses could portray different moods. Today’s teens have never lived without the Internet or cell phones. As technology becomes a bigger part of our world, tomorrow’s designers will need a greater understanding of science to create relevant designs.

It doesn’t matter how many fashion shows I attend, I still feel the same thrill when they peel back the plastic to start the show. Fashion has infinite possibilities and I’m excited to see what the future holds.

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A 3-D pen that lets you draw objects in the air
February 21st, 2013
11:43 AM ET

A 3-D pen that lets you draw objects in the air

By Brandon Griggs, CNN

We're all doodlers by nature. Give most people a pen, paper and some down time, and they'll fill the margins with the fruits of their imagination.

But imagine if you could wave a pen in the air and create a three-dimensional rendering: A toy, a sculpture, a crude architectural model.

Soon you will. A Boston-based startup, WobbleWorks, has created what they are calling the world's first 3-D printing pen. It's called the 3Doodler, and it's been a sensation on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site, since it debuted there Tuesday morning. The makers of the 3Doodler set a modest fundraising goal of $30,000; within 48 hours, backers had pledged more than $1.1 million.

"We knew it was a great product. But we didn't expect the response to be this fast," said Daniel Cowen, a spokesman for the gadget, which is still a prototype. "The velocity of the response caught us by surprise. It's phenomenal." FULL POST

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February 19th, 2013
01:33 PM ET

Diana Eng melds high tech with high fashion

Editor’s note: Diana Eng is a fashion designer and technologist who gets her inspiration from math, science and nature. Watch a full profile of Diana Eng this Sunday at 2:30p ET (all-new time!) only on CNN.

Diana Eng’s mission is to bring innovation to the fashion world, and she’s doing it with some very unlikely tools.

Best known for her role on the second season of "Project Runway," Eng creates fashion and accessories that combine cutting-edge technology with design concepts from nature and science.

“I like to look at technology, math and science and how to integrate it into fashion designs,”says the New York-based designer. Eng has knitted scarves using the formula from the Fibonacci code as well as thermochromic scarves which change color with the temperature. She also uses laser cutters to design lace patterns and distressed T-shirts.

The composition of flower cells has inspired her designs and help them keep structural integrity.

“I like to make fashion and accessories that tell a story,” says Eng. “The story usually comes to me while I’m designing.  And it can take me two or three years to design something, because I’m carefully gathering little bits and pieces of the story together, to create my design.”

Eng is also one of the founding members of a Brooklyn-based hack space called NYC Resistor. In an unassuming warehouse, she and 30 other members with a variety of backgrounds meet to learn, make things and share ideas.

“They have a whole bunch of electronics there so I feel like whatever I’m doing, whatever technical development (I want) inside of things, I’ll go to NYC Resistor,” she says.

Eng says she wants people to enjoy not only her fashions but the thinking behind the product.

“I’m really interested in making people think differently about things,” she says. “I feel like it’s really teaching people to look at materials that already exist and think about how it can change how we live our lives and how we can create.”

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February 15th, 2013
01:51 PM ET

A chance to prevent future asteroid impacts

Editor’s Note: Ed Lu is an explorer who loves mapping the unknown – whether it’s the oceans at Liquid Robotics, our neighborhoods, leading Google Advanced Projects Teams, or unveiling the secrets of the inner solar system and saving the world with the B612 Foundation, where he serves as CEO. A NASA Astronaut, he’s flown three missions, logging 206 days in space to construct and live aboard the International Space Station. Watch Ed Lu’s full plan to save the world, this Sunday 2:30 P.M. E.T. on “The Next List”

By Ed Lu, Special to CNN

Today's meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk is a reminder that the Earth orbits the Sun in a shooting gallery of asteroids, and that these asteroids sometimes hit the Earth.  Later today, a separate and larger asteroid, 2012 DA14, will narrowly miss the Earth passing beneath the orbits of our communications satellites.  We have the technology to deflect asteroids, but we cannot do anything about the objects we don't know exist.

Discovered just one year ago by an amateur citizen observer, 2012 DA14 will fly only 17 thousand miles above Earth - the distance the Earth travels in just 15 minutes, and not much longer than many people travel on common air flights. So this truly is a close shave. In fact, 2012 DA14 will pass underneath our communications satellites as it flies by Earth.

This particular object is not large for an asteroid; it is about 160 feet across or roughly the size of an office building. It is not going to hit us on February 15, but it should serve as a wake-up call for planetary defense. Consider that just 105 years ago, an asteroid slightly smaller than this struck Earth in Siberia near Tunguska and completely flattened a forested area of 1000 square miles, an expanse larger than New York City or Washington D.C.

Tunguska – 1000 square miles of trees blown over like matchsticks.

2012 DA14 is what is known as a near-Earth asteroid because its orbit crosses Earth’s orbit and it may therefore someday run into Earth. Millions of these asteroids exist, we just can’t see them from Earth. Of the million asteroids as large as or larger than 2012 DA14, we have only tracked less than 10,000. That we knew ahead of time that 2012 DA14 would buzz by Earth is really only a matter of luck. Ninety nine percent of the time we are oblivious to such impending flybys, simply because we currently don’t have the means to map and track the other 99 percent.

We established the non-profit B612 Foundation to protect humanity from asteroid impacts and, at the same time, open space to future exploration. Our Sentinel Mission is an infrared space telescope that we will launch and place in orbit around the Sun. From its vantage point looking back at Earth’s orbit, Sentinel will discover, map and track the trajectories of asteroids whose orbits approach Earth and threaten humanity. We will be the first privately funded, launched and operated interplanetary mission, and the most ambitious private space mission in history.

The Sentinel Map will give us decades of advance notice of an impending impact so that deflection becomes relatively easy. There are several promising technologies including kinetic impactors, gravity tractors and nuclear standoff explosions. The urgency in completing the map arises because there could be an impact in the next few decades. With only a few years' notice, the task of deflecting an asteroid becomes extremely difficult, to the point where it could become almost impossible (depending on the size of the asteroid) using current technology. Every year delayed in completing Sentinel increases our chances of having no available options. Why take this risk?

The chances in 90 years (roughly your lifetime) of Earth being hit by another asteroid like at Tunguska is about one in three. Shouldn’t we know in advance of the next asteroid impact, and actually prevent it?

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February 12th, 2013
01:13 PM ET

One man’s bold quest to save the Earth from asteroids

Editors Note: Ed Lu is a former NASA astronaut and current CEO of the B612 Foundation. His goal is to build a space telescope that will detect possibly cataclysmic asteroids headed for Earth. Watch more about Ed Lu’s incredible mission this Sunday 2:30 P.M. E.T. (all-new time!) on “The Next List.”

He calls it the biggest environmental project imaginable. Ed Lu believes one of the biggest threats to the planet isn’t even on the Earth, it’s in space. Asteroids.

Ed Lu says asteroids hit earth all the time.  “Really small ones are just the shooting stars you see when you look up in the sky,” says Lu. “Larger ones, like the one that hit Tunguska in Siberia, those hit about every couple hundred years.” In 1908 an asteroid about 130 feet wide hit Tunguska Siberia with a force that was 1000 times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It totally destroyed an area the size of the San Francisco bay area. They happen more frequently than we realize – and there are no guarantees that the next one won’t hit a city.  “There is about a 50 percent chance in your lifetime that another explosion of that size is going to happen somewhere on earth,” says Lu.

And here’s the really scary part: right now we’re only able to detect about one percent of the asteroids that are actually orbiting near Earth. The reality, says Lu, is that there are 100 times more asteroids than that.

“That’s about a million near Earth asteroids that are larger than the one that hit in Tunguska in 1908,” he said.

But Lu has a solution.

He is building one of the most powerful space telescopes in the world, called The Sentinel. It will launch in 2018 and orbit the sun, which means it will be between 30 million and 170 million miles from Earth. To put it in perspective, that’s about 500,000 times further from Earth than the Hubble space telescope.

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February 8th, 2013
10:44 AM ET

How biotechnology can solve the energy crisis

Editor's Note: The Next List will air a full 30min profile of synthetic biologist Jay Keasling this Sunday, Feb. 10th, at 2:30PM ET (all-new time!) only on CNN.

It's a great time to be working in biotechnology. We are developing powerful new approaches to find cures to diseases, curb climate change and reduce reliance on foreign oil.

Synthetic biology promises to change the world by making biology easier to engineer and enabling solutions to some of the world’s most difficult problems.

At the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), I work with a motivated team of people that is at the forefront of the emerging field of advanced biofuels production. Our mission is to develop scientific breakthroughs to help solve the energy crisis.

Inside our Emeryville laboratories, JBEI researchers use the latest techniques in plant science, molecular biology and chemical engineering to produce affordable, sustainable, carbon-neutral fuels identical to gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

Traditionally, most of the chemicals we use are produced using chemical synthesis, which is the combination of simple chemicals to form more complex ones. For complicated chemicals like drugs, it might take many chemical steps to produce the final molecule. Some chemicals are too difficult or impractical to produce using chemical synthesis. Due to the difficulty in producing these chemicals, many drugs and other products that could make our lives better are not available.

Since 1992, I’ve been redesigning microbes (like yeast) to be miniature chemical reactors that transform sugars into fuels.

Enzymes can do in one step what might take many steps using synthetic organic chemistry. To engineer a microbe to be a chemical factory, we graft genes from plants and other naturally occurring life forms into the microbe. Once inside the cells, the genes produce enzymes that do the chemistry to transform sugars into chemicals.

One of our first products was a yeast that we engineered to produce the life-saving anti-malarial drug artemisinin. Later this year, anti-malarial drugs bearing the microbially produced artemisinin will begin saving the lives of malaria sufferers throughout the world.

At JBEI, we are focused on making biofuels out of sugars. We have engineered microbes to transform sugars into energy-rich fuels that can directly replace petroleum-derived gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Because we produce biofuels that have identical properties to petroleum-based fuels, there is no need to replace our cars, trucks or planes to use the fuels.

We are also exploring ways to extract sugar from cellulosic biomass, such as paper waste, trees that have fallen down in the forest, the residue of crops such as corn husks and stalks - everything but the kernel of corn - and non-food plants such as switchgrass.

Because plants grow by fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, burning a fuel made from cellulosic biomass does not add extra carbon to the atmosphere, unlike the burning of fossil fuels, which produces carbon emissions. In fact, our diesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent over petroleum-derived diesel. And because we produce the fuels from non-edible cellulosic biomass, production of the fuels does not directly compete with food.

There are many advantages to advanced biofuels. That’s why we're focused on converting biomass to biofuels. I’m passionate about advancing basic science for public benefit. That’s my motivation.

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February 5th, 2013
10:15 AM ET

Jay Keasling: Using microbes to create the next generation of fuel

Editor's Note: The Next List will air a full 30min profile of synthetic biologist Jay Keasling this Sunday, Feb. 10th, at 2:30PM ET (all-new time!) only on CNN.

Quotable Jay Keasling: “The carpets, the paint on the walls, the ceiling tiles, we have the potential to produce all of these products from sugar.”

Who is he: Jay Keasling, a pioneer in the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, is engineering microbes – single cell organisms like yeast and E. coli – to produce biofuels, medicines, even cosmetic compounds from simple ingredients like sugar cane and grass.

In addition to teaching bioengineering at UC Berkeley, Jay is CEO of the U.S. Dept of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) in Emeryville, California.

Why you might know him: Keasling’s biggest breakthrough came in 2003 when he and his students reprogrammed yeast to produce a synthetic version of an expensive anti-malarial drug known as artemisinin. Armed with a $42 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they’ve since perfected this inexpensive and effective replacement drug, providing a royalty-free license for mass production to pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventi. Sanofi will bring it to market in 2013, producing 100 million treatments annually. Malaria kills roughly 1 million people a year, many of them children.

Why he matters: Today Keasling is focusing his efforts on creating a new generation of biofuels. Overseeing a team of 200 researchers at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, his goal is to “engineer microbes to produce fuels that behave exactly the same as petroleum-based fuels.” Ultimately, he believes all petroleum-based products – everything from hard plastics and paints to soda bottles – can be produced from these sugar-fed microbes.

Keasling’s philosophy: “Energy is our biggest industry on the planet. But unless we stop putting carbon into the atmosphere, sea levels are going to continue to rise and it's going to create huge problems."

Something you might not know about him: Keasling's a small town boy made good. He grew up on a fifth generation pig farm in Harvard, Nebraska (pop. 1000) where hard work and family were his focus. He jokes he spent the first 18 years of his life shoveling manure. Today, he may spend his day in a lab coat, but as a single father of two adopted boys, ages nine and 15, family continues to keep him grounded.

Why biofuels matter: Keasling doesn’t think we’ll ever see a day when biofuels cost less than petroleum-based fuels, but they will be cleaner. “We won’t be extracting oil from a foreign country, then hauling it to the U.S., and putting that excess carbon into the atmosphere,” he said. Instead, by producing high performance fuels from sugars, he says we can limit the carbons released into the atmosphere and, as a result, help slow global warming.

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