How Elon Musk is fulfilling Thomas Edison’s energy dreams 100 years later

Michio Kaku tells the story of a bet between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford that Elon Musk is now fulfilling.

Michio Kaku: Well, the cynic would say, “Ha! Solar energy? That’s for Hollywood millionaires,” and, “I’ve heard that so often, that we’re going to live in solar houses, and it never happened! So ha!”

Well, you see, there is a reason that we don’t live in the solar age, and it doesn’t have anything to do with solar cells at all.

You see, there’s a missing link that’s, why we don’t have wind power and solar power everywhere. And the missing link is something we forget, and that is: Storage! The battery.

A hundred years ago Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were friends; they would vacation together and they were rivals, of course, and they had a bet: what would energize the 20th century?

Well Edison said the battery. Well, Ford said no, it’s going to be the internal combustion engine.

Well, people said the solution to that is obvious: the internal combustion engine is dangerous because gasoline engines will explode. Batteries will not explode, but gasoline will, and having a gas station on every block? That’s ridiculous. That’s stupid.

So many people said that it’s obvious Edison is going to win; we’re not going to have gas pumps on every block; and we’re not going to have explosions take place on our highways.

Well, guess what happened? The opposite happened. And that is: Henry Ford was right, at least for the 20th century.

And now General Motors, General Motors recently announced that they can see the time when they will phase out completely the internal combustion engine. This is huge. Think about that.

50 percent of our carbon dioxide production comes from the transportation sector, and General Motors is already talking about phasing out the internal combustion engine. So what’s the problem?

The problem is the battery: the lowly battery that everybody forgets.

You see, we all know Moore’s law: computer power doubles every 18 months, but Moore’s law only applies to ultra violet etching on computer silicon wafers. It doesn’t apply for solar cells.

Storage is the basic problem—there’s no Moore’s law for the battery.

However, now that inventors are getting wind of this, we now see new energy, new creativity, new ideas, and so the price of battery power is of dropping by about seven percent a year. This means opportunities for the super-battery.

It’s no accident that Elon Musk of Tesla Motors has made the battery a priority. He wants to market these super batteries so that when the sun doesn’t shine and the winds don’t blow, you can still have large quantities of solar power.

He’s also marketing these batteries for industries, because what happens if you can’t necessarily make peak summer and peak winter demands of power?

Why should a facility have to generate this gigantic infrastructure to generate electricity, just for peak summer and peak winter? That’s where the super-battery comes in.

And so with the price of batteries dropping I think we’re going to see the economics of solar and wind turn the other way, so they are competitive with fossil fuels.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison had a bet they would energize the future together, tells the story Michio Kaku. But what happened was the opposite of what many people thought - Henry Ford's vision for the internal combustion engine won out. Now, in the 21st century, Elon Musk's focus on creating super-batteries will bring Edison's ideas to final fruition. A new generation of batteries should be a gamechanger for solar energy as well.

Cambridge scientists create a successful "vaccine" against fake news

A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.

University of Cambridge
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
  • The study sample included 15,000 players.
  • The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

5 facts you should know about the world’s refugees

Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Conflict, violence, persecution and human rights violations led to a record high of 70.8 million people being displaced by the end of 2018.

Keep reading Show less