The 4-Cent Mile

Question: What major advances is CalCars Initiative making in energy efficiency?

Felix Kramer: Well, CalCars has been focusing on first getting plug in hybrids on the map. Most people didn’t ever hear of them. For the people who knew about them they thought it was a science project. This was back in 2002 when we were founded, all the way up to 2005 or 2006 and our goal always was mass production of plug in hybrids, so we started out trying to get the idea out and then around 2004 or 5 we realized we had to really show it, so we converted the… We were the first to convert a hybrid Prius into a plug in hybrid and that took the world by storm and we were able to take that car all over including to Washington D.C. and say this is what we could have with today’s technology. So the first goal of CalCars was to get commercialization, a big word that just means on sale at your dealer of plug in hybrids by major companies. We did conversions, but that was a strategy. The whole point was to get the big carmakers doing this and we won because this next year the Chevy Volt and a number of other cars are coming out that are mass produced plug in hybrids.

The second goal was a little broader and that’s basically the electrification of transportation and that involves the convergence of two giant industries, the power generation industry and the personal transportation industry into one large industry and the reason to do that is because electricity is simply better than gasoline in many ways, especially three. We started popularizing the idea that compared to gasoline electricity was cheaper, cleaner and domestic, so cheaper everybody can understand. Your electric mile is maybe two to four cents a mile. A gasoline mile is anywhere from eight to forty cents a mile and so that’s the cheaper on the personal level. On the larger level, the economics, we basically said before many other people and now lots of people are recognizing it, that the whole auto industry has to go electric and that’s a way to save individual companies and a whole industry as it competes worldwide.

So that’s the cheaper economic. Cleaner is CO2 primarily. Cars have gotten pretty clean in conventional emissions, but in CO2 they are a huge source of greenhouse gases and electricity is far cleaner. Of course everybody immediately then says, “Well what about the grid, the power grid, which has so much coal on it?” And even in a… on a national grid, which is half coal that electric mile is half as much CO2 as a gasoline mile. When you take into account all the emissions from the what’s called well-to-wheel, from the extraction of the fuel all the way to the tailpipe of the car, so you’re better off and in the future as the grid gets cleaner the car gets cleaner. So the car is the only device that as it gets older gets cleaner.

And then finally domestic, there is a lot of talk about energy independence. We’re not going to be energy independent, but we can have much greater energy security and that’s what electricity brings because electricity is a domestic fuel. We don’t import electricity. We use it from sources in the United States, in each country and so we’re not dependent on overseas sources and we can diversify the source from electricity because we can make electricity from almost any other fuel.

So you take all those three things together and you’ve got a fuel that is better in every way and when you combine that then back to the original point of the electrification of transportation then when you bring the power generation industry into it you’re changing not just transportation, you’re changing this other giant, which is the largest greenhouse gas contributor in the world and you’re making it more efficient. You’re saying okay, big power plants don’t have much to do at night and most of them can’t be turned off, so why not charge the cars at night and use them in the day? And then down the road a ways the power facilities are sized for maybe five or ten summer days when it’s hot. And the problem with the power generation industry, the electric power generators is they have to use the power as soon as they make it. They can’t store it anywhere, so if they could store it in millions of cars where the batteries are parked for 20 to 23 hours a day they can draw on that power. They can actually reduce the amount of generation capacity they have, so both things will make this industry more efficient and could reduce the price we pay for electricity every day.

Question: How will a cleaner electric grid make cars cleaner?

Felix Kramer: Well we have in the United States now something called renewable portfolio standards and that means that there are state level requirements for states to clean the grid, to shift from fossil fuels to renewables, whether that’s solar, wind, geothermal and so forth and they require that a certain percentage by a certain date be renewable, so that’s going to happen and we hope that also market forces are going to make it happen. For instance, Google is working on a project they call Renewable is Cheaper than Coal, RE greater than C and the whole idea is for renewable power to be cheaper than fossil fuels. As that happens the grid will get cleaner and so if you actually think about the big picture, you know global warming if you take out some things like farming and construction, agriculture and you just look at the world we live in you say if you could take every device in the world that runs on fossil fuel now and power it by electricity at the same time as you clean the grid and run it by renewables you’re done. You’ve solved the problem of global warming for everyone, every device and it’s conceptually easy. In practice it’s very hard, but Al Gore has been talking for several years now saying if we really wanted to we could clean the grid in ten years. We just have to put in those facilities for the generating facilities and we have to have the power lines to go around the country and other things, all of which are really hard to do, but we could do it if we wanted.

Question: What is the biggest challenge for CalCars in the future?

Felix Kramer: The biggest change for CalCars now that we have declared victory on our first goal is that we’re going back and reinventing ourselves to go… to start all over again with a new challenge that people are as skeptical about as when we first talked about plug in hybrids. We’re saying that we’re going to now finally get new plug in vehicles and they’re going to trickle into the marketplace. It took ten years for hybrids to be 2% of the market. If plug in hybrids come in at a rate ten times faster than that they will still be only 10 or 20% of the fleet of vehicles in 10 or 15 years from now and that’s not fast enough because in terms of global warming and energy security we need to start reducing petroleum demand now. So we can’t really wait for that and that’s a real conundrum and one of the best ways that we’ve been talking about now is what we’re calling the big fix and that involves taking a large number of the gas guzzler vehicles that are already on the road that will last for another 10 or 20 or 30 years and retrofitting them. Just like we fix buildings and change them we can do the same with cars and they can be transformed so that some of their energy is electric or all of it.

They can be plug in hybrids, a partial conversion or all electric for… depending on the range of the vehicle and the use of the vehicle, but if you take a pickup truck, an SUV, a school bus, a transit bus and a van where there is plenty of room for batteries, where the frame is very durable and the vehicle will last for a long time and you take that engine and you add components to it or you replace it we are now showing that there is a business and technology case for doing that and we’re trying to encourage people to jump in and start a whole new global industry to do this.

Question: How expensive will this be compared to buying a new car?

Felix Kramer: The reason there is a business case for gas guzzler conversions is illustrated by what Ali Emadi, professor at Illinois Institute of Technology who started a small company,, what he has done. He has taken the most popular vehicle in America, a Ford F150 pickup truck, which usually gets 15 miles per gallon and you can pick them up used for 5 or $10,000 because they’re… they last a long time and there is a lot of them out there and he has shown that you can take that vehicle and convert it into a plug in hybrid. At that point it will have a 30 mile all electric range and when the battery is depleted it will become a 21 mile per gallon hybrid and Emadi is saying that in large volumes that… the cost of that will be 10 to $15,000, so if you imagine a used F150 for 5 or 10,000 and you convert it for 10 to 15,000 then for under $25,000 you can have the world’s cleanest pickup truck and then if you imagine that that vehicle gets the same tax credit as a Chevy Volt because it’s displacing the same amount of gasoline and has the same social benefits, if you give it a $7,500 tax credit I think you’re in business.

Hybrid technology is only the beginning of a string of developments in energy efficiency that will link personal transportation to the power generation industry in a way never thought possible before.

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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.

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