A team of neuroscientists and engineers from Clemson University, Georgia Tech and Missouri S&T is growing neurons in a laboratory environment, with the ultimate goal of using them to control simulated power grids. The Brain2Grid project is using neurobiology and neuro-engineering to research whether neurons can be employed to make the control systems more brain-like, with the ability to learn behaviors and carry out real-time control of complex systems. If the theory can be proven to work, the future may incorporate brain-like organic computers to run aspects of the Smart Grid, the futuristic concept of the electrical grid that uses information and communications technology to operate electrical power distribution in an automated fashion to improve the efficiency, reliability, economics, and sustainability. In case you’ve forgotten (and who could blame you), the Eymorgs were the race of alien women who stole Mr. Spock’s brain to run their computer and environmental equipment in an episode of the original “Star Trek” series.

According to the study’s web site, the “in-vitro neural system is used to explore new learning mechanisms that may underlie the massively parallel real-time control capabilities of the brain.” Essentially the scientists hope to create an entity that could learn and adapt to changing inputs rapidly, and crate functional solutions for Smart Grid operation. Since Smart Grid operation includes real-time communications among both suppliers and users of electrical power, rather than the unilateral delivery of power with no user feedback to help control usage and costs, this ability is considered critical. As the study website states, current control algorithms “do not yet exist at sufficient scale to guarantee stability over a wide range of nonlinear operating conditions, as witnessed by the August 2003 blackout.” The Smart Grid will eventually coordinate power distribution from both large generating facilities, as well as smaller and even residential generators using solar, wind and other renewables. It will also create an interactive environment in which sensors installed in users’ locations provide information used to manage power use.

The study, which began in 2009, is scheduled to run through October of 2013.