Did electric eels power Marlon Brando's house?


"We're going to run the place on eels, Begley."
"We're going to run the place on eels, Begley."
Getty Images

A few years before his death in 2004, eccentric Hollywood legend Marlon Brando summoned actor/environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. to his Mulholland Drive estate.

According to Begley, Brando wanted some feedback on a scheme to power his home with electric eels. Dumbfounded, Begley said he wasn't sure it could be done.

"Everything's no with you..." grumbled Brando in response, according to this New York Times article.

The dream didn't come true for Brando, but that doesn't mean electric eel power is entirely out of the question. First, let's take a look at the eel itself, which is actually not an eel at all but something akin to a catfish.

The Electric Fish

The South American electric eel can grow up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) long and stun its prey (or potential predators) by emitting a 600-650 volt burst of electricity -- roughly five times the shock you'd get from sticking a penny in the wall socket.

That's a lot of juice, even if the eel only dishes it out in two-millisecond bursts. The power comes from three pairs of electric organs on each side of its body, all of which contains thousands of muscle cells that produce the spark.

So why don't aren't these amazing creatures swimming through tubes in our homes and sparking it up under car hoods? As this clip from Reuters News demonstrates, you can harness the current in short bursts for small tasks -- like lighting up a small Christmas tree.

The far more attractive option, however, is to engineer the fish's electric cells to power implanted biomedical devices or even electronic devices.

Hacking the Eel

The eel's body generates a current by pumping charged potassium and sodium ions out of its special muscle cells. The number of negatively charged ions inside the cells rises. It opens just the right channels to cause electrons to flood out of the cell and shock the bejesus out of its prey.

According to Discovery News, researchers from Yale University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology are tinkering with the exact channels and pumps involved in order to engineer a cell that's more powerful and energy efficient. Natural electric eel cells boast about 14 percent efficiency. Science could up that number to 19 percent. That's 150 millivolts per cell instead of 100 millivolts. Bundle enough of these together, and you've got quite a promising biobattery on your hand.

To make this a reality, however, scientists would have to raise eels for cell harvesting or engineer the cells to grow in a lab.

All of this is still years away from possibly hitting the market, however -- but here's hoping they call it the Brando Battery.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.