Brave Thinkers November 2010

Shooting for the Sun

From his childhood in segregated Mobile, Alabama, to his run-ins with a nay-saying scientific establishment, the engineer Lonnie Johnson has never paid much heed to those who told him what he could and couldn’t accomplish. Best known for creating the state-of-the-art Super Soaker squirt gun, Johnson believes he now holds the key to affordable solar power.

Johnson went on to win math and Air Force ROTC scholarships to Tuskegee University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in nuclear engineering. He joined the Air Force in 1975 and subsequently held jobs at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Strategic Air Command—solid, respectable positions that made him a part of the scientific establishment. But at each stop, he felt that his creativity was stifled, and in 1987, at the age of 38, he could take it no longer. He would go into business for himself, he decided, focusing on his own projects, which included a thermodynamic heat pump, a centrifugal-force engine, and a pressure-action water gun. “All I needed was one to hit,” he says, “and I’d be fine.”

The idea for the water gun had come to him one weekend afternoon in 1982, while he was tinkering with an idea for an environmentally friendly heat pump that would use water instead of Freon. He’d built a prototype pump, attached some rubber tubing, and brought it into a bathroom. Aiming the nozzle at the tub, he turned it on, and produced a blast of water so powerful that the mere wind from the spray ruffled the curtains. This, he thought, would make a great water gun. It took Johnson seven uncertain and stressful years, but he acquired the patents and eventually found a company interested in manufacturing his Super Soaker: the Larami Corporation, which licensed the rights to the gun in a deal that would ultimately make Johnson rich.

Hoping to offer society something more significant than enhanced squirt-gun firepower, Johnson began plowing his Super Soaker profits into energy-related R&D. While continuing to work on mechanical devices such as his heat pump, he also studied battery technology. When what he taught himself about electrochemistry collided with his longtime obsession with the second law of thermodynamics, Johnson had his eureka moment: why not use temperature differences rather than a chemical reaction to force the flow of ions through a cell? The JTEC concept was born.

Today, Johnson and his family live in Atlanta’s upscale Ansley Park neighborhood. The business he launched more than two decades ago, Johnson Research and Development Company, now employs two dozen people, including designers, marketers, and research scientists. Once again, however, Johnson faces financial worries. “There was a time in my life,” he says, “when I was independently wealthy.” But that time has passed: Super Soaker profits have eroded thanks to a host of knockoffs, and now bring in only about a third of his company’s operating budget. For the rest, he relies on grants and commissions—and in the aftermath of the dot-com bust and the recent economic crisis, they’ve been drying up. He’s begun borrowing money to keep his research going—and he’s betting much of it, millions of dollars in all, on the JTEC.

In the winter of 2008, Johnson received a promising call from Karl Littau, a materials scientist with the Palo Alto Research Center (known as PARC), a subsidiary of Xerox. PARC, which gave the world the laser printer, Ethernet, and many other groundbreaking technologies, had expanded into alternative-energy research, and this had led Littau to the JTEC. Like Paul Werbos, Littau initially feared that the device sounded too good to be true, but he and several other PARC scientists set up elaborate three-dimensional computer models to analyze fluidics and heat-flow behavior in the JTEC under various conditions, and they came away from those experiments, he says, “really impressed.” Littau, like Werbos, is now a convert. The JTEC, he says, is “a very clever way to extract energy from a heat engine … It’s incredibly elegant.”

When I spoke to Littau, he ticked off the potential advantages of the JTEC over typical heat engines: no moving parts, which means the engine is more reliable and virtually silent; the safety of hydrogen, which is essentially benign (unlike, say, Freon); and the lack of waste produced (the JTEC gives off no carbon or—unlike a fuel cell—even water, which, although environmentally harmless, can corrode equipment). All of these advantages mean longer-lasting performance and potentially higher energy-conversion efficiencies.

Commercial photovoltaic solar cells convert approximately 20 percent of received solar energy into electricity. The best solar-energy systems today—thermal-power plants that concentrate the sun’s heat to drive turbines—operate at a rate of about 30 percent efficiency. The JTEC, Johnson claims, could double that figure, cutting the cost of producing solar power in half from its current average of 25 cents per kilowatt-hour, and making it competitive with coal.

“There’s a lot of debate in Washington about carbon emissions and energy,” Paul Werbos says—“about coal, nuclear power, and oil, what I call the three horsemen of the apocalypse. If we can cut the cost of solar energy in half, it becomes possible to escape from the three horsemen. The importance of this is just unbelievable.”

But having wowed PARC, Johnson is now wrestling once again with the difficulties of working within the confines of the scientific establishment. PARC wants to publish a paper about the JTEC in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, both to provide legitimacy and to encourage members of the scientific community to advance the technologies involved. But Johnson is unconvinced. “Peer review is fine,” he says, “as long as you’re making incremental improvements to a technology.” But Johnson dreams of advancing by leaps and bounds.

Adding to Johnson’s worries is tension with PARC over intellectual-property rights. Only recently did Johnson, with much reluctance, give PARC permission to file for patent protection for the problems solved in its lab. After more than two decades as his own boss, Johnson isn’t sure how much ownership interest—and potential profit—he is willing to give up. “All of a sudden, I have other people inventing stuff that I don’t have control over anymore,” Johnson says. “They could put patents in place for things I would need to implement in my engine. I’d have to pay them for my own idea!”

Last year, I visited the four-acre commercial property that Johnson owns on the south side of downtown Atlanta. Wearing pleated khakis and a long-sleeved polo shirt with a turtleneck underneath, Johnson took me on a tour of a meticulously refurbished three-story brick loft space featuring soaring ceilings and antique wood floors. Johnson intends to transform the building into a high-tech manufacturing center that will train and employ workers from the area; however, because of research delays and the recent economic downturn, those plans are on hold.

Until he can scale up, Johnson is instead leasing his beautiful loft space to a city agency, while he and his employees—including a handful of scientists with doctorates in chemistry, materials science, and engineering—hunker down in a low-slung, windowless warehouse across the parking lot. It’s a no-frills space, with galvanized electrical conduit descending from the ceiling through gaps where acoustic tiles are missing. On one wall of his office is a promotional poster created by the retail chain Target that features Johnson’s face amid a pantheon of 19th- and 20th-century African American inventors. Along another wall is a row of plaques commemorating a dozen of Johnson’s 100-odd patents, including those for his water-pressure heat pump, his ceramic battery, hair rollers that dry and set without heat, a diaper that plays a musical nursery-rhyme alarm when the baby is wet, and the electrochemical conversion system at the heart of the JTEC. And hanging crooked above his desk is a cheap black frame that contains an inspirational quote that has been attributed to Calvin Coolidge. Under the heading Press On, it reads:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

After we toured the office cubicles, Johnson swiped a card to unlock a door, and we entered a cavernous laboratory abuzz with fluorescent fixtures and thrumming with high-tech equipment. We stepped across a sticky mat, meant to grab dust from our shoes, and followed a yellow-paint path across the warehouse floor, past shelves of chemicals, airtight glove boxes, and banks of machines bristling with wires, charging and discharging batteries. Technicians in long blue lab coats and protective goggles milled about. Some of the equipment stations were housed beneath plastic clean-room tents topped with large fans and aluminum ductwork that snaked off toward the ceiling. The lab looked like a disheveled, family-garage version of a computer-microchip factory, and the resemblance wasn’t coincidental: to develop his proton-exchange membrane and ceramic batteries, Johnson has borrowed processes developed by the semiconductor industry for depositing materials, often atom by atom, onto various substrates. Beaming as he showed me his latest acquisition—a pricey-looking X-ray photoelectron spectrometer that lets him analyze a material’s atomic makeup—Johnson was clearly in his element.

Presented by

Logan Ward is a science journalist and the author of the memoir See You in a Hundred Years (2007).

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