August's spark of genius article
Fueling the Inventive Spirit
When you were growing up, did you ever try taking apart a family appliance only to fail at reassembling it? For most kids, when Mom and Dad see the toaster splayed out across the kitchen floor, that's usually the end of their mechanical aspirations. And then there is Dr. Lonnie Johnson, who as a child graduated from appliances to making rocket fuel. One time, a batch caught on fire. In the kitchen. In one of his mother's saucepans. After the flames and black smoke cleared, he found that a couple of the kitchen chairs had holes where the flaming liquid had splattered and burned like napalm. But rather than stifling his curiosity, Lonnie's parents handed him a hot plate and told him he needed to cook his rocket fuel outside.
When Inventors Eye asked Lonnie what got him interested in the way things worked, he said his dad would let him watch over his shoulder as he tinkered. "My father was not educated, but he was able to repair most things around the house, and that taught me some valuable skills," Lonnie related. Receiving these valuable skills and encouragement from his parents lead him on the path to advanced degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering from Tuskegee University and a successful career working on Space Shuttle Atlantis, the B-2 Stealth Bomber, and NASA's Galileo and Cassini missions, until he got the urge to become a full-time independent inventor. Johnson now has over 100 patents or pending patents.
Many people may recognize Lonnie as the inventor of the Super Soaker (patent number 5,074,437), but he is much more than just squirt guns. The good doctor is currently figuring out ways to reduce humanity's dependence on fossil fuels and particularly the United States' reliance on foreign oil. He is working on what he calls the "next generation" battery and the "next next generation" battery. The next generation battery uses a solid-state configuration and will replace the current batteries in hybrid and electric vehicles. The next next generation battery relies on sophisticated lithium glass to produce power. Lonnie said that this advanced battery is about one-and-a-half to two years away from commercial production. Both of these technologies do not involve fluids in the production and storage of electric power-a true innovation over today's batteries.
Another promising project is the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Conversion System or JTEC (pronounced "JAY-tek"). This solid-state heat engine converts heat energy into electrical energy by using pressure to force hydrogen atoms through a membrane-electrode assembly, stripping the electrons from the atoms and moving them through an external circuit. The JTEC is estimated to be about twice as efficient as today's solar Stirling engines, which use moving parts to generate mechanical energy.
Lonnie used much of the proceeds from the Super Soaker to fund the JTEC and now relies on funding from grants and other resources. Despite the JTEC's promise, Lonnie said the project has taught him that "you may not want to invest all your funds in research." If he had to do it all over again, he said he would probably have worked on the heat engine first and then the batteries-not the other way around.
Lonnie wrote his first patent application for a digital distance measuring device and received patent number 4,143,267 in 1979. The invention, as stated in the patent, "uses a mechanical analog-to-digital converter to measure distance. The distance measured is supplied in binary encoded decimal to an electronic decoder for decoding and subsequent decimal display." Lonnie explained that this device preceded the use of digital optical readers in applications such as CDs and DVDs. "I was having so much fun working on advanced space systems that I didn't take time to focus on it," he said. By the time he realized he wanted to be an independent inventor, it was too late. The measuring device was "the big fish that got away," he quipped.
At first, Lonnie had also tried to write the patent for the Super Soaker himself, but after getting an initial rejection letter from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, he contacted a patent attorney. Children all over the world should rejoice at this wise decision, as he went on to receive the patent for the now famous and immensely profitable squirt gun.
Lonnie has some advice for inventors. "Know that no one has a lock on any technology," he said. "Those who have skill in the art can understand it and make it better. When talking with investors or people that could possibly buy or license your technology, make sure that you demonstrate how the invention works and why it will make money. You can't make money without getting people interested in the invention."