Sunday, November 07, 2010

shooting for the sun

The Atlantic | In March 2003, the independent inventor Lonnie Johnson faced a roomful of high-level military scientists at the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia. Johnson had traveled there from his home in Atlanta, seeking research funding for an advanced heat engine he calls the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter, or JTEC (pronounced “jay-tek”). At the time, the JTEC was only a set of mathematical equations and the beginnings of a prototype, but Johnson had made the tantalizing claim that his device would be able to turn solar heat into electricity with twice the efficiency of a photovoltaic cell, and the Office of Naval Research wanted to hear more.

Projected onto the wall was a PowerPoint collage summing up some highlights of Johnson’s career: risk assessment he’d done for the space shuttle Atlantis; work on the nuclear power source for NASA’s Galileo spacecraft; engineering help on the tests that led to the first flight of the B-2 stealth bomber; the development of an energy-dense ceramic battery; and the invention of a remarkable, game-changing weapon that had made him millions of dollars—a weapon that at least one of the men in the room, the father of two small children, recognized immediately as the Super Soaker squirt gun.

Mild-mannered and bespectacled, Johnson opened his presentation by describing the idea behind the JTEC. The device, he explained, would split hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons, and in so doing would convert heat into electricity. Most radically, it would do so without the help of any moving parts. Johnson planned to tell his audience that the JTEC could produce electricity so efficiently that it might make solar power competitive with coal, and perhaps at last fulfill the promise of renewable solar energy. But before he reached that part of his presentation, Richard Carlin, then the head of the Office of Naval Research’s mechanics and energy conversion division, rose from his chair and dismissed Johnson’s brainchild outright. The whole premise for the device relied on a concept that had proven impractical, Carlin claimed, citing a 1981 report co-written by his mentor, the highly regarded electrochemist Robert Osteryoung. Go read the Osteryoung report, Carlin said, and you will see.

End of meeting.

Concerned about what he might have missed in the literature, Johnson returned home and read the inch-thick report, concluding that it addressed an approach quite different from his own. Carlin, it seems, had rejected the concept before fully comprehending it. (When I reached Carlin by phone recently, he said he did not remember the meeting, but he is familiar with the JTEC concept and now thinks that the “principles are fine.”) Nor was Carlin alone at the time. Wherever Johnson pitched the JTEC, the reaction seemed to be the same: no engine could convert heat to electricity at such high efficiency rates without the use of moving parts.

Johnson believed otherwise. He felt that what had doomed his presentation to the Office of Naval Research—and others as well—was a collective failure of imagination. It didn’t help that he was best known as a toy inventor, nor that he was working outside the usual channels of the scientific establishment. Johnson was stuck in a Catch-22: to prove his idea would work, he needed a more robust prototype, one able to withstand the extreme heat of concentrated sunlight. But he couldn’t build such a prototype without research funding. What he needed was a new pitch. Instead of presenting the JTEC as an engine, he would frame it as a high-temperature hydrogen fuel cell, a device that produces electricity chemically rather than mechanically, by stripping hydrogen atoms of their electrons. The description was only partially apt: though both devices use similar components, fuel cells require a constant supply of hydrogen; the JTEC, by contrast, contains a fixed amount of hydrogen sealed in a chamber, and needs only heat to operate. Still, in the fuel-cell context, the device’s lack of moving parts would no longer be a conceptual stumbling block.

Indeed, Johnson had begun trying out this new pitch two months before his naval presentation, in a written proposal he submitted to the Air Force Research Laboratory’s peer-review panel. The reaction, when it came that May, couldn’t have been more different. “Funded just like that,” he told me, snapping his fingers, “because they understood fuel cells—the technology, the references, the literature. The others couldn’t get past this new engine concept.” The Air Force gave Johnson $100,000 for membrane research, and in August 2003 sent a program manager to Johnson’s Atlanta laboratory. “We make a presentation about the JTEC, and he says”—here Johnson, who is black, puts on a Bill-Cosby-doing-a-white-guy voice—“‘Wow, this is exciting!’” A year later, after Johnson had proved he could make a ceramic membrane capable of withstanding temperatures above 400 degrees Celsius, the Air Force gave him an additional $750,000 in funding. Fist tap Dale.