The Spirit of Innovation

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Lonnie Johnson was inspired to innovate at an early age. As a boy, he disassembled things—such as the blinking eyes of his sister’s dolls—in order to understand how they worked. In high school, he constructed a prize-winning robot with pneumatic cylinder-powered hands.

As an inventive adult, he worked by day as a design engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he helped develop nuclear power systems for spacecraft and collaborated on the Stealth Bomber’s design. After work, however, he developed his own technology projects.

One day while working on pump designs for an experimental Freon-free refrigeration unit, he tested one of the valves in the bathroom sink. Water entered the valve and squirted out under tremendous pressure, hitting a wall across the room. Johnson realized that the mechanism would make a perfect super-powered water toy since a child’s light touch could propel fluid so far. When the Super Soaker hit shelves in 1991, it was an instant success, becoming the top-selling toy in the world.

Today, Johnson continues to design and experiment. But rather than developing playthings, his focus is on energy technologies. Johnson Research and Development, a company funded by his Super Soaker success, is dedicated to innovating for global good. Two designs in particular—an engine that converts heat to energy with no moving parts and a ceramic battery that uses glass as an electrolyte—are poised to have a profound worldwide impact.

It’s inspiring to me that a super-powered water pistol may have a hand in helping develop better energy systems. In this issue of Distributed Energy magazine, we honor a similar spirit of innovation by highlighting ways in which out-of-the-box thinking can lead to technological advancements that translate into greater efficiencies. We share examples of many of the unconventional energy solutions and creative configurations that are proving most effective in the field and are catalyzing market growth.

In “Cogeneration Brings the Heat,” we look at the enhanced efficiency offered by capturing waste heat to spin turbines, heat buildings, and support industrial processes. This tried and true technology is today being utilized to produce efficiencies synergistically in creative configurations and is becoming increasingly popular as part of renewable integration configurations.

A switchgear is a system of switches, circuit breakers, and fuses that protects equipment by interrupting fault currents without disturbing circuits that aren’t affected. They can also incorporate diverse power sources to feed a load. In “Switching Gears,” we look at ways in which advancements in digital switchgear technologies such as current sensors and magnetic actuation have made equipment increasingly effective and more reliable.

In “Campus-Wide Power Control,” we explore a power control system designed for a Connecticut college campus. The complex energy system incorporates high-efficiency boilers and chillers, waste heat recovery, microturbine trigeneration, solar, and wind power—all tied together by an innovative control system.

Each of the advances highlighted in this issue has, in its own way, contributed to great enhancements in energy efficiency. It seems that oftentimes, unconventional thinking can inspire technological developments that benefit humanity in unexpected ways. Here’s hoping that the same creativity and spirit of innovation that produced the Super Soaker can help create a more resilient energy future.

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