By Jim Bruckbauer

The Super Soaker came to fame in the 1990s as a very powerful water gun–it held a water tank and used air pressure to shoot water long distances.  This was a really big deal if you were a kid (or parent) in the early 90s and beyond.  The toys are tremendously popular–over a billion dollars have been made from these plastic works of art. The device also gave its inventor the financial freedom to potentially change the world.

Lonnie Johnson invented the Super Soaker in the late 80s as a way to keep kids cool in the hot sun.  These days, the former Air Force and NASA Jet Propulsion Lab engineer is taking the heat from that same sun and turning it into electrical energy.

It’s called the Thermo-electromechanical Energy Conversion System, or JTEC.  Johnson will tell you that his method for converting solar energy into a form we can use is better than existing ways to generate electricity, and rightly so.  He hopes to produce a commercial heat engine that will convert heat to electricity at 85 percent of the maximum efficiency available.  To give some perspective, most solar/electricity devices are photovoltaic and have a conversion efficiency in the teens.  This essentially means that Johnson has invented a way to generate electricity that is 50% more efficient than solar panels.  Explaining how this is done is out of the range of my physics expertise, but I know it involves a hydrogen atom breaking an electron into two protons.

This development opens up a new pathway to generate electricity from heat. The sun is going to be one of our main sources for generating electricity in the future.  Other sources of heat can also generate this power.  Among other applications include taking heat from a hybrid vehicle’s internal combustion engine to help power the car’s electric motor.  Our everyday electrical devices like our laptops could be recharged using their own waste heat, or your cell phone could be charged by your own body heat.

I share this technology clip with you not so much as an industry study, but as a way to let you know that technology is rapidly evolving.  As economic developers, we need to be aware of how environmental change feeds industry change.  The closer you can be to the forefront of some of these emerging trends, the better you can position your community.