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Guest: Lonnie Johnson

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Listen Now

[The full audio and video for this program is available here.]  Change how electricity is generated, then stored, and you change the world. Scientist Lonnie Johnson’s three most recent inventions address all three domains. “You need a device for converting the energy from the sun. Then you also need the battery to store it. (And) if we can bring that new technology to fruition first, then we gain leadership and we're able to create and keep jobs here in the United States." Dr. Johnson has invented an engine that can generate electricity from any heat source -- and has no moving parts. In addition, his Excellatron company has working prototypes for two distinct battery technologies -- high temperature thin film and lithium air. “Lithium ion batteries are key for electric vehicles but they have limitations. That will be a real challenge for the auto industry. Whereas the industry is (now) struggling to get to a hundred miles on a single charge, our technology will allow you to go up to thousand miles on a single charge.” Lithium air batteries have been battery technology’s holy grail: longed for, but proclaimed impossible to build, economically or otherwise. “Up until we got involved, all of the prior researchers, including the individuals from the Army, had concluded that the challenge of making a lithium air battery recharge was not practical. We've addressed its rechargeability,” he says. “We have the record on rechargeability for lithium air batteries. We're over 100 cycles and, any day now, we're implementing some design features that I'm anticipating will take that even higher,” he says, standing in front of a bank of batteries which validate his claim. Why the fuss over lithium air versus lithium ion? “The lithium air battery is going to store ten times more energy than a lithium ion battery. So your cost per watt-hour of storage capability is an order of magnitude lower. That's the thing that makes it very exciting and worth undertaking.” Dr. Johnson’s engine potentially revolutionizes the entire concept. With no moving parts, it converts heat directly into electricity. “It would be applicable to any heat source -- solar energy, waste heat from industrial processes, geothermal heat -- wherever there is a heat source. It offers higher conversion efficiency than any other engine that has been built before...” Dr. Johnson says. He leaves it to observers to add, “...Ever.” Dr. Johnson and his colleagues focus on going beyond next generation technology, and fervently believe this is crucial the America’s future, including creating jobs at home. “It’s true that next generation technology will be manufactured world-wide. The best plan for United States is to go the next generation beyond. Establish leadership in the the intellectual property. This will allow us to maintain a foothold, and enable us to establish leadership worldwide while the other countries are starting to play catch-up to us for a change.”

Acknowledgments

There’s no overstating the importance of a handful of magazines with integrity and an ongoing hunger to share genuine news. Among them is The Atlantic magazine, where we first encountered Dr. Johnson and his work in “Shooting for the Sun” (October, 2010 issue). We’re indebted to The Atlantic -- along with The New Yorker which sets the standard, Mother Jones, and Harper’s -- for their continuing integrity and clarity, offering the world accessible yet meaty subjects we ignore at our peril. The unequivocal enthusiasm voiced in that article by Dr. Paul Werbos, a famous scientist in his own right, vaulted us from passing curiosity to active interest. It was a pleasure to welcome Dr. Werbos to our program in the mid-1990s, and now we thank him again in this new light. We enthusiastically thank Jim O. Llewellyn, Esq., our excellent lifelong friend, for connecting us with Dr. Johnson. Thanks, also to Dr. Thomas and Judge Brenda Cole for their willingness to assist. Mr. Tony Pace, COO of Excellatron Solid State, LLC, and Ms. Jocelyn Perryman, Executive Assistant there, were both exceptionally helpful. Dr. Johnson’s gracious welcome, keen sense of civil responsibility, tremendous ingenuity and charming spirit all enhance the technological wonders he has created over decades of uniting his wonderful gifts of imagination and technical savvy. And special thanks to a most unlikely funding source for this immensely serious work: Dr. Johnson’s quirky little invention, the “SuperSoaker”. Never underestimate the power of a good idea, however humble it may appear.

Related Links

The November, 2010 edition of The Atlantic published an excellent overview of Mr. Johnson's work and the challenges he is facing. That same month, Foreign Policypublished an extensive article putting the race for advanced battery technologies in a global context. (Mr. Johnson graciously forwarded the article to us after our initial visit to his labs.) Johnson Research and Development Co., Inc. is the base company for the other organizations targeting specific research areas. Excellatron focuses on advanced battery techologies. Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems includes the JTEC project. The JTEC site includes technical information about the operation of Johnson's heat engine. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese are actively pursuing advanced battery technologies, as this article illustrates. This is only a sample of the research and development projects in which other nations are engaged. Of course, Mr Johnson's work is one of many such undertakings in the U.S. Amory Lovins has been working on energy policy and technology for four decades. He is the chairman, chief scientist and a co-founder of Rocky Mountain Institute. Environmental educator and visionary David Orr presented, in rather stark terms, our alternatives for the future in Down to the Wire. Without the kinds of technological and attitudinal changes envisioned by Lonnie Johnson, our future looks rather bleak. And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.

This Program was recorded on Friday, February 11, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.

Tags: climate change electric cars energy independence energy transport Excellatron heat engine JTEC lithium air lithium ion Lonnie Johnson oil petroleum solar electric generator