INNOVATE, Part IThe West is the new frontier, for ideas
The curved 10-foot mirror focuses sunlight onto a steel plate about five feet away, and the steel glows bright and white -- shedding sparks as if targeted by a cutting torch.
Within seconds, the amplified sunlight burns a hole clean through the quarter-inch steel, near the engraved name of the Arizona Democratic Congresswoman whose million-dollar earmark helped make this demonstration possible.
University of Arizona astronomer Roger Angel is relieved, but not surprised; he'd already tested his solar-mirror gun several times. He spent the hour before Rep. Gabrielle Giffords arrived Feb. 18 making sure that the mirror -- its legs braced in an emptied swimming pool on the Tucson campus -- was properly aligned to capture the sunlight.
Angel, dressed in baggy faded jeans, a plaid shirt and a well-worn hat, admits that the demonstration was something of a trick. His research is aimed at focusing light, not heat. What he has proven, he says, is that a mirror with a very precise focus can be made from cheap material.
To make this one, Angel and other astronomers, optical scientists and engineers associated with the university's Steward Observatory Mirror Lab took some "cheap window glass," heated it, shaped it, coated it and attached it to a salvaged communications dish.
This is not the first time Angel has done something revolutionary. In the mid-1980s, he developed a process for making the telescope mirrors that are used in observatory domes across the globe. (A single telescope mirror costs upwards of $10 million.)
Angel turned his attention to the climate change crisis -- and its link to fossil-fuel emissions -- about four years ago, when his wife told him: "You should do something about it." He hopes to make solar energy competitive with fossil fuels by perfecting mirrors that can focus the equivalent of 1,000 suns onto a specialized photovoltaic device, which other solar experts are currently developing. The result would be "a solar engine," he says. "The price has to be 10,000 times less than the telescope mirrors."
The parabolic concentration of sunlight is not a new concept: Archimedes supposedly used it to create a "death ray" that set fire to Roman ships in 212 B.C. These days, it's used for various purposes, such as heating liquid to convey heat in industrial-scale generating stations. But if Angel and the others succeed in their plans, they will create a major breakthrough of the sort found in science fiction stories.
If all else fails, Angel has a last-ditch plan to ward off climate change. Using NASA funding, he would create a 600,000-mile-long permanent cloud, consisting of trillions of one-meter-diameter plastic spacecraft. These could deflect 1.8 percent of the total light the sun casts on the Earth's surface -- enough to get global temperatures down to glacier-saving levels.
But Angel is hoping it doesn't come to that.
A new method for brainstorming
Nathan Myhrvold calls it an "invention session." Roughly twice a month, he pays experts in a variety of fields to meet for several days at the headquarters of Intellectual Ventures, his $5 billion company in Bellevue, Wash. He seeks unusual people from around the world -- bioengineers, nanotechnologists, chemists, software developers, surgeons, even a few artists. Some are regulars, such as the atmospheric scientist who's also a published poet; others have only been invited once or twice.
Myhrvold, who has a Princeton Ph.D. in physics and studied cosmology under Cambridge's Stephen Hawking, wants people "who have really deep knowledge and an open mind." An average session features five to 10 people in a big conference room furnished with a massive secondhand table and comfortable purple and green chairs. The small group size and informal atmosphere encourage friendly interaction.
Participants freewheel, talking about difficult problems and trying to find new perspectives. "There are a lot of problems that haven't been solved because the right kinds of knowledge were not brought together," says Myhrvold. "If you can get a critical mass (of motivated experts) together with the right spirit, it's fun and you can create something pretty amazing, often in ways that the people involved don't anticipate. We've found it to be an incredibly productive way to generate solutions."
Newsweek described Myhrvold's invention sessions as a "factory of the future" and Washington CEO magazine said he's "an overgrown leprechaun ... mischievous, with a crock of gold." Since he began the sessions in 2003, they've led to hundreds of inventions -- including advancements in surgical equipment, computers, optics and robotics -- that have earned his company about $80 million. He has staffers working on developing more ideas, including a 60-person team taking "a radical new approach" to nuclear power.
Not all the press coverage is positive, though. Because Intellectual Ventures earns most of its revenue by buying patents held by inventors outside the company and licensing them to other companies, it's often denounced as a "patent troll" that jacks up the costs of innovations.
There's no doubt that Myhrvold has the personality to jumpstart innovations. Myrhrvold, 49, became wealthy during the 1990s leading Microsoft's research efforts. He's a high-energy, widely roaming eccentric whose interests include French cooking and dinosaurs. (He funds dinosaur digs and has a full-size Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in his living room.) He says the West has the best habitat for innovators: "You need ... some societal support for doing crazy new things. And historically the Western U.S. has supported that, much more than (other regions characterized by) stodgy careerism. We're trying to explore the intellectual frontiers."