The Innovation Blog

When cars poop #2 -- Innovation skills

Posted by David Culton on Sep 20, 2010 11:13:00 PM

Continuing the conversation about “When Cars Poop” which I introduced in my blog on (8/30), my goal is to help people think differently, more innovatively, and to have some fun.  Along the way, we’ll introduce some innovation tools and skills.


The Challenge:

Today’s internal combustion engine is a pretty simple device.  Basically, a small electrical system creates a spark in a chamber where gasoline and air have been compressed and vaporized, igniting the mixture, creating an explosion.  The force of the explosion pushes a piston creating linear force, which then pushes a connecting rod that is attached to a camshaft which, as it turns converts linear motion to rotational motion and torque.  The camshaft distributes this rotational force to the wheels through the drivetrain, making the car move.  Great.  So the question is, how to turn wheels using a different system?


Today, with the advent of electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles, the systems are becoming more complex, adding significantly more powerful batteries, more sophisticated generators and electric motors to the mix.  Especially interesting are the multiple ways energy may be harvested and put to use in these new propulsion systems.  So as the car moves, it can also spin generators to supplement electrical power or recharge batteries.


Innovation as a skill.

We are often asked if creativity, and by extension, innovation, is a talent or a skill.  The implication being that if it is a talent, it is a natural competency and if it is a skill it is something that can be trained/learned.  The answer is that it is both.  There is no question that some people are inherently more naturally creative thinkers than others.  But that doesn’t mean that a) they are as good as they can be, or b) that others can’t learn how to significantly improve their abilities.


Language as a stimulator of creative thinking (skill):

Language can be one of the most important tools for innovation because it has the power to stimulate us to do things or think things differently from the very beginning.


In our business we there are several key phrases that we know have the power to open minds to think in new ways.  Basically, they are “permission-givers.”  The words direct us and give us permission to think more openly. 


“I wish…”  The power of wishing.  If you are seeking a new solution, new idea, etc., don’t start off right away thinking you have to have the idea.  If you do, it will never make it out of your head.  Because looking for an idea forces you to have a good or at least reasonable one right away… and most of us are too self-censoring for that.  Creative minds allow themselves to explore a range of possibilities rather than narrowing down to the good ones right away.  So try just wishing for a while.  Then look at your wishes, and play with the ones you like best, turning them into ideas.  Simply ignore the rest for now.


When you say or think “I wish…” you are acknowledging that you don’t know if it is possible right now, and in the beginning, you don’t really care – it’s just a wish!  So be wishful, and let your wishes build upon each other or those from others. 


“How to…” Two powerful words for innovators.  There are always problems along the road to innovation.  Problems or challenges with the basic idea, or with implementation, etc.  If you allow yourself or others to say: “That won’t work because it’s too expensive.” Or “We don’t have enough people to do that,” etc., you are doomed.  Evaluative statements of “fact” may be correct given a particular viewpoint or aspect of an idea.  And if nothing changes, we might have a genuine problem.  But if we accept the definitive statement, we immediately cut off any chance for idea to become a success.  Rather than make evaluative declaratives, change your language to “How to… make it less expensive; do it with fewer people” etc. 


See how the power of language changes the outcome?  Instead of either immediately accepting the declarative problem as an idea killer, or of debating the relative merits of the declaration with the person who offered it, “How to…” acknowledges a hurdle and invites everyone, including you to think about ways the problem can be overcome!  And 9 times out of 10, a solution will emerge.  It may change the idea a bit, but that’s okay.


Let’s try it:


“I wish for a car with no internal combustion mechanism – one that needs no gasoline for fuel.”  Okay, first thing that comes to mind is an electric car.  So let’s expand the wish:  “I wish for cars that have no dependence on burning fossil fuels.”  Right now, most of our electric power comes from utilities that burn coal to create electricity.  So if this wish is to come true, it’s no fair plugging your car into the grid to recharge! 


Here’s my beginning thought:  Create a steam engine that used a bioreactor to create the heat that made the steam. 


I’m thinking a combination of a bioreactor to create heat, with steam as a significant propulsion aspect, supplemented by electricity much the same as in current hybrid technology.  It's basically, a hybrid without gasoline, eliminating the need for internal combustion of fossil fuels – using oil for lubricants only.


What do you think?  How would you make this happen?  What new technologies might enable this?


Here are a few thought starters.  I happen to be helping my mother-in-law replace her 60+ year-old steam heating system.  We have also recently worked with a major national manufacturer of water heaters.  In doing so, I’ve learned a bit about advances in steam heat, heat exchangers, nano-materials, insulating materials, etc. 


Steam boilers for home heating systems have become much smaller and much more efficient than they were 60-80 years ago.  Better heat exchangers, better combustion systems, better insulation, all contribute to smaller, more efficient steam boilers.  Imagine where we would be if Stanley (and his Steamer) had won out over Ford (with his gasoline engines!).  It’s not a perfect idea, but it will be fun to play with until one of you offers a better idea.  Here’s some of the “problems” we will need to solve:


1)    Problem:  That won’t work because everyone knows that steam engines burn fossil fuels to generate steam.  CHANGE THAT: 

  1. How to make steam without creating the heat from burning fossil fuels?

2)    Steam takes too long to build up energy.  You’ll be sitting in your car for a long time waiting for the steam to be ready to drive the wheels!  CHANGE THAT:

  1. How to generate steam instantaneously?
  2. How to propel the car while waiting for the steam to build up?


Here are some cool new technologies that might help us find some of the solutions


  • Ultra capacitors as an energy supplement – store electricity very efficiently and release it powerfully.
  • Neurojets for safe combustion with high performance
  • Heat exchangers made of non-conventional materials that handle much hotter fluids
  • Micro-channel heat exchangers for less weight, smaller size, more efficiency
  • Nano-fluids to enhance heat transfer and nano particles to neutralize water contaminants.
  • Aerogels to reduce size and weight while retaining insulation capability


That’s it for today.  Love to hear your comments, suggestions, and offers on where to go from here.

Topics: critical ideation skills, creative thinking, Innovation, strategic innovation, creative problem solving skills, brainstorming, creative thinking skills, approximate thinking, sustainability, technical innovation