Watch: Super Soaker inventor Lonnie Johnson looks to innovate the world of renewable energy

Forty years after the release of the groundbreaking and shelf-clearing Super Soaker, engineer Lonnie Johnson talks about pushing the boundaries of energy sourcing on "Faces of Change."

Many know Lonnie Johnson for his invention of the high-performance water gun toy known as the Super Soaker. But, not many know him for his contribution to the Galileo spacecraft as a jet propulsion designer. After striking gold, while testing an in-craft water pump system, the former NASA employee knew he had a gift that could change the world. Now, more than four decades later, Johnson has set his eyes on a much more worldly path, one that focuses on innovating the possibilities of storing solar and renewable energy into a much smaller and more reliable battery packet, one that would dethrone lithium-ion batteries as the world’s default.

The following is a transcript from “Faces of Change” by Pattrn.

Lonnie Johnson [00:00:03] This is a research lab. I’m an inventor. I have a company called Johnson Research & Development that I’ve set up as an incubator for advanced energy technology.

Johnson (video) [00:00:16] These are battery cyclers, those — everywhere you go, there’s a plug-in point. You connect the battery, you can charge and discharge, and it’s all computer controlled.”

Lonnie Johnson, who invented the enormously popular Super Soaker, is working on building a better battery system. (Photo: Pattrn)

Johnson [00:00:23] If we’re going to rely on renewable energy sources like the wind and the sun, you need to capture that energy when it’s available and store it. And so it was clear to me that batteries would be a very important component of that. My company is probably the only company in the world that has a really true solid-state battery that is scalable. The lithium ion is improved over the years, but we’re still about twice the energy of lithium ion. It’s been nearly over 20 years of work to get to this point.

The other technology is this new type of engine that I’ve invented. We call it the JTEC, the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter. The idea is to be able to produce electricity effectively in a renewable, sustainable way and then be able to store that electricity in the batteries. If we’re successful, we could have a huge, huge impact. So we don’t need to use fossil fuels anymore in the environment. The world could start to heal itself.

As a child, I’ve always been interested in how things work, always interested in creating and building and making things. And so I guess I’ve wanted to be an inventor or an engineer even before I knew it was called engineering or inventing.

The prototype that I had, had a Coke bottle on top and it was PVC pipe and all the parts were handmade.

Commercial Announcer [00:01:49] “The Super Soaker 50 from Laramie.”

Johnson [00:01:53] When I got the idea for the gun, I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena working on the Galileo spacecraft. I was trying to develop a heat pump that would be environmentally friendly, and while I was experimenting with that, I machined some nozzles and I had things hooked to the bathroom sink, and I shot this stream of water across the bathroom. I thought, “A high-performance water gun would be fun.” It went crazy.

And by 1992, ten years later, it was the number-one-selling toy in the world. Now that vision has come full circle. I am working on advanced energy technology. In terms of what I would like to be known for, someone who was given a gift and chose not to waste it and squander it and chose to apply, you know, in a useful way to get back and try to make the world a better place.

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