Being an aviation nut, one of my favorite air shows to attend is Sun-n-Fun in Lakeland, Florida. The show is held the 1st week in April and I got the chance to go once again this year, if only for a day. The major theme at Sun-n-Fun is experimental aircraft. I built my own airplane called a Pulsar XP from 1994-1996 and have a great time flying it.
Besides all the static displays and the aerobatics, there are lots of educational forums, as well as, 1000’s of new accessories and gadgets for pilots. I happened to run across a really cool product that I just had to have. It is called Mr. Funnel and it separates water and debris from gasoline. I had never heard of a funnel before that can separate water from gas. My plane runs on auto fuel, so I have several gas cans stacked in my airport hangar. Over time, water and debris can collect in the container, which can cause an engine to quit. Bad news if you’re in the air.
I have been using Mr.Funnel since April and it works great. One day I was thinking about how this funnel really works. What was the technology behind it? If it can separate water from gas can it separate water from other organic liquids?
Then I flashbacked to college when we had stills in our dorm rooms to make moonshine. Yes, you heard me right; I did go to Tennessee Tech University you know!
Normal grain alcohol is a maximum of 190 proof, which means 95% alcohol and 5% water. Being Chemical Engineers, we knew that the reason you can’t get 100% alcohol is because ethanol and water forms what’s called a “binary azeotrope” which simply means when you boil it, the vapor consists of both compounds, in this case a 95% Ethanol and 5% H2O.
We also knew from our studies that if you created a vacuum down to about 7 Torr (If I remember correctly), the azeotrope disappears and the vapor is 100% alcohol.
So naturally we were on a quest.
Every college kid needs 100% pure grain alcohol. Why settle for a measly 95%? So we developed a system where we connected hoses from our still to the bathroom plumbing, and proceeded to flush toilets, thus creating a vacuum on the still. Voila! 100% pure party juice. (Of course we verified the concentration with a model 4200 Hewlet Packard Gas Chromatographic)
Wow! What if we had a Mr. Funnel back then? Would it separate Ethanol from water and thus eliminate the need for vacuum hoses, a lookout post at each end of the dorm, and a squad of commode commandos?
My pure grain days are over now, but I had to find out. Seems the technology for Mr. Funnel is quite simple. It uses a vertical, instead of horizontal, stainless steel filter that basically separates any organic liquid that is lighter than water. The water sinks to the bottom and can’t get through the filter. It works for gasoline because it weighs less than water.
Guess what, so does alcohol! (Maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t have one, or we may never have graduated).
Then I thought why can’t this technology be used to separate water from organic liquids in a lot of other applications? There must be hundreds of industrial applications where this technology could be useful. You know all those tall towers you see at every chemical plant? Those towers are being used to separate various liquids, and they generally require enormous amounts of heat and energy to do so.
So I called Mr. Funnel. I asked them if they had brainstormed more ways to use this technology. “Um… What?” They hadn’t really thought about any uses beyond gasoline.
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”
Sir Isaac Newton, 1675
Newton admitted his accomplishments were largely based on taking existing ideas and slightly improving them. If someone of his stature wasn’t afraid to do it then why are we?
Look around you and pick a product you think is really cool. How else could that technology be applied? What else does the technology suggest? How could that technology be used in your business?
Worried about patents? Of course I am not suggesting you outright steal someone’s patent, but it may not apply if the technology is being used in a different way. Besides if you have a million dollar idea, the patent owner will likely work with you.
To come up with great ideas you don’t necessarily have to start from scratch. Take an existing idea and make it better. Take a great technology and apply it in a way no one else has.