The Super Soaker's Unlikely Role in the Green Energy Revolution

Lonnie Johnson wants to make your batteries more efficient and your solar power more powerful.

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Jan 13 2016, 5:25pm

Image via Flickr user Graham Dean

Last November, the Super Soaker was named to the National Toy Hall of Fame, along with Twister and the puppet, and with good reason: Like Kleenex and Walkman, the Super Soaker has become so ubiquitous that it's now synonymous with pretty much any water gun. But it's possible that the Super Soaker served merely as a means to an end that would allow its creator the freedom to focus on developing the future of sustainable energy.

If you don't remember the basic vibe of the Super Soaker, it was essentially an assault rifle in water gun form. Here are two 30-second TV ads from the '90s which illustrate this in very explicit detail. One, from 1993, turns two meek kids into avenging angels of watery doom. The second, perhaps more alarming ad, features a Major Payne-esque drill sergeant screaming "wetter is better" in the face of a group of children, who then shoot him with the technical-sounding Super Soaker XP-105.

With that kind of marketing, it's not difficult to see why parents would find the guns so controversial, nor should it be surprising that at least eight teens used the water guns in a "Columbine-like prank" in 2006, pounding through their school cafeteria clad in all-black, shooting their classmates with the high-powered water rifles while the room reacted in terrified chaos. One mother, after her nine year-old daughter was hit in the eye with by a Super Soaker, was quoted as saying, "I don't know who came out with these things, but they used very poor judgment."

Well, the man who came up with the Super Soaker is named Lonnie Johnson, and he never intended to temporarily blind any children. In 1982, Johnson was a rocket scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, attempting to create a cooling system that used water instead of Freon, a substance which is both toxic if inhaled, and, by then, was under suspicion of tearing a hole in the ozone layer.

Johnson told NPR that he realized his heat pump might have other uses while testing it at home, in his bathroom. "I turned around and I was shooting this thing across the bathroom into the tub and the stream of water was so powerful that the curtains were swirling in the breeze it sent out," he said on Weekend Edition. "I thought, 'This would make a great water gun.'"

That already sounds like a recipe for disaster, but as we all know, if something sounds like it's too dangerous for children—moon shoes and the ever-terrifying Skip-It come to mind—we should immediately put it on the market for children to use.

In 1989, the Super Soaker came out as the "Power Drencher." It became the Super Soaker in 1991. It quickly became incredibly popular, to the point that Michael Jackson once mandated that anyone who visited his Neverland estate would be subject to either a water balloon or super soaker attack (check out a video of Jackson talking about how much he loves Super Soakers here; his words are prefaced by a video of him unwrapping them at Christmas with Elizabeth Taylor.)

Still, Johnson (who declined to be interviewed for this article) shouldn't be remembered for the Super Soaker as much as he should be remembered as the guy who possibly fucked up the curtains in his bathroom because he made a weird water pump. After the success of the Super Soaker, he went on to patent more and more inventions and now holds more than 100 patents. Through his company, Johnson Research and Development, he's been working on a pair of projects that are particularly noteworthy.

First, there's Excellelatron, a thin film battery that lasts longer than most rechargeable batteries and can work in a variety of different environments. Because the thin film batteries are made up of solid state materials, Johnson's site boasts that they're much safer. They won't boil, they won't spill acid all over everything, and they won't gas you, either. All things that the batteries you may have purchased from the corner store to power your alarm clock might do.

Unlike traditional batteries, Johnson's Excellatrons can apparently work even in very low and very high temperatures, something that Johnson's site points out will make them useful in both drilling as well as the exploration of space.

But, as Billy Mays would say, there's more: While the Excellatron is both impressive and fun to say, Johnson's other project, the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter System or JTEC, aims to be the future of clean energy production. Described by its official site as a device that "converts heat directly into electricity in a single step," the JTEC was named one of Popular Mechanics' "World-Changing Innovations of the Year" in 2008.

The JTEC remains something of a long shot at this point—Johnson's profile on the inventor support site Solve for X notes that as of now, the converter "remains only a prototype"—as is the Excellatron. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution video profile, though proceeds from the Super Soaker made Johnson independently wealthy (in 2013, he was awarded nearly $73 million in Super Soaker profits) still hoping to acquire the necessary funding to take the project to scale.

If there's one uniting theme to Johnson's work, it's trying to forge a more responsible, efficient way of living—he struck (coincidental) gold through trying to replace Freon as a coolant, and now he wants to take the acid out of our batteries and bring solar energy up to part with the competition. "I have these ideas," he once told the New York Times, "and they keep on coming."

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