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"The Invention of Air"

"The Invention of Air"

| On 24, Jun 2010

Jack HippleLast month we discussed resource utilization levels in food production and made some observations regarding inevitable trends. In that case we were talking about obvious resources. What about unobvious ones? We often say in our workshops that some of the most clever TRIZ problem solving we see is the identification and use of a resource that was already there, but no one noticed either its presence or its utility. A recent book, “The Invention of Air” (Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books/Penguin Press, 2008) provides a fascinating account of the work of Joseph Priestley and his discovery of oxygen. BTW, he also invented what we now call “soda water”. I highly recommend this book to you.

How can you invent something that’s already there? Well, if you don’t understand that air is not “air” but is really made up of numerous components (those of you who have attended our workshops know this exercise), you see it as one thing and not many things. There is no such thing as “air”. There is oxygen, nitrogen, argon, water vapor to varying degrees, and other trace gases. It has a pressure, degree of ionization, temperature, etc. Once you understand this, then “air” is something quite different and each of its components can be evaluated and used separately based on its unique properties. Oxygen for enriched breathing air, nitrogen for purging or padding, argon for super-insulating windows.

Some learnings from this book:

1. Improvements in measurement accuracy (also on the TRIZ resource checklist) frequently allow us to see resources not previously evident (the gulf stream is an example of this)

2. Many fundamental laws of physics follow the same general form (Newton’s Law, Coulomb’s Law: gravitational field/electrical field). Too often we fail to see these overlapping relationships in problem solving and reinvent wheels.

3. The first observation regarding this subject was made when Priestley, as a child, would trap spiders in a jar, seal the lid, and see how long it took the spiders to die. But what was the mechanism, he asked himself? There was still “stuff” in the jar! Were they being poisoned by something released? Something else?

4. A parallel observation was made and that was that a lit candle would invariably flicker and die in the same atmosphere remaining after the death of the spiders. But unlike most of us, he pursued this strange behavior a bit further.

5. A spring of mint, place under the same condition, lived all summer long? Why?

6. A mouse placed in the same jar as the spider also died. A mouse placed in the sealed jar with the plant lived. Why? He also ran some flame tests showing that a flame would burn brighter when placed in the plant jar than without it.

Ultimately, Priestly was able to identify oxygen as a separate component of air and this of course, explained all the above phenomena that we all take for granted and understand. But now the TRIZ questions:

1. Do you really analyze everything in your system for its sub-parts? What might they be individually useful for? Do you treat people as some kind of monolith or as individuals with unique skills, interests, and capabilities?

2. How do the resources you have change with condition? There is NO system in the world whose resources and components are constant over some length of time. Semi-conductors rely on the simple principle of oscillation of charge millions of times per second.

3. Have you looked at your system and forced yourself to make use of resources that are currently unused or thrown away (costing money?)?

4. Oxygen was not recognized as a separate resources until it was identified. What process do you use to identify the people resources in your group? Are they hidden under the blanket like oxygen was covered by air?

5. Don’t do this exercise once. Redo it often. No one thought about purified oxygen and nitrogen as separate usable materials until two major inventions were made. First, high efficiency insulation allowing cryogenic distillations and then economical production of polymer membranes allowing high pressure separation of air to provide high purity nitrogen.

Don’t ever stop thinking about resources. They are all around you and many of them are free.