Thoughts on the Innovation Process
While living in Bopal, a suburb of Ahmedabad, I had to take a long journey, almost an hour, from my home to Gandhinagar, where I had set up the Facilitation Centre for Industrial Plasma Technologies. The routine was that I would spend time until lunch here before going to the main campus of the Institute for Plasma Research at Bhat. The office provided a car so that I could relax on the back seat; in “solitary splendour”, as a friend remarked. The highway is part of the Ring Road which goes around the city. There are no traffic snarls and crowds of bustling vendors. The drive would be utterly boring if it were not for the passing vehicles and my stream of thought.
The highway vehicles, in their variety, reflect the diversity of India. There are shining new ones and rickety old ones kept together by hammer and nails and the drivers will. Fast cars flash by while senile oldies chug along slower than a tractor. Motor cycles with the roar of a wide-open throttle, and the thrumpy exhaust notes contributes to the highway music. Camel carts piled high with household goods of a family moving house lumber along, with the camel with its head held high with disdain at all the surrounding fuss.
Most trucks want to communicate something to the world. ‘Horn OK please’ is a common refrain. There are many suggestions about what to do with the dipper. “Use dipper at Nite” was very suggestive. If one did not what a dipper was, it might sound plain naughty. There are stern warnings to keep your place; ‘apne aukat mat bhoolo’ (don’t forget your circumstance) . “Buri nazarwale, thera mooh kala! ( A curse on all evil eyes)” was a warning to all those who looked at the truck with bad intentions.
Truck drivers are enthusiastic versifiers. I saw this delightful couplet on the back of a truck: “Yeh neem ke ped Chandan se kam nahin, Hamari Ludhiana London se kam nahin (This Neem plant is not inferior to Sandalwood, Our Ludhiana is not inferior to London.)”. It made me think of the burly sardarji driving the truck, scratching his head thinking up the rhyme.
The long ride gives me time to put on my thinking cap. I have spent a good part of my professional life searching for how we can find commercially and industrially useful applications derived from Plasma Physics. Through these efforts, the Facilitation Centre for Industrial Plasma Technologies” came up in Gandhinagar and numerous technologies have been developed and spun off. One of these ideas was to do with the Plasma Torch used in the plasma pyrolysis process we were working on. The idea of using the gas generated during pyrolysis to be sent back through the plasma torch to replace external Nitrogen gas source was germinated during my morning trip. We got a patent for this invention because it enhanced the efficiency of the pyrolysis process and dispensed with the expensive Nitrogen cylinder for the operation of the torch. The patent was for “Plasma Torch with an Endogenous Gas Source”.
Another idea was inspired when I learned about a NASA invention of producing atomic Oxygen in a high voltage streamer discharge. I thought that we could use it to clean up the soot in temples caused by oil lamps. The atomic Oxygen would react with Carbon in the soot and convert it into Carbon Dioxide. We even packaged the Atomic Oxygen generator inside a hairdryer, to demonstrate the ease of using it to the officials of the Department of Science and Technology, who had originally posed the problem of the soot to me.
A truly innovative idea came up when we were planning to develop superhydrophobic surfaces where water does not stick. Nanostructured Teflon like coating on metal surfaces have this property. The precursor for the plasma polymerization process to create nanostructured Teflon was Carbon Tetrafluoride gas, which was expensive and difficult to procure in small quantities. We hit upon the idea of pyrolyzing waste Teflon to generate the gas, with which we could synthesize the Teflon coating.
The seed of an idea which was born while discussing with my friend Abhijit Sen on scaring away pigeons which used to foul the terrace of his palatial home got muscles and body during the reflective meanderings during the morning trip. Spark gaps and capacitors gave a loud bang, enough to scare away the pigeons, but were considered dangerous. A potentially successful idea was a dispenser which would drop clumps of quicklime or Calcium Oxide into water with random periodicity. The resulting slaking reactions would cause explosions which we thought would scare the pigeons away. We never built this.
In our experiments with electron plasmas, I invented a method of forming a cloud of electrons in a torus — a tube bent into a circle- by speculating on what would happen to a stream of electrons injected at the bottom of the torus. In a toroidal magnetic field, there is a gradient of the magnetic field along the major radius. The electrons drift up or down depending on the direction of the magnetic field, In my visualisation of the process, I could see the electron flow from the filament at the bottom, flowing past the inner wall and interacting with it through the electric fields, slowing down, increasing in density because of the slow down, enhancing the electric field further, which causes further slowing down and ultimately getting trapped near the inner wall. I saw this as a form of instability, self trapping the electrons. Numerical simulation of the process also appeared to predict self trapping. Experiments confirmed this idea.
Steve Jobs believed that: “Creativity is just connecting things. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” Mathematician Henri Poincaré described the creative process as a collision of ideas rising into consciousness in crowds (1). Fluid environments where ideas bubble up rather than are cloistered are where they flourish. However, getting away from crowds and finding quiet places for contemplation is equally important for ideas to flourish. Tarun Gulati, Organizational Trainer, writes (2) “It is this mental, and most importantly, the physical act of Contemplation — stopping to do what you were doing, sitting on a chair or going for a walk, and only thinking and doing nothing else — that makes innovation possible. Contemplation is an innovation incubator.” My morning car rides have been ideal for contemplation and perhaps, modest achievements in innovation.
1. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mind-reviews-the-origin-of-ideas/ 2. https://tarun-c-gulati.medium.com/contemplation-is-the-crux-of-innovation-6223dc6131d0