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Super-Soaker inventor may have solar-powered fuel cell breakthrough (theatlantic.com)
223 points by dctoedt on Oct 12, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 100 comments

This is like the ultime HN article.

* Born hacker

* Issues of race and oppression

* Entreprenuer spirit

* Issues with patents

* Big companies stifling innovation

Someone should write "Inventors at Work".

Not only that, but he's a huge supporter of science education for kids. He is a judge at the local Atlanta FIRST Robotics regional.

That is really cool. I guess I met him then. FIRST is an amazing thing, it got me started with Computer Science.

* Experts tell him it won't work and point out the PhD thesis (or equivalent) that "proves" it... however, he is attacking the problem in a different way that the expert did not expect.

Proof that sometimes an outsiders perspective can come at a problem in a novel and seemingly successful way.

I don't get it. Why isn't Google investing in this along with robot self-driving cars? Why isn't Khosla investing in this? Or is this the article that gets them interested?

I don't pretend to have the engineering knowledge to know whether this will work or not, whether it's snake oil or not, but surely, if an electric sports car for the rich can get funded, so can this guy. I'm assuming the guy isn't peddling snake-oil, the circumstances certainly seem to indicate that he's sincere.

Is it that he needs a super-salesman to the money? Godin, Kawasaki, surely one of them would step up for the potential for good and profit that is possible if this technology is feasible.

This sounds to me (mechanical engineer but not in this field) a lot like the light bulb problem Edison faced.

Until Edison found the proper filament material, he had an empty glass jar with leads in it and a theory. As soon as he found the proper filament material, he had an invention that changes the world.

The concept here is great. Heat hydrogen to create differential pressure, extract ions by forcing it through a membrane, repeat. Note that the key part of it is the membrane. The primary problem in fuel cells is the same thing - the membrane.

It becomes basically a materials problem at that point.

That is not to say that it is easy, but that it is different. Once I have a few square inches of the proper material I no longer have just a proof of concept or a prototype, I have a full fledged device. The whole issue is figuring it out once and that might take a long time.

(Sure there are more issues, like extracting water from the fuel cell or increasing efficiency or lowering cost, but the bulk of it is that first initial problem.)

It might turn out that whatever it takes to make this membrane is crazy expensive, and that it doesn't make economic sense. Or maybe it will start out expensive and it will become cheap like the filament in the lightbult. I don't know but I do know that he will probably need a heck of a lot more funding before he can show a proof of concept, and anyone waiting for it to work will be far to late to get in on the action.

Edison had that problem? That's curious because Humphrey Davy deomstrated the filmament lamp to the Royal Society 75 years before Edison was born.

It seems like he still needs to proof that his idea is working. Other scientist say that it seems to be a good idea. So investing in this is a huge risk since even though the concept might actually work it may turn out that there's economical sane way to enter mass production. In addition there's still the doubt of "too good to be true" because it usually is. On one hand it is probably this kind of thinking which makes us pass on great opportunities, on the other it keeps us from sending money to help getting a multi-million dollar transaction through. Somewhat related also with the funding problem but on a larger scale was this guy http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1996321846673788606# Judge for yourself if you would invest 1 billion to (prehaps) get a working fusion reactor.

Google also had a talk about liquid Thorium fission reactors. That seemed doable.

IT seems that he has focused on the academic side of this more than commercial, though he seems to have a staff suitable to commercializing this. Maybe the DARPA or whomever gives him better terms on his deal than he'd get from Khosla?

It does mention PARC investing and owning parts of his patents.

He will change the world if he can get 50-60% efficiency. Photovoltaic cells would be out and parabolic mirrors aimed at a heating elements would take their place - even better, tubes running under asphalt streets all circulating water through JTEC heat exchangers.

A huge unmet need is extraction of heat energy at lower temperature differentials - it could put to use tons of waste energy at industrial plants, your car exhaust, h20 that leaves current steam generators, etc... The JTEC has the potential to make use of all this would-be entropy.

There's not much you can do to get useful work out of low temperature differentials. Carnot's theorem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnot_heat_engine#Carnot.27s_t...) says that the maximum efficiency of a heat engine is n = 1 - T_cold / T_hot, where the temperatures are given on the Kelvin scale (i.e. absolute temperatures).

That means between say 20 Celsius and 45 Celsius you will never convert more than 8% of the thermal energy that needs to flow from hot to cold into useful work.

> A huge unmet need is extraction of heat energy at lower temperature differentials

That, of course, would still be a real challenge. I didn't see any specifics, but notice his ceramic membrane was built to withstand 400 C. That's very hot.

But what if it's double the efficiency at twice the cost to produce?

It does sound rather more complex than a solar cell.

Assuming it has the same lifetime/maintenance costs, then the profitability will be double that of the alternative.

Could someone explain the differences in acquiring funding as an inventor vs an entrepreneur? Reason I ask is that I was recently laid off by a failed startup that had secured and wasted an investment in the amount of 2 million.

After that experience I went on to do some contract work with another early stage startup. They had no solid idea or vision for a product and had funding in the amount of 1.5 million.

It is concerning to me that a proven inventor like Johnson, who has a solid concept, is struggling to pull in his initial 100,000

He should disguise his invention as a social network for the energy industry -- BOOM! instant funding.

Haha I think you've got that backwards. It's probably better to make a social network look green and sell the carbon credits! How that for monetization?!?

You nailed it! A social network for carbon credit sharing. Call Sequoia.

I expect to see this very thing funded by this time next week.

Looks like someone else has already proven the market http://sandbag.org.uk/

But since they aren't doing it in the bay area it's an easy run for a motivated team with strong leadership.

true/funny but one factor is the relative costs involved. the cost to create the basic "technology" for a new social network is basically zero (ok, assuming one talented programmer, working for self/equity, one weekend to write the core, plus several more weeks to flesh it out incrementally, etc.). Whereas the cost to take the JTEC to a productized, profitable, polished device in the marketplace could be many millions USD.

It is not clear that he has been looking for investors .. from the article it seems he has been looking for government grants, which would have given him money without asking for equity in return.

Johnson may have initially wanted to fund his invention purely from his own money, keeping all the equity, but as the money started running out he has been looking for alternatives.

It does look like that, though you do end up wondering why. Even 10% equity in the company that owns the patents on efficient solar energy generation is going to be wealthy beyond their hopes of ever being able to spend the money.

Maybe its just that he likes being the boss, and not having to answer to anyone, including investors...

He has been funding the company with his money from Super Soakers, but because of knock-offs is now only able to cover one third of expenses.

Looks like he's trying to give up as little ownership as possible: govt grants, reinvest revenue, slow to get vc funding.

I'm curious about how he stores the hydrogen. Hydrogen is notoriously difficult to store. How does he keep the indefinite cycle going with hydrogen in a sealed chamber if the hydrogen is constantly leaching through the walls of the chamber?

I don't know....

But since H2 is not the fuel (it is the working fluid, the sun is the fuel) and as long as the loss is kept within reason, it seems like this could generate enough energy to do some electrolysis and refill any lost H2.

If anyone is interested in reading more about how exactly he invented the Super Soaker http://www.isoaker.com/Info/history_supersoaker.html

Thanks. You should submit it.

Steam engines—powered predominantly by coal, but also by natural gas, nuclear materials, and other fuels—generate 90 percent of all U.S. electricity. But though they have been refined over the centuries, most are still clanking, hissing, exhaust-spewing machines that rely on moving parts, and so are relatively inefficient and prone to mechanical breakdown.

Do steam turbines really clank? (I can believe in the hissing part.)

I don't know about all steam turbines, but for the ones with which I'm familiar, clanking is a Bad Thing. (Between college and law school I did my ROTC scholarship payback as a Navy nuclear engineering officer.)

I imagine the vast majority of people equate steam engines with steam powered trains seen in cinema. Unlike those clanking piston based engines, modern turbines whir -> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHhNrQL7Azc

I find the story very inspiring, but as some others noted, it would be nice to see a working model of the unit, or at least some pictures.

Now on a more substantial level, the claims of "60% efficiency" and "on part with coal" claims are interesting and need a little more explanation, in my opinion. How are these numbers being calculated? We aren't told.

One might guess it's based on a bunch of manufacturing and startup costs, along with operating costs, for an unknown number of years (probably many) along with projections about various other future costs. What power levels will a prototype produce, and how will it be scaled up?

I think the concept sounds promising, but a lot of questions remain to be answered.

Well the idea sounds coherent. No idea if it would work or not. It's not a fuel cell though - its more like a no-moving-parts replacement for a Stirling engine.

Right. He called it a fuel cell because it was the only way he could get past the funding gatekeepers who dismissed his ideas without properly examining or understanding them.

Yeah sounds similar to Microtechnology rebranding itself as Nanotechnology and NMR as MRI.

Speaking of inventors, does anyone know how inventors ever get a foothold? I had a cool idea for heating swimming pools to ambient air temperature (think giant heat sinks).

But do I get giant heatsinks built for me to test? How do I find out if this is already patented? How do I sell it?

Cover it with an insulated top when not in use. Your pool is colder than ambient because the top surface is constantly evaporating, leaving behind the slower moving molecules.

A solar heater would work better (if you have sun) because it will absorb more energy than ambiant air convected over the same area. And you would need a fan for a heatsink if its wasn't windy. http://www.amazon.com/SmartPool-SunHeater-Above-Ground-Pools...

A way for you to test it would be to do it on a small scale - maybe buy some copper tube and circulate an aquarium with the water filter pump.

Your pool is colder than ambient because the top surface is constantly evaporating, leaving behind the slower moving molecules.

Sounds like a way to save on air conditioning costs to me. Put a heat exchanger to the pool and heat your pool while cooling your house.

You could also buy a regular pool heat pump and stick it in your house:


Swamp coolers use the same principle - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evaporative_cooler

Good points. I was hoping to come up with something easier to use than a cover, and possibly cheaper.

Covering an in-ground pool is a huge hassle.

It's a lot easier if you build a motorized cover in from the start.

Start by looking at geothermal heat pumps. They basically use the earth as a heat source or a heat sink to maintain the temperature of your house at a comfortable level.

Imagining a giant heat sink makes me think of something pretty dangerous... I picture any part of the heat sink sticking out of the water (I'm guessing it captures heat from the sun?) which becomes hot enough to heat several thousands of gallons of water would produce some really nasty burns for anyone unfortunate enough to touch it.

You don't have to explain your idea in detail, of course, but I'd be curious if you had considered a way to safely transfer the energy into the water. Perhaps there is a solar powered way to cheaply heat swimming pools safely... but I'd think the energy might need to be converted to electricity first, since we are already used to controlling and insulating that safely.

I would have to imagine this would have been patented if your "heatsink" source is practical. Unless you are living in a area like Iceland where you can tap into geothermal energy, I would have to imagine any other method would be impractical. You have to obtain the heat from somewhere. Be it natural or from some form of man made energy source.

I do remember reading somewhere about capturing/retaining heat during the hotter parts of the season and then releasing it during the colder seasons. The solution involved a massive hole I believe or something like that.

I don't know about that. It sounds like it could be a good idea to me. Ambient air temperature varies 25 degrees or so from night to day. The pool is going to tend to gravitate towards a temperature between the ground temperature and the average air temperature throughout the day. If you want to heat the pool in the Fall and Spring, just circulate the water through an air-source heat exchanger in the afternoon, and turn it off when the temperature starts to drop. Voila, warm pool. In some places, pools get annoyingly warm in the summer. Use the same device, at 3am, and the problem is solved.

Don't want to use your pool in the fall and spring, but want to save on your heating and cooling bills? Use the pool as a heat storage device, and save the desirable temperature (afternoon or night, depending) in the pool, then run the heat exchanger in the house to enjoy the cool night air during the day.

Yeah, that's what I had in mind. I just don't know where to start. It seems like an obvious idea so it's probably not patentable. But I guess if I came up with a specific implementation then maybe that would be?

I still have no idea how to get someone to manufacture it, or to mass produce and market it myself.

You'd be amazed at how many obvious ideas get patented.

Gotta wonder if you could get funding for "Geothermal Offsets", to replace some of the Earth's sapped heat from geothermal power sources. You could possibly run such a system for free :D

Sorry guys, I got there first:


Patent pending ;)

Yes, I realize there is a lot more to it than that. However, there have been solar concentrators of all kinds of varieties, I've built a couple of proto-types the one in the pictures above was one of the more promising ones because it allows the collector to be stationary.

Interesting tidbit from that experiment, it's quite hard to bond a solar panel to a cooling surface that can dissipate 800 watts over 100 square centimeters, whatever you use to bond will melt or dry out and then your solar cells will self-disassemble. So you will end up with active cooling, which in turn will give you co-generation (both electricity and heat).

I really hope this guy will succeed, we could do with a bit more radical thinking in this space.

well, I think the real tech isn't the concentrator but the membrane that converts heat to electricity by forcing ions through a proton-exchange membrane.

Yes, of course.

I had a ton of fun building that stuff though. And with co-generation you use the 'old' tech and use the byproduct (heat) for some other purpose. That way you can get to very high efficiencies too.

How would this work? Surely sunlight can't create enough heat to ionize a gas (creating plasma?).

Why don't the whole hydrogen atoms go through the membrane to the lower pressure area?

How does he alternate which side is heated? How does he cool the other side?

> How would this work? Surely sunlight can't create enough heat to ionize a gas (creating plasma?).

He isn't ionizing the gas, he is increasing the gas pressure by heating it. "Only instead of using those pressure gradients to move an axle or a wheel, he’s forcing ions through a membrane." See next for why that is important.

> Why don't the whole hydrogen atoms go through the membrane to the lower pressure area?

He uses a semi-permeable membrane http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semipermeable_membrane. They also have use in chemical applications such as batteries and fuel cells.

The membrane blocks the atoms, but allows the ions (protons) through. It does require a substantial amount of pressure for it to work. That is where the heat -> pressure comes into effect, and why the reconstituted hydrogen on the "cold" size has to be compressed and pumped back into the "hot" side.

While this sounds a little like a perpetual motion machine, it isn't because the sun's heat is adding the energy that is being extracted via the electrons.

> How does he alternate which side is heated? How does he cool the other side?

He heats one side and cools one side, no alternating. The heating (and cooling) cause a pressure differential, which drives the reaction via the semi-permeable membrane.


I suspect there are some pretty substantial challenges remaining before this becomes a sizable / viable energy source.

It sounds like it is related to proton exchange fuel cells, except instead of using the catalyst + oxidant to drive the reaction, it is using pressure.




So if the sunlit side is under higher pressure, how do the hydrogen atoms return to that side? I must still be missing something.

Also, is there really enough hydrogen ionizing at 400C?

> So if the sunlit side is under higher pressure, how do the hydrogen atoms return to that side? I must still be missing something.

The article says it is compressed in order to move it back to the high pressure side.

> Also, is there really enough hydrogen ionizing at 400C?

I don't believe (traditional) ionization is occurring. My guess is that it works at the molecular level like reverse osmosis works with salt water to form fresh water. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reverse_osmosis The dissociation of the hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons is through heat and pressure, facilitated by the semi-permeable membrane.

Note that the membrane is key and is very unique. Johnson [...] proved he could make a ceramic membrane capable of withstanding temperatures above 400 degrees Celsius. A semi-permeable plastic membrane is non-trivial. A semi-permeable ceramic membrane that passes protons, strips electrons, and blocks hydrogen atoms while running at 400^C has to be really, really tough to do.

Electrons are a lot smaller than protons. Why wouldn't they go through the membrane?

Apparently, it's an insulated membrane that only lets protons through. A proton can move through the membrane more easily than an electron can. It has more to do with other properties of the material and the ions than the effective size of electrons vs protons.

Assuming my reference to proton exchange fuel cells is in the ballpark, the mechanism is to use the membrane plus pressure to separate the hydrogen into electrons and protons. The electrons are routed through the load, i.e. extracted electrical power, and the protons pass through the membrane. The inactive (non-dissociated) hydrogen molecules are blocked from the "cold" side by the semi-permeable membrane.

The electrons and protons recombine on the cold side to reform hydrogen. That hydrogen has to be compressed sufficiently to move it back to the "hot" side of the system. This is probably a pretty substantial compression and will probably limit the efficiency of the system - it also raises the "perpetual motion machine" red flag in my mind, except the sun is adding lots of thermal energy to make it go for real.

I'm picturing the system working at a molecular level like reverse osmosis of seawater: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reverse_osmosis. Reverse osmosis requires a substantial amount of pressure (~1000 psi) to force the water through the semi-permeable membrane while the salt cannot pass through the membrane and thus stays on the salty side.

The effect is pretty straightforward and not hard to make work in a lab. The problem is that it works at very high temperatures, and ion-permeable membranes degrade quickly at those temperatures. Anything sufficiently hot will randomly eject atoms and evaporate, even ceramic. It sounds like his work is an improved ceramic membrane, but it's not useful unless it lasts thousands of hours at full temperature, with temperature cycling every day.

At a guess, it doesn't need to create a full-on plasma, just needs a lot Hydrogen ions hitting the membrane. A small amount of ionization will suffice - sort of like 'micropayments' or a long tail phenomenon.

Because that's what the membrane filters do. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proton_exchange_membrane http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proton_conductor Mainly they work on size - small versus really small.

Again, at a guess, it doesn't need to cool the other side - it's not a temperature gradient, it's a concentration gradient. And since the ions are being reacted back to H2 at a brisk rate, it's not a big problem. The more thermal energy you could maintain in the ions the better, because they wouldn't need as much heating once they'd been recycled.

It has a whiff of perpetual motion machine to it. Maxwell's Demon, I think.

Sure it can - you just have to focus the sun's rays into a smaller area.

The sun delivers on the order of 1000W per sqm during the day, so (eg.) focusing 100 sqm into 1 sqm == 100,000W. 12 hours of daylight will then give you a theoretical production of 1.2MWh per day, but it's usually a lot less, due to the angle of the sun in the morning/evening and inefficiencies in your energy capture.

On HN we obey the 2nd law of thermodynamics

That entropy always increases? How exactly does that apply in the case of focusing photons?

Disclaimer: not a physicist.

My intuitive understanding is that, as you heat the absorber, it becomes hotter and hotter, until it reaches the same temperature as the sun's surface. At this point, the absorber (also a blackbody) radiates just as much energy as it receives from the sun; thus there is no more heat exchange. Otherwise, you would be taking two objects at the same temperature and making one hotter and the other one colder with no work from outside the system, violating thermodynamics.

There is a more formal study in solar energy books like (http://books.google.com/books?id=81WI2LwrpkcC&lpg=PA25&#...) or (http://www.physics.drexel.edu/~jenks/Solar%20Energy.pdf) (PDF, page 21 onwards is quite relevant).

Your intuition seems wrong to me. The two major problems are that thermodynamics refers to energy, not temperature. Thus, as long as total energy is conserved, there's no problem. The second issue is that solar heating is due to radiation, not conduction/convection, so there's no heat exchange as such.

Think of it in terms of photons - if you're collecting and concentrating photons, the upper limit is the total number of photons which the sun produces. I'm pretty sure that if you focused all of those into a square meter of the earth's surface, then it'd reach more than 5760K.

> Thus, as long as total energy is conserved, there's no problem.

Where did the other laws go?

> The second issue is that solar heating is due to radiation, not conduction/convection, so there's no heat exchange as such.

I don't understand how there could be "solar heating" but no "heat exchange".

Unless I misunderstood the papers I cited, the efficiency equations show that there is a limit (efficiency drops to 0% with Ts=Ta), but I'll still try to address the "intuition" part of your post.

Let's say we are in a black room with no windows, everything being at room temperature. I use lenses to concentrate the infrared light from the walls onto a black cube. Would the cube heat up from the concentration of photons?

> I don't understand how there could be "solar heating" but no "heat exchange".

Hmm, I thought that "heat exchange" referred to direct transfer of heat energy, perhaps I'm misremembering. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_transfer#Radiation doesn't seem to differentiate, but bear in mind that there's no way to focus molecular vibration with a mirror.

And if more photons hit the cube with your lens than without it, then yes, the cube will heat up.

Then focus the infrared light on a thermoelectric generator instead of a cube. The generator powers a widget. The dissipated heat from the generator and the friction on the widget goes back to the walls and is later reemitted as infrared.

That's a perpetual motion machine.

...until it hits a new equilibrium, at which point you're back to square one.

btw, from what I've been reading, it looks like you're right (ie. you can't heat anything directly to > the sun's temperature) but I can't find any explanation which makes any intuitive sense at all, just lots of stuff like http://en.allexperts.com/q/Physics-1358/Black-body-radiation... (note the hand waving) or else a bunch of hard core entropy equations.

You can't do that (at least not with passive components). There's a famous optics result called the 'brightness theorem' that explains why not.

I think you mean "Conservation of radiance". It corresponds pretty much directly with "Power per unit area". Obviously, mirrors and lenses can reduce the unit area, while keeping power constant (at best).


My intuition is that you "cold" your absorber when you extract work from the electrons. One of the big changes of recent years had been power electronics that let you convert the charge-voltage pair into anything you need(like the voltage to charge a battery).

Another way of stating it is that heat flows from hot->cold. You can't concentrate the light/heat from a blackbody source to more than the temperature of the source.

So you can't focus sunlight to more than 6000k however many mirrors you use.

The laws of thermodynamics do not prevent energy from flowing from cold to hot. They just say that for that to happen, entropy elsewhere must increase more.

As a trivial example disproving your claim, energy from the Sun can be collected in solar panels that can be used to run devices that can hit any temperature you want. For an extreme example, for fusion experiments they produce temperatures of over 11,000,000 degrees C.

For another trivial example, most of us have refrigerators that can transport heat energy from a colder place (the inside of the fridge) to a warmer place (your kitchen).

any source of energy will have a chance of causing far more energetic particles, if not directly then through particle interactions. For the same reason, water far below boiling will steam.

As to the rest, can't help you there. IANAPP :)

The maximum heat you can get from sunlight is the temperature of the sun: definitely hot enough to ionize most gases.

Right. Cuz the photons are the same temperature as the sun. That's why sun photons feel warm.

It's more true than you might think. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plancks_law

Interesting, thanks. It seems plausible that it isn't possible to redirect light from a uniform temperature black body to produce a higher temperature somewhere else. I'll have to think about it more, though. The thermodynamical argument made in that thread seems flawed to me.

I remember reading about the JTEC a couple of years ago, but I am very curious to see an actual working version of it.

Could be the hottest thing around ...

Right - surely they can get a scale model of it working. I take all these announcements with a grain of salt now. We're always reading about these breakthroughs, then nothing. I mean, if he had even a small working prototype, he could be on the news and gaining investors and traction.

I'd rather be optimistic than so cynical about such important inventions that have huge potential, even if the probability of success is very low.

I mean, if he had even a small working prototype, he could be on the news and gaining investors and traction.

You mean just like all the great inventors of all times? If only life was so fair and rosy.

Yeah, I'm a bit suspicious. Google returns nothing right now.

> At 13, he bolted a discarded lawn-mower engine onto a homemade go-cart

Hmm... Getting that to work is quite a feat for a kid. Lawn-mower engines usually cannot be operated sideways. I wonder if he was lucky enough to have a 2-stroke motor, or if he managed to keep the engine vertical?

One thing that confused me about this was the claim that it might selectively advantage solar electricity production.

I can understand that the system might work at small scale, making it available for deployment in preference to photovoltaics. But at large scale, surely the efficiency boost that comes from avoiding turbines would be as good for coal-fired and gas-fired generators as for anything else.

Assuming a proof-of-concept is developed, this guy has just managed to create a more-efficient way of converting heat into electricity. If that's the case, that technology could be applied to other heat-generation plants (nuclear, coal, gas), so those technologies would hypothetically still be more efficient. Am I missing something?

I heard this story about two years ago, not a lot of new information about the fuel cell here.

Guys, we should put our money together and invest into this.

I want to work with this guy!

The Lesson here is : if you do make a pile of cash, lock some of it away so that you and your family have an (almost) assured retirement plan.

I don't understand the downvoting, so I'll make my position clear. If you read the article, the guy is now in financial trouble because the super soaker profits have largely dried up, and he has had to put other plans on hold.

What I'm saying is, if you find yourself in the situation where you have a big win, you need to lock away some of that to keep you in retirement. Then, you can go onto your next venture knowing that, if it doesn't work out, at least you won't fall on financial hard times. I honestly don't know why this is so downvoted, so perhaps someone can explain it to me.

The Super Soaker profits are now "only" enough to pay for a third of his dozen-employee business. Presumably if he wasn't so committed to his research, he could shut down and live comfortably off of that money.

Putting something away for the rainy day might be good advice, but it isn't really relevant here.

There is nothing in the article that states he has not put away enough money for retirement, nor that he could not retire right this moment if he wanted to. For all you know, he could have $100MM in bank, ensuring that his family is well-off for generations to come. The article doesn't delve into his personal finances at all - it merely states that the Super Soaker profits are not able to fund his research as much as they once did.

From the article:

"There was a time in my life, he says, when I was independently wealthy. But that time has passed"

Sounds to me like he has sunk a lot of his capital into his ongoing research projects.

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