Solver Stories: Michael Kardauskas

// Louise Leone // Apr 27, 2021

My name is Michael Kardauskas - “My mother bought us a set of children’s encyclopaedias, which explained everything from photosynthesis to how the pyramids might have been built, and my father subscribed to Popular Science magazine, which touted all the latest inventions that might revolutionize the future – flying cars, etc.  I devoured both of them and thought the greatest possible career would be to be an inventor.”solver_9

 My father was an electrical engineer, and both of my parents firmly believed that a good education was the route to success in life.  My mother bought us a set of children’s encyclopedias, which explained everything from photosynthesis to how the pyramids might have been built, and my father subscribed to Popular Science magazine, which touted all the latest inventions that might revolutionize the future – flying cars, etc.  I devoured both of them and thought the greatest possible career would be to be an inventor. I was fascinated by inventions that would produce electricity and tried building newfangled batteries and solar cells in our basement.  This was at the age of 10 or 11.  By the time I was 12, I was familiar with the process of applying for a patent. By the time I was 13 or 14, I was sending suggestions for inventions to companies; one for a flashlight design that would be less bulky than then-standard designs, and one for a lightweight sleeping bag, both influenced by the camping that we were doing in the summers.

The summers were hot and the bedroom I shared with my brother took the full brunt of the sun from the south and west, so that it became quite uncomfortable.  My parents bought only one small bedroom-size air conditioner for the entire house, which did nothing to cool our room at the far end of the house.  My father did not want to buy another, explaining that it was a heavy, complex appliance that consumed a lot of expensive electricity. My response, at the age of 14 or 15, was to think this problem through and try to come up with a simpler device that would provide cooling at a lower cost.  I concluded that a lot of the complexity of the device was due to its use of Freon, which required tight seals and a specialized compressor, and reasoned, based on my knowledge of its operating principle, that if you compressed air instead of Freon, it would still function, but it would be simpler and less expensive.  I typed up my concept and sent it to the engineering department at Carrier Corporation, along with a paragraph declaring that this was confidential information, and conferred no right to use it without permission.  A few weeks later, I received a reply wherein an engineer patiently explained to me that what I had invented was called the Brayton cycle, and that it is used on commercial aircraft, but it is not used in home air conditioners because it is noisier and less efficient than the conventional kind.  That was a disappointment, but I was encouraged that I had been taken seriously.  About one year later, I came up with an improved design for large jet aircraft, and I pursued it just as vigorously, recommending it to engineers at a major aircraft manufacturer, who wrote back to inform me that, although such aircraft did not yet exist, they had been working on that concept for about ten years.  The first aircraft to incorporate the design appeared a few years later.

 By the time I was in my third year of high school, I had read enough about the lives of inventors to know that they rarely earned a comfortable living, and had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to get a conventional job.  Although I did well in my math and science studies, I knew that I did not want to be an engineer, because no matter what they may have intended to do when they started in the profession, most of them seemed to end up working in one capacity or another for the military or the defense industry. This was during the Vietnam War, and I am American, so that colored my view of the profession.  I had no strong leanings toward any other profession, but I received advice (I don’t recall from whom) to go into architecture, which would allow me to make use of my mathematical abilities in a creative profession, and it seemed like a logical choice.  So, I entered the demanding architecture program at the University of Virginia - at the tender age of 16, because I had skipped third grade.  I had no trouble being accepted into the program because I was a National Merit finalist, meaning that I had placed in the top 1% of high school students in national testing, even though I was one year younger than the others in my class year.

The decision to study architecture at UVA turned out to be a poor one. I did well in my technical courses, but did not have the outgoing personality and flair for self-promotion that were needed to stand out in the all-important design courses.  I was encouraged to change majors, but instead, I dropped out of the university, and took a job in graphic arts. After four years in the graphic arts job, I recognized that there was no chance for advancement, and I was on track for being underpaid for my entire career.  I perused university catalogs that I had from years earlier, looking for a program that might lead to a career something like that of an inventor. I discovered a program at Penn State University called Engineering Science that bestowed a degree in engineering, but was unconventional in that it covered not one, but all of the major branches of engineering, and was intended to produce graduates who were comfortable working at the boundaries between different disciplines, such as chemistry and electrical engineering.  I was not dissuaded by the fact that this constituted the College of Engineering’s honors program; of some 2,000 engineering graduates each year, only about 35 graduated in Engineering Science. Each senior in that program is required to carry out original research and write a thesis.  Mine was related to photovoltaics (solar cells), which was a very active field at the time. I went on to complete my masters and then a PhD so that I would be qualified for a senior position in industry. By the time I received that degree, I was twice as old as when I entered university for the first time.

Upon graduation, I had my choice of job offers from photovoltaic companies, which were booming at that time. I joined Mobil, who were investing in innovation to make efficient solar cells from inexpensive, lower quality silicon. That task caused Mobil to pull together an A-Team of chemists, engineers, and physicists to work on this objective, and we were eventually ready to begin mass production of high-performance solar panels.  However, changes in top management at Mobil Oil Corporation resulted in a shift in corporate priorities. They decided to exit the solar energy business, and sold the company to a German competitor.  I went on to work for the German firm, where I acquired experience in designing and operating manufacturing equipment and processes.  After several years in that position, I left to start a career as an independent materials science consultant.

Although my consulting business provided a good income, paying assignments did not always fill my work schedule. My brother, who was aware of this, came across the concept of open innovation awards and thought it would be ideal for me, providing an outlet for my creativity that could also be a profitable way to utilize free time between other, more conventional consulting assignments.  I was intrigued by the concept, so I registered and set to work on my first challenge. After two false starts, submitting solutions that were ultimately rejected, I finally succeeded in winning a challenge.

The request was for a food additive that tasted like salt, but was sodium-free.  I expected this one to be easy, since I was aware that chlorides that are chemically similar to sodium chloride, such as magnesium and calcium chlorides, taste salty and are non-toxic.  Unfortunately, my background research revealed that they also taste bitter. Having invested a significant amount of time, I pressed on with my search rather than giving up, intending to abandon the project if I didn’t find a solution quickly.  But I did find a solution, a food-safe ingredient that is even recommended by the FDA as a food additive because of its nutritional value.  I received a partial award, which wasn’t large, but it demonstrated that solving such challenges can be profitable.  I went on to win more awards in that year and I was named a top solver in the first year that I submitted solutions. Not all of the solutions that I have submitted resulted in awards, but, over time, I became a good judge of what types of challenges I was likely to be able to solve within the required timeframe. For instance, I came to recognize that I was not likely going to be able to solve in a matter of weeks problems that had stumped industry professionals for years, and that the best challenges to work on were those with limited, clearly defined goals.

One of the challenges that was a pleasure to work on was one in which a food manufacturer who makes sugar syrup in very large quantities wanted to reduce the energy consumed in that process.  Their standard method was to make a dilute sugar solution and then boil off the excess water.  They did it that way because even at the boiling point of water, 100°C, the solubility of sugar is lower than the sugar concentration they needed; in order to operate at a higher temperature, they would need to run the process under significant pressure, which would require thick steel pressure vessels.  I soon realized that the company was apparently unaware that the boiling point of water is not a constant, but changes depending on the concentration of substances dissolved in it.  That being the case, it was likely that they could dissolve most of the sugar at a temperature below the boiling point, and that would change the boiling point, so that they could then raise the temperature above 100°C, which would allow them to dissolve more.  I consulted charts and tables of the relevant data, and found that, if executed in a sufficient number of increments, this method would allow them to reach the desired sugar concentration without boiling off any water at all, reducing the process’s energy consumption by an astounding 80%, and reducing process time, as well.  I received a full award for my solution.  It is one of my favorites because the company presented a straightforward problem, and that problem had a clear, straightforward solution, in addition to which I felt a sense of accomplishment for contributing to the elimination of so much energy waste.

Extract from our book One Smart Crowd  - How crowdsourcing is changing the world one idea at a time. The book is available in Paperback or Kindle format here.

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