It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention but my experience has been that serendipity is a much more common parent.
I was reminded of this when reading about a recent breakthrough that two scientists at MIT have made in the lifetime of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (the power source for most of our mobile devices). They were seeking to replace the fragile graphite anodes - a common source of failure - with aluminum. But to affect this change they had to overcome two well-known, and to date, unassailable obstacles: the desire for aluminum to both oxidize (in air) and to expand upon heating during a recharge. The former consumes aluminum whilst repeated expansion and contraction causes breakdown of the electrode. Our two clever scientists were experimenting with the use of aluminum nanoparticles and soaking these in a complex acid brew to replace the aluminum oxide with a protective layer of titanium oxide. During one experiment they forgot to remove a batch nanoparticles from the brew and ended up soaking them for many hours more than they had intended. What they discovered upon removing the ‘failed’ material from its extended bath was that they had formed a brand new and unanticipated structure: A nanoparticle with outer shell of titanium hydroxide on thin layer of aluminum.
When the forgetful scientists tested this material as an anode they discovered that not only did it not expand but, over 500 charge/discharge cycles their nano-particulate battery retained more than 4 times the capacity of the equivalent standard battery. The new battery not only lasts longer but, according to MIT, can hold up to 3x the energy. The technology looks readily scale-able and it seems that serendipity has helped make a wonderful breakthrough with great commercial implications.
Serendipity has been a critical co-inventor in many great innovations. Here is just a very short list of serendipity’s previous work:
It worked with Fleming to discover a rare strain of Penicillium notatum which secreted a substance that inhibited bacterial growth and pioneered the development of antibiotics.
It helped Percy Spencer, a researcher at Raytheon, who was exploring radar with a magnetron, discover the microwave oven. Spencer during one experiment noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket was melting and started ‘aiming’ his magnetron at other foodstuffs (including popping popcorn). He realized that heating was occurring from stray microwave energy and so a new cooking method was born.
And it was there when Nobel discovered dynamite in 1833. Nobel was studying nitroglycerin - a well known and dangerous explosive which because of its innate instability had caused many fatal accidents - and accidentally dropped his nitro into a pile of sawdust. Much to Nobel’s surprise it did not blow up. And so dynamite was born from the simple and accidental discovery that mixing nitro with an inert substance stabilized it!
In fact Serendipity probably deserves to be listed as an inventor on nearly every patent. But what does this teach us? I think at least three things can be taken from the work of luck in great scientific breakthroughs:
No matter how smart a scientist is he/she will not succeed without curiosity. It is curiosity that drives a scientist to look at and understand the unexpected and it is the unexpected that throws up great possibilities. When you look to recruit your researchers make sure that they are truly curious and value this as highly as their technical acumen.
More often than not serendipity throws up an opportunity in an area which was not the subject of the research. To take advantage of this, the fortunate inventor must have a broad understanding of market needs. It is crucial therefore to make sure that your inventors spend time in your markets learning firsthand of your customer needs - you’ll be surprised how often they can connect a need with a slice of luck in the lab.
A strange outcome can be often mistaken for a failure but when seen through the right eyes it may be the genesis of a great breakthrough. Sharing of findings is often vital to finding that ah-ha! moment and this often happens through informal dialogue. We would suggest that separating your inventors by cubicles or into offices inhibits the sharing process - mix them up!
Make sure that serendipity is active in your labs - she really is a great inventor!
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