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Feb 13, 2009

An inventor and entrepreneur is using his unique understanding of nature to create practical solutions for a complicated world.

By Amy Van Vechten

Nautilus shells, feathers and seed pods litter Jay Harman’s desk.
The inspiration for Harman’s inventions usually comes from a facet of
the natural order. At PAX Scientific, the San Francisco Bay area
company he founded in 1997, photos and artifacts from the ocean and
shore abound.
However, he is much more at home in his native Australian bush cruising
on one of the ships he has designed, or strolling the beaches near his
house in Hawaii—contemplating, observing and getting back in touch with
the things that spur his creativity.
“Sometimes I take a couple of hours to walk a hundred yards in nature,” Harman admits. “The quieter I get, the more I see.”

STARTING OUT AT SEA
Harman’s drive for inventing started at age 10.
“I was doing a lot of swimming and snorkeling in Australia,” Harman
remembers. “I saw that if I grabbed hold of seaweed, it’d break, but
that it somehow held together in the most violent of storms.”
As he grew up, Harman spent a lot of time “floating in the water and
looking at stuff.” He spent the rest of his time sailing on boats that
he had designed and built.
“I became totally fascinated by the spiral shape with which everything
in nature moves: it’s the path of least resistance,” Harman explains.
“And I’ve spent my life up until now looking at thousands of examples
in the universe and trying to make use of that movement.”
His first job was as a naturalist, working for the Australian
Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He later became director of a
government environmental commission and designed and built a series of
hovercraft. He created the “Goggleboat,” the world’s first all-plastic,
seamless marine craft which won him the Australian Design Award. In
1990, another innovative racing and rescue watercraft, “The Wildthing,”
became his first major market success.
Like most inventors, Harman is restless. He has funded several
technology companies, founded a wilderness boarding school for kids and
established a medical research lab in England. But the work closest to
his heart lies in the manufacturing technologies based on how liquid
flows in nature that he develops at PAX Scientific.

DESIGN IN THREE DIMENSIONS
So far, the best-selling product to have emerged from Harman’s
imagination has been the Lily Impeller, a small stainless steel device
of about 6 inches by 4 inches that can effectively mix 4 million
gallons of liquid. His tiny device replaces standard industrial
processes that require massive amounts of energy and chemicals.
“The world of technology thinks that because the shortest distance
between two points is a straight line, you’re going to use the least
amount of energy if you travel in a straight line,” he says. “The
entire industrial world is built on that premise. We have to start
accounting for the geometry of turbulence.”
Harman’s work is rooted in a deep understanding of fluid dynamics. He
argues that it is the “infinitely complex” three-dimensional structure
of the Lily Impeller and other prototypes that makes them more
efficient than standard manufacturing processes.
Until recently, most of PAX Scientific’s patents and products went
virtually unnoticed. “What we are promoting is energy efficiency,” he
says. “Two years ago, we couldn’t give that away.”
Why does it matter? Harman estimates that the fans in bathrooms,
refrigerators and air conditioners account for 18 percent of the
world’s energy use every year. Likewise, pumps take up 30 percent of
the world’s annual energy use. All in all, one-third of the planet’s
resources could be saved by replacing all of those inefficient devices.

“The world must change to this type of thinking, or it’s all over,” the
inventor warns. “But I’m optimistic. The president of the country is
coming to visit me on Friday. He wants to take this on in a very major
way. If this government just shows leadership by supporting green
initiatives, we’ll be in good hands.” 


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