Last fall we interviewed George N. Hatsopoulos, founder of Thermo Electron Corp., about the way he discovers new businesses ("The Thinking Man's CEO," November 1988, [Article link]). As it turns out, one of those businesses may offer a solution to a vexing problem posed by the December bombing of Pan American Flight 103 -- the problem of detecting explosives that are invisible to metal sensors.
The answer appears to lie with a technology known as chemiluminescence, which Thermo Electron first worked with in 1970, while designing a cleaner-burning engine for Ford Motor Co. In the course of the project, Thermo Electron's engineers created an instrument for measuring pollutant emissions (in parts per million). Subsequently, the engine project was shelved, but the measuring device continued to be used by government agencies and industry for checking air quality.
Today, the technology has improved to the point where "we can detect one part per hundred trillion," says John Wood, president of Thermedics Inc., a Thermo Electron subsidiary. That ability has enabled the company to develop instruments for identifying carcinogens in food and chemicals; monitoring nitroglycerin in the blood of heart patients; and, most recently, detecting plastic explosives and drugs. The irony, of course, is that Thermo Electron did not set out to be in this business at all. And the lesson? An old one -- that innovation is a tortuous path.
-- Bruce G. Posner