The main course on the menu of innovations Hunter Browning is mounting at the age of 18 comes with large helpings of quantum mechanics and nuclear physics.
Seven provisional patents protect the enticing technology that has spawned two companies of his own making.
It’s laden with secret ingredients — electronic circuitry and chemical processes — that the Blue Valley senior expects players in the oil industry will try to buy off him or steal so they can suppress them.
It’s a heavy dish, developing hydrogen power from water to drive a car.
So how about an appetizer?
Take a look at the “armless crutch.”
This was a concept dreamed up by a couple of Browning’s classmates at Blue Valley’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies. What if you could attach something like a peg leg to the bent knee of someone with a broken ankle or a severe sprain?
When they needed a prototype built, of course they went to Browning.
The sleek result, lying across one of the school’s work tables last week, at first glance looked factory made.
But closer inspection revealed a piece of a go-kart tire at the foot of the peg leg, packed with insulation, connected to black PVC pipes leading to a hinge flexed by two hydraulic arms from a car window hatch. Red-painted strips of spare metal affixed with kitchen drawer handles held the straps and cushioning scavenged from the knee braces Browning once wore after a soccer injury.
“That was a good weekend project,” he says.
Browning quickly gained his reputation as the master of the testable prototype, said Jill Riffer, who guides the engineering design and development class at the Blue Valley center.
“Hunter was a physical-space creator more than a virtual-space creator,” she said. “He likes to tinker.”
Even more remarkable than the work of his hands, however, were the ideas he had been packing into his head on his own.
The engineering class was all about unleashing students to create and chase ideas, Riffer said. And she’s seen a lot of fascinating work.
“But did I think I’d see a hydrogen fuel cell?”
To understand where Browning’s going, you have to see the world as he does — as a quantum universe.
“Everything you see is shaking,” he says. His eyes sweep across the tabletop. The chairs. The carpeted floor.
“Solidity is an illusion.”
Quantum physics explores the vast inner universe of molecules, the open spaces where atomic particles vibrate and struggle against one another in waves.
Kinetic energy is in everything, he says, “like mass on a spring.”
He spent most of any free time he had during his junior year learning everything he could on the science. Far beyond his high school texts, he was acquiring college texts, emailing professors, reading overnight into morning hours.
He had learned about electrolysis in sophomore chemistry — how precise use of electric currents can trigger chemical reactions.
That led him to the common but usually fanciful speculation on sparking the power of hydrogen out of water.
With enough trial and error, with the right processes, the right electrical current, the mysteries of the quantum universe could efficiently unleash hydrogen from oxygen’s grasp.
During his junior year, Browning asked that question of his physics teacher, John Holloway.
Holloway’s first thought, he recalled, was to say, “No.” The laws of thermodynamics dictate that you can’t get something from nothing. The energy needed to break out hydrogen was too much to get enough energy profit in the output.
Many have tried.
The conflicting job of a science teacher, Holloway said, is that you have to be receptive and skeptical at the same time.
“You want an open mind,” he said, “but not so open that your brain falls out.”
Browning clearly believed in the idea — a passion that Holloway felt deserved encouragement. So he opted in favor of the open mind.
For Browning, his life “had taken a complete 180,” he said. “The goal the ability this has to really help people has been unbelievably motivating.”
Browning faced another barrier — and it wasn’t the physics.
It was his shyness.
The idea of speaking in public used to make him sick to his stomach in his middle school years.
Then, as he prepared for his senior year, he was going to have to make a major presentation on his hydrogen project in order to bring his work into the Center for Advanced Professional Studies and use its resources for his senior project.
Holloway joined the panel that would judge his idea.
There Browning stood, describing the resonant frequency of molecules and the chemical reactions, proposing the electrical circuitry and the models for measuring feedback.
Here, on display, “was the right way to learn,” Holloway said. “This project had completely lit a fire under him. He really understood the science.”
What was supposed to be a half-hour presentation turned into an hour and a half. Fascinated educators bombarded Browning with questions that he answered thoroughly.
The panel huddled briefly, and then the director, Donna Deeds, spun to face Browning, announcing: “All right. Let’s do it.”
Browning became the center’s most frequent visitor among what is a high-energy crowd of students. He’s in at 7 a.m. for several hours before heading off to other classes, then back in the afternoons and into most evenings.
Most of the students get to work with mentors. Browning’s mentor, David Cox of Garmin, has worked with several students in the past two years.
“But this was the first time,” Cox said, “that I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement.”
It seemed far-fetched at first. A student with “ideas of grandeur,” Cox said.
But every day Browning assailed his mentor with new ideas. “He’d say: ‘Look at this report.’ ‘Look at this video.’ ‘Look at this article,’ ” Cox said. “He had a lot of confidence, and he built up my confidence.”
The once-shy teenager was now his own biggest promoter, selling his idea, marshaling the support he has needed financially and intellectually.
He’s created a company that he intends to help other entrepreneurial students learn to connect with mentors and the investor crowd.
As far as his own research goes, he has created a hydrogen cell that is efficient enough to power a cooking grill. So he’s created another company, Green Grills, which he plans will create water-powered grills to help raise the capital he needs to carry on his ultimate dream.
That is being carried out by his prize company, BLISresonance — Beauty Lies in Simplicity, which continues its pursuit of a water-powered car engine.
“He’s gone beyond ‘the crazy idea,’ ” Holloway said. “This is real engineering. If it works the way he thinks it can work, it’s a change-the-way-everything-works idea.”
Since the need isn’t readily apparent, Browning assured that he will be going to college this fall while he keeps on growing his companies and his research.
He’ll study physics at the University of Kansas — his safety school, of sorts.
He talks about the efficiencies “we’ve” already achieved. He talks about the energy models “we’ve” already beat.
Sheepishly, he answers, “Me and my science.”
It’s a duo that’s getting closer to what physicists have said can’t be done.
“When the final circuitry gets done,” he said, “it’s going to be beautiful.”