Listen. Is that a new technology starting up?

We are crazy about inventions and even inventors. They stoke our sometimes-flagging faith in our collective ability to create a better world, to fix problems, to spin the straw of the status quo into something golden and new. So how do inventors do it? And how do the rest of us recognize truly good ideas when they show up?

"The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what no one has thought about that which everybody sees," noted Arthur Shopenhauer, no slouch himself in the seeing department. In the case of Tim Lucas, an innovator the trucking industry may one day celebrate, it was a matter of thinking what no one has thought about sound, specifically sound waves.

Historically, it had been widely believed that an intrinsic limit existed for the amount of energy sound waves can store before turning into jagged shock waves and dissipating that energy. This supposed limitation made sound waves unlikely candidates for a new source of commercially usable energy. Lucas, with a renaissance-style mixture of skills, including physics, optics, refrigeration, drafting, and machining, didn't accept the premise.

Working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, he discovered that for resonant sound waves, the resonator or cavity through which the sound wave travels is the most important factor in determining the shape of the wave and, hence, its ability to store energy.

Lucas observed that by shaping the resonator into something like a cone or a bulb, he could control the shape of the sound wave, thereby avoiding shock wave forms and permitting large amounts of energy to be added to the wave. This, in turn, allows extremely high dynamic pressures to be achieved.

Dubbing the new technology, Resonant Macrosonic Synthesis (RMS), Lucas formed a new company called MacroSonix Corp. in Richmond, Va., to pursue protective patents and to develop and license applications for RMS. But what does RMS have to do with trucks? Perhaps a great deal.

One of the first applications of the technology is an RMS-based acoustical compressor. In 1994, the company signed a licensing and development agreement with a global, Fortune 500 appliance manufacturer (MacroSonix has pledged not to tell exactly which manufacturer) to produce acoustic compressors for household refrigerators, air conditioners and certain commercial refrigeration and cooling applications.

According to Lucas, the lubricant-free compressor eliminates the need for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and promises to meet or exceed the efficiency levels of today's piston-style compressors. "This compressor uses only sound to provide the required gas compression," he explains. "It eliminates the need for oil and moving parts, such as pistons, connecting rods, crank shafts, and bearings."

So what's left? The RMS resonator itself is an aluminum, tear-drop-shaped container about 11/2 ft. long and as empty as a beer can after a ball game. There are no internal parts. A small drive motor attaches to the narrow end. According to the company, "these simple empty cavities are the active component in all of the diverse RMS applications, such as acoustic generation of electric power; non-contaminating pumping of gases and liquids, and refrigeration and air-conditioning compressors, to name a few."

Imagine a refrigerated trailer cooled by a sound wave compressor. What about specialty pumps for things like milk or chemicals? What about RMS lifts or hoists?

RMS technology is brand new and unfamiliar, as new and strange as laser technology was only a few years ago. Does it also mark the beginning point for a series of new products that will converge with trucking one day in the industry's future? Maybe. It's certainly a technology to watch - or listen to.