Tech Roulette

Looking for an all-terrain airplane? A hacksaw for titanium? A thumb-size microwave? The wonders of the former Soviet Union are now on sale--but at what price?

By Craig Mellow|Saturday, April 01, 1995
RELATED TAGS: GADGETS
Valery kiseev’s double loop refrigerator is running on plain old electricity for the summer. But in Russia, explains the ruddy, good- natured physicist, summer is short. Come October, he can thread his capillary-tube-system-with-heat-pump out his laboratory’s basement window and suck in enough cold air to freeze Grandma’s prize turkey without using a watt of electricity. Nature herself thought of this invention, he says.

Kiseev stumbled into the home appliance business by accident. As a physicist at Urals State University, he spent years designing cooling systems for Soviet rockets. By copying aspects of the human circulatory system, Kiseev claims, he hit upon a new way of exchanging heat and cold that uses much less energy than conventional motor-driven pumps. Now, like so many of his colleagues, he is looking to cash in on his country’s newfound access to Western markets. His double-loop fridge for the cold- climate consumer is his first domestic spin-off.

During the glory days of the cold war, Soviet scientists relied on the military for a steady stream of research funds. When the cold war ended, that well ran dry. Russia’s best and brightest have turned instead to capitalism, hawking their wares in the West with an equal mixture of chutzpah and naïveté. Westerners, in kind, have flocked east, hoping to turn a fast buck as iron curtain technology is unveiled at last. So far the yawning gulf between the world of the Russian scientist and the free-market capitalist has kept both parties from their dreams of mutual success, but neither shows signs of abandoning the effort.

Adversity has certainly done little to quell Russian scientists’ thirst for invention. The parquet in the halls of Urals State’s Natural Sciences Building is disappearing in hunks, opening up ankle-twisting holes of raw dirt. Yet under these spartan conditions, skinny, respectful students continue to defend their graduate work before professors who still try to look as stern as the wall portraits of the great-bearded Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev, father of the periodic table. The Russian scientists, as always, seem as though they would rather stop eating than stop theorizing. One pair of postdocs, struggling in the bowels of the aging building with 1950s Polish equipment, reluctantly confide that they earn the equivalent of $40 and $70 a month. Still, their message to the outside world is one of stoic perseverance: It is interesting for us to live and work, one of them says.

A broad band of breathless Westerners see profits in this combination of determination and scientific knowledge. The hopeful range from giant oil companies to hungry baby boomers who go into hock for a plane ticket. Big or small, though, all are spurred by tales of the occasional big score. The legend persists, for example, that a smart young carpetbagger bought the rights to the smash-hit computer game Tetris in Moscow for a lousy $20,000--never mind that a British firm actually bought the game from a Soviet agency for at least ten times that amount. Another story--this one true--is that the U.S. Air Force is considering using a superior Russian ejection seat for its next-generation fighter, if Congress ever funds it.

Not surprisingly, the first wave of outside interest in post- Soviet science focused on aerospace. Ever since the Apollo program, the Soviets’ hammer-and-tongs approach to the cosmos has seemed to offer advantages over America’s infatuation with overdesign. For example, unlike a space shuttle that can’t lift off in the rain, Russian rockets can be launched anywhere, anytime--even on a winter’s night at the Baikonour Cosmodrome, which sits amid the remorseless winds of the Central Asian steppe. Russian spacecraft are also built horizontally and then stood up at the launchpad, which cuts prelaunch preparation down to about eight hours. American rockets, in contrast, are built standing, and rolling them out for takeoff requires days.

Then there were the little pieces of Kremlin common sense, like drilling holes in the top of a fighter pilot’s helmet. Without holes, a helmet tends to act like an airfoil when the pilot ejects, leading to an unfortunate severing of head from body. Why the Western military establishment, with its thousand-dollar screwdrivers, never came up with so elegant and simple a solution, nobody can say.

Such innovative thinking by the Russians attracted corporate giants like Lockheed and Daimler-Benz. They started dangling money in front of the major Moscow rocket scientists and quickly shouldered aside the smaller firms who had been first off the mark. These smaller companies began looking for a less crowded playing field.

Scoring big in Russian technology, however, is much like winning at roulette: it only looks easy. The experience of Scientific Dimensions, Inc., is a case in point. Scientific Dimensions was a technology-scouting firm founded by a New York patent law firm specifically to stalk Russian inventors. Of all the Western invention seekers in Russia, it probably cast the widest net. In February 1992 it opened its doors in Moscow to a perpetual stream of self-healed paraplegics, messianic mathematicians, and architects of earthquake-proof housing who held field tests by blowing up dachas. It quickly established offices in St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg, a city of 1.5 million about a two-hour plane ride east of Moscow.

Ekaterinburg seemed to exemplify the kind of out-of-the-way place that the Daimlers and the Lockheeds were certain to miss. To the initiated, the gritty military-industrial burg is a potential gold mine of technology: Ekaterinburg is not only one of the four centers of Russia’s Academy of Sciences, it is home to Urals State University, to the giant 26,000-student Urals Polytechnical, and to a raft of specialized colleges such as the Institute of Magnets and the Institute of Machine Building. Scientific Dimensions tried to sign up the cream of the local talent--inventors of everything from optical blood analyzers to newfangled oil drills.

However, Scientific Dimensions barely managed to place a bet, let alone hit the jackpot. It thought it might have a winner in a lithium electrolyte, a solid, waferlike form of the element that might replace the combustible liquid currently encased in lithium batteries. And it had a dark-horse candidate in titanium technology, from the Ural Mountains town of Verkhnaya Solda, which reportedly used to produce twice as much titanium as the rest of the world combined. The element’s combination of strength and lightness makes it an ideal material for products like bicycle frames or, more to the point in Verkhnaya Solda, nuclear submarine hulls. Reportedly, metallurgists there have a unique way of rolling titanium into a small seamless tube--perfect for making, say, baseball bats.

But for 101 different reasons, these products never went anywhere. Scientific Dimensions filed for ten U.S. patents on behalf of Russian inventors, but it ran out of money before they saw a ruble in return. Investors, whose expectations had been inflated in the heady days immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, grew increasingly impatient with the slow pace of progress and refused to put up more funds. In March 1994 the venture went belly-up.

What went wrong? a big part of the problem with such efforts, of course, is the sheer difficulty of adapting military technology to commercial needs. Sure, some gadgets have impressed foreign bounty hunters: a saw, for example, that can cut through titanium at the bottom of the ocean (the Red Navy commissioned it in an effort to salvage a sunken nuclear submarine). But from the ocean floor to the shelf of the neighborhood hardware store remains a bit of a leap. Likewise, an airplane that lands on tank treads may come in handy for making war in Siberia, but the benefit to Delta or British Airways is dubious.

Yet another problem in adapting Russian science to the world economy is the use of different standards of environmental and occupational safety. Russians are inclined, for instance, to use explosives far more freely than Westerners. One scheme for putting out forest fires in Siberia entails detonating several hundred kilograms of high explosives near the blaze. The blast is so powerful that it blows out the flames like a birthday candle. It worked pretty well in the forests of Siberia, recalls William Kauffman, a University of Michigan professor of aerospace engineering who spent 16 months in Russia scouting dual use projects for the Air Force. But I think we might have some trouble with the neighbors if we tried that in Yellowstone.

Westerners can also find themselves stymied by the Russians’ stubborn inflexibility in doing a deal. I could have made them millions, but they were too communist to do it, laments Tim Worstall, a ponytailed 31-year-old Englishman, over Guinness at Moscow’s expatriate crossroads bar, Rosie O’Grady’s.

The Russians in question, he explains, had developed a microwave generator that fits on a silicon chip. Theoretically, such a gizmo could make possible an adjustable-wavelength oven, which could cook a steak without turning it an unpleasant shade of gray, or a low-power mini-oven that could run on the 12-volt battery of a car. Some Japanese and British investors expressed interest, but the inventors were too circumspect even to issue a two-page description of the invention, let alone apply for foreign patents. How did they know foreign companies wouldn’t just steal their work?

Furthermore, many Russian scientists harbor contempt for the very capitalists who they hope will make them rich. Valery Gorbachev (no relation to Mikhail Sergeyevich) has a promising commercial proposition on his desk, which is squeezed into a classic Russian book- and smoke-filled office atop the regional Academy of Sciences building in Ekaterinburg. A German telecommunications company has asked Gorbachev to consult on possible projects in the area.

Gorbachev, however, scoffs: I’m a scientist. I don’t want to work with telephones [making deals]. Grandly, he tosses a three-page lab report across the table. It’s written on the yellowed paper that is still the hallmark of Russian officialdom. This is what I want to work with, he says. This is a great advance.

The terse document describes a gearless transmission that is supposedly far superior to anything found in the West. No other details are available--its inventor, engineer Vasily Popov, is unavailable for comment. He’s off planting vegetables at his dacha so he can have vitamins in his diet next winter. All he and Popov are asking for, Gorbachev declares, is $50,000 for development.

Gorbachev has plenty of other interesting ideas in his drawer. His number-two candidate at the moment is a minilaser that does the work of a dentist’s drill, designed by a surgeon named Zoltan Sigal in the hinterland city of Izhevsk. In case this great humanitarian advance unaccountably fails to fly, Sigal has also patented a new means of unclotting coronary arteries. All are duly recorded in the same flyblown lab reports, as if no further elaboration were needed.

While Westerners are frustrated by Russian scientists’ poor grasp of the bottom line, the Russians tend to see Westerners as narrow-minded. The American style is to deeply, wonderfully know one thing, remarks Viktor Kozhevnikov, another Ekaterinburg heat-transfer man who spent two years as a visiting scientist at Northwestern University. But if there’s a question a little off to the side, they can’t handle it.

Finally, Western technology hunters are cultivating what was supposed to be the lifeless swamp of Russian computer science. The flair that Russians apparently have for designing computer games--perhaps the dungeons and dragons of everyday life have something to do with it--may provide a more approachable meal ticket for the entrepreneur. But here, too, one must be prepared for experiences beyond the scope of Silicon Valley.

Tim Worstall remembers getting a tip to see a famous elderly physicist, the author of several standard Soviet textbooks, who’s now retired from a chair at Russia’s Academy of Sciences. The great man indeed had a computer game to show. He flipped on the monitor and asked Worstall which side he wanted to play, World Government or Nuclear Terrorist. To demonstrate the amusement’s solid foundation in reality, he handed his visitor a 20-page manuscript on Soviet strategy in the event of a thermonuclear exchange with the United States. You know, Worstall explains. If we hit Minsk, then they hit Chicago. That sort of thing.

In all this, there’s obviously room for laughter. But it is bittersweet. For Russian scientists, getting outside money is less a matter of personal prosperity than of cultural survival. And despite all the difficulties, outsiders agree the culture deserves saving. I think American deans of engineering should come over here and look at their system of technical education, says William Kauffman, whose Russophilia survives the scary product demonstrations he has witnessed. It is far superior to ours, and I certainly hope it doesn’t get thrown away.
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