Dyson: Fans, the Conservatives and climate change

To mark the launch of his AirMultiplier fan, launched today, Sir James Dyson was interviewed by The Independent. Topics included the fan, his new job with the Conservatives and how the world might solve climate change. This is an edited transcript of the interview:

The Independent (I): How did the fan come about?

Sir James Dyson (D): We were developing the (AirBlade) hand drier and we noticed that the blade of air that comes out at 400mph was dragging in a lot of air with it, creating a much greater airflow than was coming out of the blade. So it wasn’t much use a hand-drier but we thought it was a very interesting phenomenon.

So we decided to further develop that and work on that principle as an air mover - in other words, a fan. Because a fan blade has a number of disadvantages. Children rush up and try to put their fingers in it. Accidents occur. It’s very difficult to clean. But most important of all the blades give a buffeting when they come on. It’s uncomfortable and you don’t enjoy it, whereas ours, not only do you not mind it, but people say’s it’s more cooling. Now that’s what they say - I don’t know whether it’s totally true or not.

Our system doesn’t deliver a greater airflow than the best fan for an equivalent wattage but it does deliver a lot better than most and is right up at the top. So it doesn’t deliver more air, but it delivers it in a much more constant and cooling fashion, so you want to be in the airflow rather than not want to be in the buffeted one, which is important if you’re trying to reduce the amount of air conditioning used, which is important for HFCs and is also important for electricity consumption.

And there are health issues, with air conditioning you are just re-circulating air or germs or whatever else.

I: It’s a bit expensive at £199...

D: We would argue that a fan that delivers air that you don’t mind sitting in front is a much more ecological, healthier and more pleasant than the chest-chilling chill of air conditioning...

You can buy a cheap plastic one for less than that, but those chromium ones are actually more expensive.

I: Is it made in Malaysia, like the vacuum cleaners?

D: It’s assembled in Malaysia, but we export from Britain. We’re a British manufacturer, a British exporter, the intellectual property is here, which is the most important thing. Financially, we export from here so financially it benefits the balance of payments and our tax is paid here. And interestingly since we moved assembly [from Wiltshire, with the loss of 590 jobs] we’ve not only expanded the business seven or eight times, but we now employ more people than when we were assembling here and we pay 10 times more tax, we’re bringing into the economy 10 times more than we were so it’s clearly worked for the country.

“Of course it’s not nice having to lay people off, which we did at the time, but the net benefit to the country, I think, is much greater.”

I: Which is your favourite invention?

D: I think of them all as children. They all have their own merits. I don’t think which one I like best, or which one is going to be commercially successful. I like them all, for different reasons. I don’t do something necessarily to make a big profit or because it’s a logical business decision. I do something because I think it’s a good piece of technology and works better than an existing piece of technology in the areas we’re going into.

We weren’t in the market for hand-driers but we thought we had a good product so that’s how we operate: develop technology and then make a product using it.

I: Is serendipity important?

D: That’s really important. The thing is to be conducting experiments, to be searching for technology, to be trying to do something and so often when you do that you do something unexpected, in another field.

And that happened with the hand-drier. we were doing some experiments with air blades and it didn’t work as well as wanted it to, but we found it scraped the water off hands absolutely brilliantly, rather than trying to evaporate the water. So that was serendipity, but we working at something.

And so it was the case with this; that was a spin off from observing something that was totally useless for the hand-drier but had another application.

That’s how my vacuum cleaner started. We were building a paint plant at my Ballbarrow factory and I had to make a giant cyclone 10 metres high to separate the epoxy powder that mists the frame when you spray the frames. As we were building this giant cyclone I suddenly saw that the cyclone was collecting masses of dust all day long without clogging. And my experience from 30 years of life with vacuum cleaners is that they clog and it’s the clogging of the bag that wrecks the suction that wrecks the picking up of the dog hairs and dust from the floor. So while building something industrially to collect epoxy powder for spraying on frames I recognised something that might work in a vacuum cleaner, on a totally different scale, and there was the 5,500 prototype trail of many years to make it work. So that’s a very good example.

I: Did you find new potential products while developing the fan?

D: Yes, but I can’t talk about them.

I: What other products are you working on?

D: We’re developing technology that could be moved into the automotive field, but we’re several years off. We’re developing electric motors and they’re going to be very important in cars, and we’re also working on batteries.”

I: Will you release more products in the next two years. If so that would be an acceleration...

D: Yes, I hope so. We’re very committed to vacuum cleaners, we’re innovating on vacuum cleaners. But electric motors are really important to us because we think they’re at the heart of energy consumption, weight and efficiency in vacuum cleaners and other things. So electric motors might sound boring but to us they’re fascinating. We’re trebling the size of our motor division down in Malmesbury, and there are some very good British engineers and scientists in the electric motor field.”

I: Any other grand projects?

D: I’m getting involved in doing a White Paper with the Conservative Party - because they asked me - on developing technology for Britain, on Britain once again becoming a technological powerhouse and overtaking Germany in technology experts.

I think we need to change the general culture to take more of an interest in technology and we need to change education so school pupils want to do engineering, science and maths. And we need to change bankers so that instead of investing only two or three per cent of their money in proper technology, they take a long term view and develop something substantial that can be exported worldwide.

I: Isn’t there a risk in aligning yourself with a political party?

D: I’ve worked with Labour. Tony Blair asked me to do a school, Gordon Brown wanted to do a school, but in the end it failed. Well, it got planning permission but Hazel Blears called a public inquiry and Ed Balls and John Denham refused to give it any funding. I had already spent £3m and there was no point going on; they clearly didn’t want it. So then we gave it to the Royal College of Arts instead for incubator units for students who have got good ideas. Instead of chucking them out into the world after their degree, they stay in the incubator units and develop them, so they can go into production; that’s very important.

But I’m not aligned politically, but I’ve been asked to do it. And just as Tony Blair asked me to do the odd thing and I’m very happy to do it.

I: What most needs to be invented?

D: We need to make another big advance - which I think is happening - in the field of material science. Harry Kroto, a famous British person, developed Carbon 60. It’s fascinating because, for example, we lose 40 per cent of our power down through the National Grid through heat and poor conductivity. Now, with Carbon 60 you can make carbon nano-tubes and string them out and get something like six times the conductivity of copper as well as being cheaper and much lighter and so on. So if you could save that 40 per cent that’s wasted in the National Grid, look at that.

So if you could have solar collectors in the Sahara and you could send cables back to England on the way. It would be very cheap and you start to use solar power really efficiently. Solar voltaic cells at the moment are in their infancy and are not very efficient, but carbon nano-tubes could transform that because of their conductivity and surface area. So I think the greatest advances will probably come, and will be enabled by, advances in materials and that will trigger great product advances.”

I: So solar power farms in the Sahara are practical?

D: Yes, absolutely, if you use these carbon nano-tube cables.