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Jun. 22, 2010

Dirt Batteries and Solar Camels

by Jesse Medalia Strauss

Click to enlarge images

This is the second in a series of posts covering the recent World Science Festival in New York City.

The underdeveloped world, at a glance, appears hampered by its lack of modern technology and infrastructure. However, that is only at a glance. In the poorest crevasses of Africa or the most isolated quarters of the Far East, some people have been spinning a web of new ideas and innovations. Just remember what young inventor Hugo Van Vuuren says: “If it works in Africa, it works everywhere.”

I found out how right Van Vuuren is when I went to the 2010 World Science Festival’s Modern MacGyvers: Innovations for a Developing World, held at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. Modern MacGyvers showcased a series of inventions that not only makes a substantial difference in developing countries, but also demonstrates simple ways that we can use our creativity to be energy efficient in our own world.

Hugo Van Vuuren demonstrated this point in much more than words. He was born in South Africa and focuses on designing for Africa. He and his team developed a battery that is powered by small electrical currents in dirt. That’s right -- it runs on dirt, and it can power a light, charge a cell phone, and run a radio. This battery changes the way farmers in impoverished African communities conduct commerce and power their homes. We Americans can take a tip from this invention. In our own society, where we find it easier to waste than conserve energy, dirt technology has the potential to radically reduce the amount of energy and fossil fuels Western cultures consume.

Another Modern MacGyver is Winston Soboyejo, an engineer who teaches at Princeton. Using a special flexible solar panel, he was able to create a refrigerator that runs on solar energy and fits on the back of a camel. This is a near-perfect solution for the many parts of Africa crippled by their lack of highways and roads. This camel fridge can preserve food and vaccines for small isolated villages, without the need to change a battery or find an outlet.

All of the inventions shown at Modern MacGyvers have one thing in common: they can make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people. As any invention should, these have the potential to change the world. Who knows -- maybe 100 years from now, our own lights will be powered with dirt, and our cell phones, cameras and fridges with solar. With thinkers like Winston and Hugo, maybe a sustainable future for all is not so far beyond the realm of possibility.

Jesse and Julian will continue to cover the 2010 World Science Festival. Check back throughout this week and next for fun and insightful reviews, photos, and video of this year’s events.

About Jesse Medalia Strauss

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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