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People living in less developed regions of the world are often bypassed by technology. One of the reasons for this is the unavailability of electric power. A number of innovative minds are troubled by this exclusion and are inspired to do something about it. As the coordinator of the Collegiate Inventors Competition (, I had the opportunity to meet with one of the 1999 winners, who has had this inspiration for some time. Amy Smith, a 37-year old graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., invented an incubator that runs without electricity. Amy spent much time overseas in countries that did not have any of the modern conveniences that most of us have come to expect. Among other “tours of duty,” Amy also spent time in the Peace Corps. She explained that the phase-change principle used in the incubator could be applied to all types of medical laboratory equipment — and could save lives. (Additional details on Amy and her incubator can be found at: mech_adv/anontrad.htm.) In addition to Amy’s story, there are stories of other inventors who have been similarly motivated. Keith Meyer, while working in Asia, saw firsthand how temperature-sensitive vaccines and medicines, being transported to remote areas, were ruined by unreliable portable cooling systems. This led to his development of an energy-efficient refrigerator that utilizes vacuum insulation panels and novel phase-change materials. Now manufactured by a firm in Xenia, Ohio, the microprocessor-controlled appliance operates off a small solar-panel and lead-acid battery. It can hold temperatures for several days off of a single charge. Trevor Bayless — a self-described tinkerer — attracted attention by inventing a windup, clockwork-style radio, so people everywhere could have access to news and education. It was intended for poor regions where dry-cell batteries were cost-prohibitive. His Cape Town, South African company later followed up with a windup flashlight. Last year, the inventor began testing another idea for converting kinetic energy into electrical energy — piezo-electric boots. When worn while walking, the boots provide a constant trickle charge capable of keeping a mobile phone charged. Bayless hopes the concept can help bring telecommunications to areas lacking both electrical and telephone service. Researchers at Cranfield University in the U.K. have developed a human-powered drilling rig called The Pounder. Already used in Uganda, The Pounder constructs small-diameter wells. In Daveyton, South Africa, children at a pre-school perform useful work while having fun by playing on a special merry-go-round that is outfitted with a water pump. The system pumps water into an elevated holding tank that daily supplies 200 people about 2.5 liters each. The concept has the potential to spare millions worldwide the labor of manually transporting water. Last year, the World Bank supplied funding to establish another 100 systems. Recently, graduate students at California State University in Sacramento reported that a liquid-filled black jar in a basic, cardboard solar cooker could produce temperatures sufficient to pasteurize water. They observed that most water-borne microbes can be inactivated at only 140 degrees F, making it unnecessary to boil the water. Perhaps more inventive minds will devote some time to thinking small. As is shown in some of these examples, it only takes a little innovation to make a huge improvement in the lives of those less fortunate.

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