One of the featured winners of the 2010 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards is the innovative sOccket, an invention that pairs the motion of a soccer ball with an efficient LED (light emitting diode) light. After 15 minutes of play, the sOccket ball can power up the included light for about three hours, making it a clean, affordable solution to expensive kerosene in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where less than 25% of the population has reliable electricity.
sOccket co-inventor Jessica Matthews spoke on a panel at the Breakthrough Awards. She said she and her colleagues Jessica Lin, Julia Silverman and Hemali Thakkar came up with the idea while they were students together at Harvard, and they had to come up with something for a class project. "We only had two weeks," explained Matthews. "We didn't have a lab, and we just used what was in the room," she said.
The young women worked in a Harvard dining hall and other spaces they could find. They scrounged up bits of wire and spare electronics parts from around campus. "It was four girls blasting Britney Spears and cutting things up," said Matthews. "My hands are cut up from making LED lamps. Experimenting is about looking at what's in front of you, and adding to your whole solution," she said.
The woman used "what was in their college bank accounts" to take their class project to the real world, and they have been traveling to Africa to test their product in the field. They even hit the pitches in South Africa during the World Cup. They are working with a manufacturer in that country to start production, and hope to subsidize developing world sales with sales in developed countries, where it could make an educational toy. Matthews explained that she was especially drawn to Africa because of her Nigerian heritage.
When the sOccket ball rolls, a magnet the women installed inside slides back and forth inside an inductive coil. This generates electricity, which is then stored in a capacitor. When you're done playing with the ball, simply connect it to the small LED lamp (which resembles a desk light). According to Matthews, the ball weighs only five ounces more than a regulation FIFA ball. The inventors hope to come out with a more powerful version that can charge up a cellphone.
Speaking of mobile phones, another Breakthrough Awards panelist, Ayodogan Ozcan of the University of California, Los Angeles, was on hand to discuss his work with cell phone microscopes. According to Ayodogan, the software his lab developed can turn most typical cell phone cameras into powerful microscopes, which can be used to spot disease-causing germs in blood or contaminants in water supplies. The idea is to provide a simple, portable, low-cost diagnostic device to technicians and clinicians working on the move or in resource-strapped areas like developing countries.
"We can take a simple webcam [or camera phone], and using software, it can see the shadows of cells, which gives good resolution at the subatomic level," said Ozcan. "There are 5 billion cellphone subscribers around the world today, and by 2015 there will be 90% use around the world. So we wanted to take advantage of the camera in your pocket."
Light and lighting are increasingly powerful tools that help us see better and do more.
Learn more about the many expanding uses of LEDs and other advanced technologies in the new book Green Lighting, which I co-wrote with Seth Leitman and Bill Brinsky. Also check out the upcoming book tour and listen to Brian and Seth talk green lighting on Blog Talk Radio:
Check out this video of the sOccket in action:
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