Collecting the sun's rays has become a matter of getting dinner done and heating homes in parts of the world, as a new version of solar cookers is being installed to harness energy.
West High School graduate Scot Frank has been touring remote areas of Tibet, India, Nepal and Bhutan, learning about regional methods for heating homes and cooking food. He and friends have been teaching natives about a new solar cooker, designed by himself and others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and surrounding schools, that will reduce the need of nonrenewable fuels and lower the incidence of lung disease, preserving life and the environment in such locations.
"We are hoping to really help some people with this project," said Frank, now an undergraduate at MIT. He said the group needs additional funding to get the project off the ground.
The project, SolSource, was originally awarded a $3,000 grant by MIT, for its promise in preserving the earth's products. Frank said the group would like to install and utilize hundreds of the devices in remote Asian areas.
Current oven models are constructed of cement and are sometimes too heavy to move so they can collect the most sunlight. The challenge for Frank's design was to be heavy enough to withstand high winds on the plateaus of western China, while remaining light enough to be portable. The dish and the reflector are formed by mylar sewn into a yak wool canvas.
The apparatus is intended for use in the Himalayas and is constructed from locally-available materials using traditional knowledge, Frank said. In addition to providing cooking and heating functions, he said the invention has the potential for a number of benefits, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions, a boost to women's status, and decreased deforestation.
SolSource is intended to be a starter product and Frank believes natives could further develop the technology.
"Although the SolSource Project is good, its not ideal," Frank said. "Our experiences suggest that villagers have both the tools and the knowledge to design better solutions than we ourselves can."
In the past, when villages have been isolated from the rest of the world, people had to innovate to optimize local resources. Currently, Frank said many of the villagers lack self-confidence.
"Contrary to expectations, contact with the outside world is decreasing their desire to innovate," he said. "Encounters with city people and television make them feel backwards. Thus, many of them are scrambling for foreign technologies regardless of sustainability rather than using their own experiences to design appropriate solutions."
SolSource intends, instead of handing over a new technology, to encourage future resources by incubating rural innovation that would foster further development.
"By supplying low-input renewable energies, we are opening opportunities for the development of rural community economies that we hope to encourage through our discussions and training sessions," the One Earth Designs Web site says. The ovens are one of several projects and ideas that the company is working to facilitate. They hope to become a useful organization over time, Frank said.
"I truly feel it was the influence of my family and how I was raised that encouraged me to want to help others and make a positive change in the world," he said, adding that his teachers and friends at West High School in Salt Lake City always pushed him "to always try my hardest and pursue my passions."
Frank speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and has built friendships with many of the villagers in the towns and regions he's visited over the year and a half he's spent in rural communities in the western provinces of China. The partnerships he's built with businesses, including factories that will be producing the new design, will help take the idea to new heights, he believes.
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