Life-changing Inventions
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Like the Chevy Volt, these practical, ingenious solutions aim to make the world a better place

By Diane Pham


Most of us don’t think twice about what it really means to switch on a light when night falls or to pour a glass of water to quench thirst, but there are billions of people worldwide who struggle for access to these simple things in life.

Like the innovative designers at Chevrolet who built the Volt to run on gas and battery power, the ingenuity-seeking designers below are highly conscious of the environment and of the world around us: they’ve created practical, ingenious and inexpensive design solutions that address the need for basic shelter, education, clean water and renewable energy. Battery-operated or not, that’s power that can change lives.

LifeStraw: Water

Unicef reports that approximately 783 million people live without access to clean and reliable sources of drinking water. And according to the World Health Organization, more than 3.4 million of these people, nearly half of them children under five years old, will die each year from diarrheal diseases related to contaminated water. LifeStraw is a portable water filter that is able to remove a minimum of 99.9% of waterborne protozoan parasites and pathogens like typhoid, cholera and dysentery. Each straw is meant to be use by one person and can filter a maximum of 1000 liters of water—that’s enough for one person for an entire year! The clever device is also extremely durable and contains no chemicals, no batteries and no moving parts to wear out.

Little Sun: Light

Imagine the sun setting and being left to the flickering light of a candle or kerosene lamp. Some 1.3 billion people live without access to electricity, leaving them without a safe and efficient light source at night. Many have turned to kerosene lamps, a dangerous alternative that has led to millions of deaths due to asphyxiation and fires. Over the past two years, Olaf Eliasson and Federick Ottenson have been developing Little Sun, a safe, hand-held solar-powered lamp able to yield five hours of light for every four hours it is exposed to the sun. Designed to survive three years of continuous usage and daily wear and tear, Little Sun is also portable and can easily be carried around during the day as it charges. The designers hope to distribute at least 50 million Little Sun lamps by 2020.

Wilson Solar Grill: Safe Cooking

Safely cooking up a meal is another problem that plagues developing countries, from Nigeria to India. While some have turned to kerosene to cook their food (a dangerous fuel, as previously reported), others continue to rely on wood for heat, which is known to cause an array of health and environmental problems, including respiratory illnesses and deforestation. While solar cookers have long been in existence, MIT professor David Wilson has developed a new, much more effective technology that could bring nighttime solar-powered grilling to those in areas without access to safe modes of cooking. Wilson’s solar grill harnesses the energy of sun through a Fresnel lens and then stores latent heat, which is used to melt a container of Lithium Nitrate. The Lithium Nitrate acts as a battery storing thermal energy for 25 hours at a time. Stored heat is redistributed through convection, allowing for the grill to be used continuously over that same period of time at temperatures above 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

One Laptop Per Child XO Laptop: Communication and Education

With Facebook, Twitter and email readily available, most of us wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if we didn’t have the Internet. But more than just a space to kill some free hours, the Internet provides us with a connection to new ideas, places and ways to educate ourselves by our own accord. One Laptop Per Child understands the power a connected computer can have on a child’s life, so they’ve created a low-cost, low-power, WiFi-ready laptop to promote self-empowered learning. The XO Laptop measures about the size of a textbook; it is lightweight, can withstand extreme environmental conditions and is durable, functional, energy-efficient, responsive and fun. The new model has 1GB of RAM and 4GB of Flash storage (upgradable to 32GB). With access to a computer, children are engaged in their own education, and can learn, share and create with one another.

AbleNook: Shelter

Every year, natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy turn the lives of millions upside down, leaving them homeless and with little hope for immediate relief. With the effects of climate change echoing louder than ever before, the need for readily deployable shelter is on the rise. Sean Verdecia and Jason Ross created AbleNook, a concept for a unique solar-powered prefab modular dwelling for disaster relief that can be assembled in about two hours without any tools and no skilled labor. The design employs identical and universal aluminum structural insulated panels (SIPs) and extruded aluminum structural members that clip together without the use of any tools. Given its modularity, the AbleNook can be ever expanded, and a set of adjustable leg jacks allow the prefab to be set up on just about any terrain. While the AbleNook is specified for disaster relief situations, given lack of adequate housing across the U.S. and beyond, the design has the potential to reach many more than it aims.

The trademarks mentioned in this story are held by their respective owners.

Diane Pham is a New York-based writer and a senior editor at


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