Inventor works to save lives in the developing world

Living on Earth

Professor Ashok Gadgil at U.C.-Berkeley was honored this year with the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT award for Global Innovation, in recognition of his work to improve the lives of people in the developing world.

Gadgil, chair of Safe Water and Sanitation at the University of California, Berkeley, has inventions that have helped more than 100 million people around the world. Jerome Lemelson, the award’s namesake, was one of America’s most prolific inventors. Among his 650 patents are inventions for industrial robots, lasers and the Walkman tape player.

In 1993 he established the Lemelson Prize to recognize and support inventions that improve the lives of people around the world.

Gadgil began with a program that used compact fluorescent lamps to make energy efficiency affordable for poor residential customers in developing countries.

While Gadgil didn’t invent the compact fluorescent lamp, he did find a way to make its benefits available to a very large number of people.

“The problem is that utilities in the developing world routinely subsidize electricity to their poor residential customer,” Gadgil said.

Customers receive subsidized rates from the government because they don’t have enough money to pay the full price on electricity. Efficient energy technology is not subsidized, which creates no incentive to use it..

“So, subsidized electricity undercuts unsubsidized energy efficiency. That is a problem,” Gadgil said.

The solution? Persuade the utilities and consumer groups that if the utilities subsidized efficiency, they would sell less subsidized electricity as a result and would actually keep more money.

Gadgil created a model reducing the demand, as opposed to subsidizing the supply of electricity.

“The utility gets to keep some money, the customers reduce their electricity bills, and the environment has less pollution, and less CO2 emissions,” Gadgil said.

Another big invention was UV Waterworks, which Gadgil invented in the 1990s to affordably disinfect drinking water. The invention uses ultraviolet light to eliminate waterborne pathogens.

“It meets or exceeds World Health Organization, and the U.S. EPA guidelines for disinfection. It must have a certain kill rate for pathogens, and we aimed at 10 times better kill rate, and we achieved it, all for a cost of about five cents per ton of water,” Gadgil said.

UV Waterworks provides water to 5 million people daily in India, Liberia, Nigeria, the Philippines and Ghana.

Gadgil’s next invention was the Berkeley-Darfur Cook stove, invented for refugees in Darfur.

He said the stove was created to reduce Darfur refugee women’s exposure to systematic attacks by the Janjaweed.

“These women, they do get food from the U.N. Agencies, but the food is raw and they can’t eat it. They cannot feed their families unless they have fuel for cooking the food, which means they have to leave the safety of their camps,’ he explained. “However, all the land within walking distance has been completely denuded of combustible biological material, which also means that now refugees have taken to selling part of their food rations to middle men, and with that cash, they have been buying wood for cooking.”

Gadgil and his team tested various fuel-efficient stoves already on the market, however, Gadgil could not find one that didn’t topple over during cooking. He eventually co-designed one with his team and the Darfur refugee women. His solution mechanically stabilized the stove by providing stabilizing legs.

“This is a lot of hard work, but it comes from passion rather than work as a slog. If it’s not interesting or if it’s not rewarding at some level to you, you wouldn’t work with that much intensity and focus. It’s very exciting and rewarding to be able to work on these problems,” he said.

Gadgil said it is important to take the time to go out and find out what people want in order to invent something that is useful in a cultural context.

“The inventor who hopes to help people in a different culture in a distant place, cannot do so without going to the population and field testing and listening to what they have to say. Even though they may not have the same level of scientific knowledge or formal education, they are the ones who will decide if my invention succeeds or fails,” he said.

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