Build a better briquette (from sugar-cane waste) and save a Haitian mountainside.
Amy Smith likens her mind to an untidy dresser: "It has lots of open drawers with things falling out the edges, so that when you see something interesting, there's lots of different places you could put it." As an inventor, that
allows her to make connections between a discovery in one field and a problem in another, or to apply a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem.
That might mean, for example, choosing a material similar to that used for helium balloons when designing containers for a solar water-disinfection project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year Smith designed a new flow regulator for a Honduran water-chlorination system using a toilet valve, an IV drip, and a plastic gas can. Not only does her invention work, it's also being reproduced in neighboring villages.
Smith, who teaches at MIT, was given a MacArthur "genius award" last fall for her work designing appropriate technology for the developing world. Among her recent projects is a new kind of charcoal for use in Haiti. More than 90 percent of the country is now deforested, largely because rural Haitians cook with wood charcoal. The resulting winter floods kill thousands of people every year. Many more children die from respiratory infections from breathing indoor cooking fumes; breathing such contaminated air is, in fact, the world's leading cause of death for children under five.
Smith's solution is to make charcoal from a waste product called bagasse—the fibers that are left after the juice has been squeezed from sugar cane. After carbonizing the bagasse in a kiln built from a 55-gallon oil drum, she mixes it with a binder made from cassava root, then compacts it in a press invented by her students so that it has the density of wood charcoal but burns more cleanly.
Smith won't introduce her sugar-cane charcoal, however, until it burns as well as, or better than, wood charcoal. "It's always hard to ask people to make behavioral changes when you're asking them to use something that isn't as good," she explains. But she's close enough to her goal to allow herself to feel excited. The invention meets all of her criteria for appropriate technology—it's simple, cheap, and easy to produce and distribute. Most important, it meets a need.
Smith grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her mother taught junior high math; her father taught electrical engineering at MIT. She went to MIT as an undergraduate, then to rural Botswana as a Peace Corps volunteer, where she spent four years teaching secondary school and working in the regional beekeeping office. It was while she was in the Kalahari Desert that she hit upon the idea of applying her engineering know-how to the problems of the developing world. She went back to MIT for her master's degree and soon began winning awards for the simple functionality of her inventions.
"It's the way I was raised," she says. "If you see a problem and there's something you can do about it, then you do something about it. What I seem to do fairly well is simplify a design within certain constraints. And it's absolutely applicable for doing engineering design for developing countries, where the simpler you can make it, the better."