A low-cost, lightweight solar cooker designed by a team of students from MIT and Qinghai Normal University in Tibet’s Amdo region. The cooker is easily disassembled, transported, and reassembled by one person. A metal coil attachment allows the solar cooker to provide heat for the home. (Credit: Scot Frank/MIT)
— by Joseph Caputo
While traveling through Tibet a few years ago, MIT senior Scot Frank, an American from Salt Lake City, Utah, learned about the harsh conditions Tibetans face when gathering materials for their traditional yak dung-and-wood-fueled cookers. He heard stories of how women, sometimes pregnant, must travel through dangerous storms and unforgiving terrains to find dung. And how obtaining firewood, a scarce resource, often means cutting down tress in environmentally fragile areas. Although alternative solar-powered cookers were already around, their poor design often led to fires and unhealthy amounts of smoke.
Frank and his travel partner Catlin Powers of Wellesley College soon took steps to produce a solar-powered cooker that is safe, cheap and easy to make, a project they continue today under the name SolSource Tibet. The secret to their success is collaboration, both with other teams of students, in this case from Qinghai Normal University in Tibet’s Amdo region, as well as the rural Tibetans. The solar cooker, which looks like a tin-foil satellite dish with a frying pan in the middle, is changing the lives of Tibetans and could be ready for mass production by the summer of 2009.
Frank presented the solar-powered cooker as part of Innovation Night at MIT Museum. Although mostly a poster session and panel discussion to advertise a $30,000 Lemelson-MIT student prize, the evening also highlighted a growing trend in the business of new ideas: collaboration. The lone, aloof inventor of yesteryear would not make it in today’s world. The future of innovation requires a team of talented and diverse individuals to create shared products and resources, a vision described by Robin Chase, co-founder of ZipCar and present CEO of GoLoco.
“I feel that we are living in a world of increasing scarcity and we want to move back to abundance,” Chase told her audience. “I think we’re feeling this scarcity because we feel like we have to own everything ourselves.” In her opinion, we need to create platforms to share excess capacities. What’s innovative about Zipcar is that each person is responsible for their share. This approach does not tear down any existing infrastructures, it is just a small step forward to save space and make things more affordable, essential if the population continues to expand at the rate it is.
This idea can also be applied to intellectual resources. Both Frank and Chase relied on the input of others to create their inventions, which as Chase pointed out, is exactly what the Internet age is doing with Web 2.0. New innovation will increasingly rely on networking, specifically solving problems through community collaboration. Whether this generates a safer way to cook or a transportation revolution, the strategy will no doubt produce great contributions for science and society.
The MIT Museum will host two more evenings of science-related forums and presentations in the coming weeks. Science Outreach night will be held on Friday, September 26, and Energy night on Friday October 10. Both events begin at 5:00 p.m. and include refreshments.