Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How to Innovate: Interview with Dean Kamen


Inventor extraordinaire, Dean Kamen addressed an audience from his Segway.

U.K newspaper The Telegraph recently did a major write-up and interview with X PRIZE Board Member and inventor extraordinaire Dean Kamen. Part of it covers his dreams to address the problems of the "third world."

Kamen's latest project may well be his most ambitious yet: he wants to bring electricity and clean water to the Third World. His plan is not the creation of centralised infrastructure for power grids and sewage treatment, but a small-scale and, relatively, cheap solution. 'Like, how about a device that a couple of people can haul into a village that can turn any source of water - which is typically toxic these days, that kills two million kids a year - into a thousand litres of water a day. How about if we could carry something into a village that could give people a way to make electricity?'

After 12 years working on these two problems, the engineers at Deka now have their solutions on show at the workshops in Manchester. The first is the 'Slingshot', a large box about the size of an office photocopier, sheathed in black protective foam, that can cleanse water of any contaminant from radionuclides to sewage, and run for years at a time without maintenance. The second is another metal box, five feet square, connected to a bottle of compressed gas, which emits a low murmur of humming energy. This is a Stirling engine, similar to the one installed in his electric car, but large and efficient enough to electrify an entire village, which can be driven by any locally available source of heat. Both devices have already been proved amazingly effective: one six-month test has used a Stirling engine to provide electric light to a village in Bangladesh, powered by burning the methane from a pit filled with cow dung; Slingshot has undergone similar tests in a settlement in rural Guatemala. But Kamen has yet to find a commercial partner to manufacture either of the devices for the customers that need them most. 'The big companies,' he says, 'long ago figured out - the people in the world that have no water and have no electricity have no money.' He's tried the United Nations, too, but discovered a Catch-22: non-governmental organisations won't buy the devices until they're in full production.

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