Power brick wins hackathon for developing countries

A design for a thermocouple embedded inside a clay brick able to power LED lighting has won a hackathon to find cheap, novel energy sources for developing countries.

Organised by RS Components and held at one of Google’s London offices, the 48-hour hackathon brought together engineers from a variety of backgrounds, including 3D-printing pioneer and founder of RepRap Professional Adrian Bowyer.

Pete Wood, head of product category marketing at RS, said the participants in the Power Hack had been active in the company’s online DesignSpark community “but did not know each other until the hackathon started”.

Wood added: “The idea behind the event was to hack for people without access to electricity. The idea was to create designs that villagers could put together themselves and to show that the tools exist that enable people to make and prototype things very quickly. The teams designed some of the circuitry here and used 3D printers to make parts. We’ve had components ordered in and people have scrounged bits from everyone. One of the teams went off to get discarded lithium-ion batteries.”

Two members of the UK charity Practical Action provided teams with advice on the kinds of materials people in remote villages in developing nations could expect to access. “They had a lot of local knowledge of what’s there,” said Wood.

Practical Action technical advisor Neil Noble said: "We were involved very early on in focusing on energy as the main requirement. The groups here have taken onboard a lot of what we thought was important.”

Team Maxwell, which included Bowyer, came up with the winning concept, called SeeBrick, a copper-iron thermocouple embedded into the clay bricks commonly used to insulate cooking stoves. The team calculated six of the bricks could generate 2.5W, enough to drive up to 15 LED lights in the home at night.

“We envisage two types of manufacturing kit,” said Bowyer. One intended for production in towns that can get access to a 3D printer; the other for rural villages that uses some preformed parts but which uses just a simple motor to draw and spot-weld the wire that forms each thermocouple layer.

The other projects focused on recovering lithium-ion batteries and generating energy from water or wind using parts made from plastic bottles and aluminium cans. Wood said the designs would be documented as open-source projects to allow others to work on them and modify the designs.

“Now we want to find a company that’s interested in this work,” said Matt Silver-Vallance of Practical Action. “Can there be a sustainable business? Can it be produced in a plant in a large town locally and become a commercially viable entity?”

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