Meet The Energy-Saving Gadgets Of The Future

From a GPS that outsmarts traffic jams to flooring that generates electricity from footsteps, student inventors are dreaming up a more convenient, energy efficient future. Ira Flatow talks with winners of Microsoft's "Imagine Cup" and Siemens' "We Can Change The World Challenge" about their innovations.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY; I'm Ira Flatow. Imagine walking through Times Square, and every step you take it converted into a tiny electric current by the special pavement underfoot. Now multiply by the third of a million people who walk through Times Square on any given day. Wow, it could be a pretty awesome source of renewable energy, right, perhaps enough to power all those neon lights and flashing billboards.

Well, maybe a little while yet to go before the sidewalks of New York are electrified, but one team of high school students, inventors, are already working on the idea, and they've built a prototype sidewalk tile that converts your footsteps to watts, that's with two T's, earning themselves second place nationally in the Siemens We Can Challenge the World Challenge.

Those teen innovators and a few more are joining us to share their stories and inventions, many of them energy-saving gadgets, and they're all created by these young scientists. Let me bring them on now. I'm going to bring them on one at a time.

My first guest and his classmates invented the electric sidewalk tile, and their name and their team is called the Chargers. Daniel Morrow is a junior at the Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DANIEL MORROW: Good afternoon, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Tell us about your invention. How does it work? How does it take my footstep and turn it into electricity?

MORROW: All right, well, the product is a device, which is a floor mat. And it looks like a tile with the thickness of a textbook. It generates energy using electromagnetic induction, and for those you who don't know, electromagnetic induction works how? When a magnet passes through a coil, a current is created, and the energy generated is stored in a capacitor.

A common application of this is like a shake flashlight, which doesn't have batteries, but when it moves, it creates energy. So we thought why not put this kind of thing in a mat, where little cells, where when compressed push a cylindrical magnet through a copper coil.

And our prototype can hold 10 of these cells in each mat, and they're all wired together to the same capacitor where the energy is stored.

FLATOW: And then you store up all this energy, and you can light something, maybe an LED or something with it.

MORROW: Yeah, probably more than that.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: How much more than that?

MORROW: Well, we haven't fully reached how much more, we're still working on it, but if we were to try to power a 60-watt light bulb using this, we could put it in our cafeteria and power it pretty quickly, actually, relatively.

FLATOW: Have you done any calculations about how much electricity you could get out of a place like Times Square, some really heavily trafficked place?

MORROW: Well, we haven't done that heavily trafficked, but we've done the entrance to our school cafeteria, which gets 3,000 people in and out every day. So we figured out that when we place these mats in the entrance to our cafeteria, we generate 6.3 watts a day, which while it sounds like a small number, the technology isn't at its full capability yet.

FLATOW: Your team actually wanted to use this mat to power a SteriPEN.

MORROW: A SteriPEN is kind of a device that sterilizes water using UVC irradiation. It can sterilize up to a liter at a time and over 3,000 liters in its lifetime.

FLATOW: And how much does it cost to make this thing?

MORROW: Well, we figured out that it costs about $8 per cell in this mat, which has the magnet, the coil and, you know, all the other stuff kind of fell into place. But each mat with 10 cells costs about $90.

FLATOW: Wow.

MORROW: Yeah.

FLATOW: Wow, you know, I had an idea years ago, maybe you can turn it into something, it's something like this idea. Have you ever been to, you know, big cities where you see a lot of revolving doors, there are thousands and thousands of revolving doors in New York.

MORROW: Yeah, there are.

FLATOW: What if you could a little generator on those revolving doors, so people push them and make some electricity?

MORROW: Yeah, that would probably work, too. That's actually a good idea. We were actually thinking about, you know, different stadiums you could put them in, the turnstiles, I guess, you know, the entrance to the stadiums. And like you said at the beginning, Times Square could generate a whole lot of energy.

FLATOW: Wow, anything that moves, right? Anything that moves, you can electrify it and make people-powered stuff.

MORROW: Yeah.

FLATOW: All right, good luck to you, Daniel.

MORROW: All right, thank you very much.

FLATOW: Thank you, good luck to you. Daniel Morrow is a junior at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. His team, the Chargers, won second place in the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge.

We're going to move now up - a smarter GPS. Now have you ever been driving, and you're diligently following the directions of your GPS, only to have it direct you right into a traffic jam, right. Well, it knows all the streets in this city. Why can't it tell you to take a detour to avoid the heavy traffic? I'd love to have that.

Well, that's what my next guest and his Team, Greenway, have invented, a GPS that can outsmart traffic jams before they get to be traffic jams. And that won first place in Microsoft Imagine Cup Germany, and next week this team is going on to the worldwide finals in Australia. Christian Bruggemann is the leader of Team Greenway. He's a first-year math student at the University of Bielefeld in Germany, and he joins us by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHRISTIAN BRUGGEMANN: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: How did - what made you start out with this idea?

BRUGGEMANN: Well, it was an interesting story. We were basically sitting in a cafe in the middle of London, and we observed that there's streets which are hardly used at all. On the other hand, there's streets which are packed full of cars. And we thought, well, that's a very unbalanced state.

So the idea was what would happen if cars are routed in a smarter way, such as to spread the traffic across the whole infrastructure.

FLATOW: And tell us how and what your Greenway system does. How does it operate?

BRUGGEMANN: All right, basically, every driver is connected to our Greenway server, and every 30 seconds, his GPS position is transferred to the server. Then the route calculation is done on the server side, and the result is transferred back to the navigation system.

Now the server, therefore, knows all the routes and all the positions of the cars, and the server can calculate those routes in a more, smarter way. Basically, it reserves time slots on single streets, and it therefore predicts the traffic into the future.

FLATOW: So it's like air traffic control for a car.

BRUGGEMANN: Exactly, and it's even more - it's a traffic control system for the entire city, basically.

FLATOW: So it calculates - all these cars are sending, their GPS systems are sending back to your computer, central computer, their location and their destination. And the computer is saying uh-oh, there's going to be a traffic jam in this spot, let us space out the cars a little bit more.

BRUGGEMANN: Exactly. So it reserves all these time slots on the single road, on the street segments, and therefore it knows the position of the cars into the future. And from that information it can give individual routes to the cars. So if there's some traffic jam, not everyone is getting the same route around the traffic jam, but everyone is getting an individual route such as to optimize the overall fuel consumption and speed.

FLATOW: Brilliant, brilliant. Is this actually being tested out anywhere?

BRUGGEMANN: It's currently being tested in out in Munich. So we have started a pilot project a couple of days ago, and testers from around the greater Munich area are testing this system every day for the next few weeks.

FLATOW: Do you need more test drivers for this, or do you have enough?

BRUGGEMANN: Yeah, desperately. We can have up to 100 test drivers. At the moment, we have 30, I think. So yeah, we do need some more.

FLATOW: So if you're learning to us in Munich right, get in touch with Christian Bruggemann.

(LAUGHTER)

BRUGGEMANN: That's great, thanks.

FLATOW: Can people download this to their smartphones now instead? You know, can - is this - that available?

BRUGGEMANN: It's not publicly available at the moment, but if you want to test this, you can go on our website, greenway2012.com, and then write us an email, and we will give you a beta account.

FLATOW: Finally, how would you make it better? I mean, you know, sometimes you go down streets, and there are trucks unloading groceries or stuff on the street, and there's no way for this GPS to know that, is there?

BRUGGEMANN: No, not for those kind of things. But if you have the position and the speed of all the cars, you can realize that there is something, and if the system realizes there is some kind of obstacle, it can smartly route everyone around it.

FLATOW: Wow, wow. We'll be watching for this. This looks like something we can all use.

BRUGGEMANN: Yeah, hopefully.

FLATOW: Thank you, Christian, for taking time to be with us today, and good luck to you.

BRUGGEMANN: Yeah, thank you.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend. Christian Bruggemann is a leader of Team Greenway, and they are winner - that team is the winner of Microsoft's Imagine Cup in Germany. He's a first-year math student at the University of Bielefeld, and they're going to go to the finals in Australia.

Our next teen innovator has a milk pitcher. This is a really interesting one. We're going to talk to this young inventor a little bit later in the program, but - we're going to bring in Bridget Zarych right now, who is - and her team from Pinelands Eco Scienteers. She took first place in the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge. She's a sophomore at Pinelands Regional High School in Little Egg Harbor. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Bridget.

BRIDGET ZARYCH: Hi, thank you.

FLATOW: Now you've come up with an innovative way for folks in developing countries, where people don't cook with gas and electric stoves, they use wood or dung. And you've come up with a new kind of fuel, right?

ZARYCH: Yes, we have.

FLATOW: Tell us about that.

ZARYCH: OK, well, we made wooden presses, simple wooden presses, and in these presses you can use agricultural waste such as peanut shells or pine needles, banana peels, corn stalks and sugar cane waste instead of using wood. So they make briquettes, and they work really well.

FLATOW: They work really - so you like compress these in a briquette-maker, and they burn a lot cleaner?

ZARYCH: Yes, they emit less CO2 and carbon monoxide than wood.

FLATOW: Wow.

ZARYCH: Yeah.

FLATOW: And are these - are you going to be able to distribute these or sell them? Or how will you get them out to the public?

ZARYCH: Well, we contacted the Legacy Foundation, and they have contacts with third-world countries with high deforestation rates, and we plan to raise funds over the summer and be able to send out packages with the presses in them to orphanages in rural villages.

FLATOW: Well, we wish you good luck on this, and thanks for joining us on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ZARYCH: Thank you.

FLATOW: Bridget Zarych is a sophomore at Pinelands Regional High School in Little Egg Harbor in New Jersey. We're going to take a break and come back and talk more about teenage inventions. Flora Lichtman is going to be with us on a video pick of the week, which is a great invention. You're going to want to see this. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour with teenage inventors, and boy do they have some creative inventions. We like to feature them here on SCIENCE FRIDAY. And we bring them to you as much as we can, and we've got - we've had a couple. We're going to have a couple more now.

We have another invention for the developing world. We just heard from Bridget Zarych, talking about these little briquettes that you can make instead of chopping down forests or burning dung or something. She's found a way to make much cleaner-burning briquettes and distributing them to third-world countries in the developing world.

And we have another invention for the developing world, a way - this is really needed - a way to bring clean water to people in Bangladesh. And Bangladesh folks could use that clean water, and my next guest is a finalist in the Google Science Fair, to be held in a few weeks. Sabera Talukder is a junior at Los Gatos High School in Los Gatos, California. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Sabera.

SABERA TALUKDER: Hello, it's great to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Tell us - you have an innovation to bring clean water to people in Bangladesh. Tell us how that works.

TALUKDER: So it actually started, my project is a science research project, and it started last year when my family and I took a trip to Bangladesh. And it was the first time that I had ever been there. So it was such an eye-opening experience, and I was shocked that so many people didn't have access to clean drinking water and that so many children were dying from waterborne diseases.

So I wanted to see how can I cheaply and portably purify water for developing and third-world countries. So yeah.

FLATOW: No, keep going. You're doing well.

TALUKDER: Thank you. My project is composed of four different stages: the physical filtration, which takes out the twigs, leaves and mud and ague of the surface water; killing of the bacteria using a UVC light; and filtering out the membranes and organelles of the dead bacteria so that the water can be stored for longer; and then the power system, of course.

FLATOW: What's the power system?

TALUKDER: It's solar-based, so it's solar panels attached to a car battery. So for those less-sunny days, you still have some power to run the apparatus. And then you transfer the DC power to the AC power of the solar panel - of the UV light.

FLATOW: Did you think of this whole contraption yourself?

TALUKDER: I looked at a ton of different ways to do it, and I found that UVC light was the best to use, and - but otherwise just putting everything together was my idea, and I got help from a lot of mentors and my parents, of course, but yes, it was.

FLATOW: Did people say you're nuts to do this, why don't you do something else?

TALUKDER: Well, I mean, a lot of people did, but it was just such a needed cause, and last summer when I did go to Bangladesh, I just saw so many kids, and when I was actually taking samples in-country, so many people came up to me and said oh, will you come test samples from my well because my kids are getting sick, and my kids are dying from this.

And I said: I'm sorry, I can't test everyone's water, but I just saw that it was so needed, and I was touched that I knew I had to do something, and even if it is crazy, I needed to do it.

FLATOW: You have to get out of your own neighborhood sometimes, don't you?

TALUKDER: Yes completely, and so when I was in-country last year, I did take 22 samples from around Dhaka and got five data points for each of them to see what was in the water.

FLATOW: Wow, and so where does the project stand about making the water purifier and getting it out to people?

TALUKDER: So I am a finalist in the Google Science Fair. So it is - I am kind of getting ready to present to them. So it's just kind of finalizing the project. And I do have an NGO in-country called Sagita(ph) Foundation, and they have sponsored two to three prototypes to be put up in the country. So I would like to put one up at - in the city, in a village and at a school.

And I wanted to test the samples from each of those locations to see where does it work best and what should I do to improve upon the idea.

FLATOW: Yeah, about how much does it cost to make one of your purifiers?

TALUKDER: Excluding the solar panel and car battery because there are so many of those in-country already, my plan is to bring it down to about $25.

FLATOW: Twenty-five bucks, wow. Maybe you can get some foundation to support...

TALUKDER: Yeah, and I would love to, and it is $25 because I'm using all recycled materials like a jute or burlap sack with sand and clay for, like, the first filtration process and just materials that you can find around.

FLATOW: And how many do you think you can make of these? Do you need somebody to help you manufacture them?

TALUKDER: I would love to find someone to help me manufacture them. I definitely cannot do this by myself. But I'm so grateful to Google because they've seen that I have a vision, and they've seen that it's possible, and just the publicity I've gotten from that is amazing, and I would love to find someone else to help me take this out to not only Bangladesh but India and China and other places where it is much needed.

FLATOW: Wow, so where do you go from here? What would you like to do? You have a lot to go on your plate, it looks like.

TALUKDER: I do, and so my father and I are actually going back to Bangladesh this summer to set up the prototype.

FLATOW: Where in Bangladesh?

TALUKDER: In Sagita Foundation, they have a school in the city, and so I'll be setting one up there, and then just my uncle's, kind of, plantation-esque setting.

FLATOW: Well, we wish you all the best luck in this. It's a great project idea, and we hope people are listening, and you'll find a lot of support everywhere. Good luck.

TALUKDER: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Sabera Talukder is a finalist in the Google Science Fair and a junior at Los Gatos High School in Los Gatos, California. Thanks for joining us, being with us. Up next, our video pick of the week, it's a video based on young inventors. We've been talking with them, and I'd like to bring on Flora Lichtman here. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: These folks, these kids...

LICHTMAN: Wow, listening to this segment is...

FLATOW: What am I - I'm not doing anything for the world. These kids are doing...

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: So much vision, so much drive, it's amazing. So this week I went back to middle school, which I had mixed feelings about, bad memories.

FLATOW: Because after you see these kids.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, absolutely, and these kids were just amazing. So we talked about an invention that they made, and I actually think we should bring on one of the inventors because I think he'll do a better job of explaining it than I will. So Harry Freedman is a sixth-grader at PS-126, and their invention, his and his team's invention, took runner-up in an innovation competition held by FIRST LEGO League, that's Dean Kamen's thing. Harry, are you there?

HARRY FREEDMAN: Yes, I'm in - I am here.

LICHTMAN: Harry, thanks for coming on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Why don't you start with walking us through what you guys made?

FREEDMAN: Well, our robotics team made a smart milk pitcher that basically just tells you if milk is bad or not.

LICHTMAN: How does it work?

FREEDMAN: Well, inside there's a pH sensor. See, the reason for this is that if the milk goes bad, it usually changes its pH. It becomes more acidic or alkalinic(ph). So this pH sensor can sense that change. If it does sense a change, it will send a signal to a flashing light and a sound alarm that can alert anybody, young or old, if the milk is bad.

LICHTMAN: And why does the pH thing work? What is it detecting?

FREEDMAN: Well, in the milk there are hydrogen ions. So this is basically organic matter that came from the cow. So they're charged, but the charge will only react if bacteria, which give off waste, they have these tiny particles in their waste, electrons and positrons, they'll make a spark with the hydrogen ions.

And if too many of these sparks happen at one time, it can change the pH, and that's what this pH sensor tells you.

LICHTMAN: I'd like to remind our listeners that Harry Freedman is a sixth-grader. That was an awesome explanation.

FREEDMAN: Thanks.

LICHTMAN: OK, so the probe, the probe detects the pH, and then it sets off an audible alarm, and there's a visual component, too, right?

FREEDMAN: Yes.

LICHTMAN: How does that work?

FREEDMAN: Well, the visual component is an LED light, and it just flashes. So if somebody is deaf, and they can't hear the audible alarm, they can see this flashing light just above the handle before they go to pour their milk.

LICHTMAN: How did you guys come up with this idea?

FREEDMAN: Well, to begin with, when we first, like, were trying to figure out what our invention would be, there was a case of raw milk sickness in California, and one of our team members' brothers had a case of raw milk sickness himself. So we decided to find a way to stop this kind of thing from happening.

We originally had an idea for a carton, but the carton idea had too many issues. So we finally settled on this pitcher.

LICHTMAN: So you innovated along the way then?

FREEDMAN: Yes.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, and when I was there talking to you and the team, it sounds like you even have a further prototype idea in progress.

FREEDMAN: Yes. We have a cap design that we are thinking of making that would be a lot more economical to build and a lot easier to ship.

LICHTMAN: Do you have a sense of how much your invention would cost to make?

FREEDMAN: Around 20 or 25 dollars.

LICHTMAN: Seems reasonable. So what happens next? Where do you guys go from here?

FREEDMAN: Well, we're probably going to go on and use a grant we got at the competition to try and patent our idea.

LICHTMAN: And how...

FREEDMAN: We may not have won the competition, but at least we came in second, and we still did get a grant to - of $5,000 to help work on us patenting.

LICHTMAN: That's pretty good. So you'll do it next year?

FREEDMAN: Yes.

LICHTMAN: Did you like the process?

FREEDMAN: Well, it was pretty fun. Sometimes I'll admit it had been a little bit boring, but it turned out well, and basically all of our hard work paid off.

LICHTMAN: That's a rare outcome, I think, in inventing. Do you think you'll keep trying to invent? Did you get the invention bug from this?

FREEDMAN: Yes. Actually, I wanted to invent before this whole thing happened, but I've never gotten this deep into it before. So this was - well, I don't know how to put it, but I like this experience.

LICHTMAN: Do you have other inventions you want to make?

FREEDMAN: Well, I can't list them all. Some of them are virtual reality, and some of them are like planes that can go underwater. But I have had inventions that I've wanted to make before, but never have.

FLATOW: Do you get encouragement in your school from your teachers to help you invent these things?

FREEDMAN: Yes. Our tech teacher was the coach of our team, and she did encourage us to do all this stuff that we had to do for the smart milk pitcher. She even had us test out a pH sensor, the thing that we put in the pitcher, the probe. Unfortunately, it was broken, but still. I mean most other tech teachers wouldn't have done something like that, like actually gotten the expensive probe and tested it.

FLATOW: What other foods could you - I mean, if you're doing this for milk, could you do it for other things that might be sitting in Tupperware around in the refrigerator?

FREEDMAN: Actually, yes. I mean, this pitcher is suited to cow milk. But if we could tweak it, we could get goat milk, formula - anything, really.

LICHTMAN: And are you guys working on the patent? Where are you? Should we expect to see this on the shelves anytime soon?

FREEDMAN: Well, actually, you probably will. I mean, a lot of people - some of the kids on the team did polls, and a lot of people wanted to get a pitcher that would tell them if their milk was spoiled. The carton, not so much.

LICHTMAN: Hmm.

FLATOW: And so you have this on our Video Pick of the Week up there, right?

LICHTMAN: Absolutely. If you would like to see Harry and his teammates and the pitcher prototype, go to our website at sciencefriday.com. It was a fun video, inspiring.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY.

FREEDMAN: (Unintelligible) right now that I did not do all of this. It was a team effort. And if anything, I was doing more of the robotics.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, if you go to our website at sciencefriday.com, we have the whole team.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Flora's got the whole team up there, Harry, and everybody's up there. And let me remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. And we - did you enjoy us recording you and - what kind of experience was that for all of you kids?

LICHTMAN: Uh-oh. Uh-oh. Harry is going to let the cat out of the bag here.

FREEDMAN: Well, it wasn't boring...

(LAUGHTER)

FREEDMAN: ...and I mean it was kind of entertaining because I usually don't go to tech class to get filmed, so...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. We put them through the paces, but these kids were on top of it.

FLATOW: It's interesting because you have - I loved the little drawings that you made and you even have little ways to improve it. And you have - what about if someone is blind and can't see your light flashing on the pitcher?

FREEDMAN: That's why we have the sound alarm.

FLATOW: Ahh.

FREEDMAN: So the sound alarm is just a low-frequency beep. So if somebody wasn't blind but they couldn't see well and, say, they were elderly, they could hear it. High-frequency sounds are harder to hear the older you are.

LICHTMAN: And part of this is - FIRST has a theme, right? So what's next year's theme? What will you guys be building?

FREEDMAN: Next year's theme is senior solutions. I don't know the exact details of it yet because that's going to be released next year. But, yeah.

LICHTMAN: We'll be looking forward. Thanks, Harry, for joining us on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

FLATOW: Thank you, Harry.

FREEDMAN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Harry Freedman is a member of team MATobots, a runner-up at the FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Competition. He's a sixth grader at PS 126. That's the Manhattan Academy of Technology right here in New York.

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