August 8, 2007
By —Jerry Beilinson Popular Mechanics Magazine
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Every student in America should visit Amy Smith’s D-Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , though, to be honest, the perfect time to come was probably during the past month, while the first International Development Design Summit  (IDDS) was being held. (It ends today.) The lab is cluttered with power tools and bicycle parts, orange plastic buckets, vices, lengths of 2x4 and PVC pipe, a beaten down old blue sofa and a concrete coffee table.
In many ways, it resembles an African machine shop more than the pristine glass-and-steel MIT lab of the imagination. Smith rules here, or rather operates as a smiling, quietly charismatic center of gravity around which projects and smart people revolve. She is an MIT senior lecturer in mechanical engineering who focuses on creating and disseminating cheap, easy-to-fix technology for solving problems in poor, often rural environments: ways to purify and transport water, grind grain, generate power and so on. She’s also a member of Popular Mechanics editorial advisory board.
The IDDS was supposed to be a different kind of conference. Instead of a meeting that, as Smith says, “brings wonderful people together and produces papers and exchanges of business cards,” she wanted to organize a gathering that would “bring wonderful people together and produces some real stuff.” And the wonderful people would include not only the well-funded academics, but also students, teachers, carpenters and activists who would never normally be able to afford a trip to an international gathering.
About 40 participants from 18 to 20 countries spent a month at MIT, working on nearly a dozen separate projects, with the help of mentors and logistical volunteers from Smith’s wide circle of contacts, as well as MIT and its partners in the conference, Caltech and Olin College.
The BioLite group, for instance, has been developing a battery that could be assembled from agricultural products. As Zambian engineer Sham Tembo explained to me, the anode is carbon, in the form of corn cobs that have been carbonized, or turned into charcoal, through combustion in a low-oxygen environment. On top of that goes manure, whose anaerobic microbes produce hydrogen ions, among other products. The next layer is water, and the cathode consists of flexible, tightly rolled aluminum screen. The whole thing is compiled in a big plastic bucket: Hook up enough buckets and you can get some substantial current flowing. There are kinks to be worked out, but given the ferocious travel lust of hydrogen ions and the ubiquity of microbe-laden manure, the batteries show both elegance and promise.
Muck and power likewise go together, but in a more straightforward way, in a biogass digester slurry separator that was being assembled in another corner of the same basement workshop. Biogass manufacturing is gathering momentum in several parts of the world, explained Tombo Banda, a student at the U.K.’s Imperial College who comes from Malawi. Unfortunately, the process consumes a lot of water, which is often scarce. The device that she and her teammates were working on will press the water from the slurry that results from biogass production, so it can be reused.
Among the other projects underway was a greenhouse (pictured above) being constructed from lengths of PVC pipe, soda bottles, plastic sheeting and chicken wire; a pedal-powered hammer mill that resembles a lawn mower turned on its side; multiple systems for purifying water; a refrigerator based on evaporative cooling; and an efficient stove being masterminded by Carlos Ernique Marroquín Machán, a self-taught maestro of all things mechanical and one of the luminaries of the summit for his ability to solve technical problems with minimal supplies, tools or fuss. He already builds pedal-powered mills in the Guatemalan village where he lives using donated and scrounged bike parts and the company name MayaPedal. Like himself, most of his customers are Mayans, whose already poor living standards were severely degraded by Guatemala’s long-running civil war.
Also promising is a Savonius wind turbine, which could be operating water pumps in northern Honduras within a year, according to MIT aeronautical engineering grad student Patricia Pina. Helping with the project was Jock Brandis, developer of a pedal-powered peanut sheller and the winner of a 2006 PM Breakthrough Award . “My hands are dirty, so I’m happy,” said Brandis. “I think this thing is going to work.” The next step: attaching it to the bed of his pickup truck and driving it down Memorial Drive to do wind-load testing. Ironically, Pina works at MIT’s Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel, but the turbine was too big to test there. You got the impression that Brandis, for one, wasn’t disappointed.