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SolSource 3-in-1 Cooks, Heats, Powers

Credits: ©2010 Solar Cooking Wikia

The SolSource 3-in-1 is a combination solar cooker, heater, and electricity generator being developed by students at Wellesley College, Harvard, MIT, and Qinghai Normal University. It recently won a P3 national award at the 6th annual National Sustainable Design Expo held at the National Mall in Washington, DC, on April 24-25, 2010. The student team is working to help bring clean energy to the rural Himalayas. The goal is to promote awareness about energy choices and to make clean energy device manufacture a feasible option for local income generation. The students developed the SolSource 3-in-1 with One Earth Designs (OED), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization. The P3 awards are given by the EPA for student projects that focus on sustainability for People, Prosperity and Planet. Julie Levitt wrote about the SolSource last year for WorldChanging.org; Her story follows.


SolSource Kettle

The SolSource 3-in-1 is a light-weight, portable solar cooker/heater/electric generator made from local materials in high altitude areas of the world. Villagers in the Himalayas need an alternative to spending five hours per day collecting fuel, and then suffering from the indoor air pollution effects of its usage, so non-profit One Earth Designs developed the 3-in-1 to help. ©2010 One Earth Designs

by Julie Levitt - In rural regions of the Himalayas, a new lightweight, low cost, portable solar cooker called the SolSource 3-in-1 is poised to transform the health and prosperity of entire villages. The device, which can replace the hazardous traditional biomass-burning stove as a means for cooking and heating the home, can also use its own waste thermal energy to generate enough electricity to light a home at night, charge cell phones and power other small devices. And because the cooker's unique design targets specific local needs and materials, its manufacture and distribution could provide a new economic future for communities in transition from agricultural to manufacturing economies.

The satellite dish-shaped SolSource, developed by US-based nonprofit One Earth Designs, is elegant in its simplicity. Reflective nomadic tent material, stretched across a bamboo frame, concentrates sunlight from a large area inward toward a focal point where the user can place a pot stand for cooking, a thermoelectric device for generating electricity (at a lower cost than a photovoltaic panel), a heat module for heating the home, a solar water disinfector for treating drinking water, or a thermal battery for cooking after dark. These interchangeable parts are each about the size of a laptop computer, and the main platform is easily folded and disassembled for portability.

The SolSource generates enough heat at its focal point to bring a kettle of water to boil in about five to seven minutes – about the same amount of time as conventional gas stoves in homes throughout the developed world. While it is in use, the device generates heat to warm the home, and can create and store about 15 watt hours of electricity, or enough to power the lights for about seven hours. This is adequate for the villagers' needs, but upgrading to a larger thermoelectric device would easily increase the energy capacity, says One Earth Designs co-founder and COO Catlin Powers.

Powers and co-founder/CEO Scot Frank, both 23, and project chief engineer Amy Qian, 20, worked with Himalayan university students to collect direct feedback from villagers across the region to inform the design of the SolSource 3-in-1. Crowd-sourcing input on the design was particularly important to this project, because although the villagers were already familiar with solar cookstoves introduced throughout the region via various government and NGO initiatives, these devices weren't fulfilling the nomadic communities' unique needs.

"In many cases, the villagers and nomads are quite disappointed with the current solar cookers available," says Frank. Many of these stoves, he explains, are made from concrete and glass components, both of which are easily broken during distribution and everyday use, yet the rural communities lack the expertise and tools needed to repair broken devices. The stoves, which weigh about 95 kg, aren't easily portable, so they hinder the villagers' traditional lifestyles. And the stoves are designed for cooking only, so the villagers still rely on biomass burning to heat their homes, a need that accounts for most of the region's fuel use.

In traditional rural communities around the world, the need for a safer, more efficient cooking and heating device has long been a pressing one because of the high incidence of lung diseases – primarily in women -- caused by indoor air pollution from the traditional cookstoves. But in these remote, high-altitude regions of China and India, the impacts of climate change and the demands of a growing population have exacerbated the stress on local fuel supplies, touching off a string of other related problems. For example, when they remove too much animal dung, the primary biomass fuel, from the fields, villagers must apply chemical fertilizers to their crops to replace the nutrients that manure would have supplied (the dung, which local women collect by hand, is also a primary vector for pathogen transmission). When they burn crop residue, a secondary fuel source, villagers deprive themselves of a valuable source of feed for their livestock. Deforestation has made wood a scarce commodity, and in many regions collecting it for fuel is now illegal. And climate change has forced the pika, a small grassland animal, to migrate to higher and higher altitudes in search of food, where its grazing destroys the grasslands and kills off the small bushes that were once another main source of fuel for nomads.

"People are very concerned about what they will use for fuel in the future," says Powers.

The region is also suffering economically. As nomadic life becomes more difficult, villagers are increasingly migrating to urban centers. In China, government initiatives encourage this transition, but in both China and India, rural villagers arrive in cities without the language and job skills necessary to enter the urban workforce. As a result, families get trapped in a spiral of poverty.

One Earth Designs' business plan for the SolSource Project, Powers explains, plays to the strengths of these resettled populations. Though the devices are made largely from traditional nomadic materials, components such as metal must be sourced in cities. Communities in transition are in an ideal position, then, to combine traditional materials and skills with urban materials in order to build the SolSource, and the common language they share with rural populations makes them competitive salespeople in a niche market. The profits they earn will enable them to send their children to school and break the cycle of poverty.

The community-based plan also allows villagers to leverage their traditional group decision-making process. “Traditionally, Himalayan nomads and agriculturalists made many decisions collectively and often relied on neighboring households for food and goods production,” Powers says. “The SolSource Project supports local income generation through a holistic community-based business model that more closely reflects this traditional collectivism.”

In 2009 One Earth Designs was awarded the prestigious St. Andrews Prize for the Environment (the SolSource 3-in-1 is also the recipient of the Muhammad Yunus Innovation Challenge Award, the MIT IDEAS competition, and a Clinton Global Initiative Outstanding Commitment Award.) The $75,000 St. Andrews Prize will fund a pilot program this summer to test their business plan in West China.

International interest, however, is already outpacing production capacity. The innovative design has garnered inquiries from a variety of groups and individuals around the globe, from government departments to other humanitarian organizations, to Americans who want to use the devices for off-grid living or camping trips. Though One Earth Designs isn't yet prepared to produce the units for large-scale distribution, Powers and Frank hope to see that change. They are seeking a customized patent option that would allow them to protect the design from competitors in the developed world where sales of the SolSource at a profit could subsidize its manufacture and distribution in disadvantaged regions, but they intend to make the design openly available to innovators in the Global South who could adapt it to suit the needs of their own regions (the Creative Commons Developing Nations License once offered a solution like this, but it has since been retired).

One Earth Designs is committed to helping rural Himalayan populations achieve appropriate science- and technology-based solutions for living more sustainably. In addition to other devices for providing energy and clean water to these regions, Powers and Frank have initiated a textbook project with the goal of distributing educational materials that explain science and engineering principles in local Himalayan languages, using familiar examples and illustrations.

“The Himalayan terrain is one of the harshest on Earth and its people have an incredible history of innovation,” says Powers. “With our applied science and engineering education projects, we are hoping to re-inspire pride and excitement in young people about this rich technological history and to help people feel confident about pursuing careers as inventors and scientists whether alongside agrarian occupations or as a sole pursuit.”

Relevant solar cooking books:

Cooking with Sunshine

Solar StoveTop Cooker

Solar Cooking for Home and Camp


Solar Cooking Archive Wiki

One Earth Designs