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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Life-Changing Inventions

Air Date: Week of

The Lemelson-MIT Program recognizes inventors whose designs improve lives. This year’s winner of the Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, Ashok Gadgil, helped bring light to 100 million people in the developing world, designed fuel efficient cook stoves, and a simple way to purify water. He spoke with host Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: Jerome Lemelson was one of America’s most prolific inventors. Among his 650 patents are inventions for industrial robots, lasers and the Walkman tape player.
In 1993 he established the Lemelson Prize to recognize and support inventions that improve the lives of people around the world.

This year’s one hundred-thousand dollar Lemelson - MIT award for Global Innovation goes to Professor Ashok Gadgil, he's chair of Safe Water and Sanitation at the University of California, Berkeley and joins us on the line. Welcome to Living on Earth!

GADGIL: Thank you for having me!

GELLERMAN: Congratulations!

GADGIL: It’s indeed a great honor to be selected for the Lemelson - MIT Award!

GELLERMAN: Well, this is not a time to be modest; I understand that your inventions have helped something like, wow, a hundred million people around the world.

GADGIL: That indeed is true. The invention that has gone to help more than one hundred million people is a way to get poor residential customers in the developing countries to afford to use compact fluorescent lamps to save electricity.

GELLERMAN: To use compact fluorescent lamps?

GADGIL: That is correct!

GELLERMAN: So, you didn’t invent the compact fluorescent lamp…

GADGIL: No, I didn’t invent the compact fluorescent lamps at all…no. (Laughs.) I figured out a way to get them in the hands of a very large number of people. The problem was, or, the problem is, that utilities in the developing world routinely subsidize electricity to their poor residential customers. If electricity is subsidized, then saving electricity is less attractive. So, subsidized electricity undercuts unsubsidized energy efficiency, that is a problem. The solution, which we brought to the table, was to persuade the utilities and consumer groups, that if the utilities actually could subsidize efficiency, they would sell less subsided electricity as a result.

Dr. Ashok Gadgil,recipient of the 2012 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, with his Berkeley-Darfur cook stove. (Photo: Lemelson-MIT Prize)

GELLERMAN: So, you created a model by which the demand side was reduced, as opposed to subsidizing the supply of electricity.

GADGIL: Absolutely right. So, the utility gets to keep some money, the customers reduce their electricity bills, and the environment has less pollution, and less CO2 emissions.

GELLERMAN: One of your big inventions was the UV Water Works for safe drinking water.

GADGIL: That’s right. In the 1990s I invented UV Water Works to affordably disinfect drinking water for those who still don’t have safe drinking water.

GELLERMAN: How effective was that?

GADGIL: Well, it meets or exceeds the WHO, that’s the World Health Organization, and the U.S. EPA guidelines for disinfection. Which means that, it must have a certain kill rate for pathogens and we aimed at ten times better kill rate, and we achieved it, all for a cost of about five cents per ton of water.

GELLERMAN: Five cents a ton?

GADGIL: Yeah, that’s how inexpensive the goal was, and we achieved it. That’s pretty good.

GELLERMAN: Your other big invention was the Berkeley Darfur Cook stove, which was basically invented for refugees in Darfur.

GADGIL: You know, there are dozens of fuel efficient stoves, and my idea was to offer them one that will work for them, but I found none of the stoves were appropriate. So I ended up getting involved and designing one with my team. We co-designed it with the Darfur refugee women. The whole purpose of the stove really was to reduce the exposure of these women to systematic attacks by the Janjaweed.

These women, they do get food from the UN Agencies, but the food is raw and they can't eat it, they cannot feed their families unless they have fuel for cooking the food, which means they have to leave the safety of their camps. However, all the land within walking distance has been completely denuded of combustible biological material, which also means that now refugees have taken to selling part of their food rations to middle men, and with that cash, they have been buying wood for cooking from other middle men.

GELLERMAN: So, professor, what is it about these stoves, in Darfur, that makes them useful to the women?

GADGIL: We found that all of the stoves that we tested, which we brought to the field, toppled over during the cooking. And our solution was to mechanically stabilize the stove by providing very big stabilizing legs. And that seems to work very well.


GADGIL: Yes, it is indeed simple. It just takes the time and trouble to go there and find out what they want.

GELLERMAN: So, it’s not enough to just invent a better mousetrap, a better stove, you’ve gotta invent something that is useful in a cultural context.

GADGIL: You’re absolutely right. The inventor who hopes to help people in a different culture in a distant place, cannot do so without going to the population and field testing and listening to what they have to say, even though they may not have the same level of scientific knowledge or formal education, they are the ones who will decide if my invention succeeds or fails.

GELLERMAN: So, you know the most prolific American inventor, Tom Edison said once: Invention is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Has that been your experience?

GADGIL: Absolutely right. This is a lot of hard work, but it comes from passion rather than work as a slog. If it’s not interesting or if it’s not rewarding at some level to you, you wouldn’t work with that much intensity and focus. It’s very exciting and rewarding to be able to work on these problems.

GELLERMAN: Well, good luck, professor!

GADGIL: Thank you very much.

GELLERMAN: Professor Ashok Gadgil is the chair of the Safe Water and Sanitation program at UC Berkeley. He's this year's winner of the Lemelson- MIT award for Global Innovation.



Read more about Ashok Gadgil


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