Tech Museum honors tech that benefits humanity

Groups offering renewable light and energy sources, auto-disable syringes, and a 3D system are among the finalists for Tech Museum of Innovation awards.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
7 min read

A Huichol woman does bead work while her son finishes his homework by the light of a Portable Light device. KVA MATx

Living in San Francisco, we take technology for granted. We have YouTube and iPhones and online maps. We get annoyed when a Web page downloads too slow or our phone call drops.

Then there are the millions of people who don't live in developed countries, who go without the Web and even electricity and light for most if not all of their day. For them, things like Windows 7 and Facebook are irrelevant, but they still dominate the technology landscape.

There are some innovators designing technology for use by the rest of the world, companies and nonprofits that are applying technology to help people improve their lives. The Tech Museum in San Jose, Calif., offers its Tech Museum of Innovation awards to projects that apply technology to benefit humanity.

Established in 2001, the awards recognize 25 laureates in the categories of education, equality, environment, economic development, and health. One laureate in each category will receive a $50,000 cash prize. The winners will be announced at a ceremony on Wednesday night at which professor Muhammad Yunus, a pioneer of microcredit and founder of Grameen Bank, will speak.

CNET News talked to 5 of the 25 laureates and got a glimpse of some of the technologies that are doing things like preventing spread of disease from reuse of infected needles, monitoring the air around farms for dangerous pesticides, turning the PC into a 3D design tool, and bringing light to dark places on the map.

Textiles that illuminate
Sheila Kennedy was traveling in Mexico studying solar applications in 2002 when she saw a group of native Huichol women cooking by the side of the road because they had insufficient light to cook in their homes and she had an epiphany. She saw a practical use for flexible solar panel technology and solid-state lighting that her architectural design firm in Boston, Kennedy & Violich Architecture, was experimenting with.

A Huichol woman wears a Portable Light device integrated into textiles that can be worn. KVA MATx

She formed a nonprofit, the Portable Light Project, and began a collaboration with renewable-energy think tank The Rocky Mountain Institute to launch a pilot project with the Huichol in the Sierra Madre mountains in north central Mexico. The project provides a way for indigenous communities to have bright light inside their homes at night, recharge the power with the sun during the day, and charge cell phones and medical devices as well.

Participants in the project receive solar kits that they integrate into their textiles to suit their needs. The kit includes one or two thin-film 10-by-4-inch photovoltaic panels, an LED, and a control pouch with digital drive electronics and a small lithium-ion rechargeable battery. The self-contained renewable energy source is lightweight, easy to integrate into existing materials, and is customizable.

"It's an elegant textile surface that can be folded or formed," Kennedy said. "It's got great optics, with parabolic reflector shapes made from folded textiles which bounce reflected light from solid-state lighting sources."

It takes about 2.5 hours to fully charge a battery and it offers about 10 hours of light at about 100 lumens using only 1 watt. By contrast, a 100-watt, 120-volt bulb produces 17.5 lumens per watt.

Projects are under way for Nicaragua, and the Brazilian and Venezuelan Amazonias. The group also is working to use ultraviolet-emitting LEDs for a water purification capacity using portable light. And in another project, Portable Light has created a hospital blanket using the nanotechnology for medical workers in South Africa to send home with patients with HIV who are bedridden.

"Sunlight kills bacteria that causes tuberculosis, but many of the patients sit at home in the dark," Kennedy said. With the blanket "they can wrap themselves in the blanket, produce electricity, store it, and then provide power for their family and caretakers around the clock."

Syringes that save lives
Brit Marc Koska was living in the American Virgin Islands in the early 1980s, "with a first-class honors in beach bum," when he saw a newspaper article about how the reuse of syringes in developing countries would make them a major transmission route for HIV infections. He decided to work on tackling the problem and eventually developed the K1 Syringe, the world's first syringe that automatically disables after it is used once.

Marc Koska talks to some Indian boys at risk of getting infected from needle sticks while digging through a dump. Star Syringe

A ring in the barrel of the syringe locks the plunger in place once it is fully depressed so it can't be used again. The syringes sell for about 5 cents, he said.

Twenty-four years later, and 17 years of no sales, Koska, now 47, heads up Star Syringe with 14 licensees around the world producing more than 2 million K1 syringes a day. It is estimated that his syringe has saved more than 5 million lives.

"The manufacturing process was the lowest hanging fruit," he said. "It was critical to make a design that would easily retrofit onto existing machinery."

Currently, half of the injections given in the developing world are unsafe (the rate rises to 65 percent in India) and the World Health Organization reports that reused syringes are believed to be responsible for 1.3 million deaths a year, mostly malaria.

"A mother taking her baby to a doctor for any routine vaccination could leave with hepatitis or HIV" because the doctor reused an unclean needle, Koska said. "It happens for many reasons, including poor distribution of supplies, but informing the public of the issue will be critical in tackling this global problem."

His next project, SafePoint Trust, does just that.

Monitoring the air for carcinogens
For decades, people living near farms in California's Central Valley complained that they got headaches, fainted, or got sick after pesticides were sprayed on nearby crops.

Jorge Alvarado operates the Drift Catcher while PANNA Scientist Karl Tupper stands by. Sara Bjorkqvist

Pesticide exposure has been linked to increased incidences of certain types of cancer, birth defects, Parkinson's disease, asthma, and other illness. According to a 2007 study, autism rates for children born to California women exposed to certain pesticides during their first trimester of pregnancy were six times greater than normal. Still, communities have been told that spraying is safe. Without any proof otherwise it seemed there was nothing that could be done.

That is until Dr. Susan Kegley developed the Drift Catcher for the San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA).

The device is an easy-to-use, affordable air monitoring system that measures the concentrations of hazardous pesticides in the air. A vacuum pump pulls air through two glass sampling tubes. The tubes contain a resin which traps pesticides as the air moves through. Tubes are typically changed every 24 hours and samples must remain cold until they are analyzed by PANNA scientists in the laboratory.

"The device enables communities to scientifically document when levels of pesticides in the air near their homes and playgrounds exceed what the Environmental Protection Agency says are safe," said Kathryn Gilje, executive director of PANNA.

"Now, we can amass enough data to make a change in policy to make (pesticide drift) illegal," Kegley said. "Air sampling has been around for a long time, but now you can do it cheaply enough so someone can set it up in their back yard" and start measuring when they see the tractors spraying pesticides.

The Pesticide Action Network has about 50 of the devices out in the field. The Drift Catcher has been used by community activists in California, Minnesota, Florida, Washington, Indiana, Maine, and Hawaii.

Evidence from the Drift Catcher devices likely played a role in keeping the maker of the herbicide molinate on track for voluntarily withdrawing the chemical from the market. It also played a role in the EPA requiring larger buffer zones around fumigated fields and requiring farmers to provide notice to the community about what pesticide they are using, Kegley said.

The group also is pushing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help farmers move away from using toxic chemicals and adopt safer alternatives.

Renewable light by the hour
Andy Schroeter learned first-hand about the difficulties people in developing countries have getting affordable access to light sources when he was working in Laos and Vietnam for a German development organization beginning in 1995. Not only are 44 percent of the population in Laos off the electricity grid, but paying for kerosene to light lamps winds up being one of the highest costs for a household.

Men in Laos get trained on how to operate solar panels that recharge lanterns rented to villagers. Note the solar panels on top of their hats. Sunlabob Renewable Energy

So Schroeter created the Sunlabob Renewable Energy company to help solve that problem.

Based in Laos, the company rents large central solar charging stations to village businesses which, in turn, rent out rechargeable exchangeable solar lanterns to households. The lanterns can be used to charge mobile phones, small TVs, radios, and laptops.

"We are creating a sustainable model for a village," Schroeter said. "In rural areas in developing countries people don't have the cash to pay for initial investments for the hardware."

Each lantern has an integrated microprocessor that alerts a user when the power is low and collects data that can be used for carbon offset purposes.

The lantern light lasts for about 10 hours and costs as little as 40 cents, Schroeter said, adding that light lasts as long as three days for families in Laos.

In addition to Laos, Sunlabob is providing services to villages or has franchises in Uganda, Cambodia, Singapore, and Tanzania and will soon be operating in Afghanistan.

3D for the masses
When Daniel Ratai was 13 he wanted to design cars. But he found that using pencil and paper was too limiting and there were no computer programs that would allow him to do exactly what he wanted.

Research institutes are using Leonar3Do for pharmaceutical research. 3D for All

"In kindergarten I tried to draw 3D designs on paper. I dreamed about drawing into the space," says Ratai, a Hungarian. "I could imagine the car in my head and see it on the top of a table."

So, when he was 18 he started working on a system that would let him do as he wanted. His firm, 3D For All, developed the Leonar3Do console and specialized software that works with any PC.

Sensors attach to the monitor and the user wears a pair of 3D goggles and draws with a 3D pen, creating whatever their mind can imagine in the space in front of the monitor.

The system can be used for creating virtual environments, buildings, anything. A research group is using it to control 3D microscopes for molecule docking, Ratai said.

Prototypes are currently being tested and initial systems should be available to the public for between $1,000 and $1,200 next year, he said.