On February 21st, 2013, Skooks Pong was invited to speak about the merits of transformative technology at the GreenBiz Forum in NYC .
Below is a transcript of the talk he gave.
I’m Skooks Pong, and I live and work in Seattle, Washington. I’m a self-taught engineer; all my life, I’ve been curious about how things are made and how things work. I like nothing more than tinkering to solve problems that make things better.
For the last 10 years, I’ve been at Synapse helping build an engineering team that thrives on solving hard problems to create amazing devices. You may have some of these devices in your pocket, or on your wrist--like this, the Nike FuelBand. But today, I’m going to show you two projects we are working on that leverage “off-the-shelf” technologies. Both projects brought these technologies together to help deliver much-needed solutions for waste treatment in Africa, and reliable energy in India.
The technologies used were designed for use in the developed world. However, when re-imagined and combined in a unique way, these simple, existing technologies provide low-cost, reliable answers to complex problems. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation approached Synapse with a challenge: Develop a system that can empty and process the millions of pit latrines used by families and communities throughout Africa. These unserviced latrines cause countless fatal and debilitating diseases.
To solve this problem, a sanitation system had to be developed that is:
- Capable of extracting solid and liquid waste, including trash and any other items that end up in these pits.
- Compact and transportable.
- Cheap to operate, and easy to maintain.
- A closed loop system, meaning it needs to process everything on site.
How do we get a sewage extraction system onto a mobile cart that’s simple to use and cheap to operate?
After several months of brainstorming, and smelly trial-and-error experimentation, this is what we came up with.
- A hose from the mobile unit is lowered into the pit and begins extracting the waste.
- The trash and debris get separated out into what we call the fryer basket.
- Next it goes through a typical grinder pump, commonly found in many industrial uses.
- Everything then goes into the de-watering tank, which separates liquids from solids.
- The liquids, which account for about 70% of what is pumped out of the pits, are treated on the spot, then returned as water suitable for construction and irrigation.
- Finally, the solids are pumped into the tank truck, and transported for proper disposal.
So what we’re looking at is a transformative solution that uses “off the shelf” vacuum and pump technology, including a fryer basket, that’s cheap and easy to build, operate and maintain. Again, we didn’t invent a revolutionary new concept, but rather, combined simple, existing technologies together in a way that delivered a life-changing solution.
Where else could we take this? We still have the solid waste that is not being treated on the spot. What other technologies are out there that could complete the process?
In Malaysia, there are mobile units that can turn human waste into compost. Imagine that solution combined with the system I just showed you. Then we’d have a viable solution for the more than the 1.1 billion people who live without modern sanitary facilities. A number that is expected to grow to 2.4 billion by the year 2050. Right now, there are 1.6 billion people worldwide without access to reliable electricity. Another 1 billion have unreliable access to any energy source. In India, underserved populations rely heavily on kerosene lanterns, like the one shown here, which are expensive and unhealthy.
Simpa Networks had an idea for solar units that were attached to a box - or meter - that could provide homes in rural India with their energy needs. So, similar to your Dish TV network, the solar panel is on the roof and connected to the box inside. But unlike your Dish TV box, this unit couldn’t be connected to a network, system or satellite.
How do we engineer a pay-as-you go system, without access to the internet, that can’t be hacked, and is easy to operate?
Our team started sifting through different encryption systems currently being used, and found that pay-as-you-go cell phones were a good model to build upon.
This is the interface for the Simpa Regulator. It's simple and intuitive to use, similar to the pay-as-you-go cell phones that are prevalent in India.
- Once the unit is installed, families can pay for as much energy as they can afford at the time.
- They are then given a 10-digit code that they enter on their unit and voila - energy is unlocked.
- With each incremental payment, a percentage goes toward ownership of the system.
- Once that amount is reached, they are given a permanent unlock code, and the energy is theirs for the life of the device.
So, now they have clean LED lighting, and power to charge their cell phone. Instead of spending the $10 a week to burn kerosene – with its high operating costs, its many dangers to health and home, its poor quality light and noxious fumes – they are paying for clean energy, and will eventually become the owner of this valuable device. Again, we didn’t invent anything new, we took existing technology and applied it in a unique way.
Now... Think about the technology around you. Think about the technology you use everyday, in your offices and your stores, to give your company a competitive advantage. Think about the smartphone in your pocket, the iPad in your briefcase, the automated process in your factory.
What else can those technologies do? Can they be applied in a unique way to solve a problem and improve someone’s quality of life?
Let’s all start re-imagining...