Why you should care
Because sometimes simplicity is the mother of invention.
Sometimes the solution to a seemingly intractable problem is surprisingly simple. Take a fire extinguisher made from a packet of vinegar and baking soda and save thousands who live in overcrowded shantytowns. Or use a microscope the size of a bookmark — and weighing about as much — and send it to developing countries to help them survive preventable diseases. These are merely two of the four inventions described below by our OZY reporters that you may not know about but that share, a giant goal — to save millions of lives.
Fact: Most urban cities have too much pollution and not enough clean air. Another fact: Lima, Peru, has the worst air quality in Latin America. Peru’s University of Technology and Engineering has found a possible solution to this problem with air-purifying billboards. Engineers have devised a mechanism that goes inside the billboard and, relying on principles of thermodynamics, sucks the polluted air into a water tank, trapping dirt particles, and releasing clean air out the other side. Another billboard project is expected to convert the country’s naturally muggy air into drinkable water for the capital’s parched communities. Read more here.
In developed countries, fire extinguishers are commonplace—required by law in many places, in fact. But in the Philippines, they can cost upwards of $45, putting them out of reach of poor families. Not surprisingly, there are roughly 8,000 house fires in the Philippines each year, most in overcrowded slums where structures are made of wood and plastic. To address this risk, the densely populated city of Las Pinas partnered with a design agency to come up with a $1 fire extinguisher small enough to hold in your palm. The device is a pouch containing vinegar and a sealed capsule of baking soda, combining to form fire-fighting carbon dioxide. It’s cheap, it works and it could be used in poverty-stricken neighborhoods everywhere. Read more here.
If a doctor’s patient suffers from an infectious disease like malaria, he needs two things: a blood sample and a microscope. Taking a sample is relatively easy, but microscopes are another matter. They are heavy, cumbersome and too expensive for people in developing countries, where infectious diseases tend to flourish the most. The answer? A microscope made from foldable card-stock. Designed by a bioengineer at Stanford, the Foldscope costs 50 cents and can be assembled in less than 20 minutes. And despite its super-lightweight design, it is both durable, capable of enduring a fall from a third-story window, and powerful, magnifying samples up to 2,000 times. Perfect, in other words, for enduring harsh field conditions. Diagnosis: genius. Read more here.
When 30-year-old Ratul Narain returned home to India after designing medical devices at Johnson & Johnson for years, he seized on a problem as basic as they come: protecting newborns from the dangers of hypothermia. With help from the Gates Foundation, Narain launched a start-up to manufacture wristbands that monitor babies’ body temperature and sound alarms if they drop too low. UNICEF estimates that preventing hypothermia could save between 600,000 and 1.4 million babies who’d otherwise die in their first month. The band is still in the testing phase and several hurdles remain, from distribution to getting doctors and hospitals on board. But solving big problems starts with baby steps. Read more here.