Feature

Soccket to ‘em

Green Lifestyle Magazine

An eco-friendly portable generator in the form of a soccer ball is changing the lives of people in developing nations, one game at a time.

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Innovation at its best - playtime how leads to a new method of power.

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When all we have to do is flick a switch or turn a knob to light up a room or keep warm, it’s easy to take electricity for granted. But 1.3 billion people around the world have little to no access to electricity, and that’s bad news for the environment and bad news for their health. The kerosene lamps, wood-burning stoves and diesel generators used in the absence of electricity generate 20 per cent of the planet’s lighting-related greenhouse gas emissions and consume three per cent of the world’s oil supply. They also cause nearly two million deaths every year, and living with the fumes from just one kerosene lamp is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

Harvard University undergraduate students Jessica Mathews and Julia Silverman saw energy poverty first-hand in their travels through Africa, so when they were asked in an engineering class to design a solution to a pressing social issue, they came up with the idea of harnessing the energy from soccer, a sport played with enthusiasm across the developing world. And so, the Soccket was born. Using their laptops and whatever they could find at their local electronics store, they developed a prototype that could harness kinetic energy generated during ball play and store it as electricity to power anything from lamps and water sterilisers, to stoves and mobile phones. Just 15 minutes of play is enough to power a light for three hours. The mechanism is similar to that used in ‘shake-to-charge’ torches, where a magnet rolls through a coil and creates an electric charge.

Jessica and Julia saw the Soccket’s potential to do good in the world so, after graduating, they set up a company in New York designed to do just that, and called it Uncharted Play (www.unchartedplay.com). The first 500 Socckets were delivered to children in South Africa and Mexico for testing in 2011, along with LED lamps that could plug directly into the balls. The ball’s design has since been refined and about 5000 Socckets were distributed to communities at the end of 2012.

“These kids really aren’t allowed to be children for very long; they have to deal with very serious issues in their lives every single day,” says Jessica. “Just sometimes even giving these kids the ball, without even showing them the power generation thing is amazing because to have a ball that doesn’t require inflation, these kids go crazy. And when you tell them the ball can do more, it’s like telling them the tooth fairy does exist.”

The Soccket is only slightly heavier than a regular soccer ball and its internal mechanism is surrounded by waterproof EVA foam that is soft to the touch. Its solid construction eliminates the risk of puncture and deflation from rough terrain.

Jessica and Julia, both 24, are now busy doing their MBAs at Harvard alongside their growing business and have attracted widespread support from corporations and not-for-profit organisations wanting to help fund and distribute the balls. Even Bill Clinton has lent his support, calling the Soccket “slap-your-head brilliant”.

Although the Soccket will eventually be available in the developed world, in the shorter term another idea is taking shape – the Ludo. Using a similar kinetic energy mechanism to the Soccket, the Ludo soccer ball will track game play and wirelessly upload it to Uncharted Play’s gaming platform where it will be converted to play points. With the help of corporate sponsors, players will then use those accumulated points to support causes they are passionate about, whether it be enabling people in developing countries to access clean water, supplying them with mosquito nets, or equipping schools with much-needed resources.