Life-saving Inventions

Lemelson-MIT names the winner of its $100,000 Award for Global Innovation

May 14, 2012

The Berkeley-Darfur Stove, pictured here, has helped an estimated 125,000 women in the Darfur area.

Ashok Gadgil has spent the past three decades helping people in need—and he has no plans to stop. On May 2, Gadgil became the recipient of the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation. Each year, the honor is given to an inventor who has improved the lives of people in developing countries. Gadgil’s inventions have helped more than 100 million people around the world.

Gadgil is a professor and physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. When he’s not teaching, he works to find solutions to global problems such as energy efficiency and water safety. “I chose [to focus on problems] where my knowledge of science could help,” Gadgil told TFK.

Man on a Mission

Gadgil’s global quest to help people began in the 1980s. It all started when he came up with a program to make energy-efficient light bulbs more affordable for people in developing countries.

Ashok Gadgil invented a clean, fuel-efficient stove that saves homes more than $300 a year.
Ashok Gadgil invented a clean, fuel-efficient stove that saves homes more than $300 a year.

Then in the 1990s, Gadgil designed his first life-saving invention, UV Waterworks. The device uses ultraviolet light to kill deadly disease-carrying germs from drinking water. It costs just one cent to clean five liters of water (or about 21 cups). Gadgil was inspired to find an inexpensive solution to the clean water crisis after more than 10,000 people in his home country of India died from an outbreak of Bengal cholera, in 1993. The infection is spread through contaminated food and drinking water. 

So far, the invention has provided safe drinking water to more than five million people in India, Liberia, Nigeria, the Philippines and Ghana. “I’ve heard from a lot people who have benefitted,” Gadgil said. “Mostly because it’s their children who face the most serious risks from contamination of water.”

Energy-saving Stove

The long and violent war in Darfur, Sudan, has caused many people to leave the country. A person who flees to a foreign country to escape danger is called a refugee. More than 80% of the Darfur refugees are females.

Families in refugee camps are given food aid. But they still have to cook the meals. In order to do so, refugee women leave the safety of the camps three to five times a week to gather firewood. They walk up to seven hours a day to find enough wood to fuel their stoves. This can be dangerous because of street violence in the area. To avoid danger, some women spend much of their money—which they make by selling the food they need to feed their families—buying firewood from vendors.

Cooking over an open flame can be hazardous to one’s health and to the environment, too, because of the amount of smoke it causes. “You feel terrible because it is not [the women’s] fault,” Gadgil said. “It is up to us who know science to help them if we can.”

Gadgil visited the area many times with his students and his co-workers to work with the refugee women on designing a clean, fuel-efficient stove. The Berkeley-Darfur Stove he created saves 55% of fuel. That means the women wouldn’t have to leave the camps to find firewood as often. The invention also helps to save homes more than $300 a year. An estimated 125,000 women and their families have been helped. Gadgil is currently developing a version of the stove for Ethiopia.

As a professor, Gadgil encourages his students to stay positive about finding solutions to hard problems. “Be optimistic when you try a hard problem,” he says. “It’s when you solve a large problem that you can have a big impact on the world.”

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