At the tender age of 9, Javier Fernández-Han found his calling: design for the other 90 percent – help the world’s poor meet their basic needs sustainably.
Several years of research and design have led to an innovative solution: The VERSATILE System – a mashup of new and adapted technology that treats waste, produces methane and bio-oil as fuel, produces food for humans and livestock, sequesters greenhouse gases, and produces oxygen.
What drives this complete energy resource system? Algae – the little organism that could.
For his work, Javier, 15, won the top prize in this year’s Invent Your World Challenge, sponsored by Ashoka’s Youth Venture and the Lemelson Foundation.
We spoke to Javier about the VERSATILE System and the need for holistic thinking in the invention sector.
1. If your invention – VERSATILE System – is the answer, what is the question?
What system can improve the quality of life in a village by providing the basic necessities of food, sanitation, energy-fuel, and income in an environmentally sustainable and technologically appropriate fashion?
2. So how does VERSATILE System answer the question? What does it do?
The innovative VERSATILE System answers the question by tightly knitting together a dozen existing and new technologies to meet food, sanitation, energy, income and environmental needs (in a way that’s affordable to the world’s 90% of the world).
At the heart of this efficient system – the secret ingredient – is algae… salt-water loving algae powered by the sun.
Elegant interconnectedness makes the VERSATILE system unique. Waste from one part of system is nourishment for another, making the system extremely efficient. The VERSATILE system consists of six subsystems:
* Anaerobic digester (AD) – converts food scraps and sewage into “clean” products
* Bio-gas upgrader – takes harmful gases from digester and treats them, turns them into fuel and nourishment for algae
* Vented methane burning stoves – burns methane without polluting, resulting carbon dioxide is captured
* Algae bioreactors – use sunlight, saltwater, carbon dioxide and nutrients from digester to produce oxygen and algae biomass, which can be used as food for livestock and people
* Flush latrines
* PlayPump – turns human energy (from children playing) into stored energy that can be used to power VERSATILE system and other electronic devices.
The VERSATILE system is also a source of income. Algae biomass can be processed into livestock and aquaculture feed, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products (DHA, omega-3s, etc). Extra methane and algae oil (SVO) produced by the AD can be stored and sold as fuel or to a refinery for processing. Finally, carbon credits can be sold to factories.
All parts of the VERSATILE system are modular. This allows the system to be highly customized to meet the needs of the owner(s).
3. Most inventions aim to do one thing well. You chose to multitask. Why is it important to link the different processes into one system?
By interconnecting the 12 technologies in the 6 subsystems the VERSATILE system provides a complete solution in a practically waste free manner. As much as possible, waste created by one part is used as nourishment and fuel for another. An invention that is narrowly focused on solving a single problem often inadvertently creates more problems because nature is highly complex and interconnected.
A single invention rarely solves an entire problem. Often we only see a small part of a larger problem without seeing the connections between the many parts. If we focus on only one small part of a complex interconnected system we may not understand the full extent of our impact on the rest of the system.
4. What does this type of holistic thinking mean for today’s inventors?
Holistic thinking means that today’s inventor’s need to think broadly about the problems they attempt to solve. Technology is often only a small part of an entire solution. To fully address an issue, inventors need to also consider cultural, religious, political, economic and environmental implications.
For example, there is a village named Djenne in the African country of Chad. Not long ago Djenne had no running water. A group of engineers learned about the village’s lack of running water and installed an entire system that provided the homes with running water. At first, the project seemed like a complete success. Then the project became an environmental and sanitation disaster. The problem was that the village had no sewage system. When there was no running water, each family’s sewage and dirty water was simply collected in a bucket which was emptied at the end of each day. But when water became readily available, the villagers began using much more of it and quickly overwhelmed their bucket system of sewage removal. As a result, dangerous open sewage flowed into the streets and caused a major sanitation hazard.
5. If we were to set up VERSATILE System in an African or Indian village tomorrow, what changes are we likely to see in the village in a year’s time?
* Less coughing due to drastic reduction of air pollution thanks to replacement of wood burning stoves with cleaner burning stoves that use methane. Villagers enjoy better health.
* Less time spent foraging for wood as fuel thanks to methane produced by VERSATILE. Children have more time available for studying because they don’t need to forage for wood as fuel. Children gain education.
* Electricity generated by Playpump powers LED lights at night, allowing people to work and read at night. Villagers can be more productive.
* A medical diagnostics company has shown interest in buying bulk algae-biomass from the village for processing into pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products (e.g. Phycobiliproteins which have market value of up to $10,000 per kg).
* More villagers can afford to raise goats, pigs, and fish due to availability of algae as livestock and fish feed. Villagers enjoy better nutrition and gain income from sale of livestock.
* Villagers no longer have to buy tanks of methane or propane for use in lighting, heating, and cooking thanks to the methane produced by VERSATILE. Villagers sell excess methane for income.
* Villagers use the algae oil produced by VERSATILE to power a variety of labor-saving machines (flour mill, corn husker, water pump, etc.) that can use straight vegetable oil (SVO) as fuel. Villagers sell excess SVO for income.
* Villagers negotiating to sell carbon credits due to VERSATILE’s greenhouse gas sequestering capabilities.
6. Do you foresee your invention/innovation being scaled up to serve larger communities or cities, what might that look like?
Due to the VERSATILE system’s innovative modular design, it can easily be scaled up or down to serve communities with populations ranging anywhere from 100 to 200,000+ people. A village simply adds additional modules as their population grows. Another benefit of having a modular system is that a village can build or buy the stock VERSATILE system and add extra components one at a time as they can afford them. This way, they do not have to buy an entire new system at once or obtain a costly high interest loan.
The VERSATILE system can also be installed nearly anywhere with a warm climate, including deserts irrigated by saltwater, and even in submarines and cruise ships. All that you might have to change is the algae. There are literally thousands of algae strains – some are better suited for certain conditions and functions than others.
The VERSATILE system can also be scaled down in size. I am currently developing a family-sized VERSATILE system for developed countries. It is the same concept as the VERSATILE system 2.0, just scaled down to fit the size limitations of a small house or apartment and with an estimated cost of $300.
We are at the dawn of the algae era.
I envision my grandchildren asking me in amazement one day as we tour the Boston Museum of Science:
“Granddad, was there really a time when the versatility of algae was not harnessed but rather algae was treated as pond-scum… a nuisance?”