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Kick a ball, turn on a light: Can soccer solve one of the globe's intractable problems?

Kick a ball, turn on a light: Can soccer solve one of the globe's intractable problems?

Posting in Design

Four Harvard University women created a soccer ball that generates electricity for use in off-grid areas of the world. It is having a powerful impact.

His eyes shining bright with mischief, 7-year-old Gustavo Martinez ran on the faded, warped concrete with his schoolmates, kicking a soccer ball. The sun was shining over the Francisco I. Madero Elementary School in the remote village of Yohualichan in the Mexican state of Puebla, and the children were being photographed testing out a new kind of ball that had the potential to improve their lives.

When the sun goes down in this village, there are no electric lights to pierce the all-encompassing darkness -- only a few candles or kerosene lanterns make the bamboo homes glow when there is money.

Most of the time, life is simply interrupted by the darkness. Homework is difficult to finish, if not impossible for Gustavo and his seven siblings and three cousins. And often at night, the family breathes in smoke from the wood or other fuels burned in the home and village.

Nearly 1.3 billion people, or about one in five in the world, lack basic electricity at home, according to the United Nations Secretary General. More than twice that number heat and cook using animal waste, wood or charcoal, which creates a toxic smoke that kills about 2 million people each year, mostly women and children, the organization said.

It's an ongoing crisis that has led to sweeping international programs meant to bring renewable energy to the rural poor, with mixed results. One of the main challenges is establishing electrical infrastructure in places that are off the grid. Any solution must be self-sustaining energy. But installing solar panels can be expensive, and the power is intermittent without expensive batteries to store the energy produced during the day. Windmills have a similar problem.

After night fell over Gustavo's home, he grabbed the soccer ball he had been playing with during the day and sat down on a scraped-up wooden chair and opened a book. He put the ball on a white bucket that was turned upside down to make a table.

He popped off a small plastic orange cap that was embedded in the ball and stuck in a small, six-watt LED lamp. Its light pierced the darkness, and he began reading his schoolwork.

"At night we have some light so I don't feel afraid anymore," he told a team from Childfund International, who brought the Soccket to Yohualichan.

Soccer ball. Light socket. Soccket.

About four years earlier, four women locked themselves in a room at Harvard University. They were brainstorming a project for an engineering class of non-engineers.

Two of the women had some knowledge of the problems of poor people in rural Africa. Jessica Matthews' parents were Nigerian, and her colleague Julia Silverman had studied in sub-Saharan Africa.

Both knew people needed electricity and that children playing soccer was omnipresent in the places where that need was most urgent. The lack of soccer balls did not stop people from playing -- they just made them out of whatever was around: balls of banana fiber, plastic bottles cut open and stitched together with thick thread, local fabric sewn together and stuffed with trash.

What if energy could be harvested from what kids like doing most -- playing?

Like most ideas with potential for changing things, it seemed so simple. Matthews and Silverman founded a start-up, Uncharted Play, around the concept and began designing its flagship product, a soccer ball that would also generate electricity.

Still, making toys that could withstand the punishment of play while generating electricity stood in their way. Foremost among the concerns: they had to be fun.

The first prototype of what would become the Soccket ball was a plastic hamster bubble.  They stuck a small pendulum-like generator and battery inside.

They rolled it around. The generator’s pendulum swung, sending power to the battery.

They plugged in a light. Bingo.

Fun and function

After a few months, the first prototype of the ball was ready. While the tech worked, one major question remained: Was it fun to play with?

While the exact technology that makes the Soccket ball work is a secret, the basic idea is that there's a pendulum inside the orb that swings as the children kick and roll it. That pendulum turns gears on a motor that creates electricity, which is stored in a battery.

For 30 minutes of play, the user gets three hours of light.

But with all that stuff inside of it, the ball was too heavy. Typical soccer balls weigh between 400 and 500 grams, but the Soccket was almost 800 grams.

When Uncharted Play sent balls to South Africa and Nicaragua with representatives as part of a test rollout, the results were disappointing. The Soccket ball flopped around strangely, unlike a real ball.

And when children played with it, one thing quickly became apparent: when the Soccket was kicked into the air no one went for a header. The kids were afraid of the ungainly, heavy ball.

"At the end of the day, if it's not fun to play with they're not going to use it," said Hailey O'Connor, the lead designer at Uncharted Play. "It has to have fun and function."

The reason for both its bad play and weight was pretty simple: the generator and battery took up almost the entire interior.

The design challenge was to shave 300 to 400 grams off the weight of the ball while keeping its main reason for existence, making electricity. Also, the material had to be soft, durable and waterproof.

Iterative design process

O’Connor and her colleagues are constantly looking for improvements, and they worked on miniaturizing the machines that are hidden inside the ball.

"Now the inside housing is the size of a fist," O'Connor said. "We shrunk all the pieces down to half the size and knocked off a lot of weight."

The new ball is 480 grams, and the outside and inside are made of softer materials, a combination of polyurethane and EVA foam, a rubber-like material used in products like soccer cleats and fishing rods.

Also, the ball doesn't have air inside of it. Air-filled balls often last less than a month on the rough, rock-strewn fields that many children play on. Soccket is durable and can take the punishment.

The material changes also made the ball bounce more like a real soccer ball. That was a huge breakthrough.

The ball could still be lighter, and O'Connor and the design team at Uncharted Play continue tinkering.

"We're constantly trying to improve the product. We're happy with it now, but we can always improve."

An idea blooms

Families in Gustavo’s village received 150 of the Soccket balls recently from the non-profit Childfund Mexico and Fundacion Televisa. Childfund also gave out 150 balls in Africa.

The non-profit is dipping its toe in the water with the Soccket to see if it catches on. The group has been working for years to find a solution to help replace unhealthy fuels in the homes of the people it works with.

"We especially want to eliminate kerosene in the home," said Marcia Roeder of Childfund. "It's killing them and it’s also very expensive."

The World Health Organization says chronic exposure to kerosene may result in minor health problems like irritability and restlessness to more serious afflictions like convulsions, coma and death. Also, kerosene is extremely flammable and leads to fire deaths in the world’s poorest communities.

Gabriela Ramirez Hernandez of Childfund Mexico, which has distributed the balls in Yohualichan, said the Soccket is already having an effect, and in some unexpected ways.

The children can do their homework at night, but the lights from the ball are also helping families make more money by allowing them to work longer hours at home.

Most income in Yohualichan is made by women who sew or make tortillas for a living, Hernandez said. Gustavo’s parents make about $4 a day, she said.

Now the LED light is allowing some of the women to sew after dark, which means they can earn more money.

"We did not realize the economic benefit the ball might have, so that was a surprise," Hernandez said.

Momentum

Uncharted Play used a  Kickstarter campaign this spring to help it increase production of the Soccket. It sought to raise $75,000 and blew past that with $92,296 raised from 1,094 donors.

The ball and its potential as a game-changing product has also gotten support from some of the most powerful people on the planet.

"It's an idea for clean energy that I think it's fair to say hardly anyone else on the planet had ever thought of," former President Bill Clinton said last year during a Clinton Global Initiative talk.

"It's quite extraordinary, really -- kick a ball, turn on a light."

Photo: Childfund International

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Jason Dearen

Contributing Writer

Jason Dearen covers the environmental beat for the Associated Press. He is based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure