'Modern MacGyvers' Build Dirt-Batteries, Bionic Rice

The team tested an early prototype at the Bronx Zoo and continued to refine the device in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Ultimately, they devised an eco-friendly bamboo structure that sits on the camel's back and can support a fridge on one side and a battery on the other. A flexible solar panel, draped over the structure harvests the energy, which is stored in the battery that is used to power the refrigerator.

StoveTec Stoves Improve Health and the Environment

Believe it or not, cooking with an open stove can be as hazardous to human health as smoking.

According to Benjamin West, general manager for the Cottage Grove, Ore., StoveTec, about 3 billion people in the world use open stoves to cook daily meals. For those people, sitting in front of the open fire is like smoking three to five packs of cigarettes a day, he said.

"Imagine for me taking a fire that you would build at a campsite and putting it in your home and cooking macaroni or cooking breakfast," he said. "The thing with that is that's how really half the world cooks."

West said that not only do open fires leave people susceptible to pneumonia and other diseases that come from cooking with an open fire, burning biomass (or wood) contributes to deforestation and greenhouse gases emissions.

"The smoke that kills 1.6 million people each year is also a contributor to climate change," West said.

But with a simple $8 stove, StoveTec is trying to change all of that.

The company's stove uses 40 to 50 percent less fuel and reduces emissions by 50 to 70 percent, he said.

The ceramic chamber can get hot enough to burn off the greenhouse gases and smoke before they leave the chamber, and the opening (where the wood is inserted) is optimized to provide just the right amount of airflow, so that emissions and fuel use can be kept at a minimum, he said.

A woman in Uganda is shown here cooking pancakes on a StoveTec stove. Photo credit: StoveTec

Pamela Ronald's Bionic Rice Resists Disease, Flooding

For more than half of the world's population, rice is the staple food. So when rice crops fail, millions of people can suffer, meaning that a strain of rice that can withstand outside elements would be very valuable.

"Small improvements in farmer productivity in rice can have a dramatic effect on feeding a hungry world," said Pamela Ronald, a plant pathologist at the University of California, Davis. "And because the population's moving from 6.7 billion now to 9.2 by 2050, there is a great need to produce more food with the same amount of water on the same amount of land."

She said that to increase productivity, farmers need infrastructure, markets and social and economic support, but the most critical ingredient is rice seed.

To help enhance farmers' rice yield, Ronald's lab studies the roles that various genes play in how rice responds to changes in the environment. She said there are about 25,000 rice genes, and scientists have uncovered the functions of a few hundred.

Ronald said her lab had successfully genetically engineered rice to be more resistant to disease and flooding, two major reasons for crop failure.

About 25 percent of the world's rice is grown in flood prone areas, but the new varieties can withstand up to 17 days of flooding and are now being used in India and Bangladesh.

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