Students Design a Better World

Students design creative solutions for third world's most vexing problems.

Dec. 17, 2010— -- Students around the world are designing and distributing products for developing countries. Here are some of their recent innovations:

A Neonatal Incubator From Car Parts

Problem: More than 4 million babies, mostly from the world's poorest regions, die within a month of birth every year, and many of these deaths could have been prevented had a working incubator been available. Most developing countries lack access to high-tech medical devices, and a lack of infrastructure makes them difficult to maintain when they do exist.

Solution: Over the course of several years, Rhode Island School of Design students at the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovation Technology helped create a low- cost solution so effective it was named one of Time magazine's 50 Best Inventions of 2010. Tom Weis, Mike Hahn and Adam Geremia were among the RISD students who built the prototype for the incubator designed with used car parts. The durable, low- cost, neonatal incubator has easy upkeep, so it can be repaired in the regions of the world where it's most needed.

This story is part of ABC News' "Be the Change: Save a Life" initiative, a year-long series of broadcast and digital coverage focusing on global health issues. Watch the kickoff on a special-edition of "20/20" tonight at 10 p.m. ET.

For complete coverage and information on how you can personally make a difference, go to

Do you have an idea that you think can change the world? CLICK HERE to submit an idea to "Be the Change: Save a Life."

Better Cooking Stoves

Problem: More than 3 billion people use open fires for cooking. The fumes produced by this method kill an estimated 1.9 million people a year, according to the United Nations.

Solution: Paul Montgomery, a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, is helping design a better cook stove for people in developing countries. Montgomery's device, still at the experimental stage, captures some of the stove's waste heat and converts the heat into sound waves in a simple thermo-acoustic engine. Then the acoustic energy is converted into a tiny bit of electricity in an electro-acoustic transducer. The electricity in turn can partly charge a battery (delivering well-needed lighting after dark) and operate a fan directed at the combustion of the stove's biofuel, making the whole process more energy-efficient. The more-efficient the combustion, the less biomass is burned during cooking, which produces fewer fumes, making it safer and healthier.

Wheelchair Can Tackle Unpaved Roads, Rough Terrain

Water Transport

Problem: More than 1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. According to the United Nations, the average person should consume at least 5 gallons of water each day, or 44 pounds. The task of water collection often falls to women and young girls, who carry the water on their heads and often miss school in the daily search for water.

Solution: When Cynthia Koenig, MBA/MS '11 (pictured) visited South Africa on a William Davidson Institute fellowship from the University of Michigan, she was moved by the effects of the global water crisis. Koenig launched a nonprofit organization to help distribute a locally available water transportation tool. First, she worked on the design of what's called the WaterWheel, improving its durability and lowering the cost. The organization also came up with a business plan, to make sure that the product could actually reach the people it was intended to help. Koenig plans to return to India, where she ran trials last summer, after graduation to get the project up and running.

The Leveraged Freedom Chair: The Wheelchair for the Rural Developing World

Problem: 20 million to 40 million people who need wheelchairs in the developing world don't have them, and the wheelchairs currently on the market don't work well for people living in rural areas in developing countries.

Solution: Most people think of advanced science and technology when they hear mention of MIT. But Ph.D. candidate Amos Winter is making inroads across the globe with a far more simple idea: revolutionizing the wheelchair. The Leveraged Freedom Chair, or LFC, came about when Winter wanted to find a way to spend the summer in Tanzania with his girlfriend. His mentor, Amy Smith of MIT's D-Lab, suggested he look into wheelchairs. The LFC works through long, ratchet-like levers that change gears, allowing it to cross the tough terrains and unpaved roads that are common in the developing world. The chair, which can be built and fixed with common bicycle parts manufactured in hundreds of thousands of factories across the globe, has been tested in East Africa, Guatemala and India. Manufacture will start in India when testing trials finish, and Winter plans to use sales of the LFC in wealthy countries to donate chairs in the developing world.

Ancient Amazons Inspire Modern Day Solutions

Affordable Color and Money Identifier for the Blind

Problem: There are 37 million blind people in the world, and more than 124 million people who can't identify money.

Solution: Two master's degree students at the School of Engineering of the University of Sao Paulo, Fernando de Oliveira Gil and Nathalia Sautchuk Patrício, developed Auire, a low-cost, portable color and money bill identifier. The two students had worked in poor communities in the Brazilian states of Sao Paulo, Tocantins and Mato Grosso do Sul in partnership with students from MIT. The device reads the color of an object or the value of a money bill, and speaks the name out loud. Their mission is to get this out to the blind people of the world, for a fraction of the cost of what similar devices sell for.

Increasing Crop Yields to Fight Soil Depletion

Problem: Around the world, soil is being swept and washed away 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished, destroying cropland the size of Indiana every year, reports a new Cornell University study. Soil depletion can lead to poor agricultural yields and malnutrition.

Solution: While studying at Princeton University, Jason Amburu visited the Amazon and saw an ancient technique called pyrolisis, which offers a way to fight soil depletion in the developing world. His company, re:char, is bringing this ancient Amazonian farming method to the masses, helping subsistence farmers in the developing world to enhance their crop yields and supplement their income while trapping atmospheric carbon and enriching depleted soils. They do this through the use of a product called biochar. Biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen, converting it into solid carbon and pyrolysis gas, which can then be used as a cleaner-burning fuel source.

The "Be the Change: Save a Life" initiative is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.