A group of enterprising MIT students has come up with a novel way for developing countries to gain access to washing machines: pedal power.
MIT's pedal-powered washing machine, the product of four years of research, is made up of a bicycle frame, a bicycle chain and oil drums--all items that are inexpensive and easy to find.
A prototype of the washing machine was built in 2005 by Radu Raduta, a mechanical engineering graduate student at MIT. After winning first prize for her design in the MIT IDEAS competition, Raduta received funding to continue work on the machine.
Raduta and her team joined with MayaPedal, a non-governmental organization in Guatemala, to help develop the washing machine. The team discovered that pedal-powered devices are old hat for many Guatemalan villagers. A particularly bicycle-savvy Guatemalan named Don Luis told the MIT students that his "entire family uses several bicimáquinas, such as the bicimolino (the pedal-powered mill) and the bicidesgranadora (the pedal-powered kernal remover). "
Construction of the pedal-powered washing machine is relatively easy. An oil drum is cut into sections and welded together into a small barrel. A smaller inner drum is rotated during wash and spin cycles, and the whole thing is powered by a wheel-less bicycle frame.
MIT's machine, dubbed bicilavadora--a combination of the Spanish words for bicycle and washing machine--had a test run last month in Ventanilla, Peru. The test was successful with the exception of minor water leakage around the drum's edge.
While washing clothes in a pedal-powered machine may be more effective than hand-washing, pedal power is almost certainly more energy intensive. But who knows--maybe a cottage industry of washing machine bikers will pop up to make things easier.
MIT is one of the strongest centers for this kind of design tailored to the needs of developing countries, dubbed "appropriate technology" or "leapfrog design." You can watch MIT's Amy Smith, a genius grant recipient, talk about the principles behind this kind of design here here.