Billions of people in the developing world are using mobile phones, and a growing portion of them are connecting to the Internet for the time through them. But the power of these devices to open up opportunities is constrained by what seems like a 19th-century problem: a lack of electricity to charge them.
The Voto is an intuitive handheld device that could change that situation, and it uses a technology that has gained a reputation as too finicky and costly to be practical in the Western world, let alone in poorer countries. It consists of a small, handheld fuel cell that converts the heat from a cook stove–an appliance already present in even the most remote villages–into the chemical energy that charges a battery.
“We can run on pretty much anything that burns,” Craig Jacobson, CEO of Point Source Power, the company developing the Voto as its first product. Point Source, which is backed by venture capital firm Khosla Ventures, just won the Cool Idea! Award, an annual contest run by Proto Labs, a prototyping and small-run manufacturing firm, that awards a total of $250,000 to commercialize early-stage projects (previous winners include the Floome, a smartphone breathalyzer, and Soloshot, a personal robotic camera man.)
To use the Voto, the owner would insert a rectangular “fuel card” made from a simple wood charcoal fuel into the fuel cell slot. Maybe while cooking lunch or dinner, the cell could then be heated in a cook stove that burns any kind of biomass, such as food waste or wood. The heat triggers the reaction, which charges a Ni-MH battery contained in the handle of the device. Once charged, the Voto can turn on its LED light for illumination or it can be used to charge a phone.
The Voto is the first commercial application for a rugged and affordable solid oxide fuel cell technology that Jacobson developed while a researcher at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories. Already, it’s been on sale in Kenya–the first launch country, while Point Source Power experiments with a business model. One option is to charge $17 for the device and make the fuel cards, which must be refilled like cartridges, cheap. Another option, to reduce the upfront cost, is to charge a much lower price, like $5 and use the “razor blade” business model that would charge more for refillable cartridges. These could be made available at local kiosks.
California-based Point Source Power plans to put the prize money to adapting the product for the U.S. market, for applications that would require a slightly larger power supply, such as for backpackers or in emergency situations. U.S. sales could also help fund the slower-to-develop market in nations like Kenya. In the long-term Jacobson estimates the market could be large: There are more than 650 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa, and most must travel to charge their phones because they lack home electricity.
Proto Labs’ founder and chairman Larry Lukis was excited about the invention. “We look for anything that would make life a little better, easier, safer, healthier, less frustrating, more fun or the like,” he says. “The VOTO stood out due to its ingenuity in utilizing an everyday item to create increased quality of life to those in need.”