More than 1 billion people around the world still don't have access to electricity, representing about 15 percent of humanity. That poses several problems, including not just heating, cooling and lighting, but also food preservation.
Universal access to electricity is still years away, with the World Bank having set 2030 as a target date. But in the meantime, a team of students from the University of Calgary has come up with a way to keep food cool without relying on electricity.
Named WindChill, the new refrigerator prototype instead turns to the animal kingdom for inspiration, using biomimicry to imitate animals including bees, termites, coral, elephants, kangaroos and meerkats. And not only is the Windchill designed to preserve food without electricity, but it's also cheap and relatively portable, making it a potential windfall for people living in remote, rural areas.
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"We thought it would be good to decrease the amount of food waste in the world," team member Michelle Zhou tells CBC News, "and we came up with this design because it's easy to build and the materials are relatively cheap."
The invention recently won first place in the student category of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge (BGDC), an annual competition focused on "addressing critical sustainability issues with nature-inspired solutions."
"The cooling mechanism is inspired by temperature regulation approaches seen in mammals and insects and is a new way of approaching issues in the food system," the students write in their project overview. The device involves three main steps, each drawing inspiration from a different type of animal.
The process begins with an intake pipe that brings in ambient air using a method inspired by the way some marine animals accelerate water into their pores. Part of the pipe is buried underground, cooling the incoming air with a tactic borrowed from termite mounds. In the second step, the air flows into a copper pipe inside a transparent evaporation chamber, which also contains fluid. As sunlight evaporates this fluid, it cools the pipe — and the air inside — in a strategy the students say was gleaned from elephants and kangaroos, among other animals.
"[Elephants] get their ears wet and when the water evaporates it cools their skin," team member Jorge Zapote says in a statement from the university. "Kangaroos lick their forearms and when it evaporates off their skin, it cools their blood and they also dig and put their bellies in exposed ground and that cools them down."
In the final step, a pipe briefly carries the air back underground, cooling it further before it finally flows into the food-storage chamber.
The WindChill prototype includes a solar-powered fan in the evaporation chamber, so it technically does use a small amount of (self-generated) electricity in its current form. But the final version will be completely electricity-free, team member Jorge Zapote tells CBC News, which could be a game-changer for many parts of the world.
"Anywhere from a quarter to half of the world's food goes to waste every year, and in rural populations — about 70 percent of the people in rural Africa don't have access to electricity," Zapote says. "So this at the moment uses a tiny bit of electricity from a solar panel, but the end design is to use zero electricity. So this could really help people in those areas."
Although the team already won the BGDC student category, they're still honing their invention. In addition to phasing out the solar panel, they're reportedly still adjusting the design to consistently reach a temperature of 4.5 degrees Celsius (40.1 Fahrenheit) inside the food-storage chamber.
If this idea becomes a practical tool for rural food preservation, it could benefit not only people living in those areas, but also add to the growing popularity of biomimicry in general. People have a long history of borrowing design ideas from nature — like the way birds informed our invention of airplanes — but biomimicry has become especially important in recent years, as population growth and limited resources fuel the need for more efficient, lower-energy innovations.
"Biomimicry helps develop more sustainable solutions," says Marjan Eggermont, an associate dean at the University of Calgary who worked with the students on their design. "Because nature doesn't tend to foul its own backyard, you come up with solutions that can work locally and are benign to the environment."