Inventing for the Environment

The northwest coast of Iceland in January is a stunningly beautiful place. Waterfalls tumble over steep cliff edges, forming rainbows in their spray. The clear, crisp blue of the sky reaches down to the even deeper blues of the fjords. Volcanoes dot the landscape, boiling pits of mud and minerals the colors of agate fill the air with the smell of sulfur, and it seems that steam leaks from the smallest cracks in the earth wherever you go. And this year, the snow sat in islands surrounded by lava and moss.

Icelandic horses grazing

Icelandic horses grazing near Akureyri in January 2013. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Like most visitors, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty and bounties of Iceland—the bracing clean water, the fresh seafood, and the abundant geothermal power. As I traveled around, I heard Icelanders express their gratitude for these resources and affirm their deep connection to their natural environment. But they also talked about changes that their land is experiencing, from higher winter temperatures to the increased economic importance of mackerel to the fishing industry as warmer ocean temperatures bring these fish farther north.

Mud, minerals, and sulfur in Iceland.

Mud, minerals, and the smell of sulfur in the Icelandic landscape, January 2013. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

The perspectives of the people who live in Iceland reflect this year’s theme for Earth Day on April 22: “The Face of Climate Change.” People around the world are submitting photos and comments to the Earth Day website, offering their personal observations on climate change and their dedication to doing something about it. Looking through those images and reading the thoughts of so many people from so many places made me think not only about Iceland but also about another place closer to home.

Horsetooth Reservoir, Fort Collins, Colorado

Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins, Colorado, June 2012. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Last summer I traveled to Fort Collins, Colorado, for a week of research on developments in cleaner, more sustainable energy sources (we will be featuring Fort Collins in the Lemelson Center’s upcoming Places of Invention exhibition). The people I interviewed there shared the feelings of responsibility for the environment that I had witnessed in Iceland. I also saw firsthand their efforts to effect change through invention and innovation.

Amy Prieto, Colorado State University

Inventor Amy Prieto in her lab at Colorado State University, June 2012. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

One of the inventors I met was Amy Prieto, an associate professor of chemistry at Colorado State University and the founder of Prieto Battery. Her work centers on inventing a rechargeable battery that will last longer, charge faster, and won’t be made with toxic materials. Still in the prototype stage, the heart of the battery is a thin slice of copper “foam” that, like a sponge, is full of holes. This 3-dimensional structure increases the amount of surface area and allows electrons to move more freely and over shorter distances than in conventional batteries. This means that the Prieto battery is expected to last longer and recharge faster than traditional lithium-ion batteries.

Prieto battery components

Some components of Prieto’s prototype battery, June 2012. Rectangles of copper “foam” are top center. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Prieto’s work represents a new way of thinking about batteries. “The journey is an exciting one and one we believe in,” the team at Prieto Battery asserts. “Beyond changing how people power their lives, Prieto Battery believes strongly in retaining why we started in the first place—a diverse, highly collaborative, environmentally conscious team driven to deliver on our promise to create the world’s most advanced rechargeable battery. This is what powers us.”

Amy Prieto will soon be sharing that driving sense of commitment—to teammates, to invention, to the environment—with a group of elementary-school students in Mississippi. Last fall, the Lemelson Center’s hands-on invention center, Spark!Lab, partnered with ePals, an education media company and safe social learning network, for the second annual “Invent It! Challenge.” The contest asked students to think about real-world problems and invent something that could help solve them. The ePals Choice Award went to the “Solbrite,” a “solar-panel purse LED light,” invented by a 9-year-old girl named Marlee. Her prize is a video chat for her and her classmates with inventor Amy Prieto.

From the shores of northern Iceland and the valleys of the Colorado Rockies to a classroom in Mississippi, invention and innovation remain important tools for conserving natural resources, reducing pollution, and confronting global climate change. Who knows, perhaps a Prieto battery will be part of the “Solbrite” one day.

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