While other teenagers are out with their friends or playing video games, 15-year-old Ann Makosinski of Victoria, British Columbia, is inventing energy-harvesting devices that she hopes will make the world a better place.
Her latest invention -- the Hollow Flashlight, which runs solely on heat generated by the human hand -- is one of 15 projects competing in the 2013 Google Science Fair. Makosinski will travel to Google headquarters in September for the contest finals. The winner will receive a $50,000 scholarship and a trip to the Galapagos Islands.
In this YouTube video, she demonstrates how she leveraged the Seebeck effect to create a thermal energy generator for a flashlight, as well as how the flashlight works without batteries.
We interviewed Makosinski via email about her invention, her interest in science, and her plans for what we're sure will be a very bright future.
Design News: What intrigued you about the idea of a flashlight that runs without batteries? Why did you think this would be a useful invention?
Ann Makosinski: There were a few causes that really got me into doing this project. Firstly, batteries are terrible for the environment; we don't dispose of them properly and their chemicals leak into the ground. Imagine if we could eliminate batteries, even just batteries in flashlights? What a difference that could make.
Secondly, I have friends in the Phillipines in the villages who have failed their grades simply because they don't have any electricity (for light etc.) in their house. Imagine what a difference it could make in people's lives for those who don't have access to affordable electricity.
DN: How did you come up with the technology that allows heat from the human hand to power the flashlight?
Makosinski: The concept of the Seebeck effect has been around for quite a while; I believe since 1821. The Seebeck effect states that if you heat one side and cool the other side of a Peltier tile (or junctions of two dissimilar metals), electricity is produced. I simple transferred this effect into my idea of heating one side of the tile with the human hand and cooling the other with just the ambient air and some sort of heat sink.
DN: You must be really interested in science and, in particular, the study of thermal energy. This seems to be one of the trickiest areas of energy harvesting. What were some of the challenges you encountered in your design?
Makosinski: I did encounter challenges when designing my flashlight. One example of a problem I encountered would be that I had to create a design that was both familiar to the human touch, and also efficient in filtering out the heat. I solved this by designing a hollow aluminum tube that made contact with one side of the Peltier tiles, and then I had a bigger plastic tube encasing the tube (but I have air gaps in between the two tubes) to ensure that there is no human contact between the hand and the heat sink.
DN: Has there been any commercial interest in your flashlight since you have received such widespread news coverage? Have you thought about how the flashlight might be mass produced?
Makosinski: No large companies have asked to market my flashlight, which I believe is understandable because I would personally like to improve its physical design and brightness before I offer it to any company. If my flashlight was mass produced, it could be for a quite low and affordable price, and I think it would create a huge impact on everybody who would have one and of course, the environment.
DN: What are your plans after high school? What area of study do you want to pursue?
Makosinski: I honestly am not sure what I want to do after high school just yet. I think I will be headed towards the sciences, but I'm not sure what department yet.
DN: Have you developed any other inventions you think might be useful for everyone?
Makosinski: Yes, I have made other inventions in my previous science fair projects, including a piezoelectric flashlight and a solar sandwich. I won't go into details on how those work as I am looking into patenting both in the near future, but they do both use surplus energy.