Tell Vinisha Umashankar that your teenage years are pale compared to hers, and she will quickly remind you that everyone has a different life course.
But the 14-year-old also knows the future looks very different for her generation if the world doesn’t act to slow global warming and the effects of climate change. Still, she is optimistic that the “collective action” of people her age will turn the tide.
This is probably why Umashankar has already done more than his fair share. In Tiruvannamalai, a small temple town in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, she has devised an ingenious alternative to solar power for the millions of coal ironing carts that ply the city streets. Indian clothes, for ironing the clothes of workers and families.
His invention is now recognized worldwide. Umashankar is the youngest finalist in the inaugural Earthshot Prize, a £ 1million ($ 1.3 million) prize launched by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. The initiative plans to award £ 50million ($ 68million) in awards over the next decade to people working to solve environmental problems, with the objective to provide “at least 50 solutions to the world’s biggest problems by 2030.
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There are 14 other finalists, including the Republic of Costa Rica for a program that has helped revive rainforests, the Italian city of Milan for reducing waste while trying to solve hunger, and a Chinese app, The Blue. Map App, that allows citizens to report environmental violations. Five winners will be announced on October 17th.
Umashankar’s invention is particularly important in his native India, home to 22 of 30 most polluted cities in the world, according to a report from IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company. In 2019, 1.6 million dead in India have been attributed to toxic air. The country is also the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, after China and the United States, despite being one of the countries most vulnerable to the impact of human-induced climate change.
It is these pressing problems that Umashankar aims to solve by reducing the use of charcoal with its solar-powered ironing cart. Ironing vendors, called “press wallahs”, pushing their carts from one neighborhood to another are commonplace in India. According to the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India, there is a estimated at 10 million ironing trolleys in the country. Each of them uses about 11 pounds of charcoal per day, putting a heavy strain on the country’s air and forests.
For Umashankar, it started as an internet search during her summer vacation in 2018. After seeing her neighborhood ironing supplier throwing away used charcoal, Umashankar was curious to learn more about the dangers to the environment and health of ironing carts burning coal all day. “It was then that I learned that something as common as an iron can have such dangerous consequences,” she says.
Umashankar had been fascinated by science ever since her parents gave her an encyclopedia at the age of 5. She had previously designed a ceiling fan that works with motion sensors. After seven months of researching solutions for the traditional charcoal heated ironing cart, she started working on a design.
The cart’s roof doubles as a panel that absorbs sunlight to convert it into electricity to power the iron. The excess energy is stored in a battery for use after dark and on overcast days. By the end of 2019, she had won a nationwide award for her design, as a result of which it was prototyped and patented. It hopes to start the process of manufacturing its trolleys later this year or early 2022.
Umashankar believes winning the Earthshot Award will help him kickstart the manufacturing process. “The true potential of an innovation is only understood when it reaches people,” she says. “A customer’s perspective will help me understand what needs to be changed and improved. ”
Even as she waits for Earthshot’s results, Umashankar says she is working on five more projects, all aimed at solving environmental problems. Although juggling schoolwork and her innovative side projects is no easy task, she believes it is essential to keep going; hurry up. “We’re trying to restore our planet in less than a century, and that’s not a lot of time compared to the time it took us to get to this point,” she says.
But she is also cautiously optimistic. The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of human versatility and adaptability, she says. She feels the need to seize this moment to use technology to drive innovation and move towards a sustainable, accessible and affordable future. “[During the pandemic] we worked our way and found alternative methods to get things done, ”she says. “I believe that we can take the same initiative for the future and for our planet.