Soccer ball brings off-grid electricity to the pitch


CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts – A group of Harvard students harness the power of the world’s most popular sport. They designed a soccer ball that generates electricity with every kick. After a game, it can power a small light.

Although this is still a prototype, Popular mechanics recently named sOccket one of its breakthrough innovations of the year. Hemali Thakkar, one of the co-creators of sOccket, showed me the product on the Harvard campus. It looks like a medium white ball, but inside, she said, “there is a magnet moving back and forth across the inductive coil, which captures a current in a capacitor and stores it. electricity”. The additional material adds 6 ounces to the standard 15 ounce soccer ball.

“About 15 minutes of hitting the ball allows us to use a single LED for three hours,” Thakkar said. A standard 90 minute game could generate almost 12 hours of light. The sOccket socket is a small DC socket in the middle of one of the ball panels. Thakkar plugged in an LED. It shone modestly in the daylight, but Thakkar assured me: “When it’s pitch dark, it’s amazing how a single LED can make such a big difference.”

It’s in poor places that don’t have access to electricity that sOccket hopes to make the biggest difference. The United Nations Development Program estimates that nearly 80 percent of the citizens of the 50 poorest nations do not have access to electricity. People depend on unsustainable and unhealthy sources of energy. To generate light, many burn kerosene. Its fumes are a major cause of health problems in developing countries and the environmental impact of kerosene is also severe – the annual carbon dioxide emissions from all of these lamps around the world are equal to the emissions of around 38 million people. cars.

Last summer, the sOccket team took their prototype to Nigeria, Liberia and South Africa for testing, where the need for clean electricity and love of football were greatest. Hosting the 2010 World Cup gave the inventors of sOccket a great opportunity to see how their ball fared on some no-frills pitches.

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The young women worked with Marcus McGilvray, founder of South Africa-based WhizzKids United. He runs an HIV prevention and care organization that uses soccer to reach children at risk. McGilvray had first met one of Harvard’s inventors a year earlier and introduced him to his team of product testers. “These kids make soccer balls with carry bags, so they’re always excited when you bring them a soccer ball,” McGilvray said. “Of course there was a lot of interest in this football.” The ball was well received but he said the mechanics needed to be improved. “What the sOccket team realized from the trials was that they were going to have to work on the connection indoors,” he concluded.

Sustainability is the name of the game. Heather Fleming heads the nonprofit Catapult Design, which has done extensive research for clients trying to supply soccer balls to African countries. She says the average African soccer ball has a short lifespan of 7 to 90 days. The current socket has an exposed outlet, which makes it particularly vulnerable to environmental conditions. The Thakkar team is working on this issue, as well as other improvements. “It’s still our prototype 2.0,” she said. “We hope we reduce weight, increase durability, increase electricity capture, and make it a better product.”

The sOccketeers will also have to lower the price of the ball. The prototype costs $ 70 for a design shop to manufacture, but the team is hoping that as they ramp up production, the bullet won’t cost more than $ 10 to make. They want to have a selling version of the balloon on US shelves next summer and a subsidized or free version distributed to groups like Whizzkids in South Africa soon after.

For the developing world, Fleming does not support the buy, give model. “We are not trying to do work for free and we discourage grants.” Donating produce ruins local markets for the balls, Fleming said. “[Giveaways] handicap African entrepreneurs and people do not appreciate it as much. It is only when designers bring in local businessmen and workers that they create products that can be successful in the long run.

“95 percent of all products and technologies aimed at the world’s poorest market fail,” Fleming said. “Market-based solutions are what makes it last. “

Thakkar and her co-creators are exploring local production options where rural residents would assemble and sell the balls themselves. “It’s definitely the biggest idea we’re thinking about right now,” she said.

Images: 1. A first prototype in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, for field trials. WhizzKids United. 2. Hemali Thakkar holding the sOccket 2.0 in Cambridge. Ike Sriskandarajah.