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Scientists in Sri Lanka have found a way to generate electricity from plantain. (Photo: Rhitu Chatterjee/PRI’s The World)

How to make a plantain battery:

1. Take a piece of plantain trunk and tear off the outer layers to get to the central-most part.

2. After extracting the core, boil it and then chop it finely until it turns into a soft mushy material.

3. Take some of the material and stuff it between two rectangular pieces of metal containing copper and zinc, held in place by electrical tape. The two pieces of metal are the battery’s electrodes.

The electrodes react with phosphoric acid from the plantain, creating an electric current. More.

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Following yesterday’s news that Ukrainian student devs QuadSquad were among the finalists at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, it’s been announced that the team’s EnableTalk sign-language-to-speech device has won the competition! For their efforts, the team is taking home $25,000 and will receive unspecified Windows 8 machines after Microsoft’s new operating system launches in October. (Photos via Microsoft, TechCrunch)


Sign-to-speech device — how cool is that?!

Scott Summit, who had previously designed gadgets for Silicon Valley, created eye-catching covers for prostheses that he calls fairings, after the plastic shell around a motorcycle’s engine. The fairings of a bike “give it kind of the sex appeal and the sense of contour and flow.” Summit’s company, Bespoke Innovations, aims to do the same thing for a prosthetic limb. (Photo from Bespoke Innovations)

Customers can order a herringbone leg, or one with cut-out flower petals, or repeating geometric shapes that look like Moorish tiles.

"You’re not going to walk down the street in a Bespoke cover and have someone go, ‘oh that looks just like your real leg,’" said Brooke Artesi, who has a Bespoke fairing. "No. It looks like a piece of artwork walking down the street." More.

The Mine Kafon — invented by Massoud Hassani — is a cheap, wind-blown landmine clearance device made primarily from bamboo, plastic and iron. (Photo: Massoud Hassani)

As a child, Hassani’s playground was a field full of landmines. “When we were kids,” he explained, “we used to make these wind-powered toys and play with them on this desert full of explosives, and they’d get stuck out there.”

Those toys were the inspiration for his Mine Kafons. More.

Dr. Ashok Gadgil with one of his inventions — the Berkeley-Darfur stove, which helped 125,000 women and their dependents in Darfur. (Photo from Lemelson-MIT Prize)

Dr. Gadgil is the winner of this year’s Lemelson MIT Prize, which recognizes inventors whose designs improve lives. Gadgil helped bring light to 100 million people in the developing world, designed fuel efficient cook stoves, and a simple way to purify water.

"This is a lot of hard work, but it comes from passion rather than work as a slog," Gadgil said in an interview on Living on Earth. "If it’s not interesting or if it’s not rewarding at some level to you, you wouldn’t work with that much intensity and focus. It’s very exciting and rewarding to be able to work on these problems."

More.

A group of big-name technology entrepreneurs and investors have created a company called Planetary Resources Inc. that will mine asteroids for water and valuable minerals  – gold and platinum, among others. (Image: NASA)

The company says they plan to go after the 1,500 or so asteroids that pass near the earth. Their first step is to launch telescopes that will search for the 10 percent of asteroids with abundant resources. After that, the entrepreneurs hope to build robot-controlled space ships to mine the minerals.

Space law attorney Rosanna Sattler says these very wealthy entrepreneurs are committed to asteroid mining and aren’t afraid to invest, and perhaps lose, their money. More.

A closer look at TOMS Shoes raises questions: Does it hurt the communities it tries to help? How closely does it work with religious organizations? (Photo: Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS Shoes. From toms.com.)

The company promotes a “buy-one-give-one” business model and says it has provided millions of needy children with footwear.

Reporter Amy Costello investigated TOMS Shoes for a podcast called Tiny Spark – Igniting Debate About the Business of Doing Good. Costello talked to Laura Freschi at New York University’s Development Research Institute, who had this to say about how the company could be hurting some communities:

"I’m concerned that TOMS creates the impression that there are no shoes to be purchased inside of these communities, when in fact there are vibrant local economies. In many of these places where they’re giving shoes, it’s important to acknowledge that in some cases the buy-one-give-one model practiced this way could be harmful to those local producers and sellers."

Ecovative Design in upstate New York is producing alternative packing material out of mushrooms and agricultural waste. The packaging material can be formed into shapes to ship many items, including wine bottles. (Photo: Dana Oxiles, Living on Earth)

The U.S. goes through 19 billion pounds of Styrofoam a year, and that’s just from the peanut–shaped, packing stuff. Bubble wrap and Styrofoam are lightweight and cheap but both are made from petroleum, and once used, they often wind up in landfills forever. That’s where Ecovative Deisgn comes in.

"We’ve actually looked to nature to grow the next generation of materials using a living fungus, what’s called a fungal mycelium, which you can think of as mushroom roots, to bind the waste particles together," Ecovative co-founder Gavin McIntyre explains. "And what you’re left with is a material that feels and performs just like foam, but it’s 100 percent compostable in your backyard."

More.

British company Pavegen has developed a new paving tile that captures the energy of footsteps and turns it into electricity.

On a small scale, one day’s worth of foot traffic over a few tiles could power one street light overnight. In another recent field test at a music festival, dancers stomping on a dance floor with Pavegen tiles generated enough energy to recharge their mobile phones.

The company’s first big field test will come this summer at the London Olympics. Pavegen will be installing its system just outside the Westfield Stratford Shopping Center, one of Europe’s biggest and busiest urban shopping malls. The tiles will be placed on one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares leading into nearby London Olympic Park. Depending on the foot traffic, the company hopes its tiles might be able to power the mall’s entire lighting system. More.

(Image: Pavegen)