Meet the inventor of an electricity-free fridge, powered by dirty water

Sam Meegan, University of Leeds Business School
Thursday, 19th April 2012

An interview with Emily Cummins, the award winning inventor of the 'sustainable' fridge and the youngest person ever to win a Sustainable Design Award, and how her a fridge powered by dirty water works.

Emily Cummins is one the UK's brightest young inventors. During her time at the University of Leeds, Emily received numerous awards in recognition of her talent including being named as one of the Top Ten Outstanding Young People in the World in 2010 and winning a Barclays Woman of the Year Award in 2009. Whilst studying at the University's Business School, Emily was able to develop a sustainable fridge that runs without electricity using heat transfer and evaporation of dirty water, an invention that is now used across South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana making a real difference to people's lives.

Would you say that sustainability is a central consideration for you when designing your products?

Ensuring sustainability of a product is a key part of the creative process for me. I see it as something that should be considered for all products. All products should be as economically, environmentally and socially sustainable as possible.

You were the youngest person ever to win a Sustainable Design Award – what inspired you to enter?

I guess I wanted to create something that really helped as many people as possible.

I wanted to solve a global problem. I thought about transporting water in Africa and how women and children would walk long distances to return with only one or two containers of water. My idea was really simple, using my design, the women were able to carry up to five buckets of water at one time making their journey more efficient.

The crucial thing was that local people were able to recreate my design using local materials. It created jobs. Sustainable consideration was implemented every step of the way.

How does your electricity-free refrigerator work?

 We can't continue to rely on electrical appliances powered by fossil fuels, so I tried to come up with an alternative: a sustainable fridge that is 'powered' by dirty water.

My prototype consists of two metallic cylinders, one inside the other, between which a locally-sourced material such as sand or wool is packed tightly before being soaked with water. When the fridge is placed in a warm environment, the sun's energy causes the outer part of the fridge to 'sweat'. Water evaporates from the sand or wool and heat energy is transferred away from the inner cylinder, which therefore becomes cooler. The design is ideal for use in the developing world because it doesn't require electricity and can be built using barrels, spare car parts and ordinary household materials. Unlike previous pot-in-pot coolers, the contents are kept dry and hygienic because the water does not come into contact with the product.

What impact do you think the pressure to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels will have on UK innovation?

Putting pressure on individuals and companies to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels is likely to increase the level of innovation. Designers will have to think in different ways. I created my fridge by trying to reduce the amount of electricity used in our homes, if I wasn't thinking about reducing the consumption of fossil fuels I would have never come up with the idea. My fridge also has other uses, such as in Africa where there is no electricity and for camping.

I think that it's really critical that every single product is considered to be produced in a sustainable way. I don't understand why we are producing products that we just don't need. You go to a fairground for example, and you see these signs saying 'win a cuddly toy'. What happens to that cuddly toy? Is there any need for this cuddly toy? The amount of junk that is produced is unfathomable.

There should be an audit on every product produced. Every product should have to meet a certain standard of sustainable design, whether that comes down the choice of material, the production process or simply is it needed?

What do you think the average UK citizen can do to aid the reduction of greenhouse gases?

I think it's just about being conscious of all the products you're using in your home. But I think mainly it goes back to a designer and a manufacturers point of view. It should start with them, and the government should put legislation in place to stop businesses producing things that aren't environmentally sustainable. If businesses only produce products that are environmentally sustainable, then people will have to buy them. It's easier not to give consumers a choice. How does the UK compare with the rest of the world in terms of sustainable design? We are pretty terrible. If you look at third world countries, everything has more than one use. Bottle tops become fly nets, old rags become curtains, bits of old tires become shoes; a bunch of plastic bags would become a football. Because we've got disposable income, and the choice to buy products that are not sustainable, we'll buy them. We want a new football. We don't want to make a football out of plastic bags.

In the third world, they have no choice but to lead a sustainable life. The west has got a lot to learn from third world countries in that respect.

We've got a lot to gain from two way learning – for example when I was out in Africa, I was teaching communities how to make my fridge and they were showing me how to make it from sustainable materials. Which sustainable invention (aside from your own) is your favourite? My favourite sustainable inventions are the simplest ones. I saw something the other day where a guy had put holes in the tin roofs of homes in India. They had filled water bottles and put them through the holes in the roof to let natural light into the room. It's such a simple idea, but so effective too. In a nutshell, simple solutions to everyday problems are my favourites.

To find out more:

Make your own flowerpot fridge

Emily Cummins website

Leeds University Business School

Jim Thomas |
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 20:37
I ABSOLUTELY LOVE your water is so totally elegant. Why wasn't there already such a contrivance and what else are we missing? Your question was probably rhetorical, but i am afraid i am a sucker for making a point and if you really dont understand why so much junk is produced i would suggest that it is due to a lack of integrity. Without a sense of innate integrity, true intelligence becomes downgraded to being merely clever and puts its mind to the fiendish business of designing and producing unnecessary stuff and then selling it to literally billions of gullible 'punters' for personal profit and, strangely, most people are ok with that. Acquiring any old bit of stuff is great if you have no integrity. It is also really cool to have some piece of crap that the other guy can't afford. The merely clever fixates on personal profit whilst true intelligence tends towards service. In Richard Brautigans' poetic novel "In Water-mellon Sugar", a society of people are living a somewhat ideal life on the edge of a vast area of piled up stuff that is referred to as the 'forgotten works'. They don't know what any of it is as it bears no relevance to their lives and they keep well away from it because they find it creepy and unsettling until eventually it attracts a few wayward types who distill whisky out of it and then get crazy and disruptive...... As long as there is no sense of innate integrity, the merely clever will go on producing junk stuff, junk fashion, junk food and, worst of all, junk thought. Please Emily can you come up with a simple, elegant solution to this everyday, everywhere problem of how to transform the merely clever into the truly intelligent before we are all buried in unfathomable junk.
Stephen Phillip |
Wed, 27/12/2017 - 01:04
Well done, Emily. I heartily approve of any invention that improves the lives of people, particularly those In poorer countries. Not wanting to be nit-picking, but this device is not new. The Coolgardie safe was invented in 1890's and is very similar concept.