An ergonomic carpet-weaving loom that discourages the use of child labor and an environmentally friendly toilet system that can turn waste into fertilizer were two of the ideas honored Wednesday for using technology to improve the human condition.
"Three billion people, that's half of the Earth's population, do not have access to fresh water and sanitation. My mission is to take this to those poor areas," said Brian La Trobe, a South African scientist behind the Enviro Loo's sanitation system.
He was one of five winners of this year's Tech Museum Awards, an annual contest that seeks to recognize those who have innovative ideas to help humanity.
La Trobe's Enviro Options Ltd. was one of more than 600 organizations that were nominated to vie for a share of the $250,000 prize. He was among the 25 finalists -- five in each of the five categories -- who were invited to the Tech Museum in San Jose this week to show off their projects.
"A lot of my early research was on sewage treatment in poor areas and how waste can be used as a source of energy," said La Trobe, a former industrial chemist for General Motors who later quit to become a dentist.
Much of his work was done on the side as an "amateur researcher affiliated with the Rhodes University in South Africa," he said.
La Trobe's toilet system first drains urine into a separate tank, while the solid waste is moved to a closed container outside using a conveyor belt. There, the waste is dehydrated by using heat from sunlight and a ventilation system that pipes in wind. The existing bacteria are killed, and what's left over is just fertilizer, he said. No water or chemicals are required.
Enviro has found customers even in vacation homes in Tulsa, Okla., but La Trobe's real desire is to make the system available in poor, rural areas, he said.
So far, the system has been installed in a number of countries including South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Ghana, India, Greece and Brazil.
Another winner was the Centre for the Improvement of Working Conditions & Environment, a government-funded project in Lahore, Pakistan, that designed an ergonomic loom for carpet weavers.
The rugs are made mostly in poor rural areas, where some 1.8 million lives are dependent on this industry, said Saeed Ahmed Awan, director of the center. The problem is that the traditional looms force workers, who are 80 percent female and 60 percent children, to make the carpets sitting on the floor in an uncomfortable posture that causes backaches and even bone deformities, he said.
Among other improvements, the metal gears have replaced heavy metal chains that often come loose and hit workers in the face, Awan said. Also, the new design requires workers to sit on a bench rather than sitting on the floor, which encourages better posture but also means that young children cannot work on the loom, since they can't reach the footrest that operates the machine.
"The goal is for all of the poor families to have this new loom," Awan said. "But also, we hope to combat exploitation of child labor."
In addition, the ergonomic design has led to increased production, he said. So far, he has seen production increase by at least 30 percent and by as much as 100 percent in some cases, he added.
Awan hopes this new design can be used outside Pakistan. His office has already made contacts in Nepal, where the loom design will probably be licensed, he said.
Geoffrey Bowker, one of the judges of the awards, said two key factors in looking for the winners are a project's sustainability and its potential for being scaled to make a much bigger impact.
"We're not after the highest technology solution but innovative use of technology," said Bowker, executive director of the Center for Science, Technology and Society at Santa Clara University.
The other three winners were:
-- Selco Solar Light Pvt. Ltd. of Bangalore, India, which has developed an inexpensive solar power system that provides electricity in rural homes.
-- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare, a Web site that posts the university's course work, including syllabi, lectures and exams, and which can be accessed for free.
-- Hib Vaccine Team from Cuba and Canada has found a synthetic vaccine against bacteria that can cause meningitis and pneumonia.
A past winner, Kristine Pearson, was also awarded the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award for her work in providing portable radios in rural Africa. Freeplay Foundation, which is based in South Africa, has distributed almost 100,000 radios powered either by a solar panel or by a windup crank in the back of the unit.
The award is named after the former chairman and chief executive officer of Santa Clara's Applied Materials, which is one of the key sponsors of the Tech Awards.
Tech Museum award winners
-- Enviro Options Ltd. won the Intel Environment Award for its toilet system, which treats waste without water or chemicals.
-- Selco Solar Light Pvt. Ltd. won the Accenture Economic Development Award for providing low-cost solar panels to power homes in rural India.
-- MIT OpenCourseWare won the Microsoft Education Award for its efforts to put the university's course material online for free.
-- Hib Vaccine Team won the Agilent Technologies Foundation Health Award for developing a vaccine against a bacteria that can cause meningitis and pneumonia.
-- Centre for the Improvement of Working Conditions & Environment won the Knight Ridder Equality Award for designing an ergonomic loom for carpet weavers.