Apr 162011

Yesterday I had the wonderful honor of joining a select group of ambassadors and corporate executives to get a sneak preview of the EPA’s National Sustainability Design Expo and P3 Competition. The event is designed as an annual event for (directly from the brochure) “teams of graduate and undergraduate students to design solutions for environmental and sustainability challenges worldwide. P3 stands for People, Prosperity, and the Planet, fyi. 55 of the best and brightest teams of students are all there showcasing their work to create a greener future.

There is some pretty amazing stuff to be seen there, and if you are in the DC area this weekend I encourage you to attend (yes, it’s rainy, but it’s in a tent!) You might take a look at the Rowan University team’s steel-based model of a machine that turns peanut shells into briquettes for burning— an idea that might be especially helpful for a country like Gambia that is lacking in natural forestry but can claim 8.9% of its GDP from its peanut production. Reusing waste to solve heating problems, save individuals time searching for scarce firewood, and improving quality of life? Yes sir.

After taking a look at peanuts, swing over to Clemson’s table. They’ve got work going on a machine that utilizes the natural organic reactions of a swamp and converts it into electricity. They’ve been focusing on cypress and tupelo based matter (which comprises 80% of the ecosystems across the country,) with the intention of eventually creating a conduit by which field monitoring equipment in these ecosystems can be powered by the bayou itself. Yes, that is also awesome.

And those are just two of the stories. There’s also Michigan State’s team, taking the traditional “green roof” concept that has been thus far limited to flat surfaces and creating innovative design to allow plant growth on sloped roofs, taking into account soil media depth, irrigation systems, and the strength of these roofs. The University of Georgia showcases a milk cooling system to prevent the spoilage of dairy overnight for Ugandan farmers— a system that utilizes Zeolite-H20 absorption and if successful, could significantly increase the life cycle of a given unit of agricultural good. The University of Kansas has a hybrid energy collection system that can collect energy from wind, solar, or the grid depending on user preference. Imagine something like that that was also connected to software that could predict how windy or sunny the day would be as well as market fluctuations in energy costs?

I can’t do justice to all of the projects there, but it is truly a sight to behold. As a business-minded observer, I look at all of these young inventors and the amazing things they are doing to change this planet and my first thought is, “what are the obstacles to taking something like this to market? Money? Marketing? Pitch? Scale? Any and all of the above?”

I sincerely hope that regardless of who wins the competition this weekend (the grand prize is $75,000 of grant money to continue developing the project) that every single team, regardless of the outcome, recognizes their own innovative brilliance and continues developing these amazing solutions to our world’s toughest challenges.

The Expo is Saturday, April 16th and Sunday, April 17th from 10-3 AM on the mall.

Guillermo Olivos is the Assistant Director of the Center for Social Value Creation at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

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