For some, summertime equals campfires and BBQ parties. However, what counts as a luxurious and enjoyable pastime for the lucky few, is actually a serious healthhazard for most. Globally, over four million people die every year from household air pollution, mostly due to cooking over burning wood, animal dung or charcoal. To paint another grim picture of the situation, the average wood-burning stove can produce 400 cigarettes worth of smoke every hour.

Besides numerous health issues, this widespread practice has other detrimental side effects as well, such as deforestation, pollution and girls dropping out of school to collect fuel.

Nearly ten years ago, Wellesley College sophomore Catlin Powers and MIT student Scot Frank teamed up in the Himalayas. Describing her work in climate change to locals as “research about smoke in the sky”, Powers was asked why she was looking into outdoor pollution when the skies outside were blue while inside the huts, the air was heavy and smoky. It was a legitimate point and Powers reached out to Frank, who was teaching at a Chinese university at the time and was helping students with engineering projects that would improve their communities.

A portable stove

From their partnership came SolSource: a solar powered portable cooker that allows people to cook their food – but also produce heat and electricity and even purify water – using nothing more than solar power.

A portable stove that can survive the Himalayas has to be very well designed, as local women need to be able to carry it around (i.e. lightweight), but at the same time it needs to be very sturdy in order to withstand both extreme weather conditions and the occasional run-in with animals.

Back in 2010, One Earth Design won the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge with their SolSource, giving Frank and Powers the resources to research, develop and innovate their product further until they were ready to release it in 2013. The result: something that looks like a satellite dish with a pan in the middle, which can cook a perfect steak in less than 7 minutes. “Winning the competition helped us bring this product to market and did so in a way that met with our mission and vision and was in line with our values,” says Frank. “Previously, we’d been searching for funding to commercialize the product, but many of the investors we were speaking to were only interested in financial gains.”

“Competing in the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge gave us a better sense of what the current trends in the marketplace were and what we needed in order to be successful in our business,” Frank goes on to explain. “I remember that many of the questions we were asked during the judging session ended up being challenges we would face in the months to come.”

In homes where SolSource is used today, studies indicate that it reduces biomass fuel requirements by up to 70%, which besides the obvious health benefits, has many other positive side effects as well. For example, girls now go to school more because they don’t need to collect fuel.

Global demand and Top Chef

One Earth Designs is using SolSource to set up 92% efficient solar charging stations for rural communities where families can charge One Earth Design’s new solar batteries and portable solar stoves. Global demand for SolSource has also led One Earth Designs to begin working with local distribution partners in order to deliver SolSource both to under-served markets in Asia and into the hands of grilling enthusiasts and campers in the US and Europe.

Even the world of professional chefs has embraced SolSource. In December 2015, the reality TV show “Top Chef” challenged its chefs to a solar cooking competition using SolSource Solar Stoves. Impressed, many of the Top Chefs brought SolSources back to their restaurants to explore solar cooking further.

The journey to bring SolSource to market has been far from easy. Along the way, the One Earth Designs team has had to innovate a cashless business model, deliver SolSources by horseback, face entrenched energy interests, and navigate large swings in local political climates in the regions where they operate.

The next steps for the team are to release a new set of high-performance solar energy storage materials and to begin implementing their new communityscale SolSource Solar Charging Stations.

Co-founder, Dr. Catlin Powers is now CEO of One Earth Designs.