Scot Frank could not imagine the perspective he would someday have, back when he was growing up in Holladay and striding the steep trails to Wasatch peaks.
Then, while on a college expedition on the dirt roads and in the rural villages of western China and Tibet, he could see it clearly: He could apply his science know-how to the life-and-death problems the villagers faced.
Frank, 25, developed a solar stove that can be used for cooking, heating and electricity. It is durable, lightweight, portable, affordable and, since it's made with yak wool canvas and mylar plastic, repairable in the field.
The new task for his team of young innovators is to bring the stoves to market worldwide so the people who need them can buy them. Someday it could be used by as many as 2.5 billion of the world's poorest people.
If successful, the One Earth Designs stoves will save lives. More than a million people a year many of them children are sickened by "the killer in the kitchen," smoke from combustion stoves used indoors.
In addition, the stove also helps tackle global warming by reducing dirty smoke and deforestation caused by traditional stove fuels.
"Growing up in Utah, I was never cognizant of such conditions," Frank said, recalling how he would wake up at dawn on the Silk Road, only to find that women of the village had been out for hours already scouring the landscape for fuel.
"A lot of what I see myself doing," he said, "is bringing people together so these solutions can be created."
People who knew Frank as a student at Oakwood Elementary, Olympus Junior High and in the West High International Baccalaureate program are not surprised he has gone on to put science to good, practical use.
High school biology teacher Terry Eckberg said even his brightest students, like Frank, benefited from a "competency-based" approach to teaching. "He was off-the-charts bright," Eckberg said, "but you have to get that channeled."
Phil Bernard, a breast cancer researcher at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, is not surprised to see Frank has done so well. Bernard, whose Salt Lake City lab has developed a diagnostic tool for breast cancer, saw Frank in action during a summer internship while he was still a high school student.
"His demeanor was pretty sophisticated," Bernard said, recalling how Frank would come in to work on weekends and how the student helped write a book chapter.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Frank wound up working in an engineering program that puts smart, young scientists to work addressing some of the world's toughest problems, including clean water and clean energy. The idea is to find real-world solutions.
A wheelchair with expensive spare parts from far away doesn't help a rural villager in Africa, the thinking goes. A water pump in Asia that locals have to operate with the help of outsiders is also impractical.
Frank said his experience in the program helped him understand that the people he hoped to help must take a role in developing solutions to these dire problems.
An example: When his Chinese friends told him the solar stove would kill insects, a cultural taboo, he made adjustments that wound up making the stove even more efficient, Frank said.
"These ideas," he said, "came from the community."
As part of the effort to bring the stove to market, One Earth Designs, a U.S. nonprofit he established with Catlin Powers, has established a subsidiary in China, where Frank spends about nine months each year. Recently, he has been meeting with Chinese manufacturers to put the stove into mass production.
Jon Huntsman Jr., the U.S. Ambassador to China and former Utah governor and U.S. trade represenatative, called Frank's work "important."
"Scot's contribution could be significant in the U.S.-China relationship, since clean energy will be a substantive aspect of our future bilateral priorities," Huntsman said in a recent e-mail.
"In fact, one of the areas where both countries have an opportunity to shape the 21st century is in energy cooperation, how we transform old practices and innovate new approaches, particularly for rural populations in China which still number close to a billion people."
Solar stove competing for support
A contest for entrepreneurs, the Unreasonable Institute's Marketplace, will continue for five more weeks. Participants compete by raising lots of small donations $50 this week to pay their entry into a kind of intensive entrepreneur camp that will take place this summer in Boulder, Colo. Teju Ravichan, a co-founder of the institute, said the field has been winnowed to 45 from 300 applicants representing 60 nations. But only the 25 who raise $8,000 first will be accepted.
"We bring together those who are hoping to address the world's greatest problems with those who have the know-how to guide them and those who have the [financial] resources to support them," Ravichan said.
As of Saturday, Scot Frank's project had nearly $1,600 in donations from 93 investors with a contribution limit of $50.
To learn more about his team's entry, see: http://marketplace.unreasonableinstitute.org/ventures/view/20/One-Earth-Designs