Cycling Into The Cutting Edge Of Technology

Posted: December 08, 1987

U.S. Rep. William H. Gray 3d sat on a 10-speed bicycle at Drexel University and pedaled briskly yesterday. He wasn't going anywhere, but the table-saw blade attached to his bike's rear wheel zipped handily through a two-by-four.

A table saw attached to a bicycle may sound like the answer to a question nobody has asked.

"But if you're living in the hinterlands of Haiti or Africa - and an electric saw would cost half a year's salary - this is a lot better than some piece of complex high technology that would work beautifully here but not there," explained Drexel engineering professor William Zuspan, one of the university's experts in the burgeoning new field of "appropriate technology."

The term, which has become an internationally popular concept in recent years, does not necessarily mean "low technology," Zuspan said.

"It means technology appropriate for the place it will be used, using local materials and local people," said Zuspan, who has worked in Haiti to bring appropriate technology from America. It also means cheap, reliable, easily repaired and pretty much foolproof technology.

Drexel, which will be sending teams of students to Ghana next year to develop that kind of technology, received a $300,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts for the program. Gray visited the university yesterday for a reception to announce the grant.

A few examples of the appropriate-technology projects Drexel students are developing for the program:

* A solar-powered food dryer that costs $4.55 to build and is made of a few scraps of wood, trash bags, and chicken wire. "One of the biggest problems in poor countries is that the people cannot preserve the food beyond harvest time. This device will allow them to dry and keep food for months," Zuspan said.

* A bicycle-powered battery recharger that will recharge the common nine- volt batteries used in inexpensive transistor radios. "Governments in developing nations like their citizens to be able to hear the news and often give out these cheap radios, but when the battery is dead, people can't afford to get a new one. This device gives them months' more service," Zuspan explained.

* A bicycle-powered grinding wheel. "One of these is already in use in Haiti, and a man there is now supporting his family by sharpening machetes -which are extensively used in agriculture - for his neighborhood," said Zuspan.

* A wooden 35-foot bridge, already built in Haiti, that will not wash out when heavy rains cause extreme flooding. Design and engineering work on the bridge was a challenge, Zuspan said, "because for a variety of reasons, it could not cost more than $60. Students did it for a total building cost of $54.77."

Zuspan, who teaches the subject along with Drexel engineering professor Richard Rosen, said the university's courses in appropriate technology have become one of the most popular electives within Drexel's engineering program. Several students are majoring in the subject, he said.

Other projects designed by Drexel students for developing nations include wind-powered irrigation systems, wind-powered battery chargers, and a simple engineering system that generates methane gas, which can be used for cooking,

from the waste products of a pig-breeding farm.

"In many of these countries, people burn only wood for cooking. And this results in harmful deforestation of wide areas, although you can't blame the people," Zuspan said. "If you give them a choice of burning another fuel, they will."

The Pew grant will allow Drexel, operating jointly with Operation

Crossroads Africa, to establish sites and projects in Ghana where Drexel students will spend six or nine months applying their engineering skills to problems of agricultural production, water management, and transportation. Operation Crossroads Africa is a 30-year-old organization that specializes in cultural and development exchange programs between America and Africa and the Caribbean.

Under Drexel's cooperative education program, students alternate periods of campus study with periods of paid employment in jobs related to their fields of study.

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