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Harnessing the sun and sand: low-tech solutions to high-stakes problems for the DIYer

Sharing this triumph with loved ones became the cherry on top. Many felt inspired to embark on their appropriate technology journeys. With each project, I realized the power of innovation is not confined to high-tech labs. Sometimes, it blooms in a backyard, nurtured by a relentless pursuit of a better, more sustainable world.

  • 5 months ago
  • September 16, 2023
5 min read
Interview subject
Felipe Schenone, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a multi-talented individual bridging the worlds of philosophy, programming, and sustainability. As the Lead Developer at Appropedia, a comprehensive wiki focused on sustainability, he applies his tech skills to democratize eco-friendly practices. A committed DIY ecologist and long-standing volunteer Wikipedia editor, Felipe utilizes his diverse skill set to drive impactful, real-world solutions for a more sustainable future.
Background context
Appropriate technology is a forward-thinking approach that emphasizes scalability, energy efficiency, and sustainability. Tailored to fit the environmental, cultural, and economic needs of a specific community, this technology is user-friendly and easy to maintain. It aims for maximum impact by being cost-effective, ensuring broader reach and adoption. While simple in design, it fulfills its intended purpose without compromising social or environmental considerations, adapting its meaning in developed countries to focus more on the technology’s societal and ecological impact.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Straight out of college, armed with a philosophy degree and a knack for coding, I set out to globe-trot like a modern nomad. Yet, as the miles racked up, so did a harsh truth: half the carbon footprint of my lifestyle came from airplanes alone. I realized my path was anything but sustainable. Right then, I committed to grounding my wanderlust—literally.

The decision forced me to hit the brakes on my whirlwind life. In that newfound stillness, something miraculous happened: I rekindled a long-forgotten friendship with my imaginative, youthful self. The scent of musty Lego blocks filled my nostrils, and the tactile joy of invention returned to my fingertips, reviving my dormant love for science. However, it felt like a distant dream—something locked away in high-tech labs with price tags as hefty as their equipment.

That’s when I stumbled upon the concept of appropriate technologies—building useful, environmentally friendly tech with everyday materials. The knowledge was an epiphany. I could feel the texture of recycled materials in my hands; and the satisfaction of completing a project soaked into my very bones. Eager to dive in, I hunted for supplies and buried myself in research.

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From failed prototypes to backyard breakthroughs in sustainable living

My journey into DIY sustainable tech began with an ambitious idea—a solar water heater crafted from recycled plastic bottles and black hoses. Scouring through discarded items, I felt a surge of satisfaction as I repurposed what others had thrown away. Though this initial project remains unfinished—I’m still missing a key part—it marked the beginning of a passion that would consume me. I shelved it for now, planning to incorporate it into my future home.

Fueled by the possibilities, I attended a climate change event called COP, where I discovered the concept of solar ovens. The idea exhilarated me. Returning home, I delved into research and began crafting my first prototype: a rudimentary setup involving a metal roof panel, a black pot wrapped in plastic, and high hopes. To my disappointment, it did not work. Undeterred, I went for my second attempt and used the same black pot, now encased in a structure made of aluminum foil and cardboard, forming four-panel walls.

I set some rice inside, doubting it would cook. Imagine my astonishment when I returned to find burned rice! A simple exclamation echoed in my mind: “Wow, this really works!” My heart raced with sheer excitement.

Surprised by this unexpected success, I decided to refine the concept further. Prototype after prototype, each more sophisticated than the last, my solar ovens evolved. By the time I reached the fifth iteration, I had a fully functional cooker I could use all summer long.

Sharing this triumph with loved ones became the cherry on top. Many felt inspired to embark on their appropriate technology journeys. With each project, I realized the power of innovation is not confined to high-tech labs. Sometimes, it blooms in a backyard, nurtured by a relentless pursuit of a better, more sustainable world.

From solar ovens to sand batteries: my next leap into backyard sustainability

Fueled by the success of my solar oven, I yearned for a new challenge. The sun, an abundant resource, offers both electric and thermal energy. I opted for the latter, given the ease with which you can harness it. With this in mind, I set my sights on creating a Sand Battery, a high-temperature thermal energy storage system using heated sand.

The initial prototype was a fiasco—wrong vessel, electrical missteps, and not a spark of heat. Undeterred, my second version featured a repurposed pot drilled with holes and fitted with cables. Excitement bubbled within me as I added a glass lining and began testing. When the temperature gauge shot up to 70 degrees, my pulse quickened. Success was within reach.

Lying in bed that night, my mind churned with ideas for enhancements. Each “eureka” moment propelled me towards the third iteration. Armed with precise materials, I assembled it in 20 minutes. My partner filmed the process. When the device heated up to 100 degrees, exhilaration washed over me. A minor hiccup—overheating cables—set me back, but my resolve to hit a 300-degree storage capacity remains unshaken. My ultimate aim? To live sustainably impacting neither the planet nor its inhabitants negatively.

While I don’t dictate lifestyles, my YouTube channel shares eco-friendly projects, offering an accessible route to sustainable living for those interested.

All photos courtesy of Felipe Schenone. Photo gallery showcasing Felipe Schenone’s innovative DIY sustainable technologies.

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