If you’ve ever put a blade of grass between your thumbs and blown, you’re already aware of the force that drives Shawn Frayne’s ingenious Windbelt. A small amount of air passing over a thin strip of material can create frequencies that translate into sound waves or, in the Windbelt’s case, energy.

Frayne’s device consists of a flat, taut membrane that flutters within its housing as air passes through it. At each end of the membrane are magnets that oscillate between metal coils as the band flutters, effectively creating an electric charge. According to the 28-year-old Frayne, prototypes of the Windbelt have generated 40 milliwatts in 10-mph slivers of wind, making his device 10 to 30 times as efficient as the best microturbines.

For his innovation, Shawn recently received a Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award and I had the pleasure of hearing him speak during a conference held on the top floor of Hearst Tower.

Frayne, now based in Mountain View, Calif., gathered a variety of lessons while studying at MIT, especially under the tutelage of Amy Smith (a 2004 MacArthur fellow) in her “D-Lab” class. In this design lab, Frayne learned the politics of delivering technology to poor nations, as well as the technical aspects of mechanical engineering.

Frayne remarked in a 2003 New York Times article on Smith’s D-Lab:

”I learned in an economics class that if someone has a good idea and they can implement it in a third-world country, they can dramatically change the economy of the country…I was surprised by how much technology can affect the well-being of a people.”

During his mid-semester break at MIT, Frayne traveled to Haiti where he acted as a consultant for remote villages there and helped locals solve their technical problems.

It was while Frayne was in Haiti, helping locals make charcoal out of biomass, that he came up with the idea for the Windbelt. He saw the need for small-scale windpower, as it could power LED lamps and radios in the rural villages there.

According the Popular Mechanics article on Frayne:

Conventional wind turbines don’t scale down well—there’s too much friction in the gearbox and other components. “With rotary power, there’s nothing out there that generates under 50 watts,” Frayne says. So he took a new tack, studying the way vibrations caused by the wind led to the collapse in 1940 of Washington’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge (aka Galloping Gertie).

So it was that the Windbelt was born. Frayne posits his invention within the realm of “appropriate technology“, which roughly translates to mean “accessible technology”. The Windbelt is made of low-cost materials, it is easily serviced and repaired by the local population that uses it and it is environmentally friendly.

Furthermore, Frayne believes that the benefits of his invention can easily transfer from developing to developed nations. One example that Frayne gave during his talk involved the microsensors used to moderate air temperature and flow in large buildings (such as the 44-floor Hearst Tower, which carries a LEED Gold certification.)

The majority of these sensors (and there are lots of them) operate on battery power and before these batteries fail, they must be replaced. Frayne predicted that each sensor would cost close to $2000 over the course of its life simply to remain powered by these batteries. Instead, Frayne argues that his windbelt could be installed alongside these sensors in the air ducts, where the movement of the air would keep each sensor powered in perpetuity.

At that revelation, the mind reels with examples and applications of how such a simple device could be used across (and maybe even inside?) the planet.

Each fundamental technology developed in the developing world can give birth to entire industries down the line. This simple tenet gives plenty of traction to Frayne’s innovation and it is an appropriate reason that he be rewarded and recompensed for his efforts.

My hat’s off to you Shawn — I’ll be looking for you in the future.

- Curtiss Martin