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A group of Harvard students is harnessing the power of the world’s most popular sport. They’ve designed a soccer ball that generates electricity with every kick and post game can power a light. Even though it’s still in prototype, Popular Mechanics recently named sOccket one of the breakthrough innovations of the year. Hemali Thakkar, one of the co-creators of sOccket holds up what on the outside looks like an average white ball- but on the inside, “there’s a magnet that goes back and forth through the inductive coil which allows a current to be captured in a capacitor and electricity can be stored.” The extra hardware adds 6 ounces to the standard 15 ounce soccer ball. But you can think of it as inserting a shake to charge flashlight into the ball, “the more you shake it, the more light you have.”

Thakkar, a graduating senior, kicks the ball against a concrete planter, on Harvard campus. “So right now you need about 15 minutes of kicking the ball that allows us to use a single LED- it’ll be lit for 3 hours.” A FIFA sanctioned 90 minute game could generate close to 12 hours of light.

After some light charge-inducing, Thakkar handles the ball to find sOccket’s socket, a small dc jack in the middle of one of the panels. She plugs in a wire connected to an LED bulb and, “Voila! You can see the light.” Its soft glow is made modest by the daylight but Thakkar assures, “when its pitch dark its amazing how a single LED can make such a big difference.”

Poor places that lack access to electricity is where sOccket hopes to make the biggest difference. The UN Development Program estimates that nearly 80 percent of the Third World- the 50 poorest nations- have no access to electricity. And in those places people rely on unsustainable, unhealthy energy sources. Among the most harmful and prevalent is kerosene. Thakkar, who studies public health, says, “kerosene lamps cause fumes that are one of the biggest causes of morbidity and mortality in developing countries.” The environmental impact of kerosene is severe as well- the yearly carbon dioxide emissions from all those lamps around the world equals the emissions from about 38 million cars.

To give shape to their idea, the Harvard team passed their ball off to a design firm. And this past summer, the sOccket team took their prototype to Nigeria, Liberia and South Africa, to test it where the need for clean electricity and love of soccer was the highest. The home of the 2010 world cup gave the sOccket inventors a great opportunity to see how their ball fared on some well-tread, no frills fields.

An early sOccket prototype undergoes a battery of tests in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. (Photo WhizzKids United)

The young women worked with Marcus McGilvray, founder of the South African based WhizzKids United. He runs an HIV care and prevention organization that uses soccer to reach at-risk kids. McGilvray had first met one of the Harvard inventors a year earlier and introduced her to his crack team of product testers; “these children- they make footballs out of carrier bags so they are always excited when you bring a football out to them and then, of course this football generated a lot of interest.” The ball was well received but he said the mechanics needed improvement; “What the soccket team realized from the trials was that they were going to have to work on the connection inside.”

The sOccketeers took these suggestions and Thakkar says they’re working on it, “This is still our prototype, 2.0 and we hope that we will reduce weight, increase durability, increase the capture of electricity and make it a better product.” The inventors hope to have a for-sale version of the ball on shelves next summer. Proceeds from American sales would support a buy one- give one model, so groups like Whizzkids in South Africa could start including the balls into their own programs teaching soccer and life skills.


pH Soccket.mp3 4.5 MB