Fatbergs, Fuel Cylinders and Fusion Energy: How Crowdsourcing is Changing Innovation in Engineering

Posted by Michael Hanson on Jun 3, 2016 7:08:29 AM

Although InnoCentive has a history of solving problems in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, as shown by Seekers such as AstraZeneca, Cleveland Clinic or GlaxoSmithKline to name a few, our methodology is highly adaptable and we are by no means restricted to this sector, as highlighted in the recent piece on the diverse uses of crowdsourcing competitions. Engineering in particular is a discipline where InnoCentive has run a number of intriguing Challenges through our innovation platform, whether that be civil, mechanical or electrical and here we highlight a few examples.

In 2015, a 10-tonne congealed lump of food and other household waste – known as a ‘fatberg’ -was found in the sewers of London, causing an estimated £400,000 ($580,000) worth of damage. This was an extreme example but even much smaller scale blockages can have serious consequences, such as severe flooding and polluting waterways. This is why UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) decided to run a Challenge to find solutions that could monitor complex sewer networks and detect the formation of such blockages at early stages. The Challenge was successful and UKWIR awarded $10,000 to the top solution and $2,500 to the runner-up.

Another Engineering Challenge run by a UK-based Seeker (Ideas to Impact, a UK Department for International Development (DfID) programme) was the Recycling Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) Cylinders Across Sub-Saharan Africa Challenge. LPG is a clean-burning, portable and efficient fuel that is increasingly used in many developing countries but a large number of aging cylinders constitutes a worrying safety hazard due to lack of maintenance, putting populations in danger and ultimately hindering the growth of a successful LPG market. Hence, Ideas to Impact was looking for alternative uses for substandard cylinders in sub-Saharan Africa, so that they could be recycled and removed from the LPG distribution channels. The winning solution –the Skoon Stove – is highly sustainable as it involves the development of stoves using local material and the recycling of waste. One of the strengths of the solution is that cookstoves already have an existing market, and can easily create employment generation. Other winning ideas included converting LPG cylinders into water filtration systems, and construction materials such as steel rebar. You can read more about the winning solutions here.

Even the world of fusion energy is embracing crowdsourcing. General Fusion is the market leader in Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF), which uses shock waves to compress hydrogen plasma to fusion temperatures and pressures. They were seeking methods to seal a metal cylinder and the surface of the cylindrical hole into which it fits such that molten lead on one end of the cylinder is isolated from a vacuum on the opposite end, without being compromised by the repetitive impacts and high temperatures of the cylinder. Kirby Meacham, thanks to his experience as an MIT-trained mechanical engineer and an inventor listed on 35 US-issued patents, won the $20,000 prize with his “Metallic Pressure-Balanced Anvil Seal” design. Speaking about his win for a General Fusion press release, Meacham said: “I was able to draw from my knowledge of high temperature seal technology gained by recent work on reduced friction piston rings for internal combustion engines.”

Accessing these types of fresh perspectives can be critical for driving innovation and there are pressing engineering problems for which crowdsourcing can provide valuable solutions. Our crowd is as diverse as our Challenges and whether you’re a freelance aerospace engineer, a team of car mechanics or a Seeker looking for a breakthrough design solution, InnoCentive can be the connector you’re looking for.

Topics: Innovation Insights, Challenges, Seekers

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