Some 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity worldwide today, most in rural areas across Southeast Asia, China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa, according to data from the OECD.
While others are focused on wiring up those places and developing new energy sources, a startup called Evaptainers has created a kind of refrigerator that requires no electricity, runs instead on water and can keep food and drinks significantly cooler than the temperature outside.
Evaptainers’ co-founders Spencer Taylor, Quang Truong and Jeremy Fryer-Biggs developed their cooling units as a kind of modern take on an analog invention, the “zeer pot,” or pot-in-pot refrigerator. The way these things work is something like sweating.
Taylor said, “As we sweat, water molecules draw heat out of our bodies to go through a phase-change, and evaporate. As that happens we cool down. This machine has water in a tank, and permeable membranes that deliver water to evaporative walls.”
Each unit of the company’s newest EV-8-model refrigerators requires about 1/3 of a liter of water to operate per day in a place that’s got less than 65 percent humidity on a hot day. They can store 60 liters, about 5 gallons of milk, and chill contents by about 35 degrees Fahrenheit from the ambient air temperature.
To turn on the device, users just pour water into a port on the top of it. The water doesn’t have to be potable. The Evaptainers can be folded up, which makes them portable and easy to transport into rural communities that need them most.
While the company is on a mission to reduce food spoilage in places where sustenance is hard to come by, it is operating as a for-profit, for-good business with five employees in North America and two in North Africa at this time. The company has raised nearly half a million dollars in grant funding to get started.
Truong told TechCrunch his original idea for the company was inspired by courses that he took at Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and MIT, as well as by failed efforts by non-government organizations and philanthropists to feed the world.
The founder said, “With a variety of agriculture projects you’ll see people spending millions to try to build a cold storage warehouse in places were graft, corruption and other issues make it hard to even get something built. But then there’s this issue of what to do if you don’t have a reliable electric system, or grid in the first place. The short answer is to do something that doesn’t require electricity.”
Besides the company’s interest in helping people who live without reliable access to food and electricity, Evaptainers is considering developing a version of its refrigerators for outdoor sports and camping enthusiasts.
“We’d like to do something where the higher margins in the U.S. support our ability to put this technology in the hands of people who wouldn’t be able to pay for poor rural consumers and food producers in emerging markets,” Taylor said.