Womens Engineering Society: Inspiring women as engineers, scientists and technical leaders

Emily Cummins

Emily Cummins

When I was four, my Grandad gave me a hammer and began to teach me how to make toys from leftover materials in his garden shed. I loved the fact that we could make something useful out of scraps, and my interest in sustainable design was born. My granddad ignited my creativity and this is something I will never lose!

As I got older I learnt about the properties of different materials and became more experienced in using a range of tools. At secondary school I began to win national awards for my design projects, beginning with a toothpaste dispenser for arthritis sufferers - such as my other Grandad who found it difficult to squeeze the toothpaste tube.  My design incorporated levers to change the squeezing action into a pushing one. With this simple design I realised that not only could my grandad use it, but others who struggle to use their hands and there is more than just toothpaste that comes in a tube, making the dispenser multi-functional. Fortunately I was lucky that my school, South Craven School in West Yorkshire, put me forward for a national engineering competition, where I was lucky to be one of the winners; however, unfortunately, I didn’t have a patent on my product so lost all rights to it. Although that was massively disappointing, I got great satisfaction from seeing my grandad using my dispenser and wanted to continue to build more products to help people.

My second challenge was to make the journey more efficient for African women and children who often walk many miles a day to collect water using only one or two jerry cans. I designed a water carrier that would make their journey easier and allowing them to transport up to five containers of water. The carrier can also be adapted to carry firewood or other heavy loads. Carrying water on a head or using a yolk can cause long-term back problems, meaning that women can struggle to carry water and need their children to go instead and the cycle continues. My water carrier eradicates this issue and is designed to be manufactured in Africa, creating jobs, allowing children to attend school and improving the quality of people’s lives. With this product, again I was put forward for a national competition called the Sustainable Design Award, which I was announced as one of the winners.  It was through this award that I was inspired to create my final year project, as I was inspired by a speaker at the award ceremony who spoke about global warming and climate change and explained how we were using too many resources.

I decided that I wanted to create a sustainable refrigerator that could be used in our homes that can be powered by renewable energy. During my final year of school I designed a sustainable fridge which is ‘powered’ by dirty water.  Although the fridge I designed worked, it wouldn’t be suitable for use in homes in the UK as the design was too simplistic, but I realised that it would be ideal for use in developing countries because it doesn’t require electricity and can be built using barrels, spare car parts and ordinary household materials. My design consists of two cylinders, one inside the other, between which a locally-sourced material such as sand or wool is packed tightly before being soaked with water. When the fridge is placed in a warm environment, the sun’s energy causes the outer part of the fridge to ’sweat.’ As the water evaporates, heat energy is transferred away from the inner cylinder, which therefore becomes cooler. The sustainable fridge is an improvement upon the pot in pot cooler, where the products that are stored come into contact with the water. This means that clean drinking water would have to be used; essentially wasting water and only fruit and vegetables and things in bottles could be stored as the products would become damp. My fridge which is powered by dirty water (saving drinking water) is also hygienic and dry, allowing meat and medicine to be stored when they couldn’t before.

I refined my fridge during my time at University, giving away the design plans in townships across southern Africa because I wanted as many people as possible to build their own fridges. Women in townships now produce fridges from scrap materials, this not only provides refrigeration in areas where it hasn’t previously been available, but has created jobs, empowering women to support themselves and their families.

I’m motivated by human need as well as sustainability principles. Some people question why I decided to open source my designs; giving away the plans for free. To me it felt like the right thing to do. My products would never have made the difference they have made today if I took the selfish route and decided to try and make as much money as possible. As an inventor, my dream was to see people benefitting from my product, and today, I feel that I have achieved what I set out to do.


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