People like Dr. Joe Bradley, Ph.D., an engineering professor at the Gies College of Business and faculty member with the University of Illinois, do not receive enough press for what they do. Dr. Bradley is the co-founder of Sun Buckets, a thermal storage technology company focused on solving source heat inefficiencies for off-grid families around the world. The company, founded with Dr. Bruce Elliott-Litchfield, Ph.D., develops technology that harvests the suns energy and stores it for later. The portable thermal storage device is used for cooking, agricultural food-drying and even space heating. Currently, Dr. Bradley is using Sun Buckets’ technology to help the world’s largest displaced community – Refugees.
Refugee Camps have a lifestyle and it is 100% driven by limited resources. This is where Sun Buckets comes in. Solar energy harvested through the sun bucket device allows refugee camp dwellers, who are sometimes there for decades, to use solar energy to cook their food. This is the first sustainable living technology of its kind. The work is so important the Sun Buckets project was selected as a finalist for the Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge at the 2018 edition of the Concordia Annual Summit in New York City. The award will include significant funding to help the company continue its work.
Right now there are over 65 million people across the world who’ve been forced to leave their homes due to conflict or persecution. And our government, the team of people we held in high regard to elect into positions over humanitarian living, are turning their backs on refugees in our names. Too the news stories about refugees are so dire it is sometimes easier to ignore their stories and focus on what we can control in our lives. I know this because I sometimes want to do the same. But I realized there MUST be stories out there where people try to help.
I reached out to Dr. Joe Bradley, a dedicated scientist, husband and father of three, because his story needs to be told. I knew right away the sun bucket was not only a great invention for Refugees today, it can be a clean energy source for all Humans in the future.
Hopefully, reading how Dr. Bradley used his idea to help those in need will inspire you to share his story and use your own talents, big and small, to help as well.
Nichelle: Tell me how it all started and what is your background and why you decided to do something this extraordinary?
JB – My academic training and background is primarily in engineering. Sun Buckets, our start-up, was started by faculty and graduate students here at the University of Illinois. The first year of incorporation was in 2014. Our aim was to address the global cooking crisis. The global cooking crisis could be characterized as the scarcity and unsafe options for the 2.5 – 3 billion people who do not have access to efficient cooking fuel. In some communities the price of cooking fuel could consume 25% to 30% percent of their income. Unlike places like the US for example, we don’t really think about the actual amount of energy we use or the cost for cooking a meal in general. However it is probably minimal, between 2% or 3% or less of our monthly income, but this is a big problem for many of our fellow global neighbors.
Nichelle: Is it due to overall income or is it that fuel is not as commonly available in those locations?
JB – It’s become less commonly available. There has been, over time, deforestation challenges and so the readily available firewood or charcoal isn’t there all the time so in some regions they have to import the charcoal or fuel in some cases creating even more potential future challenges. Especially in Haiti, Haiti is one place we work where they have significant deforestation. To the point now they are importing a lot of their cooking fuel materials from the Dominican Republic. And it is very expensive for them. So, we are addressing a problem that was created many many years ago.
One other thing, which was a shock to me, is that *3-4 million people, I think that is what they state according to the World Health Organization, die from cooking because of the emissions particulates. This is the result of cooking indoors or continual exposure where you are burning firewood and charcoal –resulting in respiratory issues. It’s one of the main factors for children under 5 that live in those regions effected from the smoke burning of fossil fuels. It is a leading cause of death for children from newborn to under 5.
*3.8 million deaths every year as a result of household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels
Nichelle: How did you initially become aware of this situation?
JB – One of the key founders, he was a professor here at U of I, Bruce Litchfield. Bruce has been working on cook stoves with several students projects. He is retired now, he is also the CEO of the company. A lot of the work they were doing was just making the stoves more efficient. So it would still burn charcoal or it would still burn wood but they would say, ok, it burns it more efficiently so you can burn less wood, etc. But that wasn’t getting to the heart of the problem because you still have emissions, health problems, and environmental challenges. It would have some impact, but it wasn’t making the kind of dent in these kind of climate forcing issues and these health issues that were occurring. So this was something he started to work on along with a former student, Matthew Alonso. Dr. Matthew Alonso, Ph.D., is also a co-founder of Sun Buckets.
Around the formation of the company, Matt and Bruce started thinking in terms of how we can deal with it from a perspective of using solar because solar cookers are available, and you see them in many of those regions trying to solve cooking energy needs for the energy impoverished. You also see them being used by some people as a leisure type or a surplus kind of item in places like the US because they want to be off grid, for example.
If you look at our website, you could see the design we have is parabolic to charge our device. Those are basically just models of a type of solar cooker where instead of putting our device in there to charge, you could just put an actual pot that you want to cook with. So you could actually prepare your meal, put it on top and cook. But it always has to cook in the sunlight. And even our design (today) has some limitations when it is overcast which we are working on now and testing new designs. These cookers were out there but it seemed to be missing the cultural aspect of how people actually cook. Because typically you don’t just put something out in the sun and just let it cook and then you go pick it up.
Normally, you want to cook it as though you are over a fire, put in different spices and ingredients and you cook. That’s probably typically how a lot of people cook. So, we were trying to get as close, culturally, to how they cook with fire and to also reduce the emissions by removing the use of firewood or charcoal or other fossil fuels as your cooking fuel.
(With sun buckets) we were trying to get as close, culturally, to how they cook with fire and to also reduce the emissions by removing the use of firewood or charcoal or other fossil fuels as your cooking fuel.
-Dr. Joe Bradley
Nichelle: How did you first get involved?
JB – I knew Bruce when I was a graduate student. So I’ve known him a while. His background was in agriculture and engineering. Initially the idea and concept was more in the research phase. And he came to me and asked if I wanted to be a part of the company to commercialize these ideas. We got the NSF i-Corp program funding in 2014 and then Sun Buckets was formed. We started to move along the path to make the product better and to push the company forward. Several fellow students and colleagues got involved, our website includes a list of people involved in it now.
Nichelle: As an engineer what draws your design inspiration?
JB – Design inspiration comes from understanding the operating environment and the people using the design. Understanding the total system. You design the apparatus, but how does it impact other players, the stakeholders – users or suppliers – how do you design in a way that is sustainable and can be regenerative. What are the potential positive and negative consequences of the design?
Design inspiration comes from understanding the operating environment and the people using the design. How does it impact other players, the stakeholders – users or suppliers. How do you design in a way that is sustainable and can be regenerative.
-Dr. Joe Bradley
The way that we have designed the sun buckets it’s completely recyclable. All the materials, the metals, you can melt it down or reuse it for other uses. Basically returning to its base raw material.
Nichelle: Is that very important to you?
JB – Yes, that is very important to our team. And we’ve designed certain parts of the system to make sure it can be locally made so we can support that local economy as well.
Nichelle: Where do your ethics come from?
JB – It is something we share as a team. And I’d say it is a Christian value. We are here to demonstrate love of one another.
Nichelle: What led you towards wanting to apply the product to refugees?
JB – That was one area we knew that had potential because the energy challenges where evident in terms of requiring lots of cooking fuel when organizing a refugee camp. So, we wanted to find the most pressing areas although we had interest from people in the US that wanted to buy them and we knew we could build and sell them in the US. We knew this was an optional product. But we were really targeting those people who were really facing energy insecurities or were having high costs for energy used in cooking. We were very fortunate and blessed to connect with humanitarian groups in Kenya that was working with the World Food Program (WFP) and UNHCR, and we got an open door to go to the refugee camps in Kakuma and Kalobeyei.
Nichelle: What was the experience like? How did you prepare for your trip to Kenya?
JB – We learned a lot just being there. Before going to the refugee settlements and camps, we were able to talk to an individual who’d already been there. We were able to get a lot of early information from them, but it was nothing like once you got on the ground and seeing individuals and learning about their life. We kind of like tried to observe a time line or a cycle of what people in the camps did in a day, and some of the challenges with cooking and the accessibility of the cooking fuel and those types of things.
In those two camps in Kakuma and Kalobeyei I think the UN, from what I can understand, provides some of the firewood but the refugees said typically it doesn’t satisfy their needs. So, you are given some fuel supply from the organization but it typically runs out before the next available fuel distribution.
Nichelle: What did you pack for your trip?
JB – I took a lot of camping stuff, natural health supplements, protein bars. I didn’t know what my eating would be. And I knew we couldn’t stay at the camp overnight, we had to be back at the UN facilities by 6pm each night. But for the daytime I took snacks like protein bars.
Nichelle: How did you care for your fitness and exercise while abroad?
JB – Walking everywhere. Nothing extremely aerobic but we walked a lot each day.
Nichelle: What was your diet like while there?
JB – There was a lot of goat and quail. Basically, just like in nature they would kill a goat and a couple hours later I was eating a goat. We had a lot of spinach, eggs.
Nichelle: What type of people did you meet?
One of the residents testing one of the units now is a mathematician. These are people who had to flee from their country. It wasn’t like they were necessarily fleeing because they were poor. It’s just that the situation they were fleeing from was so dire they had to leave everything behind and come to a new location.
These are people who had to flee from their country. It wasn’t like they were necessarily fleeing because they were poor.
-Dr. Joe Bradley
There is a young lady who is an award-winning film maker. She filmed and did the video for our shoot and we have a documentary in the works with her from the company. And when we returned home and gave them some of her footage they were really surprised at how great it was. She was on a TEDTalk that occurred in Kakuma.
Nichelle: How did you get acclimated and how long did it take?
JB – We would go out into their homes and everything and we would just be there. We learned a lot from the host organization team who were with us all the time. We were there four or five days, just to watch and learn about them and how they cook. And most of the refugees spoke English. Being an American and only speaking English they would joke around with me somewhat.
Nichelle: What was most memorable about your experience?
JB – It was fun being there and talking to people. The people had a sense of peace to me. It was a struggle but they functioned in it and their disposition wasn’t one where they seemed completed distraught, and they didn’t have a lot of things. I don’t know how to explain it properly, but it was interesting.
They were doing things to try and utilize their skills. There are organizations that offer an online university, so they were taking classes. They were doing things to help move forward from the situation. There is technology, there are entrepreneurial businesses that sell items we could use. Some of the camps are fairly old, for example, the Kakuma camp has been there over 20 years.
Nichelle; So what happened after you acclimated?
JB – We set up some of the sun buckets and went through some level of training. But the awesome thing is we were more or less standing back and the hosts trained. One of the hosts designed the facility for the World Food Program camp, he designed the camp and was the architect and engineer, and he would go take people through the training of the product. We were more observant trying to understand how we could make the product more applicable to their lifestyle in the future. We answered questions when needed.
Nichelle: How many sun buckets did you take?
JB – We have four in Kenya. They weigh eight to ten kilograms.
Nichelle: And they are totally portable?
JB – Yes. Once you’ve charged it, we have a top to cover and store the energy. It does lose some heat and we are working on that. It doesn’t lose most heat until cooking starts. So you can store the energy and then you can cook later.
Nichelle: How long did you stay after they were installed?
JB – We only had another 1-2 days. But we still have our support on the ground, and they are very invested in seeing if this is a potential alternative to firewood and charcoal. It could overtime become a key energy source in the camp. One of our on-ground support personnel is doing videos of how the sun buckets are working. She interviews the current users for us.
Nichelle: Is this the only type of device available out there or are there other similar devices to the Sun Buckets?
JB – There have been other solar based cookers but we have the first one that stores the energy and is portable and can be used to cook when the sun goes down.
Nichelle: What are you most happy about from your trip?
JB – One of the things we were happy about was we felt they were useful, and it wasn’t too heavy. And we wanted to see how the women would interact with it because in those cultures they were responsible for the cooking, doing a lot of the cooking if not all. We saw one of the mothers in the community use it, install it, set it up and operate the device. We were happy to see someone, independent of us, a potential user, operate the device.
Nichelle: What were you most unhappy with?
JB – While there we observed a dish that required a lot of heavy stirring which made the pot slide on our sun bucket device. An option is to use a clamp often used by firefighters which would fit any pot size and is a fix until we review the design. We may add a rib or inset so it won’t move around. These are some of the key insights as we continue to get the users feedback.
Nichelle: What projects are you working on in the future? How do you see the sun bucket for the future for all?
JB – About a week ago we had an inquiry from peanut farmers in Haiti. There are a number of peanut farmers and they are having a lot of post-harvest loss as a result of an inability to dry peanuts. We have tested the sun bucket as a food dryer, we’ve dried fruits and things like that, and we think we can help. We’ve had inquiries regarding space-heating, water sterilization, food-drying, and other applications, for waste-energy sources. So we will see where these opportunities go. It is an exciting time for us.
Nichelle: What is waste energy?
JB – One of the main sources of energy are generators as a power source for remote locations and some refugee camps. So we are saying we can make a holding device for the waste energy coming off the generators that allows us to put a sun bucket along that hot pipe and it will charge a sun bucket device. Anything that generates enough heat, we can use it to charge our portable device.
Nichelle: Other passions?
JB – I have a passion for understanding problems and needs. Not going in with a solution but really trying to understand people. Making engineering and businesses more helpful to society by being very interdisciplinary.
Nichelle: What are you reading right now?
JB – “Engineering and Ethics”. Most of the books I am reading are work related. “Cradle to Cradle” by William McDonough & Michael Braungart – it’s about product design and the ecology of commerce.
Nichelle: What type of music do you like?
JB – I like a lot of jazz and gospel.
Nichelle: What do you prefer? Art or nature?
JB – I definitely do nature walks, we do have trails and as family we do that. My wife and I have three kids.
I hope you enjoyed the interview with Dr. Bradley. After speaking with him for over an hour it made me question the point of technology if it isn’t being used to make the lives of all humans better. And where we should draw the line between profit and human life.
The one thing I know is right now we are shaping human interaction for the future. And how we respond to humans in need today is how people will respond to us when or if we are in need.
Sun Buckets has a blog called “Cooking with Sun Buckets“. It features delicious recipes cooked using the solar energy source. Check it out!