YOLO COUNTY NEWS
Da Vinci High School physics students watch as Ryan Banwarth pedals a bike to power a blender that's churning out a tasty smoothie. The students will teach the women of Sabana Grande, Nicaragua, how to make the bike-powered blender when they visit the village in June. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise photo

Features

Off the Beaten Path: It’s a wheely good idea

By March 14, 2011

Davis residents may not be kicking their electric blenders to the curb any time soon, but they may give it some thought after seeing what some students at Da Vinci High School have created as a way to take smoothie-making off the grid: a bicycle-powered blender.

After all, if making a delicious fruit smoothie following a bike ride sounds good, making a delicious fruit smoothie WHILE biking sounds even better.

Alas, while the streets of Davis aren’t likely to see an influx of cyclists blending smoothies any time soon, this invention will be making a difference in the lives of an impoverished Nicaraguan community seeking to make the most of renewable energy sources.

Eighteen students in Da Vinci teacher Zach Ronneberg’s physics class will travel to the village of Sabana Grande in June where they will teach a group of women, known as the Solar Women of Totogalpa, how to make the bicycle-powered blender.

For a number of years now, these women have been working with Grupo Fenix, an organization formed by students at Nicaragua’s National Engineering University, to help folks in poor rural communities make the most of energy harnessed from the sun, wind and other sources.

The women, under the guidance of Grupo Fenix and professor Susan Kinne, have been experimenting with renewable energy technologies, making and selling everything from solar panels to solar cookers and solar dryers. They’ve even started a completely-off-the-grid restaurant, which needed a way to make the smoothie drinks that are so popular there, without using traditional power sources.

Gwynn Benner of UC Davis directs the Energy Program Youth Corps and has been working with Ronneberg and his students the past couple of years, and it was Benner who put the class in touch with Kinne.

Kinne visited the class to talk to them about the solar community in Sabana Grande and asked if they could come up with a human-powered blender. This being Davis, it’s no surprise that a bicycle found its way into the mix.

“Then we just had to figure out how to convert the energy of the spinning wheel into spinning a blender,” said student Alex Walker.

The group began brainstorming in December and came up with their prototype in short order: They modified a bike by attaching gears to the wheel, so when the wheel spins, it turns the gears. The gears in turn spin the rotor on the bottom of the blender, powering it with the mechanical energy from the bike.

All along, students had to be cognizant of what materials would be available to the Nicaraguans in replicating the blender.

“The idea is to build it there with local materials,” Ronneberg noted.

In her own travels to Nicaragua, Benner checked out what was available, even bringing back one of the blenders commonly available there, so students would know what to use here. Bicycles being a common form of transportation there made that part easy.

One of the biggest hurdles students face now is the cost of traveling to Nicaragua, purchasing supplies there and paying for local labor.

They are seeking community donations and will be at the Davis Farmers Market beginning Saturday. Visitors to their booth not only will get to taste a bicycle-powered smoothie, they’ll get a chance to make one through their own pedal power.

In addition to teaching the women of Sabana Grande how to build the bicycle-powered blenders — and providing them with manuals for the process — the students also will spend time in Nicaragua teaching science to elementary school children. Benner expects the 10-day trip to be an eye-opening experience.

“This is a community with no showers, only pit toilets, dirt floors,” she noted. “It’s going to be a very different cultural experience for these students.”

They’re looking forward to it, though.

“I’ll learn a lot when I go,” said Mandy Hart, 17.

She adds that she already has learned so much, “about physics and about fundraising.”

Classmate Emma Lautz, also 17, adds that the project “has been really fun.”

“I like how easily we can use our own power and energy to make something really useful,” she said. “I’m excited about making an impact on someone’s life. It will humble a lot of us.”

For more information about the project, visit http://www.teamblend.org.

Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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