Michael Chen: A Novel Method to Alleviate the Water Crisis in Uganda

Catching up with past Ricoh Sustainable Development Award winners

The Ricoh Sustainable Development Award (RSDA) is a scholarship program presented at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (Regeneron ISEF) that supports high school students dedicated to creating practical and innovative methods to address environmental threats facing our communities.

We recently caught up with our 2019 RSDA winner Michael Chen from Orange Park, Florida to discuss how the scholarship has supported his sustainability efforts in college, his ongoing research, and his plans to continue improving the environment throughout his career.

Michael’s winning invention, “A Novel Method to Alleviate the Water Crisis in Uganda” is an affordable and simple-to-build solar still that independently sources potable water and can be used in a variety of environments. Because 61% of the population does not have access to clean water, this device enables Ugandans to easily have drinkable water and avoid spending days walking in dangerous conditions to find clean sources.

Users fill the still’s chamber with elephant grass which is a fast-growing plant commonly found in Uganda. Using sunlight to heat the chamber with the elephant grass to up to 200℉, clean and drinkable water distills and condensates in a PVC pipe. The processed plant matter can then be used to feed cattle or to create fuel.

A groundbreaking yet simple invention, Michael’s work is truly a testament to the rich possibilities and future of sustainability the world can achieve by supporting new ideas from young, bright minds.

Here's what Michael had to say...

What did the RSDA scholarship mean to you?

The RSDA scholarship was first and foremost an amazing recognition of the work that I put into my research. I’m thankful and honored to have this award. It also gave me the motivation and means to continue my experiment.

In what way(s), if any, have you continued your commitment to sustainability in the time since you participated in ISEF?

Since I competed in ISEF, I continued growing an environmental club at my high school. I’ve also kept a strong interest in helping the environment which motivates what I’ve been doing as a student at MIT.

I see improving the environment as one of the most important tasks we have as citizens of the world. As for my career, I’m interested in social entrepreneurship as a means to improve the environment.

Why is it important for today’s businesses to embrace sustainability?

Unlike politicians, businesses can make rapid changes that can have a major impact on the world. Companies are also responsible for the majority of the environmental damage and it’s crucial they are held accountable. It’s also important for today’s businesses to find ways to be profitable while putting the environment at the forefront. Consumers are eager to support companies that embrace sustainability.

What is the greatest opportunity you see in the world to make progress toward protecting our planet?

A few months ago, I heard a talk from Dan Brunner. He raised the largest ever private equity round for his company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems. Hearing the incredible progress his company has made in nuclear fusion has really shown me that this has the potential to be the energy source of the future in a reasonable timespan.

Find out more about how we are encouraging sustainability efforts around the world.

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