When the power goes out, what goes through your mind? “Need light.” Quickly followed by, “Crap, everything in the fridge is toast.” Right? Now imagine you’re told power, what keeps your refrigeration running, will be out for a year. Double crap (might actually be crap squared, can’t remember). That’s a reality for many in the Caribbean after being ravaged by two Category 5 hurricanes. Not having light quickly becomes a tolerable norm, but eating only non-perishable food for a year isn’t as easy. Warm insulin and other cryo-critical medicines is definitively not cool (pun intended).

Refrigerator compressors are great at compressing fluids (everyone says so) but are unkind to power sources as they tend to draw a lot of current. The fractured solar panels we have in abundance in the Caribbean are capable of producing the voltage needed for a refrigerator (remember series circuits?) but are terrible at producing the amperage required (remember parallel circuits? Me neither…).

Plus, now the inoperable refrigerator is just sitting there mocking you with its room temperature insides. Stupid thermodynamics. But what if you could stick it to the man, er…refrigerator…and use its insulating power for good!? Is there a way to cool a fluid (rum anyone?) and pump it into the freezer and keep that smaller space cool for essential items like medicines and milk? The trick is cooling the fluid and dumping the heat before it flows into the freezer. This way, when the power comes back on, the refrigerator is back to normal and everyone can celebrate with cool rum (alcohol freezes at a lower temp than water, hence the continued, and region appropriate, rum joke).

Cooling with solar power, or any other awesome approach, might require some unique materials, but that might be worth it given the difficulty of refrigeration in disaster stricken regions. And, as always, using low cost tech and locally sourced materials gets extra points (level up!).

This is your chance to be the super-chill maker who brings cool relief to the islands. Make it so!

The following is excerpted from the list of humanitarian challenges posted from my trip to the Caribbean.

Problem: Power outages quickly result in wasted food and medicines. Most USVI residents have refrigerators but need a way to keep a portion of the refrigerator or freezer cool enough for essential foods and medicines.

Solution: Develop a system that uses found/upcycled materials, like solar panels, to create a freezer space to keep milk, medicines, and perishables cold. Solutions should not require someone to disable a working refrigerator, but may include refrigerator door modifications if they are reversible upon power restoration. There may be a need to source and import special components of the solution, but the more upcycled/found materials used, the better.