Interview: Eden Full on solar power, appropriate technologies and life as a young female inventor

Eden Full is a 19-year-old social entrepreneur who seems to have a knack for solving big problems with simple technologies. Her patent-pending invention, the SunSaluter, maximizes the output of solar panels—a technology that’s notoriously inefficient—simply by rotating them with the sun. Better still, it’s cheap, made of recycled materials and easy to construct, making it truly sustainable. In the past couple of months, Full has won a 20 Under 20 Fellowship (worth $100,000) from the Thiel Foundation and the EcoLiving 2011 Student Leadership Award from Scotiabank. So this fall Full says she’s “stopping out” (not dropping out) of Princeton, where she’s been studying mechanical engineering, for the past two years, to pursue her dream of improving lives and the environment through technology. PopTech caught up with Full to learn more about the SunSaluter and her rise as a young inventor.

PopTech: As a young inventor, why have you chosen to work on solar energy?
Eden Full: There’s so much potential with solar. It’s expected to meet 7 percent of the world’s energy needs by 2020 and 25 percent by 2050. But I believe that if we want to reach the goal of making solar accessible to as many people as possible then the technology has to be simpler. By that I mean that the cells themselves can continue to get more efficient—you can continue to design organic solar cells, cadmium telluride-based solar cells, anything you want—but the core technology that you are actually deploying to the market needs to be a lot simpler.

How did your invention, the SunSaluter, come about?
I started off doing science fair projects as a kid, looking into different ways of optimizing solar electric energy. Through the years, I realized that to achieve this, we have to move the solar panel. There isn’t one perfect angle that you can just put a panel. I started investigating existing methods of rotating solar panels and realized that they’re really expensive and complicated. So I started developing the SunSaluter as an alternative to these.

Do most solar panels have tracking systems to orient the photovoltaic panels toward the sun, which is obviously a moving target?
No. I would estimate that maybe only 30 percent of all installed solar panels do. Which is silly if you think about it because they optimize performance by 30 to 40 percent. But right now, a lot of tracking systems are really expensive and have complicated mechanics. When you think about rolling these out on a larger scale, you realize that it’s not sustainable.

So the main problems with tracking systems are...?
...cost and maintenance.

How does the SunSaluter overcome these?
It doesn’t use electricity to rotate the solar panel. Instead, it basically senses changes in temperature using biometallic strips. Biometallic strips are found in your thermostat and are really sensitive to subtle temperature changes. I can connect these strips to the axel of the solar panel and they will rotate and control its location at any point in time. This system mimics the accuracy you would get from a motor without a motor’s complexities.

I know you’ve manufactured a few prototypes. How much did they cost?
When I went to Kenya last summer to install a couple of prototypes, I brought nothing with me. But I was able to build them for $10 or $20 each. That was for one panel.

What were you doing in Kenya?
I deployed two prototypes of the SunSaluter in two villages of 500 people that didn’t have electricity. It was there that I really realized, wow, the ideas that I have have the potential to impact the world, if I use them in the right way.

The villages were located in central Kenya about an hour’s drive away from the closest town. A lot of the villagers had cell phones but they had to go into town to charge them. So they were very interested in having their own source of electricity. They thought it would be best to make it a community-owned project, so having a solar panel in the middle of the village. They worked together to understand the technology and pay for it, and I tried to understand what they would use it for so that I could customize the system for them.

I had tons of expectations when I got on the ground—including how easy it would be. But it wasn’t easy! For example, I realized that they didn’t really have a need for AC power. Everything they needed to charge had batteries, so they really only needed DC power. They also felt they needed to mount the system higher up than I had anticipated because there are a lot of children in the village who might be able to play with or damage the system if it was too low. So when I got on the ground I had to make adjustments to the design. This experience really helped me understand that a technology has to be appropriate. It has to be something that’s relevant socially and culturally to your target market. Moving forward, depending on whether I choose to target North America’s established clean-tech market or emerging markets like China and India, I’ll have to ensure this.

What’s your hope for the SunSaluter?
Right now, I’m trying to be pretty realistic—I’m just a 19-year-old entrepreneur. So I would just like to spread the idea of the SunSaluter to as many people as possible. And I would like to spread the idea that appropriate technologies are important. I dream that as many people in as many different markets in as many different places as possible would use my technology. And I want to help improve the potential of solar and to work toward the goal of having it meet 25 percent of the world’s energy needs by 2050. I think it’s an ambitious goal but a realistic one. We still have a lot of time, and there are a lot of advancements being made in solar these days—at the nanotech stage and the engineering stage, and I think tracking systems can only continue to optimize the panels that are already becoming more efficient.

I hear you’ve had a big year. Has winning a Thiel Foundation fellowship been the highlight?
Yes, the fellowship is a great opportunity for me to take time off and understand what it takes to run a business. I’ve never done anything like this before. In my time working on the SunSaluter, I’ve really only focused on the technology. It’s very different. It’s very exciting.

What have you learned from all this?
That there’s no one right answer, no one right path. I need to be open to the idea of making mistakes and choosing a different path, an unconventional path. I need to have the courage to take risks. And if I really believe in the technology that I’m deploying, I need to go out there and do it.

What’s next?
I’m moving to San Francisco in late August and I’m going to be settling in, talking to venture capitalists and potential partners, and maybe finding a contract manufacturer and figuring out a prototype. Basically, I want to figure out my business model—who I want to target—and build a good foundation. Then in 2012, things are just going to go crazy, because that’s when I’m going to get this thing out there and see how far it goes.  

Image: Eden Full

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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