Ann Makosinski was just another teenager with another science project when she joined her local science fair in Victoria, Canada, last year. Her invention, a flashlight that is powered solely from hand heat, took second place at the competition.
Ann, 16, and her parents, both of whom are HAM radio operators and like to fiddle with electronics, were satisfied with that result.
“It’s a very simple project,” said Arthur Makosinski, Ann’s father. “It has four electrical components. Let’s move on and do something different.”
But had Ann left her project in Victoria, situated just 25 miles north of Washington State, the world may have missed out on a light source that doesn’t use batteries, solar power or wind energy.
Think about that for a moment: a flashlight that shines for as long as you hold onto it. No more scrambling for and chucking away AA batteries. It could have an immediate impact on more than 1.2 billion people -- one-fifth of the world’s population -- who, according to the World Bank, lack regular access to electricity.
Stunningly, no one on record has thought to use thermoelectric technology to power a flashlight. But for Ann, peltier tiles, which produce an electrical current when opposite sides are heated and cooled at the same time, were a convenient solution to a friend’s study problem.
Two years ago, Ann, who is half-Filipino, was corresponding with a friend of hers in the Philippines who didn’t have electricity. According to Ann, her friend couldn’t complete her homework and was failing in school.
“That was the inspiration for my project.” said Ann, “I just wanted to help my friend in the Philippines and my flashlight was a possible solution.”
Ann got to work. She remembered hearing human beings described as walking 100-volt light bulbs: “I thought, why not body heat? We have so much heat radiating out of us and it’s being wasted.”
After a few prototypes, she unveiled her “hollow flashlight,” so named because it has a hollow aluminum tube at its core that cools the sides of the peltier tiles attached to the flashlight’s cylinder. The other side is warmed by heat from a hand gripping the flashlight.
Ann spent several months designing the flashlight and figuring out its voltage conversion. Much has been written online about powering a flashlight with peltier tiles, but those devices used heat from candles and blow torches. Ann’s patent-pending prototype relies on hand warmth only and required that she make her own transformer, among other difference-making factors.
Art Makosinski remembers his surprise when Ann figured out how to light the flashlight’s bulbs at 20 millivolts: “I didn’t believe it, I had to inspect the circuit. I said what did you do here, do you have a hidden battery on the other side?”
At the behest of Kate Paine, her ninth grade marine biology teacher at St. Michaels University School, Ann submitted her flashlight into the 2013 Google Science Fair last spring. She promptly forget all about it. Thousands of kids apply from around the world. She said she didn’t think she had a chance.
A few months later, in September 2013, Ann was named a finalist in her age group. She travelled to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to present alongside equally impressive projects, like a cure for the common cold and a robotic exoskeleton. “I didn’t expect to win anything,” she said.
At the science fair’s gala night, Ann and Art mingled among top Google engineers, eminent scientists and some of the most innovative kids on the planet. Hers was the last name they expected to be called out the winner for her age group. When it was, Art almost dropped his camera. Ann floated to the stage as if welded to a conveyer belt; her face was frozen in shock.
Her prize was a trophy made out of Legos, a visit to the Lego Group headquarters in Denmark, and a $25,000 scholarship.
“I still have some of the same confetti that rained down,” said Ann. “Just an amazing experience and probably something I won’t experience ever again.”
When Ann returned to Victoria, she received a standing ovation at her high school’s Monday morning assembly. In the months since, she has given three TEDx talks and appeared on the “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
"I think it’s a lesson that children can innovate," said Art Makosinski. "With the right incentive and environment, they can be quite innovative."
Many people have asked where she wants to attend university, expecting to her to name the likes of Stanford or MIT. Ann said she’s not thinking that far ahead; she needs to get through the eleventh grade first.
And then there’s the business of securing her flashlight’s patent and tweaking the prototype for market. At roughly 24 lumens, Ann’s flashlight’s brightness falls shy of commercial flashlights, which output dozens if not hundreds of lumens.
Of her efforts to increase her flashlight’s voltage efficiency, she said, “I want to make sure my flashlight is available to those who really need it.”