Ninth grader Maanasa Mendu was watching the movement of tree branches during a storm when inspiration struck. To her, the branches looked like piezoelectric materials, devices that produce electricity from vibrations and she began to imagine a renewable energy technology that could harness the energy in the wind and rain.
After research, months of design and an initial idea to focus only on wind power, she ultimately built a prototype that can harness solar and wind energy and the vibrations of rain drops. The device consists of three solar "leaves" that act as solar panels but also move and bend with the wind and rain.
"If my device just relies on one specific environmental condition, the power output can vary throughout the day," Mendu said. "Whereas if it relies on multiple environmental conditions—like sunlight intensity, wind speed, precipitation—all of these factors could create a more stable power source with a higher power output."
The design just won her the grand prize in the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and $25,000. To enter the contest, she built a prototype using recycled materials for only $5 (seen above). After charging it was able to power a 15-watt light bulb for eight hours. The addition of more "leaves" would increase the output.
As part of the challenge she worked with a mentor from 3M to evolve the idea and design.
Mendu now plans on further developing the design and trying different configurations in order to increase the device's efficiency. She hopes that one day soon the technology can be used by people in developing regions around the world where a low-cost clean energy device could make a big difference.