Low-cost electricity-free incubation

Year 2006
Project team Amy Smith with Sarah Bird

A phase-change incubator

Incubators are required for many basic public health tasks such as water quality testing and laboratory diagnosis of diseases such as pneumonia. In the developing world, lack of access to electricity makes traditional electric incubation difficult, particularly in rural areas. The phase change incubator is a revolutionary new incubation technology that enables incubation without electricity and the need for skilled maintenance. Moreover, existing prototypes cost only $100 – significantly less than comparable products – which may allow new markets that currently cannot afford incubators to open up. The proposed device – a phase-change incubator – uses the principle that substances maintain a constant temperature as they change from liquid to solid. Hollow plastic balls are filled with a phase-changing material and heated with available resources such as hot water or sunlight. When the material melts, the balls are placed in an insulated box with water samples for 24 hours. Any bacteria in the water will then grow and indicate the levels of any contamination. Prototype incubators using this technology have already been built. The primary aims of this project are to refine the product and to study commercialization strategies that, considering the poverty among likely users, must be considered carefully and the impact it will have on other technologies at MIT and beyond. These two goals are intertwined because to some extent manufacturing techniques dictate how a product is sold, and to some extent market needs dictate how a product is made. This project will investigate whether patents are appropriate for both incubators and manufacturing techniques, and an understanding of whether incubators can be manufactured in their country of distribution.