Tiruvannamalai’s Vinisha Umashankar Wins International Children’s Climate Prize for Solar Powered Iron Cart

India has almost 10 million ironing carts in its streets where clothes are ironed. Fourteen year old Vinisha Umashankar lives in Vengikkal, a suburb of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, India and sees these ‘istrimen’ on her way back from school.

She noticed a man ironing clothes and a few hours later she saw him put the coal out to dry and cool. And again a few hours later he took it and dumped it in the garbage bin. “In my town the garbage which is dumped, finally finds its way to a huge landfill which is located in the middle of the town. I noticed all of this happening and I wondered why has anyone not tried to stop this,” Vinisha told CSP.

A typical ironing box consumes almost 50 million kg of charcoal every day, consuming enormous amounts of wood, polluting the air and contributing to climate change says Vinisha. She recognized the need for a sustainable solution to the problem and created a solar powered ironing cart, an innovation that proves safer, healthier and more sustainable.

A town which is known for attracting pilgrims, is now making headlines as Vinisha has won the prestigious Children’s Climate Prize for the 2020 Clean Air Category for inventing the Solar Ironing Cart, for which she has now applied for a patent. The Children's Climate Prize is founded by the Swedish energy company Telge Energi and carries a diploma, medal and prize money of SEK 100,000 to continue with the development of their projects

Observing the ironing man, Vinisha returned home and did research on charcoal and ironing. She found that the iron box as it is (the iron box, the fuel source and the way clothes are ironed) has not been changed in over 300 years. Shocked by this, she says she identified four major problems - “The first one is that it produces toxic fumes and toxic fumes contain carbon monoxide which causes many respiratory problems like asthma, and also cause cardiovascular diseases. The second problem is pollution of water, land and air. Charcoal contributes to it on a large scale. The third is the production of charcoal itself. Charcoal is produced by cutting of trees and burning them over a period of time, maybe a week. To produce one kg of charcoal you need to cut 12 trees. Just imagine how long it would have taken to grow, with each taking nine years to become a fully grown tree. And only a fully grown tree can provide oxygen for five people in this planet. My innovation is aimed at reducing the use of charcoal and preventing deforestation.”

Commenting on her innovation, the jury said: With a smart design and a strong understanding of the problem of charcoal as an air pollutant, Vinisha has managed to combine science, innovation and technology to design and create the Solar powered ironing cart. If implemented on a large scale, this is an invention that can have a significant positive impact on India's air quality and people's health, while reducing unsustainable use of wood. The jury is impressed and sees a young scientist and entrepreneur with a strong passion for clean air that can bring multiple benefits to both society and the environment.

Speaking to CSP from Tiruvannamalai, the 2019 IGNITE Awardee and PPTIA Best Woman innovator Awardee for 2019, Vinisha speaks with great conviction and confidence.

Who has been your inspiration for this invention?

I would say that the person who inspired me to take the field of physics and innovate the solar iron is definitely Sir C V Raman because he is the first Indian scientist to win a Nobel Prize (in 1930). He also started to gain interest in science around the same age in which I started to gain interest in Climate Change and all problems related to climate. As an inspiration for me to choose the field of science I would definitely say my inspiration is Marie Curie. She became a female research scientist at a time when women were not allowed to become research scientists. For personality, I am inspired by Hermione Granger from Harry Potter.

How do you think these innovations impact the lives of people?

Science impacts the lives of people in many different ways. Unlike what people say, science does not have to be complicated. Have you ever thought how telephones work, or who innovated the first laptop or ceiling fan. Everyone started out with science. It impacts our lives in every single way. Just like people say that Math is everywhere, science is everywhere as well. Every single thing that exists today was started by some human being and that is called science. Science impacts the way we shape our lives. No matter how rich you are or poor you are. No matter what gender you are or race. Telephones first enabled us to communicate with people from the other side of the world. Ships helped us travel and finally laptops have allowed people from even the most remote areas to gain contact with the rest of the world.

You are very young, do you think ideas can be shaped at any age?

Age is but a number. For me age does not matter. All that matter is how much knowledge you have and how much talent you have. If you have knowledge and talent you will be respected anywhere in the world. Also, you don’t have to help the world only through innovation. You don’t need to only solve climatic issues, you can solve anything. You will be respected if you do good in this world. All those youth who are listening or reading this article, I would like to say believe in yourself. What others think of you is completely irrelevant. I know this may be hard, but this is the truth. Just learn knowledge around your own passions and create your own set of skills. You will definitely thrive in the world. Find something you like and try to work hard and excel in that field.

(Vinisha has been shortlisted for the Prime Minister of India’s Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar 2021)