How a love for mangoes spawned a portable air conditioning startup

James Tevelyan is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Western Australia and a self-confessed “mango addict.” To cater to his addiction, James spends six to eight weeks in Pakistan every summer, on a quest to snarf them down when they’re at their ripest. He’s been doing this for decades.

Unfortunately for James, his summer journeys also coincide with the hottest time of the year in Pakistan. Electricity demand is at its peak, and the antiquated power generation and distribution system isn’t able to keep up. This results in forced outages, also known as “loadshedding.” In soaring temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius, consumers have to bear with electricity shortages that can last several hours at a stretch.

Of course, elite segments of society get by on expensive alternate sources of power generation, helping them run their air conditioners and refrigerators. Others install battery-powered units that run things like fans and tube lights. But a vast segment of society can afford neither of these and are left to fend for themselves.

“One night, I was lying in bed, sweating profusely and seeing the mosquitoes aim for me. I thought to myself that there has to be a better solution, one which uses less power. This was the genesis of the idea,” James tells Tech in Asia.

What James conceptualized is Close Comfort, a small, portable air-conditioning unit which uses a fraction of the power that regular devices do.

World-changing tech

James says that one of the primary motivators behind his project was witnessing firsthand the suffering of people around him. Sweltering summer heat coupled with electricity breakdowns meant that people couldn’t get a restful night’s sleep. Hence their productivity would drop to almost zero.

“If you look at the history of the US, air conditioning is recognized as one of the fundamental inventions that helped people live their lives. It made half the country liveable 12 months a year, and there was a fundamental improvement in the economy,” he asserts.

But, according to James, the same concepts of heating and cooling cannot necessarily be applied to the developing world. Differing climates mean there is less propensity to build insulated structures – quite different from homes in the West, for example. What this means is that buildings in the developing world are usually roomy, airier, and require larger amounts of energy consumption to cool down in the blisteringly hot summer.

“Running an air conditioner in Pakistan is extremely expensive – about US$120 a month. If you run it on a generator you’re looking at US$250 a month. We don’t have energy resources in the whole world to do it for everyone, so my vision is to provide technology that everyone can use within the planet’s resources,” asserts James.

Not so fast

However, coming up with the solution was the simple bit. James, who previously concentrated on robotics, had to “transform himself,” and learn how to engineer the solution. He initially thought it would be a project his university students could handle, with a bit of oversight from himself, but those assumptions turned out to be incorrect. The tech behind the gizmo took a long time in research and development and came after several failed experiments.

Fortunately for the entrepreneur, a solution was not completely out of reach. The device is now just a couple of months away from commercial launch. No points for guessing the first market: Pakistan.

James says that a regular air conditioner, which runs flat out most of the time, typically consumes about 1800-2400 watts per hour depending on its size. Close Comfort only needs 300 watts. Furthermore, it’ll be able to operate on batteries.

So how does it work exactly? One of the ways the device is different from commercial products is its focus on cooling a person rather than an entire room. The device ships with a special “mosquito net.” You’re supposed to wrap it around the bed and place the unit within its confines. The special area it creates is cooled, but the rest of the room is not. That’s fine, according to James, as he’s trying to help people get a proper night’s sleep. There are no wires, no pipes, and no need for installation. Just plug and play.

And how come no one’s tried to attempt this before, given that it’s a huge problem in the developing world? James says there’s “dogma” attached to the concept of cooling an entire room. In the places where air conditioners are developed and manufactured – such as Japan, Australia, and Korea – it’s inconceivable of going for hours without electricity.

Close Comfort will probably retail for about US$270 to $280. James says it’s important to bring the price down in the future, but in order to do that they need to gain traction and sell a decent number of units to place larger manufacturing orders.

“Our aim is to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world,” he explains.

This article originally appeared on Tech in Asia


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