Posted on: August 26, 2019 at 8:16 pm

Xóchitl Guadalupe Cruz, an 8-year-old, has won an award from Mexico’s largest university for a device that can help people living in poverty. 

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She designed and made a device that uses solar power to heat water—and it’s made out of all recycled materials. She’s from Chiapas, Mexico, where resources are limited. “People don’t have the money to buy heaters, so they chop down trees to get firewood [to heat the water],” she says.

She may only be in third grade, but she’s no stranger to science fairs. She’s been competing in UNAM’s Adopt a Talent Program (PAUTA) since she was just four years old and has won prizes in the past. 

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She used trash such as bottles, wood, hoses, glass, and plastic to make the device. It provides hot water to families that don’t have money to buy heaters, but it also saves trees from people who traditionally use wood to heat water. 

Her family has set the device up on their roof and have been using it to heat their water to bathe. She was recognized for her creation of the device which has the potential to impact the environment in rural communities and help the environment.

She’s the first child to have won the prize from Mexico’s Autonomous University (UNAM) Institute of Nuclear Sciences, which is reserved for women’s accomplishments in science. She says she hopes the project will help slow climate change, as the device relies on power from the sun rather than on wood to heat water for bathing and cooking.

Her achievement is showing that women can succeed in science, and that everyone, no matter how small, can make a difference when it comes to climate change.

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How Her Invention Could Impact Communities Around the World

Xóchitl’s community isn’t alone when it comes to using wood to heat water. Although wood has traditionally been used to help heat homes and water, it’s not relied upon as much in places like the United States.

However, a lack of reliable modern energy sources means that lower income regions still use biomass such as wood for energy, and biomass and waste account for 14 percent of worldwide energy output [1].

Countries that burn the most biomass include Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Haiti, and Tanzania. Biomass could refer to wood, but also to other items in the forest, animal and human excrement, and crop waste. 

In addition, many of the stoves used to burn the wood are not energy efficient, and the vast majority (up to 90 percent) of the biomass burned is wasted, but it’s the primary source of heating and cooking for the countries mentioned above [1].

Xóchitl’s community in Chiapas, a state at the very southern end of the country next to Guatemala, has the lowest capital income in Mexico and has the highest poverty rate of 74.7 percent [2].

It makes sense that Xóchitl’s invention would help people in this region struggling to find ways to heat their water without spending money or having to rely on electricity. Xóchitl says she plans to focus on creating larger water heaters with the hope that they could improve her community and the lives of people around the world even more.

The Impact of Burning Biomass for Heat Around the World

While burning biomass such as wood for heat doesn’t seem like such a big deal, the truth is that there’s a risk for a few things, including smoke inhalation which can damage lungs, not to mention the exact environmental impact Xóchitl is looking to prevent.

People who use wood for heat cut trees down without regulation, which can lead to deforestation. Deforestation has bigger impacts than just missing trees, which provide us with crucial oxygen [3].

Deforestation can result in soil erosion, and the countries that depend largely on biomass are located in tropical regions. In these areas, temperatures quickly decompose biomass, and trees readily absorb these nutrients and use them to grow quickly. What this means is that most of the nutrients are located in trees and not in the soil—so when trees are removed, these nutrients are removed from the ecosystem as well, depleting the soil [1].

All forests help our changing climate, although the trees in tropical forests are something of champions when it comes to absorbing carbon dioxide, so the more trees that we lose from these areas, the higher greenhouse gases we see. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and can contribute to rising temperatures [4].

Not to mention, burning wood in the first place increases greenhouse gasses. And the effect reaches even further—deforestation increases loss of biodiversity, which, as we’ve seen, can affect all types of lifeforms including insects that can dramatically impact our ecosystems [5].

And, relying on biomass such as crop and animal waste prevents these communities from using these resources as fertilizer for crops, which can feed into the cycle of poverty by reducing crop yields or increasing the amount of money a family would need to spend on fertilizer. 

Should Other Countries Be Paying Attention?

Absolutely. Even though Xóchitl’s invention is designed to help communities living in poverty, the United States’ use of hot water account for 14 percent of the average home’s energy use, and nearly 4 percent of total energy use in the United States alone [6].

If we switched to solar-powered water heaters, we could not only save money, but efficiently heat water and reduce our reliance on energy from fossil fuels, which continue to supply the majority of our energy [7].

In the United States, there are over 300,000 solar water heater units installed, and while the number is growing, we have a long way to go before it creates the impact we’d need to help reduce climate change.

Other developed countries have made gains to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, most notably China, where 27 million rooftop solar water heaters exist, and Germany, where 2 million people live in residences where water and indoor space are heated by solar power [8].

And the economic savings are huge—in industrial countries, these systems pay for themselves in fewer than 10 years. Perhaps Xóchitl’s current and future devices can make that kind of impact from recycled materials alone in developing regions!  

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Jenn Ryan
Freelance Health & Wellness Writer
Jenn Ryan is a freelance writer and editor who's passionate about natural health, fitness, gluten-free, and animals. She loves running, reading, and playing with her four rescued rabbits.

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