It started with a couple of greasy hot dogs.
When solar energy expert and Cincinnati native Patrick Sherwin was charged with removing some solar collectors from a client's roof, he got to thinking.
Those solar collector tubes, he realized, were collecting such a great deal of heat that he thought it just might be enough to cook food. So he took a few of them home and did just that.
Today, he and one of his business partners are grilling fajita peppers on a cloud-free September day in the backyard of a Spring Grove Village home. Soon, he hopes, Cincinnatians — and the rest of the world — will have access to a new form of solar technology he's developed based on that same solar collector that cooked his first hot dog.
In the 10 years since Sherwin removed those solar collectors from a client's rooftop, he's been working on perfecting the art of solar cooking; on Sept. 5, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to mass-produce his GoSun Stove, a compact, $279 solar cooker that he hopes could not just change the way Western civilization uses and looks at sources of renewable energy, but also impact the entire world. His interest in solar energy originally stems from his desire to shift away from dependency on harmful fossil fuels, but it's branched out into something greater. Cooking, a cultural exercise shared and loved across the globe, seemed like the perfect place to start.
"Everyone's well aware of the fact that fossil fuels are creating a lot of issues," he says. "Not to mention that they're dwindling, getting more expensive...but, you know, there are also also other resources — natural gases, gasoline, electricity...it's all coming from these giant, multinational corporations that we don't appreciate in our lives, so why not power stuff ourselves?"
The Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than one-quarter of its $40,000 goal within the first 10 hours of its launch, is being used as means for Sherwin and his team to raise funds for marketing, equipment and manufacturing and other programs to bring the invention to developing countries in need of less dangerous and time consuming ways to cook food.
Sherwin hopes to eventually mass produce his solar cooker to both promote less dependency on fossil fuels across the the world and make a dent in smoke-inhalation deaths around the world, which account for the No. 1 cause of indoor ire-related deaths around the world.
His current prototype, which he says is the culmination of about 30 different models he's tinkered with over the past years, is a 3.5-pound, sleek, shiny-looking pop-up contraption that looks more like a play spaceship than a gadget you'd see at a modern-day grillout. He and his partners claim they've created a solar cooker that uses the most efficient and advanced technology available in the green market today.
Solar power technology, Sherwin concedes, is a field that's been subject to innovation and research for decades, particularly in Eastern countries such as China, where solar panels are commonly used for everyday activities like heating tea kettles.
It's been a long journey to come to model Sherwin and his team are working on now, which he says is markedly different from other modern-day solar cooker models.
He cites another Kickstarter launched earlier this summer for a different solar cooker model, which garnered around $140,000 to meet its goal. He says GoSun Stove's model is particularly innovative because it possesses the unique ability to insulate its products in a safe and more efficient way; the GoSun Stove, he says, isn't hot to the touch, is portable and easy to clean, retains heat and cooks food much more quickly than other solar cookers on the market today.
"I was frying ants with a magnifying glass on the sidewalk when I was a kid. It's nothing really that new," he laughs. "The reality of those [other models] is that they're not really safe, because what happens is you have so much intensity of sunlight on a particular spot in ends up creating like a...it could burn your eyes or hands."
Still, like most successful inventions, the venture has involved a good bit of trial and error.
"It was pretty messy what I was doing originally. I'd take like, eight hot dogs, and I found a stainless steel skewer. So I had like eight hot dogs on this giant skewer and I remember hitting the brakes in my car too hard one day after an event and I didn't realize there was a bunch of grease and the grease shot off and hit my windshield with hot dog grease. So that was a wake-up call. It was really a pain to clean up. Every once in a while you would lose a hot dog in the skewer and it'd get stuck at the bottom," Sherwin laughs.
Once they earn more capital, Sherwin and his team hope to develop more versatile models, including those with larger insulator tubes to accommodate larger quantities of food. Currently, the GoSun Stove prototype accommodates up to 3 pounds of food and can reach up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit.
The current model uses a compact, easy-to-clean tray, but his first hot dog-based models have evolved a great deal to what his KickStarter campaign advertises today. Those first prototypes used large, cumbersome solar collector trays, until Sherwin had what he calls his "A-ha!" moment at a solar expo two or three years ago.
"The thing I was cooking with was about six feet long, it was cumbersome..and I was at a solar expo at a conference and there was a tabletop thing that was demonstrating what a solar hot water heater would look like, and it was tubes about two feet long. And I saw that and I went, 'A-ha.' "
That took the GoSun Stove from simply an idea to something tangible and marketable to everyone from survivalists and campers, green life enthusiasts and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) interested in improving the lives of populations in developing countries, although he and his partners say there's a lot of planning and research to be done before they try to take the GoSun across the world.
"These models we're showing on KickStarter are not what we're intending to take to the developing world. Far more affordable stoves that'll use the human and natural resources of the areas we're trying to empower to make it a real solution that'll stick. And we realize that we don't know what they need. We're conscious of our ignorance," says Matt Gillespie, an industrial designer on the GoSun team.
Sherwin adds, "We've got to come up with accessories that make it easier to eat things like rice and beans, which is what, like, 90 percent of the world eats."
Today, just three days into their KickStarter campaign, they've raised almost $30,000 of their $40,000 goal. Sherwin's hopeful it will be well-received once he and his team are ready to officially launch and that the GoSun will actually change the landscape of solar energy technology and its presence in our everyday lives.
"Most users, when they open their packages, they're going to be like, 'Ohmigosh,' a little bit, and then they might also get a little sunburned as far as they'll want to take it out on any day because they think it's going to work just like a microwave. It's not a microwave and you can't just hit a button. But it is the microwave of solar ovens."