Higher education for a higher cause

Huntington Beach native Rachel Field used much of her mechanical engineering education at Harvard to invent ways to help the less fortunate — during her time there and after her 2012 graduation.

Field's first major project was developing a suction device to aid in laparoscopic surgeries for Harvard Medical School.

During her junior year, she went on a trip to rural India with a Massachusetts Institute of Technology program and taught local people how to use solar-powered lanterns.

Now the 22-year-old's most recent project is in the running for a $60,000 grant. It is entered in electronic and computer manufacturer Acer's Incredible Green Contest, which asks entrants to come up with an eco-friendly solution to an environmental issue.

"If I can make a career for myself just building what I want and what I think is missing in the world, then what can be more fun than that?" said Field, who is now living in Paris.

Called the "bicyclean," Field's device addresses the issue of material extraction from electronic waste in the African country of Ghana.

According to Field, Ghana is among the countries that import various disposed-of electronics from around the world.

"They have these huge, wasteland places where they dump an incredible amount of secondhand electronics that aren't functional anymore," she said.

Ghanaians then remove the copper from the circuit boards by burning them, at the same time releasing pollutants into the air, Field said.

"It's super toxic for their lungs, bad for the environment, and it's not very efficient and they're not getting much out of it," she said.

The bicyclean attempts to solve this problem by using a mixture of grinders and magnets. Field converted a bicycle to power a grinding wheel to crush circuit boards into a powder. Magnets then catch iron-based metals from the powder while other metals, like copper, are tossed into a drawer by a separator called an eddy current rotor.

The mechanism, including the powdery residue, is contained inside a box.

Because bicycles are abundant and easy to convert, Field said this option is economical as well as safer than current methods used by those in Ghana.

The winner of the contest will be determined by online votes through the Acer Foundation's website. Polls are open until May 14, according to the competition website.

Field, who graduated from Huntington Beach High School in 2008, said she's behind on votes and realizes she may not win. However, should the $60,000 grant come her way, she plans on upgrading her prototype bicyclean.

"There are sites in the world that have major recycling plants, but there's not that many and they're expensive and limited to wealthy nations," she said. "It would be amazing to have the opportunity to keep working on this project and trying to make a difference."

Using her expertise in engineering and passion for helping others, Field hopes to open a nonprofit that focuses on pedal-powered devices that can help Third World countries, she said.

"I want to try and use my knowledge in a way that benefits people that are outside of the usual engineering skill world," she said. "Engineering is a field where 99% of the work is for a small portion of people. Why not use my knowledge for everyone else?"

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