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Utah playground power project expanding in Africa

Jan 10, 2010 - The Associated Press

A Utah engineer's project to convert the energy of children's play into electricity to light up schools continues to expand in the West African nation of Ghana. Empower Playgrounds, Inc., builds special merry-go-rounds that generate power for lights in schools in villages where electricity is scarce or not found at all.

The non-profit started three years ago with one playground generator in Ghana. Now 10 merry-go-rounds have been installed and EPI has plans for 25 more in 2010.

"If you want a peaceful Earth, you have got to get rid of the differences," EPI founder Ben Markham said. "You can't have some countries with high technology and other countries still not have light at night. Help the lower end catch up, and you're setting a foundation to change the world."

Markham said he got the idea while serving on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He noticed that children had no playground equipment and studied in dark classrooms.

Markham, a retired engineer, worked with Brigham Young University students to develop a merry-go-round that could harness enough energy to power special lanterns. Students could use the lanterns to study at night, a huge development for villages located outside Ghana's spotty electrical grid.

EPI has also developed and installed an electricity-generating swing set, and a zip-line is in the works.

Near the equator, Ghana only gets 12 hours of sunlight a day. A young student with daytime chores has no chance to study at night without an artificial light source.

"I sat in these buildings, saw how dark they were, and saw the lack of supplies," Markham said. "I'd shake my head and wonder how kids ever learned anything."

EPI provides the merry-go-rounds and lanterns for free. Once the equipment is installed, power is produced as the kids play on the equpment.

The lanterns are powered by a specially modified camping lantern. Energizer developed the rechargeable lanterns for EPI, at its own expense, and the units can run for 35 hours at full power before needing to be recharged.

EPI continues to focus on Ghana, which EPI Executive Director Sarah Hall said is a safe place politically.

"I don't see (EPI) expanding any time soon, but I hope that it will expand eventually," she said. "There are so many schools in Ghana, it would waste a lot of resources to try and move it somewhere else anytime soon."


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Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldextra.com