A Soccer Ball that Generates Electricity: Groton Kicks Around the Idea

Julia Silverman ’06 introduced Groton School to the Soccket—a soccer ball that generates electricity—during an all-School lecture last night.
Kicking the Soccket for 30 minutes generates three hours of electricity. To residents of remote villages, that can mean studying by a light, listening to music, running a water purifier or small refrigerator, charging a phone, or using other small electronic devices. The need is extreme: one in five people worldwide, according to Silverman, live without electricity.
While conducting research in Tanzania as an undergraduate, Silverman noticed that soccer was a fervent passion, and that energy needs were neglected. Those two observations, seemingly unrelated, would become inextricably entwined.
In the Campbell Performing Arts Center, Silverman projected a photo of tangled wires protruding from a pole as she discussed energy in the developing world. “It’s unavailable, it’s unreliable, and it’s unsafe,” she said. Those who dare to tap into that maze of wires risk electrocution. Those who don’t may face other energy-related risks: reading by a kerosene lamp for one night, she explained, causes the lung damage of 40 cigarettes. 
The Soccket, originally developed by Silverman and three partners, might not exist if their group midterm project at Harvard hadn’t received a failing grade. The students, doubled with determination, took to heart the professor’s criticism that they had not thought sufficiently about people’s existing behaviors. Almost everywhere in the world, kicking a ball—or something resembling a ball—was an existing behavior, they realized, a behavior that could be tapped.
Early in the process, Silverman and her group tested their idea by putting a shake-to-charge flashlight inside a hamster ball. They rolled it and were delighted when the light came on. Engineers dampened their excitement, however, warning that such a device couldn’t possibly create enough energy to be viable. “For them, ‘enough’ was a very different definition,” Silverman said. The engineers were thinking on a grander scale—electricity to power buildings or large equipment. To Silverman, electricity for a single light was “enough.”
The Soccket endured endless variations—different mechanisms to collect the energy, different materials to make the ball lighter, different designs to ensure the ball could not deflate. The Soccket today has a gyroscopic mechanism inside that captures the kinetic energy. People plug into a small, recessed connection to access the stored energy.
Currently, NGOs have distributed Socckets in ten countries. While the electricity can be transformative, the play itself should not be taken for granted. Balls are scarce: Silverman said she has seen children kicking around wadded-up plastic bags. The Soccket is playable and weighs about the same as a regulation soccer ball.
As Silverman shared her story of innovation and perseverance, she urged her audience to think about how play can address real-world issues. The fashionable term, social entrepreneurship, only applies to organizations with a social goal at their core, she said, as she encouraged Groton students to play, empower, and give, but most of all, to think creatively about solving the world's problems.