Q: Did any local businesses win one of this year’s Governor’s Export Awards?
A: Yes, an interesting company in Urbana called Sun Buckets that uses solar energy to heat a portable stovetop.
It received the New Exporter award Wednesday in Chicago at an event hosted by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
“We were delighted just to receive the nomination itself and the recognition that comes with the award,” said Bruce Elliott-Litchfield, one of the company’s founders.
He said Sun Buckets emerged from a University of Illinois group called Engineers Without Borders.
The group “started looking into solutions to the global cooking crisis,” Elliott-Litchfield said, as 3 billion people cook with solid fuels such as wood, charcoal and animal dung, which releases air pollution and contributes to global warming.
“We went through several iterations” that ultimately didn’t work, he said.
He and a doctorate student continued chatting about the problem, and “came up with some alternatives,” Elliott-Litchfield said, forming Sun Buckets in 2014 to start building prototypes.
The Sun Buckets are relatively simple. They’re typically placed above a solar reflecting dish, which directs rays at the cooking surface of the Sun Bucket, heating it up.
The buckets are insulated and are able to trap the heat for several hours, and the cooking surface gets hot enough to boil a liter of water in a minute.
“It has to be simple,” Elliott-Litchfield said.
They made some early prototypes in 2014 and have shipped about 75 of the devices from Urbana to countries such as Haiti, Kenya and India. They’re now working on a newer and better version that will cost around $450.
“Our main customers have come about just through word of mouth,” Elliott-Litchfield said.
In Haiti, he had a friend working for a non-governmental organization there. In Kenya and Somalia, they won a grant for a humanitarian challenge addressing issues in conflict zones.
And in India, they were asked by a large oil company to compete in a cookstove competition.
“They seem to be working well,” Elliott-Litchfield said. “We’re seeking feedback to make adjustments, and getting ready to make the next batch.”