A 23-year-old product designer invents a new kind of table that generates electricity

It's a boon for students in remote villages.
Deena Theresa
The Ujala study desk generates electricity.Courtesy of Ashutosh Vashishtha

Ask Ashutosh Vashishtha about his latest innovation - a study desk that generates electricity - and his commitment towards solving problems with his ingenious ideas and grassroot-level contribution begins to take a journey of its own.

The study desk, called Ujala, translates to light in Hindi. 

What sparked his concept? A socio-economic problem.

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In April 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India had electrified 100 percent of the country's 600,000-plus villages.

However, not long after the declaration, an internal report by the Union Rural Development Ministry revealed that 5,000 villages were yet to be electrified.

Another 2018 survey of 360,000 by the Central Rural Development Ministry found that more than 14,700 villages didn't have electricity for domestic use. Apparently, many households had electricity meters but were not connected to a grid.

According to a 2019 report by Smart Power India, a subsidiary of The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, 50 percent of rural households experience eight hours of power cuts a day.

The picture, it seems, was not as bright as many thought.

A bright idea

For Vashishtha from Delhi, the lack of access to reliable electricity spelled enormous ramifications for education. "My grandparents hail from a small village in Uttar Pradesh. Whenever I'd visit them, I'd be privy to the challenges faced by government schools, especially from an infrastructural and design standpoint. As a student myself, I'd often compare the facilities in my private school in Delhi to those in the village. Most of these areas didn't have any access to electricity. As a result, children would struggle to study and complete their homework post daylight," he tells IE.

Lack of electricity has far-reaching consequences - it can affect educational outcomes and factors such as attendance and dropout rates. Millions of students in developing countries do not have access to electrified households, making studying challenging.

The unfortunate plight ingrained a sense of social responsibility in Vashishtha.

Years later, as a final-year Industrial & UX Design student at the National Institute of Design in Haryana, a premier design school in India, Vashishtha decided to enroll himself in a student design competition in Germany. The theme was Sustainable Development, and Vashishtha couldn't be more sure of his entry.

Vashishtha wanted his peers in remote villages to have the same essential access to electricity as he did.

He designed a self-sustainable bench that generates electricity that doesn't depend on external factors like a power supply from the government. "I was also inspired by existing mechanisms like the sewing machine foot pedal. Incorporating such a function would help power the table and improve the student's focus," he says.

Pedaling for education

A 23-year-old product designer invents a new kind of table that generates electricity
Source: Courtesy of Ashutosh Vashishtha

Vashishtha conceptualized the 3D model in January 2020. He didn't win the competition, but he won a lot of interest (and hearts) on social media. The concept soon went viral.

People came in droves to enquire about the study desk. "I decided to make a proof-of-concept. So, last year, I gathered a couple of Dynamo motors, an electric socket, and a light voltage LED power strip and sourced a bench from my school. I installed the setup and created a video that demonstrated the working of the bench," he says.

It took him two days to fashion a seesaw-like pedal from wood, which would be placed under the study table. This was connected to a battery that powered an LED light placed on a bamboo stick. With the help of a friend, Vashishtha developed a prototype.

"It was a crude model," admits Vashishtha.

His system works on the principle of electromagnetism. "The dynamo converts mechanical energy into electric current. When the user pedals, the magnet inside the coil turns, creating electric flux. The system, which has a portable power bank, also stores electricity that can be used in an optimized manner. If the user pedals for 15 minutes, the desk can generate electricity for one hour," he explains.

The study desk would provide ample light to study at night, enabling students in remote and rural areas to study without electricity.

Simple and affordable, the desk could be a lifesaver

Recently, Vashishtha was granted permission from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi to use their workshop and create a finished model. "I'm currently working with two friends who have expertise in simulation mechanisms and robotics, and battery management systems," he tells us.

Will the final product be affordable to the people he targets? "Definitely. Several non-governmental organizations and charitable trusts have contacted me regarding the same. Such products usually get subsidized rates from the government," he says.

Vashishtha also hopes to include rural artisans and craftsmen in the making, envisioning a home-grown product. "I plan to design the entire bench with bamboo. Involving rural artisans in the project will help empower their families," he says.

Solutions galore

Ujala isn't Vashishtha's first concept.

"My heart has always been in design. Though I was interested in Textile design, I felt Industrial design offered an opportunity to explore various materials like ceramics and wood. Additionally, learning industrial design can help one provide solutions to some persistent problems," he says. 

His intuition was correct. Vashishtha's other innovations include a community-based animal health monitoring system called PASHU, which won an honorable mention in the product design category at the Taiwan International Student Design Competition. Another one, a rollable blind for balconies to naturally filter air pollutants - called Breathie - was among the top 150 finalists in TEDA Creativity Cup China and qualified for the Green Product Award. This international award honors products and services that excel in design, innovation, and sustainability. Ujala was also featured by the citizen engagement platform of the Government of India.

Evidently, he has been a persistent believer in utilizing design for functional purposes and community development. Vashishtha initially pictured the desks assembled in a circle - creating an environment akin to a classroom. The concept endorses the idea of community education and learning. 

For his Ujala, Vashishtha won the International Association Special Award by the Taiwan International Student Design Competition in association with the Confederation of Indian Industry last year.

"The completed product will roll out in four to five months," an excited Vashishtha adds.