Social Innovator Hannah Herbst Uses Water Power to Tackle Energy Poverty

by Diana Drake

A native of Florida, U.S., Hannah Herbst, 17, has taken her love for the beach to a place that gives all new meaning to the phrase “catch a wave.” One of the youngest members of this year’s Forbes magazine 30 Under 30 class that features 600 stars in 20 different industries, Herbst has made a few waves of her own with the development of BEACON, an ocean energy probe prototype that seeks to offer a stable power source to developing countries by using untapped energy from ocean currents. Check out her website (see related links) for a scrapbook of Herbst’s travels, including a trip to the White House Science Fair to talk innovation with former president Barack Obama. By the way, she was named America’s Top Young Scientist in 2015.

Herbst is currently dual-enrolled in high school and Florida Atlantic University, where she studies computer engineering and works on refining her technology. She recently qualified to compete at the State Science & Engineering Fair of Florida at the end of March. KWHS sat down with Herbst to better understand her fascination with water power.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: It’s been said that you have a passion for solving problems. When did you figure this out? How did you develop the critical skills to become a problem solver?

Hannah Herbst: I was originally introduced to engineering as a platform for problem solving in 7th grade. I was put into a summer engineering and technology camp, and it was really interesting to me because the minute I got there I realized that I was the only girl in the program. That made me nervous to be there because I was clearly a minority. I felt very alone in that moment. We started building the robots, which is something I had never done before and many of the boys had, and I realized it was a platform for problem solving. We were solving simple tasks like how to push a robot off a platform or how can we elevate a robot to be higher than its specific marking. Learning from my peers as well as online articles about how to program and build were really interesting to me. Later that year, I received a letter from my pen pal in Ethiopia, (Africa) and I saw that engineering could be used to solve a set of problems like energy poverty, which spiraled into my project.

KWHS: Tell us about your ocean energy probe. How does it work?

Herbst: So, as I said, I have a friend in Ethiopia who lives in energy poverty. I decided to focus specifically on water power for a couple of reasons. Populations tend to settle around bodies of water because it’s necessary for survival. The second reason is that I live in Florida and I’ve been surrounded by big bodies of water my whole life. Thinking about these problems led me to [create my device] BEACON, which stands for Bringing Electricity Access to Countries through Ocean Energy. Essentially, the way the device works is it takes energy from moving water and converts it to usable electricity, which I use as a source to charge batteries, as well as a way to purify water using something called two-phase microfiltration.

KWHS: Can you expand a bit on the inspiration for your invention?

Herbst: When I was in fourth grade, my teacher introduced us to a program called Compassion International, which is a way that kids can connect with other kids across the world using a pen pal letter-writing system. There are a series of worksheets you can fill out to tell your pen pal about yourself and then you mail it off to them. I was specifically connected with Ruth when I was 9 (and she was a few years younger]. When I was in 7th grade, she was 9 years old. I received this letter from her talking about these problems because she was in energy poverty. I had been connected with her since 4th grade, but I never realized how impactful her problems could be – not having lights to study by at night, not having sanitation systems, having limited medical treatment. Those problems really stuck out to me living in the United States, so I wanted to do something to help her. I had no idea that people were living around the world without energy. I had been taking it for granted. It gave me a whole new perspective.

KWHS: Do you plan to commercialize your ocean energy probe?

Herbst: Yes, I’ve actually just improved the device to add a water purification portion. I’m refining it as I go, which has been my focus in the past few years. Within the next few years, I’m going to be open-sourcing this design [a model that encourages open collaboration] so that people all around the world can create it, whether it be to inspire kids in classrooms or for kids like Ruth who don’t have power. I’m currently working on how to open source the prototype and get it out to people all over the world.

KWHS: How would you describe yourself?

Herbst: I’m a social innovator. I see a lot of problems in the world, and I think that engineering provides a platform to fix them. I really want to help people; that’s my goal. I’m currently studying computer engineering at Florida Atlantic University, simply because I feel that computers provide a great platform to make people’s lives better.

KWHS: What has been your greatest challenge thus far and how did you overcome it?

Herbst: My biggest challenge was getting started. I was really involved in theater and athletics and I’m still really passionate about those things. Back in engineering camp when I was the only girl, I wanted to quit in that moment. I did not want to be there. But my dad told me, ‘Just try it. Do it for one day. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to go back tomorrow.’ I tried it for that day and it changed my life. My best advice for people who are interested in science: just give something a go and if you don’t like it, try something else. Think that right now you’re going to have fun and try something new. Start small and work your way up from there.

KWHS: Have you ever failed at something?

Herbst: When I first started BEACON, I was still very new to engineering. I was still getting my bearings. I built this big, complicated wave energy-collecting device. The device would break and break and break. I’d be in the back of my science lab and my teacher would say, ‘Hannah, you’ve got to take a different path. This is not working.’ I definitely had a lot of difficulty stepping away from that first prototype. It was the first thing I built and I was thinking that it had to work. The truth of the matter is that not everything is going to work, not in your first project on your first try. You have to embrace failure and realize that it’s going to happen.

KWHS: Have you always been a confident public speaker or have you had to develop these skills?

Herbst: When I was in 3rd grade, I auditioned for my first school musical. That has helped me. I started public speaking not so much intimidated by the audience, but excited to share my research. I’m not typically intimidated by public speaking, even if I’m talking to innovators. I know the most about my topic in the room. As long as I can talk to people about it, they’re going to be excited about it.

KWHS: Your bio reads like that of someone much older — in college while in high school, and so on. How do you stay grounded?

Herbst: It’s been a challenge. But what I’ve realized is that I have to create my own high school experience. I do that by doing FIRST Robotics, by playing sports like soccer and track and by getting involved in my high school, community and university. I just have to find my balance.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Does Hannah Herbst hope to earn millions from her ocean energy probe? What is her ultimate goal for her invention?

What’s your biggest takeaway from this interview? Does a part of it resonate with you in some way and make you think differently or with a fresh perspective about your own life?

Who is Ruth and how did she influence Hannah’s path to social innovation? What is energy poverty? Using the related links with this article, research the topic and discuss what you learned with a group.

19 comments on “Social Innovator Hannah Herbst Uses Water Power to Tackle Energy Poverty

  1. Hannah plans on adding a water purification component to her product so that other kids can feel empowered and so that more developing countries will have access to clean water and also have power in their homes. In relation to my biggest takeaway from the article is that just because someone is successful, this does not mean that they have suffers through some failures and tribulations. I always try to think differently and be open to new ideas so that one day the world will have innovative products and techniques that will ensure shelter and food for all, just like Hannah is doing. Ruth is a girl that Hannah connected with by writing letters to her to get to know her. Hannah was really inspired by her and she wanted to help more kids like her ( who are said to be in a state of energy poverty). This means the lack of access to modern technological services.

  2. Her ultimate goal with the invention is to bring power to developing countries and to give purified water to settlements and towns that do not have clean water. In her interview, it does not seem that she is in it for the money, she is doing this to help underprivileged people.
    My biggest takeaway is that Hannah Herbst is planning to do something amazing for underprivileged people in developing countries and she is not interested in the money that she may earn from her invention, but in getting electricity and purified water to countries all over the world. This takeaway makes me think differently about how you cannot let money change you and your goals, and how Hannah is not letting the possibility of millions of dollars change her mission.
    Ruth was Hannah’s pen pal when she was in seventh grade, and Ruth would tell Hannah about how she was living in energy poverty. This changed Hannah’s perspective on her own life and made her realize how privileged she is, and influenced Hannah’s path to social innovation. Energy poverty is lack of access to modern energy services like electricity.

  3. 1.
    According to the interview, Hannah Herbst does not hope to earn millions from her energy probe. Instead, she claims her ultimate goal for her invention is to help people, in this case with power, through the use of wave energy. She also is attempting to add water purification to her design, further increasing the usefulness of the machine. Her attempt to help others instead of trying to make millions from her wave energy probe can be seen when she open-sourced the designs, allowing anyone to build upon it, and to make their own, without fear of legal prosecution.

    After reading this interview my biggest takeaway was how Hannah was able to find her passion in engineering. Hannah mentions that when trying to find a field of science you will love, you have to try the science hands-on, and if you love it, you continue to pursue it, and if you do not, you simply try something else. This piece of advice resonates with me, prompting me to rethink how I approach things, hopefully allowing me to find my passion, sooner, rather than when it is too late to learn effectively.

    Ruth is Hannah’s pen pale from Ethiopia, who influenced Hannah’s path to social innovation when she told Hannah about her struggles of studying and living with the lack of power. Ruth’s condition of living in energy poverty consists of lacking the power needed to operate lights and machinery, which occurs in many developing countries, such as Ethiopia, where the grid is often unreliable.

  4. Hannah Herbst doesn’t hope to earn millions from her ocean energy probe. She didn’t start the project in order to make money. She started the project because she heard about a problem in another country and she wanted to help fix it. Hannah is open sourcing her invention. She wants others to be able to build it for themselves so that they can use it to help with their energy problems or to inspire another group of kids.

    • Agreed, but Hannah also wants to make a difference so that more countries will have clean clear water for themselves and for their homes. Ruth which is Hannah’s Friend from Ethiopia, tells Hannah about her struggle with no power and no fresh water, made Hannah know that she had to speak up to solve the issue so people could feel better and safe. once Hannah heard her story, it really made her feel bad.She was putting herself in there shoes and knew it would be a horrible thing to go through. Hannah was being really kind for everyone else she wanted to make a difference for everyone else so they could be as happy as the people with the fresh water and power.

  5. Hannah Herbst intentions aren’t to make millions but rather help out the world. Hannah plans to provide the world, especially third world countries, millions of gallons of clean water.
    My biggest takeaway was that Hannah wasn’t truly into the money aspect of her invention but rather the positive effect it will have on developing countries, which changes my view on the world.
    Ruth was Hannah’s penpal in seventh grade who was suffering from energy poverty which is the lack of access to modern energy. Overall, RUth was the one to inspire Hannah, and now Hannah is doing great things and I hope everything goes well for her.

  6. 1. Hannah’s intentions with this project are not to make millions of dollars. She has an ultimate goal of helping the world with water. She wants to increase the access of water in third world countries and ensure that this water is clean.
    2. My biggest takeaway from this article is that Hannah is developing this project to help people who don’t have clean water because she believes her project will help them greatly. She is not participating in this to earn a lot of money. This makes me think that people do good things to be good sometimes and not just because they will get paid.
    3. Ruth is Hannah’s friend from Ehteopioa that they exchanged letters with. Ruth has inspired Hannah to help more people. Energy poverty can be classified as lacking access to electricity.

  7. Hannah’s goal is not to become millionaire, but her ultimate goal is provide energy power and purified water for peolple in need who doesn’t have an access to those resources. The best takeaway from this interview is that Hannah is working hard with a goal of helping people in need rather than becoming millionaire. This makes me think in a different way, investing and working on projects that will have positive effect on people’s life rather than doing just for money. Ruth is a friend who Hannah met when she was younger, and Ruth inspired Hannah to help people, she realized Ruth didn’t have energy or water, so this made her start doing great things that would help people.
    Energy poverty is the lack of electricity.

  8. According to the interview, Hanna’s intentions with this project are not to make millions of dollars. Her goal is to help people by using waves energy to give them electricity, she also wants to increase the access of purified water for those who doesn’t have access.

    My biggest takeaway from this interview is that Hannah isn’t doing this for money, she is doing it because she wants to help people. It makes me think that not everyone works for money, there are some people who still work for passion and for desire to help people.

    Hannah has a friend from Ethiopia called Ruth, the exchange letters to each other. Ruth told her how her life conditions were. She explained how living in energy poverty, lack of access to modern energy services, affects her life. This inspired Hannah to help people.

  9. Does Hannah Herbst hope to earn millions from her ocean energy probe? What is her ultimate goal for her invention?
    Hannah does not hope to earn millions for her invention. Yet, she wants to commercialize this design in order for people all around the world to create it as well. Moreover, she wants to inspire whether it be to kids in classrooms or for kids like Ruth who don’t have power. To demonstrate to them that theres is something that can change their lives and upgrade their quality of life. The ultimate goal, other than inspiration is increasing the access to purify water to the individuals that may be restraint from this opportunity

    What’s your biggest takeaway from this interview? Does a part of it resonate with you in some way and make you think differently or with a fresh perspective about your own life?
    My biggest take away from this article is inspiration and admiration. The fact, that Hannah was presented a problem that her friend was experiencing and doing something about it just demonstrates to others how we must stop thinking about all the complications that may be presented. Instead, that we should just act and do something about it. That is what she inspired me by. On the other hand, I have admiration towards her because she is an example to me atleast on how, we may have the intentions about changing something but doing nothing won’t create an impact. So we must get out of our comfort zone, and use Hannah´s example in order to create the changes we want in this world. This interview made me realize how it is so easy for us to forget or not think about the conditions in which others live in, as we may have everything necessary. But, we must understand that the sad truth is that not everybody does. So, does who have the availability of resources should do everything in our power to not forget and take action.

    Who is Ruth and how did she influence Hannah’s path to social innovation? What is energy poverty?
    Ruth is a pen pal of Hannah that is a few years younger than her. She met her through a compassion international program at her school, from which kids around the world would write letters to each other. She explained to Hannah how she was in energy poverty, which Hannah didn’t know before and made her be interested in the topic. The fact that Hannah noticed how in certain parts of the world, energy is taking for granted. She wanted to find a way for everyone to have access to this privilege that helps with basic daily things in an individual’s life. Energy poverty means that they don’t have access to anything that may be electrical such as lights or appliances, sanitation systems, limited medical treatment and so much more.

  10. Herbst doesn’t hope to earn millions from her invention; rather she wants to help out the world with it. What she hopes to do with her invention is to increase the access of clean, purified water to other countries that don’t have much of it.

    My biggest takeaway is that Herbst doesn’t plan to earn a lot of money from this invention even though she hopes to help the world with it. People can do good things in this world to help make an impact and still not get paid for it. To me, if I could make an invention that would help out as much as hers I would want to be paid for it.

    Ruth is Herbst’s friend and penpal from Ethiopia who lives in energy poverty, which inspired Herbst to settle on water power for certain reasons such as it being necessary for survival. Energy poverty is having no energy, just like poverty is having little or no money. Because of energy poverty electrical devices can’t be powered, and the same goes for cleaning devices, creation of food and resources and many more things that need energy.

  11. Throughout the interview, I have noticed that when Hannah Herbst speaks of her ocean energy probe, she explains the usefulness of the concept; the conversion of energy and the purification of water. All of which will ultimately benefit developing countries who suffer from the lack of these necessary resources. However, she never mentions her aspirations towards money or financial gain from all of this, on the contrary, she dreams that this product would aid everyone who lives in this scarcity without limitations. She hopes to create a true impact on the world we live in today in order to pave the way for a promising tomorrow.

  12. Hannah actually plans to not use this prospect as a means of profit, rather a source for change in modern society. She expressed in the interview that she plans on making her products purchasable for other companies and people that choose to invest her ideas. Hannah’s journey has made me realize how I also have the ability to manipulate my past experiences and current ones such as my in school classes and extracurricular activities to explore the depths of interests I might. An example would be her expedition in an all boys robotics camp, and how the things she learned from that experience have been used in her present and future experiments. The journey began when Ruth, her penpal and companion from Ethiopia, wrote to Hannah about the energy poverty crisis occurring in her region. Hannah then quickly realized the things that people in the U.S. take for granted and took action to help her friend in need. Energy poverty is when a location, whether it’s a country, state, or city, is lacking sufficient access to modern electronic resources such as a sink, or a refrigerator. Thus resulting in Hannah’s idea to manipulate the ocean near Ethiopia, and use the waves as a source of renewable kinetic energy.

  13. Hannah Herbst does not hope to earn millions from her ocean energy probe and wants to help out the world though various platforms. She is an honest person and wants the world to be a better place. Hannah specifically acted on her friend’s problem. Her inspiration resonated with many with her positive change. Ruth is Hannah’s friend of Ethiopia and has no energy, which is energy poverty. This caused Hannah to settle with water as it is available everywhere.

  14. Hannah Herbst is not hoping to earn millions from her ocean energy probe. Her ultimate goal is to persuade others, mainly children, who don’t feel they have power. She wants to be a good influence for children to pursue their dreams.

    My biggest takeaway is that your actions are not always for the present and to get money for yourself, but to say a trend and make a big positive impact on the world. It does change my mindset about my life because when I grow up I am not going to do the best for me, but maybe do what is best for the future of the world.

    Ruth is a younger pen pal of Hannah Herbst. Through the letters, Hannah was inspired and urged to go and help kids like her that are in energy poverty. Energy poverty is when you lack the ability to access electricity.

  15. 1. Hannah Herbst’s ultimate goal is to help the world with her invention by allowing countries around the world to access the clean, purified water that we drink. She wants to make the world a cleaner and safer environment for everyone. Hannah’s not I’m any way hoping to earn millions from her ocean energy probe.

    2. My biggest takeaway is that Hannah is trying so hard to help the world around her and she isn’t looking for anything in return. All she wants is to make peoples lives better by helping them receive the clean water that we all deserve. Her actions make me feel that there are good people in this world that are looking to help other and don’t expect anything in return; that people sometimes do things for the sole purpose of helping others and not for the purpose of receiving something in return.

    3. Ruth is a younger friend/ pen pal of Hannah. The letters inspired Hannah to help children who don’t have energy. The lack of energy, or electricity, is known to be energy poverty.

  16. Hannah Herbst’s main goal is to help the world with her own invention. She will allow countries around the world to have access to clean and purified water resulting in a cleaner and safer environment. Moreover, I feel that Hannah’s enthusiasm to help the world around her will provoke it to actually happen as she is putting a lot of effort into it. Also, Ruth is a younger friend of Hannah’s who sends her letters which inspired her to help children who don’t have energy and are in energy poverty.

  17. Poverty is something most people won’t attribute to energy. The fact that Hannah learned this through the engineering process with her pen pal at an engineering camp is what stood out to me the most. I find myself also learning more about the world when researching for engineering problems. Through that, I’ve seen many probable solutions be faulty in some unintentional way.

    Hannah’s hydroelectric solution, Beacon, uses the water’s movement to get energy. A problem that many hydroelectric solutions run into is their unintentionally harming or changing the ecosystem in some way. For example, making a dam requires lots of space , leading to the destruction of many wildlife habitats or the displacement of the wildlife. Although, I’m unclear whether Beacon would run into this problem, other innovations people might make later on could.

    I believe an AR app with the capabilities of simulating the technology being integrated, mapping out areas that would be best suited for a device, and informing the types of plants and animals in that ecosystem would be a great addition to help alleviate this problem and possibly create new opportunities. This app would encourage a community of thinkers to come together to help solve energy poverty. This could really provide innovators such as Hannah a foundation to build their research off of. It acts as a resource and can help set guidelines to better structure their designs around.

    Hannah’s initial struggle to move on from her first prototype made me interested in a function when you might be able to simulate and map out where and how the technology being integrated works. Personally, I know that comparing prototypes and seeing what might work can be a really difficult process and take up lots of time. As a student trying to get into the STEM field, I learned about Computer Aided Design, something often used for engineering and can definitely be incorporated into the AR app to simulate the tool. It would showcase whether the technology effectively works within the creator’s expectations. Going back to Beacon, it relies on hydroelectricity which is renewable. Of course, there are many other options like windmills that might be slightly less reliable but just as viable. This app would inform you about the physical attributes of the environment and would be extremely helpful in giving the foundational basis of different renewable energy routes an engineer might go onto designing.

    Not only would this app offer technical help it could offer to build a community. Energy poverty is a serious issue and I’m sure there are a lot more dedicated people that would work together to help better the situation. Maybe if the app allowed sharing solutions and patterns they see, more efficient solutions would come to light. This app could act as a beacon for others to come together and work against energy poverty. Who knows, maybe future Hannahs may rise from this and slowly return the world to a better place!

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