For Sasiranga De Silva, the battle to save the planet must begin at home. Dismayed by traffic pollution in his native city of Colombo in Sri Lanka, the 33-year-old engineer and electric-vehicle fanatic set about finding the most effective way of tackling the harmful gases and noise that make life a misery for commuters.
He decided to focus on tuk tuks: the three-wheel auto rickshaws used by millions of people across the world, particularly in Asia and Africa. There are around one million tuk tuks in Sri Lanka, providing essential, affordable transport for many of the country’s 21 million people.
De Silva, who is lecturer at the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Moratuwa, developed an affordable conversion kit to allow tuk tuks to run on electric power. His innovation recently won a US$20,000 grant from UN Environment as part of the Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge, which supports young people who come up with cutting-edge ideas to foster energy-efficient, low-waste and low-carbon lifestyles.
De Silva, who will also receive business and marketing training as part of his prize, says his conversion kit, based around a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, will save tuk tuk drivers money over time, and reduce noxious emissions.
His invention is the culmination of a lifelong passion for sustainability.
“Since my university days, I’ve taken an interest in sustainable energy systems, so I studied solar and wind power but then I narrowed my scope to electric vehicles. I wanted to relate electric vehicles to sustainability,” he said.
Dechen Tsering, UN Environment’s director for the Asia-Pacific region, hailed De Silva’s project, noting that the transport sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
“Electrifying our transport options is the kind of solution that will make an enormous impact on air quality in Sri Lanka and other countries across the region,” he said.
In 2008, the Sri Lankan government banned the import of polluting two-stroke tuk tuks because of their low efficiency and high greenhouse gas emissions. But around 300,000 remain on the roads. The government is also now offering low-interest loans to stimulate conversions to electric tuk tuks.
A key challenge for De Silva has been making sure that his conversion kit is affordable for tuk tuk drivers, who generally pay around 700,000 Sri Lankan rupees (around US$4,000) to buy their vehicle. Given that De Silva has estimated that the converter kit could save drivers around US$1,000 a year, he found most tuk tuk owners felt US$2,000 would be affordable.
“That is my target price to sell. It is quite a challenge because I am using lithium-ion batteries, not the cheap batteries. The lithium-ion batteries last longer, more than five years. So that is quite a challenge to ensure the conversion kit can be within that price limit.”
Affordability is critical not least because for most tuk tuk drivers the environmental argument for change does not yet resonate.
“Most drivers are not very educated so the majority would not know about issues with emissions. For them it’s about saving money,” De Silva says. “But when the project goes commercial we will run separate campaigns to educate them on climate change as well.”
Around seven million people worldwide die prematurely each year from air pollution-related diseases, with about four million of these deaths occurring in the Asia-Pacific region. It is estimated that around four billion people, or 92 per cent of the population in this region, are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to their health.
A UN report last year found that millions of lives could be saved and one billion people living in Asia could be breathing clean air by 2030 if 25 simple and cost-effective measures were implemented, including a shift to electric vehicles and better emissions standards and controls.
Air pollution and electrifying the transport sector were on the agenda this month when heads of state, ministers and environmental authorities from 41 countries across Asia and the Pacific met in Singapore to identify solutions to some of the environmental challenges facing the region. These ideas will be brought to the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March.
De Silva, and the other winners of the Low Carbon Lifestyle Challenge, epitomize the motto for that March meeting: to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
The UN prize money has enabled De Silva to carry out more research as he seeks to bring down the costs of his conversion kits while still preserving engine power.
Currently, batteries on the market use 7-8 kilowatts per hour (kWh) to do 100 km per hour, De Silva says. He wants to reduce that usage to below 6 kWh, possibly even to 5.5 kWh.
His battery pack will allow drivers to cover around 110 km per day. There are already some electric vehicle charging points at supermarkets in Colombo but he will also provide chargers, which can be used in a regular socket, allowing the drivers to recharge their vehicles overnight when electricity tariffs are lower.
De Silva knows that greening the tuk tuk industry will be a challenge but this dynamic innovator firmly believes even more dramatic changes are coming down the line.
“I think that in the future we will have full electric cars, and fuel cell cars, and the electricity will come from solar and other renewable sources. That will happen in two to three decades around the world,” he says. “Otherwise, the environment will not support our consumption rates, if we go on like this.”
Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.