Jesse Ransom describes himself as a "tinkerer." In the morning, he goes to work for a Madison-based aerospace company that builds gear for the International Space Station. And in his free time, he keeps building — all with the intent of making the world a better place.
Ransom stopped by the Cap Times to talk about charging cell phones with compost, how a Bluetooth outhouse works, and building specialized bikes for the homeless. And lots more.
You just won $10,000 for an invention. What does it do?
I got picked out of five finalists for a $10,000 prize through a worldwide competition called InfyMakers. What the invention actually does is, it’s got a bunch of thermoelectric coolers on it. If you apply power, they get hot on one side and cold on the other. But if you have hot on one side and cold on the other, they generate electricity, too. So you put these down in a compost pile and you blow air down onto one side to cool it, and with the heat from the compost pile, it makes it so it generates a small amount of electricity, which saves up over time. And then you can charge up a little battery pack and you can charge your cell phone or, you could probably run a microwave very briefly with it.
What sort of practical applications do you envision for that?
If you were to scale it up and a city were to use this type of apparatus — say for instance you have a large bale of anything organic. If it’s laying outside it will start breaking down and that will create heat. So if you scale my device up and put it inside that, it’ll generate a lot more electricity. It’s all about scaleability. Currently, the device is very small. But if you were to use it in a third-world country, you could give electricity to anybody that’s got trees or organic matter around. And that’s a lot smaller than trying to set up solar panels. It’s a lot cheaper, too. I was able to build the prototype for about $80. If you were able to scale it into mass market you could probably get them down to $50 apiece. And it’s all one contained unit.
And the device you have right now could power a cell phone?
Cell phone, laptop. A microwave briefly. You could do coffee pots. Or if you used LED lighting, you could light up a small room for 18 hours.
What got you into tinkering with things like this?
When I was 9 years old I made a homemade RC (radio control) car and brought it to school. I’ve always been tinkering, as far as I can remember.
What other inventions are you proud of?
So, (Mayor Paul) Soglin was cracking down on the homeless. So I made the Minnebago.
That’s right! Explain what that was.
It’s literally a tiny house on a bike. You can pedal it around. I had solar panels for it. I put it out in Monona and me and Tony (Kapela) from 5Nines, we actually live-feeded straight from it.
It seems like it would be hard to just put a Winnebago on a bike.
Not really. I just welded the frame together and built the sides out of wood and sheet metal. It had a bench, a table and a grandma’s attic.
You’ve fixed up other bikes for the homeless, right?
Yeah, people will give me bikes or I’ll buy bikes that are about to go to the junkyard, and I’ll fix them up and give them away. About a week ago, there was a disabled guy I set up an electric three-wheeler for. He has to walk with crutches, and he’s been walking all over town to get to the different food pantries and whatnot, and I set him up with an electric bike so he doesn’t have to walk anymore and doesn’t have to pedal. And I mounted a security lockbox on the back so nobody can steal his stuff.
Was there a need for bikes in the homeless community? Why did you start doing that?
Tami (Miller) and the rest of the guys at Friends of the State Street Family, they had a bunch of donated bikes and needed somebody to fix them up.
What have you tried and completely failed at making?
I’ve had a couple failures over the years. The problem is the longer the project, the more chance you’re going to get bored. So, I started building this animatronic human, and he’s like, the top half of a person. Everybody’s creeped out by it, and I built him, but I never programmed him. So he’s just kind of sitting around looking very creepy. That’s kind of one of my failures.
When you’re building stuff, you’ll always fail at least once, usually. You’ve got to just jump in and go for it. You’re going to have problems along the way, but eventually you’ll come up with the right solution for it.
What’s your day job when you’re not making energy from compost?
I work for a company called Orbitec. We build stuff for the Space Station.
So you build for your day job and you build for fun.
Yeah. So, we do propulsion and life support and we do the grow operations. So when you hear about the astronauts eating on the space station, that’s what we do. And if you remember SpaceX, the Falcon 9 rocket that landed on the barge, they were sending up part of our payload, which is pretty cool.
What do you want to work on next?
I was actually going to build a rover for my own personal use. It’ll have a plow on the front and it’ll be charged up with solar panels. I need to build a road.
You’re going to build a rover to build a road.
I’m also working on a Bluetooth outhouse — so if you’re camping, you know, you have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. With the Bluetooth you can turn on the lights for the outside and the inside, you can turn on the heat, you can turn on water — it’ll start sanitizing the water so you can use it.
It seems like a lot of your inventions are geared toward trying to help other people. Is that something you aim to do?
Yeah, a lot of times, it’s social, economic or political. If it’s just a luxury item — I mean, I’ve got stuff I’ve designed like that, and I just don’t really care too much. I’m sure it would do very well, but I’d rather put my effort into trying to help people somehow.
What are some other things you’ve made to help people?
There was a project that’s kind of stalled right now, but I did all the background for it. We’re trying to set up a locker system for the homeless guys. That’s a big problem for them, just trying to keep the stuff they have. So say for instance, your day-to-day life, you probably spend $20-40 a day. If you have to keep buying those things every week … that’s one of the major problems downtown. Stuff disappears or you can’t carry it with you and somebody takes it.
What’s your process to take an idea from your head to reality?
You just kind of get an idea and you sketch it up a little bit, then you make a prototype, and usually the prototype is a failure. It sort of works, but you see what didn’t work, and you can make the next design, which will hopefully fix all the problems that you messed up on, and you’re able to make it a lot more successful.
Where do your ideas come from?
Random places. I could watch a movie and end up with three ideas. It all depends on what you’re doing. So I’m around a lot of social and environmental issues, so a lot of my inspiration comes from there.
Back to the compost. Do you have plans to try to market your device?
I’ve got to change a few things before it gets to that point. But, yeah, I’m actually trying to scale it up — possibly with the outhouse.
Did you study this in school?
I went to MATC to be an electrical engineering technician, and I was going to go over to MSOE, but then I found Sector67. I’ve got a good knowledge of electronics and mechanical, and I’m pretty good at physics, too. Material science. You know a little bit of everything, you kind of become a jack of all trades. I’m handy to have around, especially if you’re making prototypes.
I imagine you can fix a lot of things.
Yeah, my cars never die, unfortunately. I just fix them, so I'm always driving these hoopties around.
Is your house just a graveyard of weird inventions?
Oh, yeah. I’ve got this giant animatronic tank that’s Bluetooth-controlled, and I mounted a snowplow on there. So you can just sit in the house and drive that thing around.
I would buy that.
I’ve got quite a few weird things. Before the compost pile thing, I actually submitted a fireproof blanket (to the InfyMakers competition) that would be good up to 2,000 degrees. And it also floats. So it’s like the ultimate blanket to have with you, period. If you’re in a boat you can use it as a flotation device. If you’re in a car and you break down you can use it as a normal blanket. Or if there’s a fire you can wrap yourself in it to shield yourself.
I also played around with generating electricity with a fish-safe turbine. I need to make another prototype on that one. There’s always so much stuff going on. I really need minions.