Make it, test it, try it: Invention

A farmer invented a machine that turns straw into building panels. Why didn't we think of that?

It sounds like something that might have been useful to the Three Little Pigs. Fans of the popular children's story will recall how the first little pig built a house out of straw, only to have it toppled by the huffing and puffing of a big, bad wolf.

It's a shame that little pig didn't live next door to David Ward. He has invented a machine that processes straw into a very sturdy building material.

He calls his invention the Strawjet, and it was named Invention of the Year in the Modern Marvels Invent Now Challenge.

The Strawjet is "a cross between a hay bailer and a sewing machine," Mr. Ward says. It's attached to the back of a tractor and dragged through a field cutting, scooping up, and bundling together dried grasses.

Ward's machine turns wheat, flax, sunflower, and other plants into a mat that, when covered with mud or cement, can be used to make inexpensive walls and roofs for buildings.

Paint and glue can be applied to make the panels airtight and waterproof, thus preventing rotting and other damage.

Ward got the idea for his invention more than 15 years ago while harvesting crops on his farm. He started looking into nontoxic building materials as an earth-friendly construction alternative to wood.

Straw was the perfect solution. That's because straw has been used for thousands of years as a building material for huts and small dwellings. Straw also is a good insulator, and "it's abundant," says Ward, "particularly in third-world countries."

It's in developing countries such as Afghanistan that Ward would like to see his machine put to use. It could provide a building system for making shelters strong enough to withstand bad weather and earthquakes, he says. And yes, it could even withstand the "huffing and puffing" of a big, bad wolf.

The Strawjet wasn't easy to make. The parts Ward needed weren't available, so he had to manufacture his own. "That's where the 15 years went," he says with a bit of a chuckle. "I can't tell you how many times I thought, 'This is never going to work.' "

One time last summer, for instance, Ward and some of his friends were having difficulty getting the Strawjet to operate."Three of us were there at the time," says Norton Smith, who helped with the project. "We all startedworking on the problem and came up with three independent solutions. As we compared notes and discussed the solutions, a fourth solution developed. All four were implemented, and within three days we had it back up and running perfectly."

Ward says working with other people is the best way to solve problems. His advice to young inventors is "Start your own inventors' club. Get a group of friends together and think of a way to make a current invention better."

He also suggests talking about inventions with parents and teachers. "Inventing is like a treasure hunt," he says. "You don't know exactly where it's going to go, but you know there's treasure at the end."

For winning "invention of the year," Ward was presented with $25,000. The money will be used to make a hand-fed version of the Strawjet that's "a lot less complex than the full-scale Strawjet, [and] it's also more affordable," Mr. smith says.

While the Strawjet comes a tad late for the little pigs, Ward says there's never been a better time than now to think of an invention that could change the world.

More creative ideas

These are among 24 other winners in the 2006 Modern Marvels Invent Now Challenge that are on display at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, through Aug. 31.

Shift bicycle: Say goodbye to skinned knees and training wheels. The shift bicycle features two rear wheels that merge into one wheel at high speeds.

Quick-See: This invention enables pet owners to trim their animals' nails at the appropriate place without causing pain or discomfort to the pet.

Illuminated nut driver: This invention merges two lights and a screwdriver into one hand-held tool. An LCD light illuminates the outside of the work area, while a laser sends a beam of light through the center of the nut driver.

Resc-hue Lite Line: This battery-operated, flexible light can be used as a safety line in a low-light environment. It can hold up to 10,000 pounds.

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