At first glance, a merry-go-round that generates electricity appears to be a charming idea. But Empower Playgrounds President, Ben Markham, came up with the idea in 2006 during an 18-month stint volunteering in Ghana. There he was struck by the lack of lighting in rural schools and dwellings, as well as the paucity of playground equipment. A charming idea it remains, but it's a serious one, too.

Like any merry-go-round, Empower Playgrounds' is designed for children to take turns riding and pushing. But in this case, the deck of the merry-go-round sits on top of a hub bearing with a drive shaft connected to a helical gearbox to ramp up the revolutions in the gearing. This turns a windmill generator, producing electricity with over 70-percent efficiency, according to the company. A buried cable transmits the current to a DC converter so that electrical energy can be stored in a deep cycle battery with management technology to maximize the battery's life. A solar panel is installed with the power enclosure to keep the battery topped up during school holidays.

The Energizer Battery Corporation, a sponsor of Empower Playgrounds, has designed an LED lantern which provides 40 hours of light from a single charge. These can be donated to rural communities in Ghana from Empower Playgrounds' website. A lantern for a group of schoolchildren for US$50.

According to Fast Company, the "lantern groups" are organized according to where they live. But because many families can afford to send only some of their children to school, and because, alas, those children tend to be boys, Empower Playgrounds is encouraging change by making girls "lantern leaders."

As an alternative to a $50 donation, $10 will provide one child a year of light, calculated on the cost of a system ($10,000), its expected lifespan (five years), and the average number of children in a school (200), according to Fast Company.

This is clearly a labor of love for Markham, who was formerly Vice President of Engineering at ExxonMobil until he retired early in 2004 before embarking on his trip to Ghana. He came up with the idea in 2006, and Empower Playgrounds installed its first system in 2008.

Sources: Empower Playgrounds, Fast Company