Greening Dumpling: Quirky Inventor's Segways To Next Act

Dean Kamen's created his own green 'nation' off the CT shore

Energy independence is a hot topic in the U.S., but the owner of a tiny island off the coast of Connecticut says he has already achieved the feat and can serve as a model.

Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway and numerous medical devices, jokingly refers to his North Dumpling Island as an independent nation and himself as Lord Dumpling. Kamen claims to have his own currency and offers visas to visitors to the tiny island a few miles from Mystic, where he is the only resident.

The island is actually part of New York. But Kamen, who bought the three-acre island in the 1980s as a retreat, is serious about energy independence and the lessons it offers at a time of volatile gas prices and fears about global warming.

"The rest of the world will eventually catch up if the Dumplonians can get their message out," Kamen said.

Kamen's energy plan began after the U.S. Coast Guard recently notified him that they were cutting off electrical power to a lighthouse on the island in favor of solar power. That meant the island would no longer have any electricity.

"That can typically ruin your day," Kamen said.

Then the prolific inventor who has hundreds of patents had an epiphany: Why not make the island energy self-sufficient and a showcase to the world as the first green nation?

Kamen, who spends most of the year in New Hampshire, already had been working on energy conservation projects that he has introduced in poor countries. He also figured his island's timely new status in an energy-hungry world could be used to draw attention to an annual high school robotics competition he created called FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The contest has grown rapidly around the country and the world since it began 15 years ago.

So Kamen granted "visas" to a select group of corporate sponsors from Wal-Mart and other companies to brainstorm about his plans for the island and how it could be used to raise awareness and money for his robotic competition.

Visitors arrived on the rocky shore on a wind-swept day, with Kamen's wind turbine whirling and swirling. Solar panels pointed at the gray sky. A replica of Stonehenge is lit up with green LED lights that use less electricity than traditional light bulbs with filaments.

Kamen, dressed in jeans and a blue shirt, has been installing LED lights around his house and the island.

"The Dumplonians went into emergency session," Kamen said. "We have zero tolerance for filaments."

Philips Color Kenetics, a Massachusetts-based company doing the project to draw attention to LEDs, says the lights cut his electrical use at least in half and are becoming increasingly viable commercially without compromising light quality.

Dumplonians, naturally, rely on the Segway for mass transit. Kamen says the Segway goes up to 12 miles per hour, faster than traffic moves in most major cities around the world, and his point is underscored as a man zips by on the island.

Kamen took his visitors to the basement of his house, where he showed off his water purification invention that he deployed to Honduras. The device can turn any water source into clean drinking water, Kamen said, noting that many diseases stem from tainted water.

Kamen also showed off an energy-efficient Stirling engine that he used in Bangladesh to create electricity with methane gas generated by cow dung.

Kamen says his island will distribute the devices to poor countries, noting that many poor people have never used electricity.

"It will be part of our foreign aid program," Kamen says.

After the brainstorming session, participants suggested holding an exclusive gathering of top corporate leaders next summer to raise money for the robotic competition while showing off the island's green status and talking about energy problems. Kamen seemed receptive to a suggestion to have the gathering on July 3, so as not to conflict with his neighbor's Independence Day festivities.

Kamen believes the competition is creating a large pool of future innovators who can eventually solve the world's energy crisis and other challenges by getting children excited about science and technology.

Kamen said he'll post the island's energy use on the Web in real time and use the bright green, blue and other colors from the LED lights to tell the world how much energy he is using. Each color will signify a certain level of energy use and will flash on the windmill for passing boaters to see.

"The Dumplonian empire will be completely transparent," Kamen says.

Before Kamen can show off his green nation, he'll have to win "re-election." Negative advertising has even come to the island, where "Dump Dumpy '08" signs abound.

"I'm quite sure I'm going to win again," Kamen says. "I'm the only green candidate."

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