GreenShields: Green Technology for a Better World

GreenShields: Green Technology for a Better World

John Converse Townsend's picture

Jonny Cohen is a celebrated green social entrepreneur, who has been inventing, innovating, and designing gadgets for almost his entire life. Since the age of four, he has put together robots, helicopters, and other remote-controlled devices, even sewing a miniature camera into a Beanie Baby to spy on his older sister, Azza. Now 15, Cohen—a self described “friendly science nerd” and aspiring mechanical engineer from the North Side of Chicago—is using his particular set of skills and know-how to make a visible difference on the national stage.

Cohen is the founder and inventor of GreenShields, a project that retrofits school buses with polycarbonate shields to make them more aerodynamic. By redirecting the airflow over and around buses, Cohen’s GreenShields are able to significantly decrease the drag coefficient, resulting in better gas mileage and lower CO2 emissions.

Cohen and the GreenShields team, which includes his two sisters and a couple of friends, have been proud recipients of a $25,000 Pepsi Refresh Grant and, most recently, have been recognized as one of five winners in the Ashoka's Youth Venture and Best Buy’s Technology for a Better World Campaign.

GreenShields is just as smart as it is simple. According to the American School Bus Council, the average fuel consumption for diesel-powered buses is seven miles per gallon, well shy of the average consumption of private gasoline vehicles, 20.8. With the national school bus fleet at almost half a million strong and spending nearly $2.5 billion per year on fuel, the smallest of changes has the power to make a pretty big difference.

Over the past three years, the GreenShields team has tweaked and refined their model with the help of some influential friends. Richard Perdichizzi, Senior Technical Instructor in Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, offered insights on how to best refine the first GreenShields models and how to create their own wind tunnel for testing. They also had the opportunity to experiment with their prototype on a real bus, generously donated by the Cook-Illinois Bus Company, at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering.

And like every effective social entrepreneur, Cohen has stepped out of the theory and begun experimenting with his solution in the real world.

“We tested the GreenShields model on a windy day in Joliet, Illinois,” said Cohen. “We ended up saving 28 percent on gas. During our tunnel testing and virtual wind simulations, we predicted a savings of 15 percent with a wind speed of 0 miles per hour. So, that was a pleasant surprise.” 

That type of impact can help us all breathe a little bit easier, especially those sitting on school board budget committees. A 28 percent reduction in fuel consumption would save school districts nationwide over $600 million every year. Just imagine the type of students who would graduate from our nation’s schools if those savings were reinvested to support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. Perhaps we could graduate entire classes of thinking, tinkering and inventive young leaders like Jonny Cohen.

But being an unrelenting changemaker, Cohen isn’t entirely satisfied with that result and product. His main concern is that some districts may be hesitant to adopt the current GreenShields model, currently priced at $600, so he is carefully working to a release a smaller model that will be a much easier sell.

“We’re in the process of designer a smaller GreenShield that is easier to implement; it will be really easy to put on school buses, “said Cohen. “It won’t need windshield wipers since it is such a small surface area and won’t require any drilling for installation.”

That sounds promising, but what about the effectiveness of the new model?

“We’d hope to get the same amount [of savings], but know that we won’t in reality. We will probably see around a seven percent gas mileage improvement, but the shield will cost less than $100, so we could get it onto a lot more school buses. We are content with a smaller impact, if it is implemented on a much larger scale.”

Testing on the smaller shield is scheduled for the end of summer at the Heller Nature Center in Highland Park, Illinois. Stay tuned.

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