Solar-powered benches rolled out in Boston, US

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Three German graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab have designed a solar-powered park bench that doubles as an electronic device charging station complete with USB ports and wireless internet connection.

The Soofa is the brainchild of three women from Germany. Each in their early-thirties, the three MIT graduates set up Changing Environments as a spin-out from their studies, and have since launched the Soofa in a handful of locations around the city of Boston.

The technology is simple. A single photovoltaic solar panel is encased in a sturdy central box, which is flanked by two seats and fitted with two USB ports.

The idea is to allow users – joggers, strollers, lunch breakers, first daters – to rest up at the bench, plug in their mobile device and let the sun’s ray charge it. The wireless internet also uploads local environmental data such as noise levels and air quality, and also feeds back to the user how much solar energy is being generated.

"We are all from Germany, where solar energy is very popular," Sandra Richter, Changing Environment’s co-founder and chief executive, told Bloomberg. "We were thinking about how we can change public opinion to accept more solar and start a dialogue about air quality in cities and renewable energy." Soofa is the result of that thought process.

Richter moved to allay concerns over vandalism or cyber hacking, stressing that the Soofa’s are sturdily built to protect against physical or virtual attacks, but added: "This is a small, three-girl operation right now." The group hopes to receive further funding to roll the Soofa out in other U.S. cities, and internationally.

The product has already caught the eye of Cisco Systems, which paid for the installation of Boston’s first benches, and Verizon, which will lend its technical expertise to the startup.