In 2012, MIT Visiting Artist Mel Chin collaborated with Markus Kayser, a Research Assistant in the Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group, to develop The Saharan Sand Dollar Exchange Machine, a solar powered and fully active money exchange machine which debuted at the Cape Farewell Foundation’s Carbon 14: Climate is Culture exhibition. With this machine, people can exchange their native currency for solar-fused coins made of Western Saharan sand: the first prototypes of their kind. Proceeds from the project will benefit Saharawi refugees in the Western Sahara, a displaced population with whom Chin has been working since 2011 towards the goal of greater empowerment and self-determination. Displaced to a remote area of the Sahara called “The Devil’s Garden,” the Saharawi aim to develop their own currency and economy “backed not by gold or gas, but by the sun,” as Chin says in the exhibition statement.
For Chin, the project is a natural extension of the Fundred Dollar Bill project, which also plays with the visual, symbolic, and economic value of currency to help raise awareness about toxic lead poisoning around the country. Kayser contributed his groundbreaking technology, “Solar Sinter,” which explores the possibility of desert manufacturing using the abundant natural resources of sun and sand. Sintering — a fundamental part of 3D printing — is the process by which powder is transformed into a solid through the application of heat, and Kayser’s experiments show how this might be achieved in a sustainable way. “While not providing definitive answers, this experiment aims to provide a point of departure for fresh thinking,” Kayser says.