Imagine living with no electricity; none at all. It may be difficult to grasp life without the basic luxuries that electricity provides, but the reality is that there are many people who cannot get access to these basic services. The economic hurdles that block a greater distribution of power are being knocked down by engineering advances and the passionate ingenuity of those who want to help others.
Students enrolled in the UVM Governor’s Institutes of Vermont (GIV) Engineering Institute experienced this dream this summer when they worked on ways to make electricity available for places in the remotest regions of our world. They did so using rejected photovoltaic cells that are routinely discarded during the manufacturing process because they may have chips or may not produce enough rated power. The students used these rejects to construct a larger solar panel that produced 2 amps at 16 volts. This is greater than the power needed to charge a 12 volt battery.
Will this power an American home? No. But in places where there is no power, this could charge the only cell phone in a village, provide emergency lighting in a medical clinic, and power a small refrigerator cooler to keep vaccines and medications cool enough not to spoil. It is the first few kilowatt hours a month in remote villages that are the most precious.
The students took the solar cells, tested them to balance the amperage and soldered them in parallel. Groups of four were then wired in series to produce 16 volts in full sun. The system was designed to charge used 12 volt car batteries. Such batteries are readily available and can link with an inverter to provide the 120 volt ac current needed to run most appliances.
“The solar Panel array was a lot of work to make,” said team member Alex Pike from Poolesville, Maryland. “The thought that our work could improve life for people in other countries is very rewarding."
The goal is not to send these panels to remote places but to develop the technology, test the fabrication methods and then teach those in third world countries how to fabricate the systems. The cells were attached to a sheet of used Plexiglas that was then sealed with caulk. “Any piece of glass would work as well, auto windshields would look really cool, too,” said Riley Chapman from Ticonderoga, New York, another team member who worked on the project. “We mounted the glass to a frame for structural support and for ventilation to prevent over heating."
How do you teach people who have minimal literacy skills in English to fabricate these systems? The GIV students developed a set of images and simple graphics so that, with minimal verbal instruction, teenagers any where in the world, will be able to duplicate the technology.
Lead GIV teacher Joe Chase, teaches technology in Essex High School, but also has a home in Liberia, Africa. He was very excited to see the system and wants to work with the Minister of Youth and Sports, a family friend, to test the educational set of instructions. Another test site will be a vocational school in Ghana.
Chase’s recent visit to Liberia allowed him to work with human services programs designed to provide trade skills for young people including former combatants from devastating civil war. “The greatest needs in Liberia is for trade work for young people that can generate income,” said Chase. “The manufacture of these simple solar panels provides a win-win scenario: a sustainable engineering technology that creates jobs; that creates income’ and that provides sustainable energy. This energy, once created, can be stored in batteries and used on demand. Refrigeration needs are great in equatorial Africa.”
The beauty of the solar project is that it brings a low cost technology to a developing country and enables the people within the local areas to have ownership for that technology because it is something that they ‘make’ and in the creation process, they inherently learn how to maintain the panels. Such ownership and knowledge is key to sustainability.
Solar power has great potential for developing countries. One of the greatest challenges with new technology in developing countries is how to make it sustainable. Many times government organizations provide grants for technology development, but the results are not sustainable because local knowledge for its necessary maintenance and repair Is not present, meaning a solar panels life can end quickly once it malfunctions.
The solar panel called “Sun-Kissed” will provide the people in Ghana and other African countries with a new opportunity to create, test and use this technology. through with UVM students from UVM’s Engineers Without Borders chapter (UVM/EWB).
Our goal is to conduct testing as to what “kit” to send. It may include caulk, a simple photo guide to fabrication, a set of solar chips, solder and a battery powered soldering gun. Once the first solar panel is completed then the batteries can be recharged. More systems can be built. The locally produced systems will create jobs and be affordable.
The solar cells used were factory seconds purchased from the internet on eBay, but it is very possible to create a link between educational organizations such as Engineers Without Borders for manufacturers so that they could donate their seconds to be used for non-profit tax write-offs.
“In addition to learning about engineering during the Institute,” says Saba Asefa from Gahanna, Ohio, “we created a high quality functional photovoltaic cell prototype with low-cost and low-waste.”
Other engineering projects
Students also worked on a variety of real world problem solving. One group worked with Marshal Webb of Shelburne Farms on the technology to allow farm equipment to use locally produced fuel instead of fossil fuel to grow food.
Another team received “Best Design Award” in the Design Engineering Project overseen by UVM professor Mike Rosen for designing and creating a device that could assist a one-armed machinist.
It is the application of engineering skills to real world problems, coupled with a deep commitment to solving the problems of humanity, that make the summer GIV in Engineering such a thrill. These students are going places with their skills and creative ideas, places like the UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences at UVM.
During the Institute, students watched with hands shielding their eyes as aerospace rockets climbed higher and higher into the sky over The University of Vermont. Some ascended to heights out-of-sight -- possible through affixed curved wings -- some landed in tact through released parachute designs. Each rocket launch began with its placement inside a small cannon that was powered by compressed air. As the aerospace project assistant called out a warning: “Clear for Launch: 1,2, 3 – Lift off!” the dreams of generating flight were coming true for these students. Aerospace was one of the five engineering project challenges. This summer experience began for 87 students enrolled on July 23 and ended on July 30 with an awards recognition ceremony sponsored by the UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (CEMS).
Governor Peter Shumlin visited during the Institute to talk with students about their engineering projects. He then made an announcement that $1,500/year for five years will be available to students who take engineering jobs in Vermont after graduation from college.
Testing also occurred during the Institute for students to represent the US at the 5th International Earth Science Olympiad (IESO). A total of eight students (from VT, NY, and VA) traveled to Modena, Italy September 5-14, 2011, the host for the 2011 IESO. The focus of the IESO is on sustainability issues such as climate change.
Tom Tailer, the co-director of the Governor’s Institute on Engineering, supervised the initial build and Chase is leading the initiative with UVM’s Engineers Without Borders Chapter to bring this technology to Liberia.
For more information on the IESO visit: www.ieso2011.unimore.it
For more information on the UVM/GIV Engineering Institute visit:
For more information on other GIV Institutes visit: www.giv.org
by Dawn Densmore,
Director, Outreach & Public Relations, UVM CEMS