As members of the campus group Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), the students are applying what they have learned in the classroom and laboratory to real-world problems with important repercussions for developing nations. ESW projects have a strong sustainability focus and are carefully designed to serve as platforms that encourage and enable long-term future growth for the host communities.
“What we learn in classes is great, but traveling to another country and applying what I’ve learned is an excellent challenge,” said Alex Worcester, a sophomore electrical engineering major. “I love being able to take the project from start to finish, from sitting around the table talking about it, to designing the system, going there and installing it, and seeing how it helps people. This is what reminds me why I want to be an engineer.”
Solar-Powered Laptops in Haiti
With fellow ESW members and Rensselaer classmates Andrew Chung, Casey McEvoy, Gloria Condon, and ESW faculty adviser Michael Jensen, Worcester visited Lascahobas, Haiti, in January. After about a year of planning, designing, building, and testing, the group installed 2.4 kilowatts of solar panels on the roof of a local school enough to power 10 HP tablet laptop computers donated by Rensselaer, plus additional laptops the school and other nearby schools received from the One Laptop Per Child program.
The power system includes 32 large backup batteries that can store enough electricity to power all of the laptops for three days without sunlight. Worcester and Chung said the group designed the system to be as efficient and effective as possible, easy to repair, and require only minimal maintenance. The team removed the power converters on the computers, which allows the laptops to run on DC power straight from the solar panels. The project was a collaboration between Rensselaer, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Troy, N.Y., and General Electric.
A high-tech solar power system may sound out of place in a community with no reliable access to electricity, no running water, and where no more than one student each year goes on to attend college. But ESW members said it was the best solution they could devise to meet the needs that were clearly laid out by the rector of the school in Lascahobas.
“This isn’t a hand-out, it’s a hand-up,” said Saadia Safir, a senior mechanical engineering major who worked on the project. “This is a sustainable project. We didn’t just give them solar panels we taught them how to run the system, upkeep it, and derive long-term value from the system. It’s not only environmentally sustainable. It’s also socially and financially sustainable.”
Group members said they are looking into the possibility of returning to Lascahobas over the summer. Along with checking on the solar power system, Chung said they want to install additional software on the computers, deliver digital books, and investigate the possibility of developing a solar-powered fryer, as many traditional Haitian meals are fried in wood-fire fryers. Other longer-term goals would be developing water pumps and purifications systems.
“ESW allows us to apply the knowledge we learn as students to a cause that is both immediate and visible,” said Jaron Kuppers, a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, who worked on the Haiti project. “It’s something that gives us an outlet to address a different community, a different group of people that we wouldn’t normally get to interact with. There’s a lot to be gained in terms of life experience, working in the field as an engineer, and being adaptable.”
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