Delivering reliable and affordable electric power in the midst of a global energy crisis is a challenge for the most technologically advanced urban centers; it's nearly impossible for rural locations in developing nations around the world.
That may soon change, thanks to a team of UNLV undergraduate engineering students. The UNLV trio recently won an international humanitarian engineering challenge for designing a scalable, solar-driven electrical power system that manually tracks the sun to efficiently - and cheaply - turn sunlight into electricity.
The Humanitarian Technology Challenge, sponsored by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the United Nations Foundation, pitted more than 50 teams of college students from across the globe in a quest to find technological solutions to some of the world's most pressing humanitarian issues. Teams had eight months to define a pilot project location, research and develop a prototype and identify local manufacturing and finance options. UNLV edged out finalists from Technische Universit?t in Germany and Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology in India for the award.
Many developing nations, in which millions lack access to reliable electric power, are located in regions geographically suited for solar energy. The UNLV design is meant for rural areas and consists of a small, standalone photovoltaic power system ideal for small uses such as lighting, fans and basic appliances.
"The energy crisis in urban areas gets most of the attention, but rural areas far from the grid have struggled for decades to receive even the most basic energy needs," said Wali Zaidi, UNLV team leader and electrical engineering undergrad. "UNLV is an ideal place to learn about emerging solar energy applications from industry leaders, and the skills we've learned in the classroom gave us an edge in the competition and a chance to help people in need."
The UNLV team's system can also be scaled up for use with larger loads and contains battery storage for use at night and during inclement weather. A manual tracking feature allows the user to re-position the unit several times each day to maximize power output without the high cost and technical skill needed to operate an advanced, electronics-based tracking system.
Each unit would cost approximately $1,700 with installation. Through loans secured with designated private partnerships or the manufacturer, the repayment cost could be as little at $28 per month. Though the project focused specifically on Pakistan, the system design is adaptable, requires little maintenance and can be used in rural locations worldwide.
UNLV team members Wali Zaidi, Sammy Zaidi and Christopher Belcher are undergraduates in the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering. The team is using its $5,000 grand prize to continue development of a prototype system for future commercial application.
The Humanitarian Technology Challenge gives college students worldwide an opportunity to develop creative solutions to global issues including reliable electricity, data connectivity in rural health offices and improved tracking of patient health records. For more information, please visit http://ieeehtc.org