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.”
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 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 project was a collaboration between Rensselaer, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Troy, N.Y., and General Electric.
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.
Several ESW members will return to Peru this summer, to continue their work on designing and creating a solar-powered milk pasteurization system for communities in the country’s rural south.
The project kicked off in 2007, and aims to help the Langui and Canas communities in southern Peru by developing affordable, solar-powered pasteurization equipment. Many families in the region have dairy cows and produce milk, yogurt, and cheeses on a small scale, but cannot obtain certification to market these products because they lack proper sanitation equipment. The new pasteurization systems will allow these families to meet governmental regulations so that they can begin to sell their dairy products and earn additional income. In addition to solar power, ESW members are investigating how to create and use a “biodigester,” which converts dung and other waste into biogas, as another means to power the pasteurization system.
The ESW team has a working prototype of the system, and Erin Lennox, past president and a doctoral student in ecological economics, said the group is partnering with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to test the equipment and, ultimately, certify that the system meets U.S. pasteurization and sanitation guidelines. The team is also working with a pair of local artisan cheese makers to learn more about the process and business of cheese production.
Lennox, who visited Peru with other ESW members in the summer of 2009 to work on the system, said the next phase of the project includes testing the prototype on-site in Peru, in addition to making business connections to help ensure that the farmers have a profitable market in which to sell their newly pasteurized cheeses.
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