Students build solar devices for rural hospital in Africa

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A group of graduate students at Grand Valley State University created devices that provide solar power when electricity fails at a rural hospital in Malawi. They recently made the 22-hour trip to southeastern Africa to deliver and install the devices.

Students in Michigan build solar devices for rural hospital in Africa

-- Devices have potential to save lives

Contact: Leah Twilley, GVSU University Communications, (616) 331-2221, twilleyl[at]gvsu[dot]edu

MEDIA NOTE: Video and photos of students installing the devices at the hospital are available to use: http://gvsu.edu/s/0lN

A group of graduate students at Grand Valley State University created devices that provide solar power when electricity fails at a rural hospital in Malawi. They recently made the 22-hour trip to southeastern Africa to deliver and install the devices.

Embangweni Mission Hospital is located in an area where electricity is often disconnected, and the results can be fatal. Martha Sommers, an American physician currently working in Madagascar, frequently experienced this problem when she spent time at the hospital performing emergency surgeries, like C-sections.

"When the power went out, we relied on a flashlight and we no longer had the ability to use a suction tool to clear fluid from wounds," Sommers said. "This happened many times when we were working to save a mother and her child. Many times the patient died."

To combat this problem, students in the engineering master's degree program created a portable power system for the hospital in 2012. The system was used so often that hospital staff requested more devices. Led by engineering professor Heidi Jiao, students created three Solar Suction Surgery Systems (S4) in 2016. The S4 can provide power for up to two days. Each system has five outlets: two provide light, one provides suction and two are used to charge electronics. A solar panel is connected to the charge controller which is used to control the output power.

Last fall, a Grand Valley group delivered the new devices to the hospital. Members of the group included Justin Melick, digital media developer, and engineering graduate students Sofia Fanourakis and Patrick McCarthy.

The trio spent a week at the hospital and its two remote clinics, installing the solar panels and training employees, including the hospital's only physician, Ishmael Nyirenda. He said his team uses the original power system every single day.

"Each day, there's a period of at least six hours when we don't have electricity," Nyirenda said. "We depend on power to sterilize equipment, perform surgeries and resuscitate babies and patients."

While the devices provide immediate help, Fanourakis and McCarthy are planning for the long term through data tracking. They are tracking power outages and the performance of the devices. The data will be used to help fund new devices and raise awareness about the need.

Jiao will continue to offer the solar-power system as a group project in one of her classes. "Some of our constant questions are 'How do we make this project sustainable?' and 'How can we help other areas in need?'" she said. "Malawi isn't the only area we're looking at; we want to help other underserved areas in Africa and even in the U.S."

The group partnered with a campus organization to make the system's design publicly available on a new open-source website called solaRescue (http://www.gvsu.edu/solarescue). The website was created by Teaching Through Technology (t3), a multidisciplinary group of Grand Valley alumni and students. The group encourages the use of technology to serve the global community.

For more information, visit http://www.gvsu.edu/solarescue.

About Grand Valley State University

Grand Valley State University, one of the 100 largest universities in the nation, attracts more than 25,000 students with high-quality programs and state-of-the-art facilities. Grand Valley is a comprehensive university serving students from all 83 Michigan counties and dozens of other states and foreign countries. Grand Valley offers 87 undergraduate and 37 graduate degree programs from campuses in Allendale, Grand Rapids and Holland, and from centers in Muskegon, Traverse City and Detroit. The university is dedicated to individual student achievement, going beyond the traditional classroom experience, with research opportunities and business partnerships.

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Leah Twilley