Let the Sunshine In

UNLV engineering team wins global Humanitarian Technology Challenge with solar-energy device

Three engineering students from UNLV are determined to bring developing countries out of the dark. They’ve devised plans to create an affordable, solar-driven electrical system that can be used in remote rural areas. The blueprint for that device recently defeated more than 50 college teams around the world to win the Humanitarian Technology Challenge.

The UNLV team consists of seniors Wali Zaidi and Christopher Belcher, and junior Sammy Zaidi, who all have studied solar energy at the university’s Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering and wanted to apply their knowledge to make a difference on humanitarian and environmental levels.

“The objective of the project was to provide a source of reliable electric power for developing nations and do it in such a way that it helps them get out of the poverty cycle that they’re caught in,” Wali Zaidi says. The United Nations Foundation and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers sponsor the competition.

The team studied the United Nations Human Development Index to pinpoint the areas most in need of aid. The students found that there’s a high concentration of underdeveloped nations near the equator, which is also an area with 12 hours of sunlight year round. They focused on a remote rural area of Pakistan and came up with a project that could be used throughout the region.

“Pakistan has gotten a lot of attention for its poverty, and they have a growing demand for energy but a lack of supply because the infrastructure doesn’t work,” Wali Zaidi says. “That, combined with the fact that you have very good solar resources, we said this would be a good place for a pilot project to test how the system works.”

The team’s goal was to create something simple, something that a culture unaccustomed to technology could quickly understand. Their plan involves two photovoltaic solar panels joined by a manual tracking system, which can be rotated throughout the day to gather the most direct sunlight. One unit is designed to be able to put out 600 watt-hours of energy (i.e., power six 10-watt light bulbs for 10 hours), while two or three units together could power a small medical clinic or a water-purification plant.

The team received $5,000 for winning the challenge and is putting the money toward developing a pilot project. Wali Zaidi says they’ve also received interest from investors, and he’s optimistic about where the project will lead.

“If I can see this happen, I know I’ve contributed to helping people get away from the fossil-fuel technology,” Wali Zaidi says. “I think providing electric power is essential for any developing nation to go forward. It’s just a must. I hope that this is at least the beginning of something like that.”

To learn more about the Humanitarian Technology Challenge, go to ieeehtc.org.