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Engineering Students Design Affordable Solar Lamp for Use in Developing Countries

With more than 2 billion people on the planet living without reliable electricity, Sacharia Albin, an Old Dominion University electrical and computer engineering professor, gave three students in his Electrical Engineering Design class a challenge. They were tasked with designing a portable, solar- and battery-powered lamp that would provide three hours of reading light per day, at a cost per unit of only $20.

The students, Rodney Douglas of Virginia Beach, Richard Schaefer of Evansville, Ind., and Anthony Gontarz of Phoenix - all seniors, majoring in electrical engineering at ODU's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology - did so well with the project that Albin is planning to send several prototypes to Haiti as part of a relief mission shipment from his church.

"The students came up with a really good design. The rechargeable battery they use has a life of 500 days," Albin said. "I think this will get exposure in the community. This is kind of what engineering is all about - finding solutions to real-world problems."

The idea is for the recipients of the lamps to use them instead of burning candles or kerosene lanterns, which aren't as safe and cost far more than the lamp in the long run.

The three seniors are so excited about their project that they plan to continue working on it after graduation, in hopes of making a viable lamp that could be used by students in developing countries as a study aide during nighttime hours.

"That's what you dream about as an engineer, and why we were excited to work on the project," Douglas said. "Everyone is motivated to kind of leave a legacy. That would be one of the best things we could do."

The students presented their project on Tuesday, Dec. 8. Gontarz told the professors grading the assignment that the efforts to find the right casing, battery, solar panel and light bulb was "kind of like doing a 1,000-piece puzzle, where you work on every piece at the same time."

The student team finally settled on a lamp with five light-emitting diode bulbs and three rechargeable alkaline batteries linked up to a solar panel. Their specially designed lamp gave the longest, brightest beam of light for the lowest cost.

The lamp is housed in a thin, round metal casing, with a bendable wire stand. It's affixed with a clip to attach to a table, but the clip can also be folded so the lamp can stand on its own. The lamp also bends down to a third of its size, making it easier for shipping to developing countries.

"We wanted a design that would ship easily, but be useful down there," Schaefer explained. "The challenge was not only having a lamp that provided six hours of light, but one that charges in six hours. All of the commercially available solar lamps - which cost $35 and more - take nine or more hours to charge."

Albin plans to include a number of the lamps as part of a shipment of goods sent by his church, Holy Spirit in Norfolk, to a series of schools in Haiti. If the lamp is well received and the students continue to improve the design, Albin believes it could be something that gets distributed widely to countries with ample sunlight, but not enough safe, reliable sources of power.

This article was posted on: December 11, 2009

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