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research team with locals in Tanzania

USF Research Team in Africa to Develop Renewable Portable Energy for Rural Villages

people sitting around table in a hut

Over 70% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa does not have access to electricity. A group of researchers at the University of South Florida (USF) have been pursuing a new concept to develop a portable energy source for some of the tribes living in rural Africa.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, and under the direction of Sarath Witanachchi, a professor of physics at USF, eight university students, and two professors traveled to Tanzania to conduct the project in the summer of 2022. In addition to conducting scientific research, another important component of the project was to understand the impact the technology will have on the tribal society. The social science element of the project was conducted by Professor Frank Biafora from the USF St. Peterburg campus under a grant from the USF Office of Research and Innovation. The group consisted of both graduate and undergraduate students representing physics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, health science, and sociology.  The project was conducted in collaboration with students and faculty at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania.

Research team standing in front of NM-AIST building

The focus of the project was to combine the energy harvested from solar panels and the waste heat captured during food preparation to charge batteries. Students began their research during the Spring 2022 semester in Professor Witanachchi’s lab, where they developed skills in solar energy harvesting and thermoelectric devices to convert heat into electricity. Modules developed at USF were taken to Tanzania to test in rural villages. With the hybrid modules the group built and tested, the team was able to demonstrate that sufficient energy from solar and waste heat can be generated to charge a 12V battery that can then be used to power LED lights and charge cell phones.

While studying the energy need of rural Africa, the research team became aware of the high mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa due to bone diseases stemming from excess fluorides in groundwater.

“Access to clean water is a difficulty most people living in rural Africa face, especially in northern Tanzania, where the fluoride levels in well and spring water are dangerously high,  causing fast decay of tooth and skeletal fluorosis, leading to brittle-bone syndrome,” explained Witanachchi.

While the World Health Organizations (WHO) recommendation is less than 1.5 mg/L, fluoride levels of over 1000 mg/L have been measured in Northern Tanzania.

“Our NM-AIST collaborator has developed a gravity-fed filtration system that helps to filter out some percentage of fluoride. However, to bring the level down to healthy levels, multiple filtration cycles will have to be performed, and that requires power,” continued Witanachichi.

“If sufficient energy can be supplied to these villages, the single-stage filtration system that Professor Hilonga at NM-AIST has developed can be transitioned into a multi-stage cycling system to further reduce fluoride levels. Successfully establishing this multi-stage system will have a significant impact on the lives of the people in these villages.”

research team working in the field

A new group of students from USF will travel to Tanzania next year to develop prototypes of power generators. The focus will be to generate sufficient power to support a multi-stage water filtration system to remove fluoride in drinking water to healthy levels.

In addition to scientific achievements, the cultural experience gained by the students through interactions with African communities, and the knowledge gained on the way of life in each tribe, their societal rules and norms, and the struggles they face in day-to-day life, have transformed each of them to global citizens. 

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CAS Chronicles is the monthly newsletter for the University of South Florida's College of Arts and Sciences, your source for the latest news, research, and events at CAS.