Eight undergraduate seniors and juniors from the University of South Florida (USF) have been selected for a challenging and rewarding research program funded by the National Science Foundation. The objective of the project is to develop a renewable energy source based on a novel scientific concept, with the goal of making basic commodities accessible to rural and tribal villages in Africa.
The group members, which represent areas from the STEM disciplines of physics, chemical engineering, civil engineering, biomedical engineering and social studies, initiated their research in January of 2019 in the lab of Sarath Witanachchi's, a professor of physics at USF, and the Principal Investigator (PI) of the project. In the lab environment, group members acquired hands on experience in what is required to bring basic scientific principles to applications through experimental design, data acquisition, and troubleshooting.
In June, after five months of research, the students and the PI traveled to Botswana to continue work on the project. The devices and instruments necessary for field testing, were constructed in the lab and transported to Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST).
The eight students from the United States were paired with eight BIUST students to work together on research and engage in multiple social activities. Most of the tribal villages in the African continent are located in rural areas where there is no electricity, access to medical facilities, or easy access to water. Additionally, storage of common medicines such as penicillin and vaccinations require refrigeration and the lack of power limits the availability of these treatments which, in turn, creates a health crisis in these areas.
Furthermore, cell phones are becoming a very useful tool to promote economic growth in Africa, but not all rural communities have access to such commodities. In these communities, women make up half the population, but they are often isolated from the local economies. In one example of this, World Bank has introduced programs, such as digital financial services through cell phone applications to open economic opportunities to empower women, but if these women do not have cell phones, they miss out on the opportunities that are becoming available to them.
Availability of power is another major bottleneck towards achieving these goals. As the focus of this project is to develop an energy harvesting device for people in rural Africa, the group traveled to the tribal village of Majwanaadipitse to test the constructed devices under the conditions on the ground.
These rural and tribal communities prefer to follow traditions and customs that have not evolved for centuries and introduction of technologies that may change their current way of life is not always embraced. Adaptation of the developed technologies can only be advanced if the community leaders of these communities buy into the progress it promises, and progress on this front demands a sound understanding of the social structure. All of these concepts require convincing discussions to promote change.
Included in these critical conversations was a Social Science student who worked with the Office of International Studies at BIUST and the tribal leader of the villages. During this time, the two discussed the technology that is being tested and the possible benefits and impact it intends to have on their society.
Based on the results obtained in the field, it was observed that the new device concept doubled the power generation capability. Villages were also able to charge cell phones from the device – critical to their ability to utilize basic services. The results from the project conducted in Botswana have been accepted for a presentation at the African Materials Research Symposium in Tanzania in December 2019.
In June of 2020, a new group of USF students will conduct the second year of the project in Tanzania, with a prototype of the device ready to use. USF will collaborate with the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Arusha to develop an energy source for the Maasai tribal villages.
This program is supported by the US National Science Foundation and the USF Nexus Initiative.