University of Rochester

Energy for the Developing World

October 7, 2010

Developing alternative energy technologies that can make the United States and other industrialized nations more energy efficient and less reliant on a limited supply of fossil fuels has become a major focus of the high-tech industry. But for the developing world, simply having access to any energy at all is a major challenge.

Each year, engineering students at the Hajim School travel to Africa and elsewhere around the globe looking for ways to bring energy to regions that don't have reliable power. Most of the projects are administered by AHEAD Energy, a nonprofit organization started by chemical engineering lecturer Ben Ebenhack and his wife Mary Jeanette.

One of AHEAD's first successes came in Mozambique where there was a gas field 60 miles from a town in which energy was scarce. The methane gas had never been exploited because the obvious options for harvesting the gas were not feasible. First, the route between the gas field and the town was a known ambush route, patrolled by armed militants, so it would have been dangerous to bottle the gas and truck it to the town. Laying a conventional steel pipeline would have cost $60 million, which didn't make sense given the amount of gas that could be garnered. A graduate student Mike Mellish did a cost benefit analysis, though, and figured out that a polyethylene pipe could be constructed for $1 million and it would serve the purpose satisfactorily.

Energy is the most overlooked need that separates Africa from development, accord¬ing to Ben Ebenhack. Lack of modern energy can be blamed for many of the most dire problems in the region, he says. For instance, hospitals can't provide adequate health care when they can't refrigerate medicines, or their power goes out during a surgery. And 2 million people each year die from complications caused by cooking over burning wood.

Last winter, chemical engineering senior Suze Ninh and Kauffman Entrepreneurial Year (KEY) student Samantha Ruiz traveled to Taiwan to learn about a submerged river turbine—a device that works similar to a wind turbine, but is instead powered by the rushing water of a river. Now the goal is to deploy the technology in Western Uganda in order to generate power to sell to the local grid and fund a rural development center.

Another team of engineering students including David Wituszinski and alumnus Boston Nyer has been working on creating a database of energy technologies and an algorithm that can be used to select the right technology for the right situation. They have accumulated about 160 small-scale energy technologies from solar thermal generators to various types of photovoltaic and wind-power devices. The idea is to have the program take data on a client's needs and resources from a questionnaire and pair the client with one or more technologies that they could imple¬ment. The Hajim School continues to expand its global outreach. Last year, a chapter of Engineers Without Borders was officially started on campus, and a new solar energy graduate program will encourage students to spend time working on projects in Africa.