When people think of solar power they tend to look at solar heating or solar electricity which makes a lot of sense. Now some researchers at Rice University have found a way to harness the power of the sun for sterilizing medical equipment in the developing world.
The Capteur Soleil, a device designed decades ago by French inventor Jean Boubour, was modified at Rice two years ago for use as a solar-powered cookstove for places where electricity — or fuel of any kind — is hard to get.
This year, Team Sterilize modified it further. When a set of curved mirrors and an insulated box containing the autoclave are installed, the steel A-frame sitting outside Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen becomes something else entirely — a lifesaver
The system produces steam by focusing sunlight along a steel tube at the frame’s apex. Rather than pump steam directly into the autoclave, the Rice team’s big idea was to use the steam to heat a custom-designed conductive hotplate.
Photosynthesis is how plants convert energy from the ball of fire in the sky into useful plant-growing energy. The USA’s Department of Energy is actually looking into how photosynthesis can be used to power our homes and even turn homes into miniature power stations using the power of nature.
According to Nocera, his new system can work at ambient temperatures and pressures, without corrosion in a simple glass of water, even polluted water. “If you need pure water for energy storage, they’ll drink it,” Nocera said. “Use puddle water instead.” In fact, Nocera has been running his prototype on untreated water from the Charles River in Boston. And it’s cheap, not $12,000 per kilowatt like commercial electrolyzers that do the same thing. “That’s not going to help the energy situation for the U.S. or poor people of the world.”
Using the electricity generated by a photovoltaic array five meters by six meters, Nocera claims he can split enough water in less than four hours “to store enough energy for the average American home” for a day, a little more than 30 kilowatt-hours. “We need to stop making big energy systems one a time to service lots of people. We need to do it the old American way of making one small one and then manufacturing that system to give it to the masses.”
There’s a new plan being hatched in North Africa that will see solar panels placed all along the region. The energy produced by the solar farms would then be transfered to Europe using undersea power cables.
Billions of watts of power could be generated this way, enough to provide Europe with a sixth of its electricity needs and to allow it to make significant cuts in its carbon emissions. At the same time, the stations would be used as desalination plants to provide desert countries with desperately needed supplies of fresh water.
Last week Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan presented details of the scheme – named Desertec – to the European Parliament. ‘Countries with deserts, countries with high energy demand, and countries with technology competence must co-operate,’ he told MEPs.
The project has been developed by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation and is supported by engineers and politicians in Europe as well as Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Jordan and other nations in the Middle East and Africa.