Solar Energy and Recyclables: A Winning Combination

Students compete to solve India’s electricity concerns

7 August 2013

On any given day, every day, nearly 400 million homes in India are without electricity. It has become a way of life, but not one that’s acceptable to the country’s engineering students. Realizing that solar energy could be the answer, many IEEE student members are competing to solve the problem.

Through the Solarillion Initiative, whose mission is to educate 10 million students in India about solar energy, along with support from IEEE SIGHT Madras Section and local universities, organizers from the initiative recently held a competition to help students learn more about the field. The first contest, held in April, was to design a solar lamp. More than 700 students applied to be part of the competition, but fewer than a third were qualified based on criteria such as their year in college. The selected students formed 60 teams, each comprising up to three undergraduate students, from 20 institutions throughout the state of Tamil Nadu. Due to the overwhelming response, the organizers plan to repeat the competition again in Tamil Nadu, and they have plans for a national competition to be held in Chennai, the state’s capital, in October.

Organizers have two long-term goals for the competition: to implement low-cost solar-energy projects for generating electricity throughout India, and to provide opportunities for undergraduates to pursue research and careers in solar engineering.

PREPARATION IS KEY

To prepare for the competition, students first attended a workshop where they learned how to build a solar lamp. Unlike incandescent light bulbs, solar lamps absorb light from the sun through photovoltaic panels, which convert the energy into an electric current that charges a rechargeable battery. The battery is then able to light up the LED bulb built into the lamp. A solar lamp of this size can create light for typically 4 to 8 hours a day after it is charged.

The students were supplied with solar panels during the workshop but had to supply their own panels and materials for the competition. Several students incorporated an automatic turn-on-and-off feature in their lamps based on the level of ambient light. One team made its lamp using an old telephone.

“Instead of spending time developing a curriculum in solar engineering for the classroom, we decided to go with a quick, hands-on approach,” says IEEE Member Vineeth Vijayaraghavan, director of the Solarillion Foundation, a nonprofit focused on sustainable energy and engineering, which runs the initiative. “We’re putting what they learned in the workshop to the real test. Competitions are what is going to test you.” Without having participated in hands-on projects in solar energy, students in India have a hard time getting hired by companies focused on developing solar energy, he says.

GAME DAY

The competition encouraged students to design their lamps with recycled materials, such as plastics, coconut shells, and wood. Cost was considered a design trade-off, meaning that students earned bonus points for using cheaper materials.

“The competition was not about who was the most ‘science-y’ or who could build the most expensive lamp,” Vijayaraghavan says. “The design philosophy was sustainable engineering, and projects were evaluated on the choices students made about product efficiency.” This included incorporating cheap and recyclable materials. For the students, this was a harder assignment than anticipated.

Only 17 of the 60 teams were able to make their lamp work. Nearly every team could figure out how to build the solar circuits, according to Vijayaraghavan, but designing a working lamp with resourceful materials was by far the bigger challenge.

First place prize went to just one person, Navid Shiraj, a junior engineering student from B. S. Abdur Rahaman University, in Chennai, who worked alone. His project won because of its design, the built-in protection of the solar panels in rainy weather, its portability, and its materials all made of recyclables. The lamp also had an adjustable setting where the user could set the brightness of the lamp with a peak output of 240 lumens (comparable to 4 watts). The winning lamp could be designed for US $5.

Shiraj received US $50 and a certificate of recognition presented by M.S. Swaminathan, a geneticist known as the “Father of India’s Green Revolution” for his accomplishments in agriculture.

“The competition gave me much more confidence to take my ideas further and to believe in myself,” Shiraj says.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Vijayaraghavan would like students to continue working on their solar design projects and research after the competition, and get involved in projects such as efficient microgrid design and solar implementations for rural India.

“Solar, if done correctly in India, could be like the telecom revolution,” he says.

According to Vijayaraghavan, the students are excited to be involved in the early stages of what’s expected to become a leading industry. He would like to see leaders in government, industry, and academia work together to provide more opportunities for students to land careers in solar engineering.

“We call these ‘green-collar jobs’ in India,” Vijayaraghavan says.

He believes the solar industry might find itself in a situation where it does not have enough engineers, a problem he hopes these competitions will help solve.

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