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SpotlightsExtra   | Winter 2012

Engineering and ingenuity help
light up a village

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Purdue University engineering students are designing and building a hydropower system that will bring electricity to a remote African village. Last summer, a Purdue delegation made a second trip to the village of Bangang, Cameroon, to conduct research. Members of the team learned firsthand that the rugged terrain is just one of the problems to be overcome.
Photo courtesy: Patrick Ransdell

A small cadre of Purdue University engineering students are spending spring semester building a hydropower system in a campus workshop. After they've assembled and tested the system, they'll turn around and dismantle it.

Then, in May, Klein Ileleji, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and a select group of agricultural, mechanical and civil engineering students will travel 6,000 miles to a remote village in Cameroon, Africa, where the hydrosystem will be reassembled.

The student-designed, student-built system will use waterpower from a nearby waterfall to generate electricity for drinking water systems, homes, health care facilities and other vital services to villagers in Bangang. The hydropower project is sorely needed in the rural community, where residents have no access to basic services and travel long distances for water. Without refrigeration, food goes to waste after harvest. And kerosene lamps are the only available lighting systems.

The project began two years ago when Ileleji, who researches affordable renewable fuels, submitted a proposal to the Environmental Protection Agency's People, Prosperity and the Planet—or P3—program. P3 challenges collegiate teams to design and build sustainable technologies that improve quality of life, promote economic development and protect the environment. One of only a handful of winning teams in the nationwide competition, the Purdue project was awarded $85,000 over two phases of funding.

The past two summers John Lumkes, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering who co-advises the project with Ileleji, and a small group of students went to Bangang to pave the way for the final stage—installation.

Students Patrick Ransdell (civil engineering) and Keith Miller (mechanical engineering) accompanied Lumkes to Bangang in 2011. Among their tasks was to calculate flow rates and analyze environmental impact at two different waterfalls to determine the best site. "The water flow is high or low depending on the season," Ransdell said. "We had to come up with a design that compensated for seasonal changes to keep the turbine's performance steady."

Miller said the experience was day-to-day learning. "We had to find out what tools were available, where to buy parts, how to get materials into a location accessible only by foot, determine skill levels of workers and meet with villagers to determine what they would use electricity for."

Students are also creating a video manual to be used for construction and repairs.

Ileleji said the goal of the project is to build a power plant that the village can sustain with local resources and abilities. "We don't want to create a dependency where they call Purdue every time something breaks," he said. "It's not sustainable if we keep fixing it for them. By maintaining it, they will learn and improve their skills."

By Olivia Maddox,




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