Students design turbine for use in African town

Using only local supplies like aluminum, bricks, fuel, sand and wood, Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering plans to build a hydropower turbine in the Rwandan town of Musange this summer.

The group’s hydropower team has been building water turbines systems of small aluminum buckets that are forced into motion by a stream of water to generate power in Rwanda since 2008. Since the start of the project, the group has traveled to the country three times.

The current turbine is more advanced than the original, which was built on-site in 2008. The updated version features lighter two-compartment buckets that can increase the amount of energy generated by the system. The design of the turbine’s fuel and furnace systems are optimized so that they can be made on-site with local materials.

During the team’s previous trip to Rwanda last year, the members chose to import a pre-built turbine instead of building one on-site because they wanted to focus on other aspects of the project during the trip.

“Before, we professionally had this done, and we weren’t part of the process much,” project leader Wouter Zwart ’14 said. “Now, we’ve made it more hands-on, where we can go to Rwanda or anywhere in the world, and we can build this. We don’t have to have a professional, Western, expensive model. We can do it local, which is pretty cool.”

This year marks DHE’s first concerted effort to make the turbine work as effectively and efficiently as possible before arriving in Rwanda, Zwart said. The project aims to maximize the quality of the turbine with the limited tools available at the build site.

In order to achieve this goal, the group has begun to using sand casting to create the buckets for the turbine. Sand casting is a technique used to mold the molten metal of the buckets into the necessary shape by using a sand mold.

The goal behind sand casting is to build the turbine entirely in-country and be able to do it anywhere in Rwanda or in any developing country, because that’s the way you can have a real impact,” DHE president Alison Polton-Simon ’14 said. “It really cuts the cost of the system.”

Polton-Simon is a former member of The Dartmouth Staff.

One of the objectives this year is to make the project more sustainable by creating a method that can be used in the future by other organizations, according to assistant project manager Kevin Francfort ’15. DHE aims to prove that entrepreneurs can create successful businesses providing electricity to small towns in need of power using an inexpensive, locally-fueled method.

Francfort is a member of The Dartmouth Staff.

Polton-Simon said that DHE hopes to determine if their design is inexpensive enough to be effectively incorporated into a successful business model.

“All of our sites can run as independent businesses once they’ve been installed, but now we’re going back from that,” Polton-Simon said. “The step before is to see if there’s a business that can go around installing these hydrosites and generate a profit doing that.”

This year, the group has increased the emphasis on hands-on work. The hydropower engineering team does at least one project each week where they work with the materials melting down aluminum or casting a bucket, Polton-Simon said.

The focus on engaging in active work has attracted more freshmen to the hydropower project this year.

“What has really kept me so involved and loving [hydropower engineering] is that there’s so much hands-on work involved and we’re seeing progress,” team member Shinri Kamei ’16 said.

Team member Cecilia Robinson ’16 said she enjoys the opportunity to participate in a sustainable project that can develop over time.

“We’re actually going to be able to use what we learn and help people with it, and not just go implement something and then walk off and never see it again,” she said.

Team member Will Hickman ’16 said that the project is meaningful because it can help change underprivileged communities.

“I’m actually having a measurable impact on someone else’s life this way,” he said.

In the future, DHE may plan service trips to South America because of the decreasing need for hydropower turbines in Rwanda. South America is also more accessible to students and may attract Spanish-speaking students, Polton-Simon said.

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