Solar Power To Save Lives

Natural disasters like hurricanes Maria and Michael have notably increased in recent years and left behind great devastation. A group of science and math professors and students have teamed up to play their part in helping towns and cities recover using improved solar power technology. This group has helped rebuild schools, provide natural regenerative power sources and more in hard hit places.

TRANSCRIPT

Natural disasters like hurricanes Maria and Michael have notably increased in recent years and left behind great devastation.

A group of science and math professors and students have teamed up to play their part in helping towns and cities recover.

Using improved solar power technology, this group has helped rebuild schools, provide natural regenerative power sources and more in hard-hit places.

Joining us is associate professor of physics at St. John's University in New York, Dr. Charles Fortmann.

Thanks for joining us.

Tell us about the solar power project.

The solar project has two major facets.

One major facet was to address the hardship in Puerto Rico and supply power to a school that had access to cellphones but, at the same time, had no way to recharge the cellphones.

The other facet of this program was engagement.

We wanted to engage our STEM students and our non-science students and introduce them to the science community.

We are creating a science community at St. John's, and this fits into the tradition at St. John's University, which was founded by the Vincentian order, and their mission is to reach out to the poor.

A number of us went to an American Association of College and Universities meeting last November, and we listened to 3 days of talks and presentations about how to engage students and about how engagement of students increases retention, especially amongst at-risk and women students.

So this project helped different departments and different students with different backgrounds put a lot of what they were learning in the classes together, right, in building something that was practical and useful today for people who needed it?

Yes, and we did it together, common goal, common work.

When we built the solar cells, we were Skyping the school in Puerto Rico so they could see what we were doing, and we wanted a back-and-forth to continue with the school in Puerto Rico.

Did it work?

And we demonstrated how to use the solar cells, and we wanted to pull them in to be part of the process, and as things go forward, if the design isn't correct, it doesn't serve our purpose, we want to hear about it, and we want to address it, and we want to address it together with them.

So what do we have here?

This looks like a picture frame.

It's got a solar panel on it?

Yeah.

This is a... If one was to buy something like this fully made, it would be about $30.

It charges a cellphone.

We sourced the solar cells from China directly.

It was an experience for us.

There was a lot of logistical hurdles to jump over.

This solar panel was about $7.

Most cellphones need to have chopped DC 5 volts.

That means there's a break in it, and the electronics to do that can get expensive, and we could have done it ourselves, but we bought this for a dollar.

Right.

And we bought a car converter for cellphones and a cellphone power jack for cars for a dollar a piece.

So the total solar panel that we built was about $12.

So the designs for all of this is out there in the public sphere for anyone to use if they want to?

Yes, that's correct.

And so we had the resources to do it, and we used it as a community activity, and St. John's has another aspect to their education, and that's the academic service learning, where all freshmen are required to do a service during their freshman year and then reflect on it.

This fit into the academic service learning program, which has a purpose to expose the students to doing something constructive.

One of the ideas, and I think this is really important, is that a person graduating from school today can be technically excellent but not a whole person because they left their compassion behind.

Our students are motivated by the need in Puerto Rico, the academic service learning program is to serve where possible, and this fit into that.

So why focus on Puerto Rico?

Because the need was there at the time.

When we went to the AACU meeting and started to form this project, there was a presentation about the need for Puerto Rico's development and reconstruction.

An educator from Puerto Rico made a presentation, 'If there's anything that you guys can think of that could help us, let us know,' and one of my colleagues went up immediately and talked to her.

So what was it like when the chargers actually got into the hands of the people that were going to use them?

Oh, it was amazing because we wanted the students at the school to show us, 'Is it working for you?

How did it work?'

And they were all holding them, and they were all smiling that they got their chargers.

Are you working on more of these?

Right now, we're advancing the project.

We bought a couple large solar panels and a deep-well pump.

We heard from our contacts in Puerto Rico.

There's a need for clean water.

People are getting sick.

This happens when the water wells aren't deep enough.

It rains, and the farm effluent gets into the shallow wells, and the pathogens and so forth are there.

So the next project is to put a deep well in an indigenous community in the mountains of Puerto Rico.

It's got its challenges.

We tried... The first test happened at St. John's about 3 weeks ago where we took two 100-watt solar panels, a deep-well pump, and we wanted to test the efficiency, 'How high can we pump the water?'

So we hauled a hose up the outside of the building to the fourth story, pointed the two panels at the Sun, and we were getting a couple gallons a minute.

Charles Fortmann of St. John's University, thanks so much for joining us.

Oh, thank you, sir.