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GVSU engineering project can save lives in Africa

Grad students designed and built an emergency solar power system.

February 8, 2013
| By Pete Daly |
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GVSU engineering project can save lives in Africa
Ryan Gorby, a hardware architect for the project, and associate engineering professor Heidi Jiao show off the emergency solar power system designed and built by GVSU students. Photo by Michael Buck

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) There’s no substitute for experience, and three graduate students in Grand Valley State University’s School of Engineering have just had the priceless experience of designing and building a photovoltaic emergency power system for a medical clinic in Malawi in southeastern Africa.

That project snowballed, with other students from the GVSU business and computer science programs joining forces to write a mobile device app that will help train midwives in Malawi.

The photovoltaic emergency power system was designed and built by Ryan Gorby, Matt Alberda and Derek Dougherty as a class project under the direction of Heidi Jiao, an associate professor in the School of Engineering, in her 600-level graduate engineering course Optoelectronic Devices and Photovoltaic Systems.

The portable system includes two emergency lights, one surgery suction device and two electrical outlets for charging tablets and phones. It is designed to kick on when power is lost at the clinic and has a battery backup able to provide power for two days.

Last summer, Jiao had begun planning a project for her fall class when she learned that Star Swift, an associate professor of management in the Seidman College of Business at GVSU, was looking for someone in the School of Engineering who might be able to help on a solar energy-related project. Swift’s cousin, Martha Sommers, is a primary care physician who has been working in Malawi for about 15 years. She is currently back in the U.S. for several months, living with her sister in Chicago.

“Martha has 120,000 patients and she is the only physician,” said Swift.

Jiao said she and her grad students learned from Sommers that the electrical grid in Malawi is not reliable. Frequent power outages can last for hours, and some days there is no power at all. American hospitals, of course, have emergency back-up power systems, but that is not the case at the rural clinic in Malawi where Sommers works.

A power outage during surgery can prove fatal to the patient. Jiao said she learned there are times when “they lose patients on the table.”

The original specifications proposed by Sommers called for a larger emergency power source with more features, but Jiao said the power issue, lights and a few critical medical devices were deemed to be the essential elements. “Plus, Martha said she would like the unit to be portable,” enough so that it could be easily transported by air into rural areas in Malawi.

The suction device to be included in the design was critical because the clinic often deals with newborn babies, in which removal of mucus from the airway is frequently a life or death matter.

The specifications were narrowed down and turned over to Jiao’s students in mid-September. Then the actual course work began, with Jiao and the students covering the basics of a photovoltaic system and the foundation of the course.

Halfway through the fall term, said Jiao, “The students had all the knowledge they needed to design the system to the specifications provided to them.” The students contained to stay in close touch with Sommers as they worked on the design.

Photovoltaic parts can be found and ordered on the Internet, said Jiao, so that’s what the students did.

Jiao said the students designed, built and tested a prototype in about two months. The finished system, not including the solar panels, weighs 85 pounds. However, it can be disassembled, and the battery — the heaviest component — can be packaged separately for easier handling during transport.

Jiao said discussions are underway to have a volunteer California youth group deliver the power system to the clinic in Malawi when the group goes to Africa this year.

“This project would not be a success without Star (Swift),” said Jiao. She is the faculty advisor to Team Web GVSU, business and computer science students who work on a couple of free websites hosted by GVSU, which offer businesses information on arbitrations and electronic human resources (, and

In the fall, Swift and the web team were discussing her cousin in Malawi and a book written by Sommers’ sister, a medical text for individuals who want to learn to be midwives. Swift mentioned to the students that she had been talking to web experts from Steelcase who had suggested the information should be a mobile app if it was to be available in a Third World country like Malawi.

“A lot of people in Malawi have cell phones,” said Swift. “They don’t have computers and they don’t have fresh water, but they have cell phones.”

One of the students on the web team, Olvi Tole, mentioned that he knew how to write an app. That started the ball rolling, and over the three-week holiday break, the students created it. Now the plan is to have the app pre-loaded on cell phones that will be distributed in Malawi.

Google helped, too: The app will be available on Google, for free.

Even the pre-med program at GVSU helped. One of its students, Holly Malinowski, joined the app team to help with the medical terms it must contain.

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