Kenyan Students Capture Wind to Study at Night

By Ernest Chan

In Elburgon, Kenya, power lines run straight through the village, yet only the wealthy families can afford to connect. No electricity in the village at night means students study by expensive kerosene lamps, and families spend hours every day collecting firewood. In early August, an impromptu team of Kenyans joined forces believing they could generate cheap electricity for their village.

Kenyan Students The team: a handful of university students, teachers, engineers – and yes, even a politician or two. Twenty-one in total came together to design and build a wind turbine from scratch, exclusively using local materials. In less than a week, a windmill stood tall, bustling against the wind to power a 12V battery.

This group was catalyzed by the visit of an undergraduate engineering student from Rice University, Mingming Jiang. She came on behalf of Village Innovators, a non-profit group started by Rice University students. Mingming didn't bring the solution or American made hardware, instead she armed simply with a design process.

Mingming arrived at Elburgon on a hot afternoon to a warm welcome by the village members. Months before, she contacted the local school's administrator, who opened their doors so she could work with local students and young adults to build a wind turbine.

The planning process began in a classroom at the local school. With 21 members seated around cluttered desks, Mingming recommended an approach. She did not show up with expensive equipment or complex blueprints. Instead, she stimulated creativity in village members to get them to design a wind turbine out of locally available materials.

First, she asked the team what they thought the components of a wind turbine were. She drew on a blackboard as they shouted, "Fan blades... generator... electronics... support tower!" They had enough combined knowledge and intuition for a rough design.

They began with the fan blades, splitting into groups of 3-5 people and drawing blade designs. Each group then prototyped their design with cardboard and scissors, and using a small wooden stick as a shaft, tested their prototypes in the fast-blowing wind. After some experimentation, they determined the best fan blade design.

Fan Blades

Everyone reconvened to discuss the construction details of the actual fan blades. Then they determined the materials and cost required for the blades and shaft to connect to the generator. The groups visited local, familiar shops to hunt down materials and prices.

The decision: use a 135-liter plastic bin to cut and shape into blades.

Shape into Blades

They repeated this process with the other turbine components. By the end of the day, the team had discussed, tested, and developed designs for each component.

Turbine Component

Sourcing didn't involve catalogs or websites, but instead required the teams to split up and shop for supplies in nearby stores. Then it was time to build.

The team ran into challenges along the way. For example, when the blades weren't rotating, they determined that the iron bars connecting the blades were too heavy and not angled enough. Removing the bars, they cut down the blade size and increased the blade angle. It worked.

The generator was also temperamental. Mingming suggested a DC motor with relatively low rpm but high voltage. The team ended up using a permanent magnet DC motor (400 rpm, 36 volts, 20 amps) in reverse for the generator. The generator, connected to a charge controller, a 12V deep cycle battery, and power inverter, was simple but effective!

Connect the Fan

After three days and several iterations, the wind turbine was ready for the last step. They connected the fan blades to the electronics in one piece before mounting it on the tower.

Climbing the tower, they raised the turbine upwards towards the sky, shakily attaching the device to the top. The anticipation grew as the seconds ticked by. Immediately the blades began spinning, and the crowd that had gathered for this first test cheered loudly!

There it was: a working wind turbine built with $600 and local materials. For the blades: a plastic bin. For the tower: a tree freshly cut and hauled onsite by tractor. For the electronics: parts form local shops. Plus a modest supply of assorted screws, nails, roller bearings, and metal pipes.

The turbine currently charges a 12V battery used to power 3 computers and a florescent light bulb every night for students in the village. The team is now working on powering more homes by charging a series of batteries.

Patriq, a university student in Kenya who took part in building the turbine said afterwards, "I never thought I personally could contribute to this thing. But, from then on [after the turbine was built] I developed a positive attitude towards almost everything... I now have courage, I have positive attitude, I know I can even achieve more than that." The village members were elated. They were not only grateful for the windmill, but were proud that it was their creation.

Mingming left several days later. Everyone she met came to send her off. She was proud of what she helped the local people accomplish, but was more excited by her approach. She demonstrated that with a little knowledge and resources, local people in impoverished villages could build grassroots technologies on their own. Mingming and the team at Village Innovators dream of replicating the success in Elburgon hundreds of times over.

About Village Innovators:
Village Innovators is a not-for-profit social venture with a mission to spark innovation among youth in Africa. Their vision is to support youth to build technologies like wind turbines, biogas engines, and solar cookers that can serve their communities. They have developed a book of hands-on engineering exercises to scale their ideas. There are forty partner schools in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania ready to adopt their content. Interested in getting involved?

About Ernest Chan: Ernest Chan is an undergraduate electrical engineering major at Rice University. He helped launch Village Innovators this summer with support from Rice University's start-up accelerator. Contact him at: [email protected]

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