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The Green Life: Solar-Powered Hope: A Neonatal Incubator Run by the Sun

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July 01, 2011

Solar-Powered Hope: A Neonatal Incubator Run by the Sun

Incubator While other students at Santa Clara University were making solar-powered amplifiers for their guitars, bioengineering senior Simi Olabisi embarked on a more serious and personal project: a solar-powered neonatal incubator. Olabisi was born in Nigeria more than two months premature. To save her life, her father rushed to what was, at that time, the nation's only children's hospital. “In my college career,” she said, “I started doing bioengineering. Senior project time came and I thought, what can I do? Well, the reason that we’re in this field is to make a difference in the world. So I just put two and two together.”

She joined with six fellow engineers to form Team Omoverhi (the name means “lucky child” in Urhobo). Their goal: design a low-cost incubator, follwing industry standards, that would use an alternative energy source and thus be accessible to rural clinics in Nigeria.

According to Olabisi, Nigerian hospitals may have a collection of donated incubators, but no way to power them. A backup generator is often prohibitively expensive, and simply attaching solar panels to the roof isn't a solution: "You'd have to rip apart the incubator's entire electrical system." Realizing that incubators would have to be specially designed to be solar-powered, that's what they did.  

From September to May, the group built, tested, and retested their incubator, taking into account everything from the material touching the infant’s skin to temperature-recovery time. They read the FDA manual cover to cover, visited Stanford Hospital to interview doctors and technicians, and studied a $30,000 incubator donated by San Francisco General Hospital.

Team Omoverhi also worked with rural health clinics in Nigeria where the incubator could someday be used. “The government clinics are more advanced and well-funded, so we stayed away from those,” Olabisi said, “We got in touch with local clinics instead and asked them ‘How tall is your building? Is it in the shade? Do you have oxygen? Do you have purified water for the humidity trays?’ We were able to work off of information from them and they all seemed very interested.”

The end result was a $2,000 neonatal incubator, which, though much less expensive, stood up well next to existing models. In some areas, they even outperformed the standard. “When we did the door-open test, theirs dropped 4 degrees, and ours only dropped 2 degrees,” Olabisi said. To an infant, those little changes make a big difference.

Clearly, human health was the team’s main focus, but environmentalism followed in step. Their model included photovoltaic panels that, ideally, would be hooked to a solar thermal collector so that “when it’s dark or raining, the incubator can use energy that the thermal collector has saved.” Olabisi wanted to use readily available materials that wouldn’t suck up fossil fuels in transport: "Instead of buying a fan, we used one from an old computer. Instead of having it built here and shipped to Nigeria, we would want it to be able to be built in Nigeria or any other developing country."

The solar-powered incubator is still an evolving prototype. Next year’s senior class will take a crack at improving the electrical system and decreasing the cost, while one of the former team members will work with HighFlexSolar to develop an even less expensive model. Olabisi and the team hope that soon enough, models will be on the ground, saving lives with sun power.

--Christa Morris

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