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Dartmouth engineering students expand hydropower project in Rwanda

Jul 29, 2011

CONTACT: Catharine Lamm

This summer, members of Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering (DHE) will carry on a three-year effort to bring safe, affordable hydropower to rural Rwanda. The team of eight Dartmouth students will work to optimize and expand a network of small-scale (3kW) hydropower systems, funded in part by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

2008 pilot project

Hand-dug canals for the 2008 pilot project.

Small-scale hydropower, known as "pico-hydro," is an inexpensive and sustainable means of providing electricity to rural villages. Using almost any small stream with a waterfall, a portion of the water flow can be diverted to spin a turbine and generate electricity. The electricity charges batteries used by locals for home lighting, cell phones, and other domestic electronics. The system saves villagers a trip to the nearest generator—a journey that can be as much as 50 miles on foot.

In 2008, members of DHE implemented two pilot pico-hydro projects in the village of Banda, Rwanda. Since then, the hydro team has been working to optimize the system by constructing a model hydro site that mimics the specifications of actual sites in Rwanda. Engineering students were able to test several design modifications and successfully increased the system's efficiency. Also, this year DHE established a partnership with e.quinox, a humanitarian engineering organization based in Imperial College in the United Kingdom. E.quinox has experience working with solar-power battery charging kiosks in Rwanda, and DHE's future hydropower projects will use e.quinox's innovative battery box design.

Testing the battery charger.
A community member helps test the battery charger.

Once in Rwanda, part of the team will revisit Banda to assess the social impact and long-term health of the pilot project and consider installing a new turbine design to increase power output. Other members of the team will work with e.quinox to build relationships with local engineering students, partner organizations, and the Ministry of Infrastructure in Kigali. The team will also conduct extensive surveys of potential pico-hydro sites, including several found by e.quinox members over the past winter.

"We have a really strong and dedicated team with a wide range of members from freshman to grad students," said project leader Theodore Sumers '12. "For some, it will be a tremendous learning experience and an incredible introduction to real-world engineering problems in some of the world's neediest areas, while for others it will be the culmination of five years of study. All of us are working hard and looking forward to a great summer!"

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