GLASSBORO, N.J. — Professors in the College of Engineering at Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J., are used to impacting their students’ education. Now they are trying, along with those same students, to impact the world. They are doing that through a program started by Beena Sukumaran, Ph.D., chair of Civil & Environmental Engineering, called Engineering Innovators without Borders (EIWB) — a take on the internationally known Engineers Without Borders.
Sukumaran and a handful of other engineering professors are working with students to conceive, create, and test products that may make life easier and safer in places like India and Africa. Once they do, they plan to give the rights to those products away so that those in developing countries — whether individuals, villages, or non-governmental organizations — can build their version of the Rowan design and better gather food, work the land, and/or earn an income.
“The main mission of EIWB is to redesign and develop devices that have market potential and will improve the quality of life in developing countries, while providing entrepreneurial opportunities,” Sukumaran said. “In addition, these devices have to be economically and socially sustainable and produced using locally available materials.”
She added: “This has been done utilizing multidisciplinary engineering student teams and has been successfully implemented through … junior and senior engineering clinics at Rowan University. The students gain a valuable perspective on designing engineering products for developing countries, including cultural and economic considerations, sustainability, and material and resource availability.”
Sukumaran informally started Engineering Innovators in 2009, but her work on related efforts dates back a few years earlier. She and several teams of students worked for a couple of years to craft pedal-powered and hand-powered grain crushers that could be used by villagers to help them process food and possibly earn money.
Last year, she and student Kevin McGarvey took two versions of the grain crusher to southern India for feedback from villagers and met with representatives of the India-based Dhan Foundation, which tries to find local partners to help develop innovative projects for the poor. Based on that trip, the Rowan group decided to scale the crushers up so they can process larger quantities of food and reconfigure the devices so they can handle a two-stage process: de-husking and grinding grains.
Rohrer College of Business associate professor Michael Banutu-Gomez, Ph.D., also brought the team’s grain crusher to his homeland in Africa, The Gambia, to be tested by locals and evaluated by Peace Corps volunteers and a technical school in fall 2009. After more refining, the team will send the grain crusher back to The Gambia. Eventually, Sukumaran hopes individuals in the developing countries will be able to replicate the machine.
Additionally, Sukumaran and another team of students have designed a new type of tree-climber, a device that coconut harvesters can use to more safely scale heights to obtain food. The tree climber is constructed entirely of steel, the easiest metal to obtain in developing countries, she said. Students designed the device, analyzed it, and even tested it outside on thin trees behind the College of Engineering building. They plan to take it on a future Engineers Without Borders trip to further test it. The College of Engineering provided funding for both of Sukumaran’s projects.
Meanwhile, colleagues Jess Everett, Ph.D., and Hong Zhang, Ph.D., have developed a clinic project that focuses on compressing peanut shells into briquettes that can be used for cooking fuel, which they also plan to test in The Gambia. In 2009, a group of sophomores, enrolled in an engineering clinic class focused on communication skills, wrote the proposal to design the briquettes. A semester later, a junior engineering student worked some more on the proposal with Everett. They submitted it to the People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) program operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which funded the project with a $10,000 grant.
The team is hoping to use the compressed peanut shells as a cheap and environmentally friendly alternative to wood fuel, used for cooking in many parts of the world. They are developing means to use a human-powered press to compact the organic materials. In addition to producing less-expensive fuel, the project also will provide a supplemental income to villages that produce more than they consume, reduce the rate of deforestation, and provide the villagers with more free time to earn money or attend school.
Everett and Jennifer Kadlowec, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering, are working with students to develop an improved rope-operated water pump, which they plan to test in The Gambia and South America. Dating back about 2,000 years, rope pumps are simple devices that operate through mechanical means. Washers are attached to a rope at intervals and pulled through a pipe, acting as pistons to draw water upwards. While the rope pumps were upgraded in the 1970s, they still are imperfect.
“We’re looking at three things,” Everett said. “Can they be made more inexpensively? Can they be made so they are easier for local people to repair? And can we make them so they can get water from deeper depths?”
The Rowan Venture Capital Fund has contributed $2,500 to the project, which Everett said has the potential to have a big impact.
“Water is a huge issue. There are still more than a billion people who have difficulty getting water,” he said. “If we develop a better rope pump, it’s going to get used. It’s exciting to think it could make a difference throughout the world.”
Engineering Innovators helps Rowan students build their own skills while they are assisting people half a world away. Teams keep designs simple and ensure they are composed of materials that can be readily found in developing countries and are relatively simple to maintain and/or repair. The devices are not moneymakers, at least not for the engineers creating them.
“We’re willing to give villagers and non-profit groups the designs, and they will generate business opportunities for themselves,” said Sukumaran, who hopes to help other colleges and universities start their own Engineering Innovators Without Borders chapters.