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MIT student project wins coveted EPA award

A solar power generator in Lesotho, Africa, designed by MIT students that recently won a coveted EPA grant.
A solar power generator in Lesotho, Africa, designed by MIT students that recently won a coveted EPA grant.
Photo / STG International

MIT students working to bring affordable, eco-friendly energy to off-the-grid areas of the world have received one of six Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants for programs that protect the environment and are economically sustainable.

Doctoral students Amy Mueller and Matt Orosz, both members of the research group of Harold Hemond, the William E. Leonhard (1940) Professor of Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, initiated the project. They have been working for several years in Lesotho with the goal of replacing polluting diesel generators -- which are commonplace in the mountainous south African country -- with a more affordable and environmentally friendly alternative.

Their solar power generator, based on technology that uses a parabolic trough to concentrate solar power, is similar in concept to multimegawatt plants now being built in the Nevada desert, but are scaled to provide 3 to 5 kilowatts of power as well as hot water for individual institutions such as rural health clinics. The EPA award, from the agency's People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) program, includes a $75,000 grant that will go toward helping the students install a next-generation prototype solar collector at a clinic this fall or early next spring.

"The best way to help these communities is by helping the institutions that are there to serve them," said Mueller. As the grant requires the project to be economically viable as well, Mueller and Orosz have worked to engineer the solar plant so it can be built using locally available parts and labor.

The ultimate goal, Mueller notes, is to teach local residents how to build the solar power plants on their own, thus providing a business opportunity that will create a stronger electricity infrastructure in developing countries.

The P3 award competition encourages college students to apply technology in innovative ways to tackle global environmental challenges. For more information on award winners, visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 13, 2009 (download PDF).

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