NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center




Sun powers New Mexico State University engineering projects

Working with two solar energy groups, New Mexico State University's Southwest Technology Development Institute has been able to help underprivileged people all over the world.



New Mexico State University Engineering Technology major Greg Sedillos makes a maintenance check of one of several solar water distillers on the roof of Engineering Complex III on the university campus. The university's Southwest Technology Development In

995, institute personnel have worked with an El Paso, Texas, solar energy group to develop simple, low-cost solar-powered water purifiers, 165 of which have been distributed to colonias in Juarez, Mexico, El Paso County, Texas, and southwestern New Mexico. More recently, the institute has begun working with the SunStove Organization, an international group distributing solar ovens around the world.


Robert Foster, the international programs manager for the institute, said his involvement with the effort began in 1992 when, in Chile, he saw solar-powered water distillers built there from the 1870s to the present. Originally designed to provide clean water for mine workers, the distillers consist of a wooden box with a waterproof liner topped with a piece of glass set at a slight angle. When the boxes are filled with water and set in the sun, clean water condenses on the glass, then runs into a trough on one side of the box and out to a waiting bucket.

"The climate in the Chilean desert is very similar to our own, if not drier, and I thought, 'A lot of people on the U.S.-Mexico border are without access to potable water. Here's a cheap, decentralized way to purify water.' So, I wrote a proposal through the El Paso Solar Energy Association for a state of Texas grant to build 40 stills and distribute them to colonias in El Paso County," Foster said.

Since then, the Southwest Technology Development Institute has participated in three similar grants, from the U.S. Economic Development Administration in 1997-98, from Border Partners in Action in 1999 and from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2000. SWTDI has focused on testing and analysis of the devices' efficiency, while EPSEA has built and distributed stills to colonias along the border, he said.

In 1997 Foster met Richard Wareham, a Milwaukee retiree who, through his non-profit group, the SunStove Organization, distributes solar-powered ovens to poor people worldwide who don't have access to environmentally sound ways to cook. Wareham is also interested in developing a low-cost, more efficient solar distiller for future distribution. To accomplish his philanthropic goals, Wareham has become an amateur inventor, and NMSU has become his testing ground, he said.

Each time he thinks of a design for a cheaper, more efficient solar distiller or oven, he sends SWTDI a drawing. Engineering students working for the institute or in NMSU's engineering technology department build the prototype, then test it to see if it is more efficient than existing models, Wareham said.

Engineering technology major Greg Sedillos said developing temperature curves and rough performance evaluations for Wareham's prototypes has given him a chance to use some of the things he's learned in class.

"We've studied heat transfer in class, which directly applies to this. Also, we took apart a prototype of Richard's design and updated its building process. We put in 'jigs' to make it easier to manufacture," he said.

In February, Wareham paid for Engineering Technology major Bryan Whipple to attend an international solar energy conference in the United Arab Emirates, so Whipple could demonstrate to students from all over the Arab world how to build the simple, box-like solar cookers. The trip was an invaluable experience, Whipple said.

"Besides being able to go to a foreign country and meet new people, I think solar energy is interesting in and of itself. From working here you could go on to the study of photovoltaics, which is the energy source of the future," he said.

Rudi Schoenmackers, director of the Southwest Technology Development Institute, said solar energy is only one of several technologies the institute gives students the chance to learn about. The institute also works with wind, geothermal and biomass energy systems, as well as on other environmental and transportation issues, he said.

"One student had an opportunity to attend an international conference. Others may have similar opportunities in the future. The travel presented a unique learning experience and, we hope, the project will contribute to the quality of life in many parts of the world," he added.

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/solarstuf.jpg.
For a print, call (505) 646-3221.