African battery rental scheme brings $10 000 award to Imperial students

A UK student engineering project providing an electricity system to rural Rwandan communities has received the grand prize in a competition to reward students who develop, design or implement technology to solve a real world problem.

The e.quinox project, run by students at Imperial College London and already operating in a Rwandan village, focuses on making power accessible to rural communities in the developing world through a system where renewable energy, such as solar power, is used to charge portable batteries in a central kiosk. 

These batteries can then be hired out to local householders in areas without mains electricity, to provide power for a range of uses such as lighting, radios and keeping medicines refrigerated. Fees from hiring the batteries are channelled back into maintaining the kiosk and provide a salary to local people employed on the project.

Winning the top prize in the IEEE Presidents' Change the World Competition, members of e.quinox collected their US $10,000 award and the title of 'IEEE Student Humanitarian Supreme' in a ceremony held in Montreal last month. The Ceres Connection at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory will also name a minor planet in honour of the project's achievements. The US-based IEEE exists to “foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity”.

Make a difference

Founding member of e.quinox Mohammad Mansoor Hamayun and the project's new Chair Christopher Hopper accepted the award on behalf of the team.

Mohammad said: "I'm so delighted that e.quinox has been recognised in this way. We set out to take on a project where we could apply our engineering knowledge from college in a way that really makes a difference to people. The past 18 months or so have been unforgettable and the plan is to expand the project even further, so it's fantastic to have this prize money to help with this."

Since its formation in 2008 by students in the college's Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, e.quinox has successfully established an energy kiosk in a village of 60 households in the Minazi Sector of Northern Rwanda, with logistical support from development agency the Belgian Technical Cooperation (BTC), and the Rwandan Ministry of Infrastructure.

Real life problems

Meeting with e.quinox members during a recent UK visit, Rwanda's Minister of Education, Dr Charles Murigande, said: "e.quinox is a very important and useful experiment for us in Rwanda, because it addresses a very real problem in our country. Thanks to these Imperial engineers there is the potential for people in our villages to have power and therefore the resources and connectivity that are so important in opening up opportunities for development. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate this group of students on a job well done."

The new student committee leading e.quinox will be visiting the country in September to progress the project further. As well as upgrading the existing kiosk, the e.quinox team intends to establish new ones in other parts of Rwanda. These will operate on different business models and technical approaches, including using hydropower, to uncover the most effective system for future kiosks.

Supporters of e.quinox include the college's Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, JP Morgan and the Rwandan Government.

In last year's IEEE 'Change the world' competition, e.quinox was also recognised, winning US $1000 and the title of 'IEEE Outstanding Student Humanitarian'.

Runners up in this year's competition include a pollution testing system developed by students at California Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California, U.S, and a hydro-powered generator system developed by students at Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia.

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