Creating sustainable solutions from repurposed junk
Image credit: Nottingham Trent University
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure – so say students and researchers at Nottingham Trent University, who continue to develop innovative solutions to real-world problems using recycled components.
As one of the world’s top ten sustainable universities, according to UI Green Metric Rankings, sustainability is consistently at the forefront of minds at Nottingham Trent University.
Across product design and engineering courses, students are encouraged to consider the principles of social, economic and ecological sustainability, something that is often reflected in their major study projects.
For many years academics at Nottingham Trent have invited students to get involved in ongoing research as part of their final-year project. This has led to some innovative sustainable solutions that focus on developing new devices while reducing waste by reusing old components and systems.
“[These projects] show how everyday items widely used around the world, which are often thrown away when no longer used, could be transformed into [helpful] devices,” says Amin Al-Habaibeh, Professor of Intelligent Engineering Systems at the university.
“My students and I have been working in this area for many years to contribute to global sustainability, reduce waste and enhance use of components and systems. For example, in the past we’ve developed an improved novel system for extracting water from air using simple re-purposed fridges with copper pipes, mobile phone chargers and computer fans. The idea was to reuse old fridges with renewable energy to provide drinking water in dry areas with reasonable levels of humidity.”
Other past collaborative projects have included the development of a geothermal heating system using a fridge as a heat pump, a vacuum cleaner accessory made with plastic bottles to safely remove insects and a community hydroponic farming solution using recycled wood and plastic pipes.
One of the most recent projects has been the creation of a wave energy harvester using old bike parts to harvest energy and a pressure cooker to keep the device afloat.
Developed by Al-Habaibeh and product design undergraduate Owen Griffiths, the harvester is designed to help people in developing countries with poor access to electricity and can generate 5.6 watts of power from a regular supply of 20cm-high waves, making it perfect for near-shore use.
It was also a project of personal interest to Griffiths, who, as a scuba diver, was interested in new ways to charge essential electrical equipment when out on a boat.
“Many developing countries have a limited electrical network, particularly those like the Philippines, which are spread over a number of islands,” explains Griffiths. “But a small-scale product like this, partly made from reused goods which are widely available, could help provide power to coastal areas that otherwise may not have wide access to electricity.
“The main challenge was how to design a simple system with off-the-shelf and reused/recycled components to enable people in developing countries to build similar systems at a low cost using local resources and with minimal technical skills,” says Al-Habaibeh. “The project used recycled components mainly from bicycles, where the bike ratchet mechanism could play an important role in the design of the system where linear motion can be transferred to rotational motion in one direction.
“Owen took the challenge and he managed to provide very unique and innovative low-cost features in his design. For example, he integrated a bicycle chain and simple aluminium extrusion to transfer the linear motion to circular without the need of a special and expensive rack-and-pinion mechanism; this resulted in simplifying and reducing the cost of the system significantly,” he adds.
With the working prototype having been showcased at the university’s 2017 Degree Show, the team now hopes to share a DIY kit with developing countries so that communities can build wave energy systems of their own.
Furthermore, Al-Habaibeh believes this technology also has the potential to be scaled up and used to create much larger quantities of power. “Such as the UK,” he says, “which has a large amount of natural energy produced by a regular supply of waves from the North Atlantic ocean.”