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EPA's Sustainable Design Competition Winner - Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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MUSIC: “Science Works” theme music

LACAPRA: Welcome to EPA’s “Science Works,” a podcast about how the EPA uses science to meet its mission to protect your health and environment. From “Science Works” at EPA, I’m Véronique LaCapra.

In this podcast, we’ll meet one of the winning teams from this year’s P3 student design competition. P3 stands for people, prosperity and the planet, and students from any U.S. college or university can participate. EPA sponsors the competition to challenge students to work together in interdisciplinary teams, to design and build sustainable technologies that improve quality of life, promote economic development, and protect the environment.

This team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a new kind of solar power generator, to replace diesel generators in areas of the world that don’t have access to an electrical power grid. MIT team member Matt Orosz explains that instead of photovoltaic panels, their generator uses curved mirrors:

OROSZ: “Large mirrors that are in the form of a parabola, and those basically are just big solar concentrators, they just collect the sunlight and they focus it all down onto a pipe, and in that pipe we’re circulating a heat-transfer fluid, and then we send that to our engine where we make the electricity.”

LACAPRA: The system is based on the same technology used in large parabolic trough power plants.

OROSZ: “We’ve scaled down that technology and we’ve developed our own heat-engine technology to work with it, so the heat from the sunlight is actually used to mechanically convert into electricity, and we also recover some of the waste heat for hot water production. So it makes electricity and hot water.”

LACAPRA: The MIT team established contacts in the southern African country of Lesotho, where they have already tested two preliminary models of the generator.

OROSZ: “We’ve worked with about seven technicians and engineers there that we’re training, and we have a partnership with the government and the national university…”

LACAPRA: Orosz hopes the solar generator will be used to provide power to rural health clinics:

OROSZ: “We’re more or less looking at the health clinics, the rural off-grid health clinics, as the sort of primary target for this kind of technology in the next couple years. There’s about 170 in Lesotho alone, that are off the grid.”

LACAPRA: Orosz says the MIT solar generator is less polluting and less expensive than one run on diesel, and that local people can build it in Lesotho using locally-available materials:

OROSZ: “So it’s just, you know, steel, aluminum, car parts, air conditioner parts, and they get reassembled into this solar thermal generator.”

LACAPRA: I caught up with Matt Orosz again at the P3 awards ceremony, where EPA Acting Science Advisor Kevin Teichman announced the winning teams:

TEICHMAN: “Our third P3 award goes to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for a Novel Solar Thermal Combined Cycle with Bio-Methane Carbon Capture for Distributed Power Generation.” [APPLAUSE]

LACAPRA: Orosz says winning means he and his team will have to work that much harder on the next phase of their project.

OROSZ: “I mean we’re already going to work really hard, but […] we have this responsibility now to really make the most out of this and to take this technology that we’re working on as far as we can to help as many people as possible.”

LACAPRA: Orosz says he feels humbled by the award – and inspired by the other P3 teams.

OROSZ: “I know that everybody who’s part of this program is going to go out there and make the world a better place, and just it’s great to know that there are so many people out there that just want to put their shoulder to the wheel and turn it in the right direction.”

LACAPRA: You can learn more about the MIT solar generator and all the P3 projects on our website, at epa.gov/P3.

MUSIC: “Science Works” theme music

LACAPRA: Thanks for listening to “Science Works,” a podcast series produced by EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Please check back again soon for our next program, at epa.gov/ncer.

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