ASCE Awards Purdue Student Team for Project to Aid Farming in Central Africa

April 20, 2018
The Purdue project team: from left, Ruoxing Wang, Wentao Zhong, Wenzhuo Wu, Jun Chen, and Unmesha Kale. PHOTO: DeEtte Starr/Purdue University

As the saying goes, “When it rains, it pours.” In central Africa, though, to be accurate you’d have to say “When it rains, it pours … for eight straight months.”

The lengthy rainy season there makes it very difficult for African peasant farmers in rural areas to keep their grains stored in dry conditions. Often they lose as much as 40 percent of their harvest.

Student engineering researchers at Purdue University may have a solution.

Their project, “Development of an Economic Grain Storage System for Rain Season Harvest in Rural Africa,” earned the 2018 ASCE Sustainable Development Award at the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Sustainable Design Expo.

The EPA P3 “People, Prosperity, and the Planet” program features a college competition in two parts. Selected student teams are given $15,000 grants during the school year to develop proposals for solutions toward a sustainable future. They then bring their designs to the design expo in Washington, DC, as part of the USA Science and Engineering Festival, to compete for the P3 award and a grant of $90,000.

The ASCE Sustainable Development Award, sponsored by the Society’s Committee on Sustainability, bestows $1,000 on a student team for a project that solves a pressing need in a developing country, based on the project’s simplicity of design, its use of local raw materials, and its widespread effect on quality of life in that region.

“This is very exciting. We didn’t anticipate this honor,” said Wenzhuo Wu, one of the project’s faculty leads. “We believe our project is very unique, but this award is a very pleasant surprise.”

Wu and his team developed a device that harnesses the energy created when a raindrop strikes a roof and converts it into electricity. The electricity can then be used to temperature-control grain storage facilities, thereby saving the crop.

Talk about turning the problem into the solution.

“Essentially, you could turn any roof into a panel,” Wu said. “If our proposal and research can be implemented, we hope it can improve the prosperity, economic status, and quality of life in rural Africa.”

A panel of ASCE members judged the various projects during the two-day competition at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, April 7-8. The judges also were impressed by a project from students at Case Western Reserve University, “Ultra-Low-Cost Reusable Solar Disinfection Sensor.”

The first-place Purdue team included doctoral candidate Ruoxing Wang and undergraduates Wentao Zhong and Unmesha Kale, led by faculty advisers Wu and Jun Chen.

“I talked to my student members afterward, and they’re all very excited,” Wu said. “I think they feel even more motivated to do this type of research now, with this kind of public award. I think this kind of exposure will be good to let the public know that we scientists and engineers are doing something with real impact. It will help our team at Purdue to move forward.”

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