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Finding cheap, local solutions

on 07 April 2010.

Story and photo by YU JI

 

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INGENUITY and innovation are often cheap. All it requires is some thinking out of the box.

For example, when an engineer sketches a plan on a piece of paper, that part of the process is free.

The cost is incurred only during construction, and after that, the operating expenditure.

A good design, then, not only reduces implementation costs, but has major ramifications on people’s lives.

From the buildings we live in to the toilets we use, design affects all of us in profound ways.

A group of eight Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) engineering and electrical undergraduates clearly understood this when they set out to improve a mini hydroelectric dam in rural Sarawak.

Villagers of Kampung Semulong Ulu, Sri Aman, about 130km from Kuching, have never had a constant supply of electricity. The 34 families living in a longhouse relied on a diesel-powered generator.

The generator provided little energy and the high cost of diesel in rural areas meant the supply was rationed.

Enter Feng Unimas, short for Faculty of Engineering.

The undergraduates heard that the villagers had tried but failed to build a rudimentary mini hydroelectric dam near their longhouse.

During a visit in mid-2009, what they saw was the basics of a good idea that lacked good engineering.

Feng Unimas: Mah (centre), Mohd Ridhzuan (right) and a colleague showing some of the improvised equipment.

 

“We identified two main problems,” group member Mohd Ridhzuan, 21, told StarMetro.

“One was that the pipes connecting the reservoir and turbine were not properly reinforced. The solution was simple but the greater challenge was how to fix their turbine.

“The turbine’s problem was two-fold. Firstly, the stream of water entering the turbine needed to be more forceful.

“The solution was to fabricate a nozzle that would direct a jet of water onto the turbine fins, thereby making it spin faster,” Ridhzuan said.

“Feng Unimas did this at their university’s workshops between multiple trial-and-error trips to the village.

But it was in their next approach that they proved that good design could be cheap.

Mah Kar Weng, 24, explained: “Despite the adequate water pressure, the turbine fins weren’t spinning fast enough. As a result, the electricity generated was low.

“The solution was to modify the fins with a simple, cheap and widely available kitchen utensil – soup ladles.

“We took some soup ladles, did some welding work on them, and affixed them onto the fins. This meant that the fins would collect more water and the turbine would spin faster.”

Other aspects that Feng Unimas looked into were to modify elements at the existing penstock and reservoir.

By the end of last year, electricity had become constant in the lives of the 34 families. The mini hydroelectric dam they depend on produces five kilowatts.

However, as long as the longhouse folks are not connected to the state grid, they will have to ration their electricity supply.

For now, each of the 34 families is limited to three energy-efficient light bulbs, a fan and a television.

Nonetheless, for the efforts of Feng Unimas, Ridhzuan said the villagers threw a thank-you party.

“That night was really great for all of us. We saw how happy and grateful the villagers were. That’s the best reward we got out of this project,” Ridhzuan said.

Mah hoped that, with the constant supply of energy, the poor longhouse residents would be able to improve their livelihood.

“Electricity is such an important part of modern life. Without it, there is no way their children can study to prepare themselves for challenges later in life,” Mah said.

Earlier this year, Feng Unimas was presented with the Digi Deep Green Challenge award for their unconventional but effective solutions.

The team took home RM20,000 in prize money, a trophy and certificates, beating 15 other entries from universities nationwide.

Extracted from The Star Online.

Arkib Berita

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, 94300 Kota Samarahan, Sarawak, Malaysia Telephone: +60 82581000/+60 82581388, Fax: +60 82 665 088, Email: corporate@unimas.my
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