College students build life-saving solar device for African hospital


GVSU graduate engineering students Patrick McCarthy, left, and Sofia Fanourakis prepare to install a Solar Suction Surgery System, or S4, at a rural Malawi hospital. Courtesy GVSU

A local college has a solution to a problem confronting rural hospitals all over the world: how to keep patients alive when the electricity fails.

A group of graduate students in Grand Valley State University’s engineering master’s degree program built a portable solar device that can power a hospital for up to two days.

The device, called the Solar Suction Surgery System, or S4, was first created in 2012, and the students recently built and delivered three more to meet demand.

Problem solving

It all started when Heidi Jiao, professor of electrical engineering at GVSU, met with a group of professors from the school’s business department to discuss what type of project she and her graduate engineering students could tackle in an upcoming class.

Jiao said Star Swift, associate professor of business at GVSU, mentioned that her cousin, Dr. Martha Sommers, worked at a mission hospital in Malawi that needed an emergency power system.

Sommers, an American physician who now works in Madagascar, said when she was working at Embangweni Mission Hospital in Malawi, the hospital frequently experienced power failures during emergency surgeries, such as C-sections.

“When the power went out, we relied on a flashlight, and we no longer had the ability to use a suction tool to clear fluid from wounds,” Sommers said. “This happened many times when we were working to save a mother and her child. Many times, the patient died.”

Sommers was the only doctor at the hospital that serves a population of more than 100,000 people.

Recognizing the need, Jiao assigned the students in her graduate-level Photovoltaic Systems class to come up with a solution for the hospital.

S4 specs

The S4 system they created uses parts from Amazon and has five outlets: two provide light, one provides suction and two are used to charge electronics.

A solar panel is connected to the charge controller, which is used to control the output power.

More demand

The device proved so effective that the hospital staff in Malawi requested more devices. Jiao’s 2016 class produced three more and some of them made the 22-hour trip to deliver and install the devices in person.

Members of the delivery group included Justin Melick, a student digital media developer from the education department who acted as a videographer and project manager, and engineering graduate students Sofia Fanourakis and Patrick McCarthy.

The trio spent a week at the hospital and its two remote clinics, installing the solar panels and training employees, including the hospital’s current sole physician, Ishmael Nyirenda. He said his team uses the S4 power system every single day.

“Each day, there’s a period of at least six hours when we don’t have electricity,” Nyirenda said. “We depend on power to sterilize equipment, perform surgeries and resuscitate babies and patients.”


Including parts, labor and delivery, the overall S4 project has cost about $11,000.

It's been funded by GVSU’s Padnos College of Engineering and Computing, Seidman College of Business and private donations.

Long-range plans

While the devices provide immediate help, Fanourakis and McCarthy are planning for the long-term through data tracking. They are tracking power outages and the devices' performance. The data will be used to help fund new devices and raise awareness about the need.

Jiao said she will continue to offer the solar-power device project as a component of the Photovoltaic Systems course. Her goal is to make the project sustainable and broaden its reach to serve other areas in need.

“The purpose of the project initially was to serve this specific hospital in Malawi, and now our mission is to expand the project to other regions that need power,” she said. “We are looking into serving other underserved places in Africa and even within the United States.”

Open-source solar website

Because they wanted to make the S4 design publicly available, the group partnered with a campus organization on an open-source website called solaRescue.

The website was created by Teaching Through Technology, or t3, a multi-disciplinary group of GVSU alums and students.

Any organization that has created a solar-energy device to power medical equipment may submit their designs to solaRescue at gmail dot com to be included on the website.

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