Science Wednesday: The Role for Science in International Development

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What’s that, you say? International development is best left to experts in policy and economics? Well, think again because I believe that engineers and scientists have an important role to play.

While it’s easy for most of us to take our roads, electricity, schools, police forces, and food supplies for granted, there are still billions of people around the globe for whom these are not yet a reality.

Think about how much people’s lives—their health, education, safety, and well-being—would improve if they had the same level of infrastructure many of us probably take for granted. Transportation is faster and safer with paved roads; electricity improves education and healthcare, which, in turn, improves quality of life and people’s productivity, feeding tax revenues to the government to use in further improving infrastructure.

It’s positive feedback, spiraling upwards if we could only get it started!

This is what motivates me and the rest of my team. Over the past six years, we have been working to improve energy infrastructure in developing countries by building a better option for distributed energy generation: one that is renewable (uses solar energy), affordable, and can be made entirely with local materials, skills—and people.

image of solar panelsThe technology, which we call a Solar ORC, uses a solar thermal co-generation technique to simultaneously provide electricity and hot water in volumes required by typical rural institutions such as schools and clinics, allowing them to improve services, stretch their budgets, and avoid environmental degradation due to burning of fossil fuels. At the same time, local fabrication and dissemination of the technology provides good jobs and spurs the local economy.

In conjunction with our partners in southern Africa, we have already installed and tested several prototype systems, optimized for construction in Lesotho. Our most recent achievement is the initiation of our first full-scale system installation at a rural health clinic in Lesotho in 2009.

This type of work is challenging but also immensely rewarding. With each installation I am directly involved in improving the quality of infrastructure—and quality of life—for local people.

So to all of the young scientists and engineers out there wondering how you can make an impact on the world—think outside of the box and consider whether international development might have some challenges in store for you.

About the Author: Amy Mueller is a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-founder of STG International, a non-profit organization combining science and engineering with international development. STG’s work developing a novel solar energy technology is supported in part by an EPA People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Award research grant.