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ASU engineers systems for improved village life

February 21, 2008

Faculty and students in the College of Technology and Innovation at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus are joining with other students from ASU and Africa in making a difference on the global front.

Through a new initiative called GlobalResolve, more than 40 multidisciplinary ASU students and faculty are involved in improving village life in developing countries, while providing an improved sustainable economy.

GlobalResolve is the brainchild of ASU professors Mark Henderson, David Jacobson, Rajiv Sinha, Brad Rogers and Ph.D. student, Dan Killoren, as well as retired energy executive, Mark Kerrigan.

“With GlobalResolve, we want to provide a sustainable entrepreneurial solution to village problems instead of using a charity approach,” says Henderson, an engineering professor in the College of Technology and Innovation. “We partner with villages and local universities in developing countries to implement solutions that will create self-sufficient village ventures. It’s a social entrepreneurship program.”

The initiative started in 2006, but this academic year alone, thanks in part to funding from grants or private donations, the group has undertaken four large projects that focus on water purification, alternative fuels and health issues.

The water purification is for a village of about 400 residents in Fawomanye, Ghana, a village close to Africa’s West coast. Currently, the village has no electricity and a polluted water source. The village well is salty, but the proposed purifier will produce clean, distilled quality water from any source, according to Henderson.

“The water purification system was patented by ASU professor Jim Beckman, but engineering students at the Polytechnic campus are in the process of modifying it to fit the needs of the village,” says Henderson. “We are trying to make it work with the village’s limited resources.”

The village’s economy is supported by producing and selling charcoal made from acacia trees. The Polytechnic engineering students are figuring out a way to harness the energy from the charcoal-making process to power the water purifier.

While the water purification project is well under way, the project that is the furthest along is a gel fuel project that was funded in part by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. The project is creating a source of alternative fuel for the small village of Domeabra, Ghana, 30 miles from Kumasi.

“The biggest cause of death in children under age five in the world is respiratory illness, which can be attributed to indoor air pollution such as smoke from the use of charcoal, wood and dung for cooking,” says Rogers, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering Technology in the College of Technology and Innovation. “ASU faculty and students hope to help change that by creating a prototype system that will provide the village a cleaner burning fuel.”

The village leaders have planted several acres of corn in preparation for the ethanol production system. The ethanol gel will ultimately create a product that is similar in concept to Sterno Canned Heat with the hope that the village can make not only the fuel, but the stoves that use the gel fuel. Together, the manufacture, sale and use of these products will produce a sustainable economy for the village.

Domeabra’s paramount chief is an MIT educated mechanical engineer, who has the know-how and resources to operate the gel fuel production system and to manufacture the stoves.

He will visit ASU’s Polytechnic campus in April to observe the gel fuel system operation and finalize plans to bring the prototype back with him to his village.

GlobalResolve’s health project focuses on the development of a positioning tool for brain surgery to help guide the surgeon in gaining access to specific areas of the brain.

Nick de Pennington, a neurosurgeon at Oxford University in England, became aware of a lack of surgical tools to treat emergency head injuries during his internship in rural areas of South Africa.

Kevin Gary, assistant professor in the Division of Computing Studies, and Henderson are working with Pennington and others to design a passive robotic arm guided by software rendering brain scan images to locate an entrance point on the skull.

It is designed to be faster, cheaper and easier than current tools and would easily accommodate the need in rural areas.

Another project in Ghana has an interdisciplinary goal between engineering and business students from ASU and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology to study the viability of producing oil from the fruit of the jatropha tree for use in lamps, boilers, diesel engines and other energy consuming devices. Because the tree is considered to be toxic, the students will also determine if the smoke generated from the oil is safe.

In their preliminary research, they have found that the German government already requires that 10 percent of its fuel come from renewable sources, and currently is buying jatropha oil globally to satisfy this need. This policy in Germany and other countries creates a market for jatropha that can enable successful village ventures, explains Henderson.

“We are trying to develop sustainable village venture models that can be replicated all over the world.”

For more information about this project, contact Mark Henderson at (480) 727- 1062 or