Engineers tap materials expertise to tackle global problems

Khanjan Mehta is a man with a mission -- solving the problems that make it so difficult to provide energy, clean drinking water, food security, and health care to some of the poorest nations on Earth. As the founding director of HESE -- Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship -- in the College of Engineering, Mehta leads a group of engaged undergraduates who are designing new technologies and, equally important, figuring out how to get those technologies into the hands of the people who need them.

"It's not all about the technology," says Mehta, who is an assistant professor of engineering design in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs. "Designing the technology and saying 'Here it is' doesn't solve the problem. Well, windmills existed 300 years back, and all over Africa people have no power and no windmills either."

That's where the social entrepreneurship part of HESE's name comes in. Unlike many aid projects that provide donations of money or food, HESE uses a market-centric approach, turning technologies into local, self-sustaining business opportunities. 

One example of HESE's market-based approach is the design of low-cost greenhouses for East Africa. The greenhouses allow farmers to grow crops year round, while improving yields and preserving scarce water resources. The technology was developed at Penn State, and then licensed to a company called Mavuuno Greenhouses in Kenya and The Greenhouse Center in Cameroon.

"We were in rural Kenya working on telemedicine systems and talking to all these people about their health, and all they kept talking about were greenhouses," Mehta recalls. If we had a greenhouse, they told him, we could make extra money and then we could afford to make the journey to visit a doctor.

There were greenhouses in the area, but they cost over $2,500, far more than what most farmers could afford. Mehta and his students did their research, talking to many farmers and a number of agribusiness firms. They then came back to Penn State and designed a greenhouse that they tested in parts of Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania under varying climates while at the same time determining the availability of local materials and studying the supply chain logistics.

"We have over 100 greenhouses out there in 10 countries," Mehta continues. "The materials to make them cost $350 and they sell for $600 to $1,000. A small farmer can have a return on investment in four to six months."

Materials join the mission

The greenhouse project was the impetus for a new collaboration between HESE and the Materials Research Institute (MRI). The glazing for the greenhouses had been coming from Israel, and the HESE team wanted to see if a cheaper, local material could replace the Israeli glazing, saving about $100 on each greenhouse and avoiding the complicated import issues. One local material that was in large supply was the sturdy plastic sacks that contained rice shipped from China. Once emptied and given a UV-resistant coating, the sacks would seem to be a cheap and almost endless resource.

One of Mehta's students approached Josh Stapleton, director of the Materials Characterization Lab (MCL) to see if MCL could evaluate the transparency of the material and how long the plastic would stand up to the harsh conditions in East Africa.

"Everything we do has to be 'ruggedized' to survive under harsh conditions," says Mehta. "MRI could play an important role in helping us understand if a product will stand up under temperature swings, harsh UV radiation, people dropping it."

"Khanjan's student, Shayne Bement, contacted me about doing optical transparency tests and accelerated aging analysis," Stapleton explains. "They [HESE engineers] don't want to be materials scientists; they want to link up with the people who already have the expertise. And I like working on this kind of stuff. It gives me a high level of satisfaction."

It turned out that the rice sacks did not pass the light-transmitting requirements for greenhouse glazing, but they showed potential as shade nets for farmers. "Which is great, because they don't have local shade netting over there," says Mehta. "We came to him for results. It cost us $150. It was the best money we ever spent. We have lots of ongoing projects where Josh's expertise and resources will let us quit supporting the airline industry by not needing to make multiple trips overseas."

The greenhouse project continues in East Africa in collaboration with World Hope International, a relief and development organization. They have been so successful that in Kenya some of the bell peppers and tomatoes were growing so big that his students had to assure people that they were safe to eat and there was no witchcraft involved. Recent funding from USAID, the federal agency that funds international development efforts, will help get two more greenhouse businesses up and running in Sierra Leone and Mozambique.

"By the way, when we license this we don't just sign on the dotted line and collect our money,' says Mehta. "That's just the beginning. My student, Shayne, who worked with Josh, spent four months in Cameroon, where he built the first set of greenhouses, trained their staff, and established market linkages. Now he is back in Cameroon as a Fulbright scholar."

Small wonders in medicine

HESE has a telemedicine system up and running in central Kenya that employs seven full-time employees and is built on a self-sustaining model that creates jobs and provides accessible healthcare in rural areas. The system has trained a network of more than 1,000 community health workers who check on the health of their community members.

HESE has also been working on a set of low-cost diagnostic and screening devices, including a paper-based test kit to screen women for urinary tract infections and everyone for diabetes. One of the MRI faculty, Jim Adair, professor of materials science and engineering and biomedical engineering, is working with HESE on the simple paper sensor that changes color if there is infection or glucose in the urine. The strips will be printable on an inkjet printer, 100 test strips per sheet, Mehta says. "There are already so many questions emerging on the chemistry, the life span, and how to make the product usable under pretty harsh conditions. There are many questions on this project where MRI can help us."

Another HESE project is an inexpensive pulse oximeter, a small boxlike device that is put over a finger to measure oxygen saturation in the blood. These devices can cost from $100 to $500 in a hospital setting, but HESE's design can be mass-marketed for under $10. Now, in order to make sure their design is rugged enough, the designers have to take it to Africa for testing. "If we could just send it across campus and get good data back, that would cut down the number of iterations and speed up time to market," Mehta says.

Printing hands in Africa

One of the most exciting projects HESE is working on involves a network of volunteers who use 3D printers to build custom-made mechanical hands for amputees and children born without hands. Mehta was contacted by the e-NABLE community about adapting their partial-hand technology for Africa, where the legacy of the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone and other wars across the continent have left many thousands of survivors missing one or both hands.

"This is not our innovation, it's theirs, but they reached out to us and said 'We know this works. We need you to get it to the people in Africa who need it,'" Mehta explains.

The costs involved are not exorbitant, less than $5,000 for a 3D printer, infrastructure, and employee training. The hands can be printed for around $15 each. e-Nable has printed more than 200 hands for people in the U.S., primarily children, and has trained medical practitioners in Haiti to size and print hands.

 With the exception of the printing, these hands are low tech. They are designed to grasp and hold objects, but there are no electronics. Mehta is beginning to work on details of how the hands will hold up in various climates, how much load they can carry, how much abuse they can withstand, and more. "There are 50 little questions here I'm going to send over to Josh by the end of the semester," Mehta says. "Then we can say, should we focus on Sierra Leone, where it's incredibly hot through the year? Or should we focus on Kenya? Then we need to find out what people want to use this for and use MRI's characterization results to say if they can or can't do those things."

Engaged scholarship

This semester, Mehta has 50 students as the core workforce for all of the ventures HESE is involved in. But the involvement goes far beyond those students. Mehta is involved in what he calls "a pretty big experiment" this semester that involves outsourcing parts of the projects to 1,100 students in 21 different courses, including three sections of a freshman design course, a biomedical engineering class, and a chemistry class working on test strips -- all of them engaged in work that can make a difference in people's lives. 

The larger involvement of 1,100 students is part of Penn State's Engaged Scholarship Initiative, which engages students with real-world problems without their necessarily having to travel to Africa the way the HESE students do each summer. The initiative is a university-wide effort to give undergraduates out-of-the-classroom experiences that complement their in-class learning.

Going national?

With successful cross-campus collaborations in place, Mehta thinks Penn State is well-positioned to establish a center for characterizing materials and products developed by researchers at other institutions who are embarked on programs with aims similar to HESE.

"If we could create a national center here, which I would really push for, this would be a huge resource for programs of this nature that are cropping up across the country," he says. " I don't think that many of them, or any of them, have the ability to do this kind of testing very quickly that could speed up their product development process. Design teams don't want to do testing, they want to outsource it. Those guys are going to love sending a sample over to us and getting the results in a week's time."

Clive Randall, MRI's new director and a professor of materials science and engineering, is enthusiastic about supporting a strong materials involvement in HESE. He notes that MRI has worked with Stephen Carpenter, professor of art education at Penn State, on improving his water filtration system based on clay pots and silver nanoparticles. "Having a materials viewpoint on materials selection for robustness in harsh climate conditions is one possibility where I would like to see MRI take leadership," Randall says. He foresees co-funding a faculty position in conjunction with one of the colleges to jumpstart this idea. 

"Khanjan says there is an ongoing need for materials expertise in his area," says Stapleton, the MCL director. "They have a need and we can help. We do this for industry all the time."

Stapleton pointed out that MRI and his laboratory are already engaged in a number of nontraditional areas of materials testing and characterization, from food science to archeology and the environment. "This is an opportunity to see MRI and the MCL as having a completely different skill set. How can we support the work others are already doing? It may not require a lot of new lab space and people," he concludes.

"We don't want to learn how to do what Josh and his lab can do," Mehta concludes. "We don't want a drill bit, we just want the hole. That's where MRI can be a game changer."

 

Khanjan Mehta is assistant professor of engineering design, khanjan@engr.psu.edu.

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Last Updated June 26, 2015