My friend Koen has partnered with Jane Goodall to build a series of INNOVATIVE LABS SCHOOLS , one of which has been completed in the KAKUMA Refugee camp. They have teachers willing to teach locally as well as virtually. They have connectivity and some older smart phones, but they have no way to charge their devices.

I have been considering this problem as part of Current Generation for a couple of years. NavCanada tried to help us use palettes of Li 18650 cells from new but obsolete laptop batteries. It seems like the battery management of having multiple 18650 Li batteries is too complicated and too risky for a high school project considering that both UNB Eng and UPEI Eng would not touch it. Certainly single 18650’s may be reasonable to work with in the future, it is not OK to put them in multiples without some serious work, not to mention the transportation questions.

So, we are looking at NiMH batteries, knowing that from an engineering point of view, they are not the most efficient, but from a teaching and safety point of view they might be preferable. We will see what the final product looks like.

Here is an example about how chance conversations can lead to something. I was invited a couple of years ago to attend the MakerFaire at L’Abbey in Memramcook. There I met Jeff Gaunce from Sussex Regional High School. He and his students built an arduino based solar tracker. Fast forward to the start of the Pandemic and he reached out to talk about Essentials and Extensions for Physics given our truncated time. It did not take much time before we decided that our students should work together on the BrightCase Project- to build a solar powered phone/tablet charger.

We have been meeting once a week. Some kids are at home, some are face to face. Thankfully, yet again, Brilliant Labs’ Josh joins us, scheduling meetings around our time together. Together, the students have created a specification document after looking at the requirements of the phones and the use case in the camp. We have been doing some math to figure out what sized batteries we need and therefore what sized panel we might need. It looks like the panels that we have been using from Voltaic Systems following the MakerFaire NYC are not quite adequate. The Voltage is nice, but the current is too low.

I happen to be reading the SHAD Newsletter who featured AMIT from Naveco in Fredricton who specialize in gteen energy. He agreed to speak with us and during that conversation, alerted us to the idea that GAI Project might have some solar panels and other equipment that might be in the way.

A quick call to Jeff at Gaia Project revealed that we did indeed have more than a handful of fairly large solar panels, about 2 ft each side. They delivered a couple to Jeff at Sussex because he already had a few and one to Jeff at Brilliant Labs. Now we all have some to work with.

Over the Holidays, I connected with Jeff (yet another J) from Voltaic Systems. In the past, he sent us Beta panels after seeing our work at the World Maker Faire in NYC. He informed us that NiMH will need somewhere around double the amount of input charging current and output current. It might take 2000mAh of charging to our NiMH battery to provide 1000 mAh of battery capacity. He also suggested that we plan to source some of the panels in Africa. The panels are much cheaper there, about 1$/Watt. So a 100 Watt Solar Panel is about $100. With prices like that, they often don’t worry about being the most efficient and just get a big panel.

Perhaps we need a hybrid model. We talked about the idea of charging a phone twice in a day, once so that they can use their phones during the day and once again in the evening so that they can do homework at home. Perhaps the final product has a larger solar panel with an ATV LEAD-acid battery because they are plentiful there. They do not have to be awesome batteries for this purpose. Perhaps we can take some batteries out of the waste stream with this solution. This could be used to charge phones or perhaps our own student made external batteries that could be used at night.

There is value from a teaching point of view to have individual solutions that individual students can make and individual students can use. From an engineering and economic point of view, it may be better to have a large scale solution.

Again, Thanks to Josh and Brilliant Labs for his continued close attention and support. Also, Thank you to Jeff at Gaia Project for providing the larger solar panels , inverters and probeware etc… that makes this debate over individual or group solutions even possible. This is beyond the typical and called for.