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October 02, 2012

Virginia Tech to Use Solar, Wind Technology to Bring Light to Rural India



This past summer, about 10 percent of the total global population went dark when three of India’s notoriously unreliable power grids failed, in a chain reaction. Now, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, popularly known as Virginia Tech, is mobilizing its engineers to help provide a sustainable energy solution.

The Blacksburg, Virginia-based research institution—which already has international locations in Switzerland and the Dominican Republic—has announced that it will open a new facility later this fall in the State of Tamil Nadu in southeast India, dedicated to refining and adapting wind and solar energy production for use in rural households.

"The goal is to improve life for the 400 million Indians [who are] not connected to the grid," commented Guru Ghosh, vice president for International Affairs at the university. "There are still some refinements to be made on this amazing technology developed at Virginia Tech. We're aiming for the point where …solar panels and small windmills can be mass-produced, tested in India's rural communities; and then be deployed to create low-cost, renewable energy worldwide."

Richard C. Benson, dean of the College of Engineering, stated, " Virginia Tech is honored and pleased to contribute research ideas and acumen that solve some of the world's most pressing energy problems."

Two years ago, Virginia Tech announced an agreement with private-sector partner MARG Swarnabhoomito, a special economic and educational zone in India, to establish the Virginia Tech–India campus. MARG Swarnabhoomi has committed $1.8 million for a laboratory build-out that will equal or exceed facilities at the Blacksburg-based Center for Energy Harvesting Materials and Systems, directed by Shashank Priya of the College of Engineering. Virginia Tech is underwriting staff and operations with an initial outlay of $350,000.

"We will start recruiting graduate students in India to work on the project immediately, while our 6,000-square-foot lab space is being fully outfitted," says Roop Mahajan, director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at Virginia Tech. "Our push for sustainable energy technology reflects our understanding of the interconnectedness of developed and developing countries. With more than a billion people worldwide living in rural communities in extreme poverty, how energy production proceeds will have global impact."

The new research center will be called the VT–India Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science Innovation Center. The center will be inside MARG Swarnabhoomi's Amrita Research Park,–known as the “Land of New Thinking”—where ocean breezes are conducive to windmill research. Windmills are being designed to work in areas of low and variable wind speed; similarly, the solar panels are being designed to work in low-light conditions, Mahajan explained.

The piezoelectric windmills, which currently cost less than $1,000 to produce, use a unique blade developed at Virginia Tech that achieves greater-than-normal aerodynamic performance. The solar panels involve a paint process that might one day be easily mass-produced in a factory.

While initially graduate students assigned to the center will be drawn from Virginia Tech's partner institutions in India, eventually Blacksburg-based students will have the opportunity to work on the project, Ghosh predicted. "In addition to giving access to investors interested in commercial application, our being in India also provides Virginia Tech's graduate-level engineering students with valuable experience working in a developing country (see video)."

Priya added, "India, with its big energy needs, can immediately begin to use these technologies and tell us how they work, what improvements need to be made, and guide us so that the windmills and solar panels are suitable to go to the marketplace."

The VT–India Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science Innovation Center will be part of the National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center established at Virginia Tech in 2010, Priya says.

Virginia Tech's Outreach and International Affairs supports the university's engagement mission by creating community partnerships and economic development projects, offering professional development programs and technical assistance, and building collaborations to enrich discovery and learning— all with the overarching goal of improving the quality of life for people within the commonwealth and throughout the world.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman


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