Where Einstein Meets Edison

Bringing Electricity to Rural China

Bringing Electricity to Rural China

Feb 7, 2011

Reja Amatya wants to bring electricity into villages in the Qinghai province of China for the first time.  Originally from Nepal, Reja arrived on MIT’s campus in 2005 to begin work on her master’s degree with the goal of finding a way to implement thermoelectric technology in her home region of South Asia.  She is currently a graduate student in Professor Rajeev Ram’s Physical Optics and Electronics Group.  Together, they have partnered with One Earth Designs (http://www.oneearthdesigns.org/), a Cambridge-based MIT startup and 2009 $100k finalist, to field test an MIT-developed thermoelectric generator system that attaches to villager’s solar cookers and converts concentrated solar energy into electricity.  One Earth Designs helps commercialize the technology that Reja and her lab are developing through the company’s SolSource project, which builds the solar cookers that will bring light into villages for the first time and provide crucial charging outlets for mobile phones. 

How it works

Parabolic solar cookers are used to harness the power of the sun to boil water and, common to the Qinghai province, cook stews for villages.  Reja’s group has been developing a thermoelectric generator system which will be positioned on top of the cooker.  The module has two parts: a “hot” side and a “cold” side filled with water.  The thermoelectric module is positioned between these two sides. Sunlight hits the “hot” side, heating it to 200-250 degrees Celsius, and the heat passes through to heat the water on the “cold” side.  The difference in temperatures effectively generates electricity from the sun, which can be hooked up to charge a battery. 

Field testing and implementation

Many villages in western China are completely off the grid and so stand to benefit greatly from the work being done at MIT.  One Earth Design is developing an affordable solar cooker that will be paired with the thermoelectric module being developed.  The first field test was conducted this past summer in which Reja and her colleagues determined how much power their module could provide.  The next step is trial implementation, which Reja hopes to begin next semester. 

Over 1.6 billion people worldwide do not have electricity, with the majority of that population located in Southeast Asia.  Currently, photovoltaics is the only technology available as a possible solution as they provide affordable and ultraportable means of generating electricity in some of the most remote regions in the world.  However, Reja believes mass production of her thermoelectric generator system could better harness this technology, bringing electricity into peoples’ lives for the first time.  By bringing millions of people onto the grid, it would grant villagers access to other critical technology such as charging stations for their mobile phones and rudimentary electrical lighting, which would ultimately drastically improve living standards for a major proportion of this planet’s population.