Inexpensive health care in rural Bangladesh is within reach due to solar technology. Researchers from Bangladesh’s BRAC University collaborated with Beevatech, a vehicle manufacturer, to create an ambulance that runs entirely on solar power. The three-wheeled ambulance, financed by the World Bank and seed funds from the U.S. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is on track for a launch within the year.

The upgrade was sorely needed. Many rural Bangladeshi communities are unable to afford ambulance service, and people needing emergency care are forced to ride in antiquated, painfully slow, human-powered rickshaws. This solar technology will be a game-changer for outlying communities, as the new ambulances are expected to cost as little as $1,900. In contrast, traditional ambulances cost at least $30,000 in Bangladesh.

Innovation from an Unlikely Source

The project’s team leader, BRAC University professor A.K.M. Abdul Malek Azad, was inspired by a unique source — the racecar. Azad learned of a solar racecar being driven in Australia, and the idea struck. “I thought if researchers can develop a solar racing car, there is potential to develop a solar ambulance,” he explained.

Although the solar ambulance is faster than its human-powered counterpart, it can’t be mistaken for its racecar inspiration. The vehicle has a maximum speed of 9-12 mph. Still, the speed is a far cry from that of a human-powered rickshaw.

Green and Inexpensive

Azad has a big-picture approach for the ambulance. Not only are the vehicles cheap to purchase, but they are also inexpensive to run. They are equipped with a solar battery for use during nighttime hours, and there are solar panels on the roof to power it by day. The battery can recharge within three to four hours.

There are plans in the works to further improve the solar technology. Azad would like to see the installation of a solar-powered battery charging station at or near hospitals. Azad says, “This step is taken to ensure complete independence of these electrically assisted rickshaws from the national grid… by using the solar power we can reduce operational costs and save the environment.”

The Test Drive

BRAC University’s Control & Applications Research Centre (CARC) took the rough roads of rural Bangladesh into consideration when designing the ambulance. The wheels were constructed to be thicker and smaller than the wheels of traditional rickshaws. This ensures a smoother ride on even the roughest roads. They also strengthened the chassis to increase stability — an important asset for a three-wheeled vehicle.

BRAC University researchers reported that they received a positive reception from the public when testing their prototype.

Impressed by the innovative solar technology, Health Ministry Secretary Habibur Rahman Khan reported that they would consider purchasing the ambulances for rural hospitals, once available.

Gisele Dunn

Photo: Flickr

People living in poverty in developing countries without traditional power sources spend 100 to 1,000 times more per unit of light than the rest of the world using a variety of fuels such as kerosene and diesel. In return, the fuel-powered light sources put off more greenhouse-gas emissions than 30 million American cars.

Solar-LED lights carry low wattages and are downsized so that the product is affordable and easy to use. With more than 100 solar-LED options, at a cost between $10 and $75, people living in poverty can reduce their energy spending in one year by purchasing these products.

SolarAid, an international nonprofit, provides solar lights to rural areas around the world to help eradicate the growing costs of using kerosene lamps. There are 598 million people in Africa who do not have access to electricity. SolarAid has provided one million solar lights for those people.

In Africa, seven million households have purchased or obtained a solar-LED light since they went on the market with over 40 companies selling the products.

Coal is often a suggested answer to problems dealing with electricity in the developing world, but the World Bank suggests that coal is not a cure for global poverty. Coal prices burden the poorest countries in the world. Also, the health impacts of coal and climate change impose consequences on people living in developing countries.

The impact of solar-LED lights on families is substantial. The lights create clean and safe lighting, which reduces the risk of fires that fuel-powered lighting has.

On average, $70 is saved every year from reducing the amount of money spent on kerosene or candles. To most households, $70 is about 10 percent of their yearly income.

Families are noticing the health benefits of switching from fuel to solar-LED lights. About half of the families that switched to solar noticed their health is improving due to the reduced indoor pollution. Coughing, chest pains and eye irritations were more frequent and common before eliminating their fuel-powered lighting.

Annually, $230 million are being saved by families, 6 million people notice their health increasing, 890,000 tons of CO2 has been averted, and children have 2 billion extra hours to study and read.

Lighting is one of the most basic human rights and solar technology is one way to reduce poverty due to lighting. In return, the investment for Solar-LED lights increases health and children’s chances to learn and study.

Donald Gering

Sources: Energy Matters, The Guardian 1, The Guardian 2, SolarAid
Photo: The Guardian