Orosz '00 pioneers solar projects for health clinics

by Emily Fletcher | 3/28/10 10:00pm

Matt Orosz '00 was a government major as an undergraduate until he read a book by late Dartmouth environmental science professor Dana Meadows. The book, about the limits of natural resources, inspired Orosz to reevaluate his goals and become an environmental science major.

Now a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he and a team of fellow engineers are building solar energy technology that can be used at health clinics that do not have access to electricity. The group has begun preparing its first finished generating unit for installation at a clinic in Lesotho.

After graduation, Orosz joined the Peace Corps. Watching locals in Lesotho cook bread in solar-powered ovens made him think about ways to create inexpensive, sustainable solar energy, he said.

To develop his ideas, Orosz pursued two Masters degrees at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He took a year off from school to launch the nonprofit organization STG International, which aims to bring renewable energy sources to remote areas that are currently off the grid.

The technology consists of two main parts: solar collectors, which focus sunlight in a pipe that circulates fluid, and an engine that turns heat from the fluid into electricity, Orosz said.

"I would like to see local groups building this technology and putting it in place instead of diesel generators," Orosz said. "We're hoping to save them money. It'll be non-polluting and hopefully it will help the local economy."

Each miniature solar power unit produces about three kilowatts of electricity. In Lesotho, that is enough electricity to power a multi-building health clinic that treats between 50 and 100 patients per day, Orosz said.

The first unit will be installed this year in a health clinic in the Berea region of Lesotho, northeast of the capital city Maseru, Orosz said.

To gauge how much power the average clinic in Lesotho uses, Orosz visited and measured energy usage at three clinics run by Partners In Health, an organization co-founded by College President Jim Yong Kim.

"The PIH clinics are the top end of the quality scale," Orosz said. "If the other clinics in Lesotho could achieve what the PIH clinics have, that would be great."

Orosz and his collaborators will collect data and user feedback about the first unit, which will help them focus the technology for their niche of rural health clinics, Orosz said.

The team is also working in a new lab at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. Due to a lack of sunlight and lab space at MIT, Orosz e-mailed faculty at various colleges and universities in Florida and the Southwest to obtain lab space in a sunnier region, he said.

Orosz said he hopes to broaden the scope of the applications of the solar energy units, eventually expanding to schools and other buildings.

"We've formed a nonprofit but we do intend to license to companies to sell it locally in their markets," Orosz said. "The energy is a big part of it but another part is empowerment and technology transfer to people in developing countries."