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14 January 2014

Sunshine in a suitcase: light for health and more

Laura Stachel, at right, demonstrates the WE CARE Solar
Suitcase for a healthcare colleague.
A “Solar Suitcase” developed by an obstetrician in California is providing a source of light for healthcare clinics that face chronic power shortages in developing countries, notes an article in the latest issue of SPIE Professional magazine.

In 2008, California-based obstetrician Laura Stachel traveled to Nigeria for doctoral studies. At the time, Nigeria had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. As she was observing an emergency Caesarean section at a state hospital, the lights suddenly went out. Stachel was surprised by the nonchalant attitude of the staff for whom this was a common occurrence. The procedure was completed by the light of Stachel’s flashlight.

Stachel learned that power outages are common in African hospitals, and many clinics are without any electricity altogether. Midwives in Nigeria have long resorted to using kerosene lanterns, candles, or even cell phones while delivering babies. Stachel knew these methods were not efficient during delivery complications where direct light was needed.

On returning home, Stachel asked her husband, Hal Aronson, a solar-energy educator, to design an off-grid solar electric system. The resulting Women’s Emergency Communication and Reliable Electricity (WE CARE) Solar Suitcase, was meant to serve as a model for a larger solar power system but became so useful, especially in rural areas, that requests for the small units began pouring in.

Stachel and Aronson founded the non-profit WE CARE Solar, began applying for grants to help fund production, and to date have delivered more than 400 units.

The case encloses a complete solar electric system, including two solar panels, a sealed lead-acid battery, a charge controller, and two acrylic-encased LED lights. It contains outlets to charge cellphones and a fetal heart-rate monitor. Easy to operate, it is designed to withstand heat, rain, and rough treatment.

Community centers, orphanages, and refugee camps have also requested the Solar Suitcase. Units were used by medical teams after the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2013 typhoon that ravaged the Philippines.

Stachel has been honored as one of the CNN Heroes of 2013. The program recognizes people working to make a difference through various projects such as cleaning up polluted environments, providing housing for the poor, and bringing produce to “food deserts.”

Read the full story at http://spie.org/x105095.xml -- and learn more about another reason to celebrate the International Year of Light in 2015!


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