A Bright Idea

Posted on 01. Sep, 2010 by in Academic Departments, Annual Report, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Energy Independence, Features, Issues, Research, Students

From left: Dan Ludois, Jonathan Lee and Patricio Mendoza Araya

From left: Dan Ludois, Jonathan Lee and Patricio Mendoza Araya

At age 15, Dan Ludois tried to convince his grandparents that the best way to run electricity to a shed in the corner of their farm was to use recycled parts from a microwave. At the time, his grandparents weren’t entirely convinced of the teenager’s technical credibility, but Ludois kept the idea in the back of his mind for the next 10 years.

On Earth Day 2010, Ludois and two of his fellow UW-Madison electrical and computer engineering graduate students presented the idea (which has evolved into an electricity system called the Microformer) at the second-annual Climate Leadership Challenge (CLC), a campus competition focused on combating climate change. The Microformer is designed to provide electricity to rural households in developing countries, and the idea was rewarded at the competition with more than $50,000 in prizes.

Ludois’ partners, Jonathan Lee and Patricio Mendoza Araya, each have experience with engineering projects for developing countries. Lee is involved in the UW-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders and has served on projects in Haiti and Rwanda. Mendoza has worked on a hydroelectric generator and smart grid projects in his native Chile, which is where the Microformer team may first implement its system. “After the earthquake that happened in Chile in February 2010, this is a good opportunity for me to give back and encourage others that things can be improved,” says Mendoza.

The Microformer is based on the transformer inside microwave ovens. The trio put the transformer—which converts the 120 volts of electricity from standard wall outlets into 2.5 kilovolts of potential power—into a metal paint can full of mineral oil, which cools the transformer. The team then adds a recycled spark plug to serve as an insulator to move power in and out of the can.

The resulting system provides enough electricity to power a few lights, a small refrigerator and other small electronics, such as a cell phone charger or laptop. Essentially, the Microformer can power a household in a developing country with the electricity needs equivalent to a typical U.S. dorm room. A key aspect of the Microformer is the cost: A typical U.S. transformer costs more than $1,000, but by using common recycled materials, each Microformer costs only $60 to $70.

The Microformer was recognized as the most action-ready idea at the CLC, which is staged by the UW-Madison Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. In addition to the cash prize, winners receive funds for a promotional trip and a one-year lease for space in the new University Research Park Metro Innovation Center. “We’re excited to be part of the innovation community and find resources to help us with the business aspects of this,” says Lee.

The team will form a company to fine-tune and test the design, as well as begin implementing the system in interested communities. They plan to sell affordable online kits that instruct people how to build the system and maintain it safely. Eventually, the group hopes to expand to sell a variety of kits for constructing renewable energy sources from local materials.

Sandra Knisely

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