From the flickering of a candle to the bright lighting of a cell phone, one University student created a solar-powered device that may bring new technology to the developing world.
Engineering graduate student Md Shahnoor Amin worked with Abdrahamane Traoré of Kettering University to create Emerald — a portable solar panel system that opens like a book and serves as a lighting device and charger for portable electronics like cell phones.
Traoré and Amin, who met as undergraduates at Kettering University, designed the device for their Ann Arbor-based company called June Energy. The book-sized portable solar panel system they invented is intended to be used in developing countries.
Amin and Traoré know what it is like to live in a developing countries. Traoré grew up in Mali and said he experienced difficulty studying at night because he didn’t have a source of light.
“Growing up I didn’t have any lighting. I had to actually study under kerosene lamps, using candlelight or sometimes just going to huddle around street lights to study,” Traoré said. “I knew that (education) was (the) only key thing for me because … I came from a low class family and chances are most of us wouldn’t make it to college.”
Amin, who was born in Bangladesh, said the solar panel project was partially inspired by a family friend who asked him to develop a lighting system for a village in West Africa. The friend, who visited the village, told Amin about the need for a clean energy system to alleviate certain difficulties for the residents.
Following his conversation with the family friend, Amin said he sought Traoré’s help, and they began working on the project. Traoré and Amin said they worked on an initial design, but it proved to be too expensive for the village.
Traoré said the idea for a portable solar panel was motivated by an incident in which he had difficulty contacting his mother, who lives in Mali. Traoré said his mother hadn’t been able to find electricity to charge her cell phone when she went to a village to visit someone and was forced to travel to another village miles away.
“That was very inconvenient, and I wasn’t happy with that — so everything started coming together and I said, ‘I would like to design a portable solar energy system for villages in developing countries,’” Traoré said.
When Amin entered the University as an Engineering graduate student, he and Traoré began submitting their design to several clean energy competitions — many of which they won.
“We were really excited and we thought … this could actually work,” Amin said.
With the grant money they earned from the competitions, Amin and Traoré proceeded to build a prototype of their design.
“We had the money to build something, and so we built something off the shelf (that) we could stick together using a wooden box and whatever we could find,” Amin said. “It went from a concept to something that we could actually carry around. It could power your laptop, but it looked like a shoebox.”
Amin attributed some of his and Traoré’s success to their continuing involvement with the TechArb. They became involved with the TechArb — a partnership between the College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship and the Ross School of Business’s Zell Lurie Institute — last summer. The TechArb gives entrepreneurs 24-hour access to work space and opportunities to network with fellow entrepreneurs, according to Doug Neal, managing director of the Center for Entrepreneurship.
What distinguished June Energy from other companies in the TechArb was Amin and Traoré’s personal connection to their product, Neal said.
“The June Energy team had a very compelling personal experience with the target market that they’re trying to solve the problem at,” he said.
“The fact that they were developing a very effective solution for customers … through their own efforts and education is a very good story and very compelling proposition on how they would be successful during their time at TechArb,” Neal said.
Amin said though it was sometimes difficult to balance school and the project, he still felt compelled to work on it.
“I always put this company as my capstone project,” Amin said. “It was the one project in school that I had to succeed at.”
June Energy plans to keep producing technology in Ann Arbor because of connections with University alumni, Amin said.
“We’re really focused on producing it locally in Michigan because there’s such a strong network and relationships with local product manufacturers,” he said. “We don’t know in the future, but we definitely know one thing — Michigan is very good at manufacturing these things at high quality and at (a) very competitive cost.”