A team of senior engineering students at Rice University have developed an adaptation of a solar device which could provide life-saving medical instrument sterilization in areas where electricity is at a premium, if not entirely unavailable. The team’s development is apparently the most recent iteration of a larger project that makes use of a decades old device called a Capteur Soleil.
According to Rice University, French inventor Jean Boubour created the solar collection device that the students are now using almost 30 years ago. Barbour is now a co-investigator on the grant that funds the research. The Capteur Soleil involves a steel A-frame structure that holds a series of curved mirrors in place. The back legs of the device can be adjusted in order to track the sun and maximize its effectiveness. The curved mirrors intensely focus sunlight onto a steel tube that runs along the frame’s apex. In the tube is water, which is converted to steam by way of the focused solar energy. From there, the steam is used to heat up an autoclave-a device designed to sterilize surgical instruments with pressurized steam-but not directly.
Rather than feed the steam directly into the autoclave, the students chose to route it to a conductive hotplate of their own design. The hotplate then heats water in the autoclave. According to a report by Science Daily, team member Sam Major said that so long as the autoclave reaches 121 Celsius for 30 minutes, it would meet the standard set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and everything should be sterile. “We’ve found we’re able to do that pretty easily,” said Major. With good midday sun, Major added, it takes 40 minutes to an hour to begin significant heating of the autoclave.
Previously, the Rice University engineering students had worked with the Capteur Soleil as a cooking device. While the Capteur Soleil isn’t capable of generating enough heat to boil oil for frying,it can cook all sorts of foods. Barbour has used the steam it produces to cook rice, potatoes, beans, vegetables and meat dishes for years. Now, with the university student’s recent adaptation, the device could provide a significant medical benefit in developing countries.