Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009

Harvesting Sunlight

Sunlight may be free, but converting it into electricity is expensive. Leave it to Rice students to find alternative solutions to the problem.

“We want to alleviate energy problems in some of the poorest regions of the world, so we’re using low-cost technology to capture the sun’s heat for cooking and other uses,” said team leader Doug Schuler, associate professor of management in Rice’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business. Schuler is the principal investigator on a seed grant from Rice’s Shell Center for Sustainability that aims to commercialize a technology called “Capteur Soleil.”

Capteur SoleilCapteur Soleil, which is French for solar capture, is the brainchild of French inventor Jean Boubour, Schuler’s co-investigator on the grant. Boubour invented the device after searching in vain for a simple, motorless solar technology that would be inexpensive enough for rural Africa.

Capteur Soleil looks something like an ultramodern lawn swing holding a bed of curved mirrors. The mirrors focus sunlight onto a steel pipe at the apex of the frame. Water running through the pipe is converted into steam, which can be used for cooking and other tasks like making soap or sterilizing medical instruments.

Schuler’s team is building prototypes in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen for testing in developing nations. The team hopes to show that the devices can pay for themselves easily by offsetting the cost of propane, which currently is used despite its high cost in remote, rural communities.

The first Capteur Soleil prototype was installed in Terrier Rouge, Haiti, at St. Barthelemy School, which hosted undergraduate interns from Rice’s Beyond Traditional Borders program last summer. Schuler hopes the Capteur Soleil can save the 450-student elementary school thousands of dollars per year in fuel costs.

Boubour and Claire Krebs ’09, a mechanical engineering major, built the first prototype in about two weeks. A second prototype will be tested in Nicaragua this fall. A third prototype will stay at the design kitchen for testing by students in bioengineering design courses next fall.