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Engineering a response to world hunger—the solar food dryer

2/2/11

A group of Northeastern University engineering students has come up with a low-cost way to help the world’s poor preserve food with the power of the sun.

The team — seniors Brian Arena, Nicholas Daggett, Andrew Gawla and Joshua Gomes —was advised by mechanical and industrial engineering professor Mohammad Taslim, and presented the solar food dryer as its senior capstone project.

The simplest form of preventing spoilage is to remove moisture from fruits and vegetables in order to extend their storage lives, explained team members.

"The objective of the capstone project was to find a more viable solution to what is most often a do-it-yourself project, which usually involves fashioning a homemade dryer out of common materials like wood, aluminum and glass," said Taslim.

"Typically solar dryers sit next to a house or building structure and are one-directional," said Gawlak. "Our design is unique because it is omnidirectional and can take advantage of the sun from any angle."

The design uses a 360-degree solar collection surface. The team believes there is nothing else like this available and that their design brings increased efficiency compared to current solar dryers.

"One of the most unique technical features of the design is the creation of a natural flow of air over the fruits and vegetables to be dried," explained Taslim. "Existing market products only expose the fruits and vegetables to direct sun. That may bring them to a cooking temperature. Our design removes the water content of the fruits and vegetables by creating a continuous flow of air over them."

The team was inspired by a friend volunteering with the Peace Corps on an organic fruit and vegetable farm in Uganda. In conducting their research, the students found that in some countries, up to 50 percent of food spoils before it can be eaten. With product accessibility in mind, the design was kept at a budget of $40.

The group’s design is a collapsible, lightweight solution and is designed for portability so the product can be taken wherever it is needed. The assembly of the dehydrator is similar to that of a small tent, and features a removable food-drying compartment.

"We’ve been in touch with the Peace Corps and hope to see the dryer produced and sent to developing nations," said Gawlak. "A product like this could help ensure that produce is not going to waste due to spoilage."

The university’s office of technology innovation and commercialization is working with the team to make the device accessible to developing countries.

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