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Solar car experts answer hospital call for help

by Katrina Phelps

An image of the solar taxi prototype that has been developed.UniSA solar car experts are coming to the aid of mothers and babies in Zimbabwe by developing a solar taxi to transport them to hospital, a trek otherwise made by ox cart, foot or not at all.

The team of UniSA researchers has been steadily working on the project for the past year and is now preparing to build and test the robust yet lightweight solar taxi in Adelaide before taking it to Africa in 2014.

Despite being able to source limited funding for the project, the UniSA researchers have persisted and chipped away at the project which came about after they were approached by the Italian non-government organisation Cesvi, which works with the St Albert’s Mission Hospital in northern Zimbabwe.

“The project is just too important to say we don’t have funding,” says Dr Peter Pudney, lead researcher on the project and UniSA Senior Research Fellow in the Barbara Hardy Institute.

“Hopefully once we have something to show for it, a funding organisation can pick up the project and expand it on a larger scale. It’s certainly something I could see being rolled out across the expanses of Africa and other areas across the world where transport options are very limited.”

Mothers and babies arriving at Muzarabani clinic on an ox cart ("Scotch cart").Zimbabwe has extremely high maternal mortality and morbidity rates and the lack of transport in rural areas is a key contributing factor. Giving birth at a hospital significantly reduces the risk of mortality and the risk of transmitting AIDS from mother to baby, but many women have no way of getting to maternal care. The initial stage of the project will collect women from four district health clinics located 25-75km to the south of the hospital.

Cesvi and St Albert’s Mission Hospital have a long and successful partnership, delivering substantially improved health outcomes to the people of northern Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique.

Together they pioneered the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission in Zimbabwe, which has reduced the transmission of HIV from mothers to children for babies born in medical facilities versus those born in villages without formal medical assistance.

But there is still a high rate of maternal mortality and morbidity in northern Zimbabwe so Cesvi approached Team Trev in early 2012 to help tackle the difficult transport problems which contribute to these deaths.

“At first we thought that, given the rough terrain between villages and the hospital, a conventional vehicle would be best suited to the task,” Dr Pudney explains. “But energy sources such as petrol or electricity are too expensive or unavailable in rural Zimbabwe. The only energy source that is readily available is sunlight.

“It’s been a real trade off between how heavy you make the vehicle and how far it can travel.

“The taxi will travel about 80km before it needs recharging. We are going to create two solar charging stations – one at the hospital and one at a clinic 40km south of the hospital.

“The charging stations will essentially be a container with a large battery and solar panels on the roof. The battery will collect energy from the sun and then we will transfer the electrical charge from the charging station to the taxis. So the taxis will run on the solar-charged batteries.

“The charging stations are another new concept. We hope to get a solar or battery company onboard to help us with that.”

Three UniSA final year students from Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering are working on the African Solar Taxi concept for their final year projects, while high school students at St Patricks Technical College have assisted by building a timber mock-up to test the seating layout.

UniSA’s Midwifery School has also been consulted during the design process.

The project is led by UniSA researchers who are part of Team Trev, an incorporated body that develops and promotes low-energy vehicles. Trev is a 300kg electric car built by UniSA researchers in 2005 that has gone on to compete in the World Solar Challenge and then drive around the world.

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