Taking inspiration from nature to solve solar energy challenges

NYU Abu Dhabi Sophomores Mohamed Amine Belarbi, Coezette Sibanda and Ping-yi "Benny" Lu entered their project Hydrotech in the Siemens Student Award ...

Mar 1, 2014

NYU Abu Dhabi Sophomores Mohamed Amine Belarbi, Coezette Sibanda and Ping-yi "Benny" Lu entered their project Hydrotech in the Siemens Student Award Middle East 2013 competition, which aims to create projects that solve real-world problems in a sustainable manner. The students participated in the biomimicry tract, one of four different categories in the competition. Participants came primarily from the Gulf region and included college students as well as post-doctoral fellows.
Their project focuses on mimicking the Namib Desert beetle, which lives in one of the driest deserts in the world, located on the southwest coast of Africa. Due to the unique surface of its back, the beetle is able to obtain water from ocean fog and condense it for consumption.
Belarbi explained that their project aimed to tackle the inefficiency of solar panels around the UAE. He attributed the main problems of solar use to two factors: dust accumulation and lack of water. Since the solar panels must be cleaned constantly in order to ensure maximum absorption of the sun’s energy, a large amount of labor and water is needed.
To solve this problem, Hydrotech proposed a wiper-like mechanism which, similar to that of the Namib Desert beetle, can acquire water from the humid air around it in order to clean the solar panels. The team predicted that the device would increase the efficiency of the solar panels by 15 percent and help light up an additional 9,000 homes, saving up to 40 million AED over 30 years.
“It is an independent, cost-effective and highly efficient automated solution because it eliminates the need for manual labour to carry out the cleaning process,” Belarbi said.
“It allows you to move forward in the solar industry. This country has a huge potential market in solar energy simply because we receive so much sunlight, and our project provides a prototype for the UAE to move towards a successful non-oil based economy,” he said.
The team was awarded second place in the overall Siemens Competition and won the biomimicry tract. They hope to take their project to the next level by creating a realistic prototype and then secure funding for a small-scale application. The NYUAD Engineering Department has generously offered to support the Hydrotech project project, which is currently awaiting approval for a scientific patent in the United States.
Belarbi had advice to give young innovators.
“Always be on the look out for competitions such as this one. If you don’t enter, there is no chance that you will win. The [Career Development Centre] and other university offices are always posting such competitions on the Student Portal, and you should make full use of these resources. It doesn’t hurt to compete — you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
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