Graduate student Amy Mueller, an engineer turned energy entrepreneur, never imagined her vintage motorcycle hobby would one day help people in developing countries.
Mueller has journeyed to Africa several times to prototype solar turbines built from scrap automotive parts. Since she built her own motorcycle from recycled components, she’s no stranger to the concept. And today, as co-director of the Solar Turbine Group (STG) — a group of four MIT students and two recent graduates — she’s working on still more solar energy solutions for rural parts of Lesotho, a country in southern Africa.
Mueller’s turbines capture a source of clean, renewable energy for impoverished communities through a series of aluminum troughs that power a simple engine. The engine in turn provides refrigeration, heat, cooling, and cell phone- and battery-charging capabilities.
Thanks to Mueller, a girls’ high school in a mountainous part of the country now has not only a solar-powered computer lab but also a hot-water source for the winter months, when temperatures can dip below freezing. And local women no longer spend long hours collecting plant life for fuel — a practice that’s a major factor in the ongoing deforestation of Lesotho.
Mueller, having grown up in the small city of Mequon, Wisc., credits her experiences there with fostering her interest in social justice and the environment. “I grew up in a green-minded community, and was looking for an opportunity to make a difference. I’m not on the usual ‘get yourself out of graduate school as quickly as possible’ pathway. I want to use my education to help people,” she says.
Under Mueller’s leadership, the solar turbine design twice won the MIT IDEAS Competition, a contest that challenges students to use technology to change the world.
The Solar Turbine Group also won a $130,000 World Bank grant to refine the technology, and also to implement a training and microfinance model to sustain the project locally.
Mueller attended the awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. “People had flown in from remote corners of the globe just to get this funding. It was an honor to be chosen,” she says.
When in Cambridge, Mueller rides to classes on her customized 1976 Honda motorcycle. Mueller’s commute, made possible in part by recycled parts from local garages, reminds her of friends and colleagues back in Africa. “We’re going to incorporate the Solar Turbine Group as a nonprofit organization. We’re training locals and partnering with the right people to sustain the project. The technology, and the right model, they’re just about there,” she says.