Engineering Students Are Using the Sun to Power an Autoclave

Rice University senior engineering students are using the sun to power an autoclave that sterilizes medical instruments and help solve a long-standing health issue for developing countries.

The student's used Capteur Soleil, a device created decades ago by French inventor Jean Boubour to capture the energy of the sun in places where electricity -- or fuel of any kind -- is hard to get. In attaching an insulated box containing the autoclave, the students transform the device into a potential lifesaver.

The Capteur Soleil, which sits outside Rice's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, looks something like an ultramodern lawn swing. Its spine is a steel A-frame, and a bed of curved mirrors beneath the frame produces steam by focusing sunlight along a steel tube at the frame's apex. Rather than pump steam directly into the autoclave, the Rice team's big idea was to use the steam to heat a custom-designed conductive hotplate.

"It basically becomes a stovetop, and you can heat anything you need to," said Sam Major, a member of the team with seniors Daniel Rist, David Luker and William Dunk, all mechanical engineering students. "As long as the autoclave reaches 121 Celsius for 30 minutes (the standard set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), everything should be sterile, and we've found we're able to do that pretty easily."

A team of Rice University mechanical engineering students have modified the Capteur Soleil to heat an autoclave, used to sterilize medical instruments.
He said one person could easily adjust the Capteur Soleil by ratcheting up the back leg to align the mirrors with the sun. Within half an hour of receiving strong sunlight, the Capteur Soleil will begin to produce steam, which will in turn heat the patterned hotplate and then the standard-issue, FDA-approved autoclave. With good midday sun, Major said, it takes 40 minutes to an hour to begin significant heating of the autoclave.

The autoclave, which looks like a tricked-out pressure cooker, has a steamer basket inside. "We put about an inch of water inside, followed by the basket with the tools and syringes," Major said. "We've used some biological spores from a test kit, steamed them, and then incubated them for 24 hours and they came back negative for biological growth. That means we killed whatever was in there."

The autoclave, tucked inside a plywood frame, is wrapped in silicon-based Thermablok insulation, which has the highest R-value of any known material and is a spinoff from NASA research into thermal protection for the space shuttle. "This thin layer does most of the work," Major said. "We used standard pink insulation around the inside just to make the box stronger."

"This is really the latest iteration of a much larger project," said Doug Schuler, the team's faculty adviser and an associate professor of business and public policy at Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business. "We already have a version of the Capteur Soleil being used in Haiti for cooking, but we felt it could do more."

Download Center

  • Your Guide to Environmental Metrics that Drive Performance

    Translating sustainability into action starts with implementing the right metrics to assess your environmental risk and performance. Learn how to design metrics that improve your decision-making process and drive enterprise performance.

  • Unpacking ESG: 6 Questions You Were Too Afraid to Ask

    Environmental and Sustainability experts from Arcadis and Cority answer 6 of the most pressing questions EHS professionals have about getting started with Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting.

  • 5 Keys to Best-in-Class Chemical Management

    Running a safe chemical program is challenging and complex: from knowing what's on-site to proper handling and disposal - all while navigating regulatory changes. Learn the best ways to mitigate chemical risk, get the most value out of your data, and gain buy-in for a chemical management solution.

  • Streamline Your Air Emissions Management

    See how consolidating all your emissions management functions into one centralized system can help you streamline your operations, more easily maintain compliance, and achieve greater time and cost savings.

  • A Crash Course in Creating the Right Environmental Scoring System

    Learn how to develop the right environmental scoring system so you can easily benchmark performance across all your facilities and gain a holistic view of your environmental programs.

  • Industry Safe