Solar-powered cold storage system could help avert hunger

From January through April, few international tourists can forget the torrential downpours and ferocious storms pummeling Nigeria’s major cities and muddy gridlocked, traffic-choked roads. Just consider this incident in March, when a mid-day deluge…

Solar-powered cold storage system could help avert hunger

From January through April, few international tourists can forget the torrential downpours and ferocious storms pummeling Nigeria’s major cities and muddy gridlocked, traffic-choked roads. Just consider this incident in March, when a mid-day deluge swept through Abuja, the country’s capital, leaving millions of people without power. While most damage was confined to the capital, many of Nigeria’s larger cities suffered significant destruction. At the time, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced he would be sending emergency teams to help the millions of affected citizens.

That’s where a Virginia Tech research team and new collaboration with the government of Nigeria began working on one of the biggest relief projects – the country’s first solar-powered cold storage system. The effort aims to ensure a steady supply of fresh food for many of Nigeria’s growing population of citizens.

“This project has been two years in the making,” said Kumareswaran Arasan, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “It started out as research questions. We wanted to understand why foods stayed fresh in a heatwave.”

As part of that research, Arasan’s team conducted several experiments on the effect of climate change on the physical properties of foods, including rice, sugar cane, and coffee. While the standard forms of energy, like solar and wind, could positively affect the quality of a food, such energy sources alone couldn’t guarantee its proper preservation, so the researchers investigated other options.

The research team’s result was a cold storage system equipped with natural solar photovoltaic cells that, when operating at full capacity, can store up to 35 percent of the corn crop’s energy when it’s in prime production.

Agriculture is a strategic sector in Nigeria, and one in which opportunities to stimulate economic growth and employment abound. At the same time, agricultural production in Nigeria suffers from numerous structural and policy challenges. These include poor access to land, high land prices, the imposition of value chains that restrict crop production, logistics that can make it challenging to meet transportation needs, and large distances in which to grow and export crops. These constraints impact the productivity and sustainability of agriculture, which has little relationship to other sectors of the economy.

In 2015, with the objective of developing a climate-smart solution to climate change, Arasan, his team, and the Nigerian government came together to design and develop cold storage systems using solar energy and specialized equipment. The Nigerian government initially planned to build about 100 systems with the support of the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency of Nigeria (SMEDAN). However, SMEDAN found that implementing 100 cold storage systems in Nigeria would take several years and they didn’t want to wait that long. So, the team began design of the next-generation cold storage system with the goal of building 100 units within the next three years.

Their solution is a cold storage system built using 100% natural, solar photovoltaic cells that store enough energy to keep grains and other foods in good condition for up to 30 days. The equipment – patented and displayed at the Irrua Regional Fair in 2016 – connects to the grid using a battery system.

“It’s remarkable,” Arasan said. “You don’t see one much.”

[Backgrid]

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