Microformer team wins second place in student humanitarian competition

September 30, 2011

Three UW-Madison College of Engineering graduate students won second place and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) 2011 Distinguished Student Humanitarian Prize for their work on the Microformer, a low-cost transformer built with recycled electrical components.

Microformer team
From left: Dan Ludois, Jonathan Lee and Patricio
Mendoza Araya
Dan Ludois, Patricio Mendoza and Jonathan Lee beat out 13 other finalists and 209 international entries to receive $5,000 toward developing their concept as a method of affordable electrification for underdeveloped parts of the world. The prize was part of the IEEE Presidents' Change the World competition.

The project began as an entry in the 2010 Climate Leadership Challenge, where it won first prize. The Climate Leadership Challenge is an annual student innovation competition run by the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment that seeks proposals for products or programs that address the causes or impacts of climate change. "We got together to realize a childhood idea of mine," says Ludois. "It's a means of electrifying areas with little to no cost using completely recyclable components."

The group's concept involves placing transformers from discarded appliances inside recycled paint cans with some oil, creating cheap, medium-voltage transformers. These "microformers" could be used to build an inexpensive distribution network to deliver electricity from any power source-churches, schools or wind turbines, depending on the area-to small, remote homes that have no electrical infrastructure nearby. "If you've ever been around the UW campus on move-out day, the streets are filled with literally hundreds of microwaves. Everywhere, " Ludois says. "There's so much waste, particularly electronic waste, generated in our society.

This is kind of neat in the sense that it's a small step toward taking a bit of waste and re-purposing it." Since the initial competition, the team has implemented several test installations to spread the word about its idea. As a proof-of-concept, they built a Microformer network at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station that transports electricity from a nearby wind turbine to a tool shed. Mendoza took the concept to his home country of Chile, where he taught students at the University of Chile how to assemble their own Microformers for use in a sustainable energy community project, the Energia Sustentable Condor.

"They have their own energy generation through solar panels and wind turbines, but the problem they had was that the wind turbines were far away from the community," Mendoza says. "The Microformer became the perfect solution." Through demonstrations and competitions, the Microformer team hopes to capture the attention of both the engineering community and other organizations that might be interested in pursuing the technology. Next, the team will present a paper about the Microformer at the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference in Seattle in October.

Ultimately, this mission of promoting the virtues of the Microformer as widely as possible led the team to make the entire project open-source, available to anyone interested in building one.

"In the end, we knew that we couldn't go to all of the places that we wanted to affect with the idea," Lee explains. "The idea needs to be out there and available for actors who want to go to underdeveloped regions and give local governments or local NGOs another tool to help them electrify places that don't have electricity."

The team likely will use its prize money for that purpose, keeping the Microformer website active as a place where anyone can access information about building a Microformer power grid.