Students build power system for African hospital

From left: Ryan Gorby, Derek Dougherty, Matt Alberda and Heidi Jiao.
From left: Ryan Gorby, Derek Dougherty, Matt Alberda and Heidi Jiao.

A group of Grand Valley engineering graduate students designed a portable medical system for a hospital in a rural part of the southeastern African country of Malawi.

The Photovoltaic Emergency Power System, which was designed to kick on when the hospital loses power especially in the middle of a surgery, was part of a class project led by Heidi Jiao, professor of engineering in the School of Engineering.

Jiao said the system has the potential to save lives. “Sometimes a patient can be lost when the power goes out, and it’s devastating,” she said.

The system—built by engineering graduate students Ryan Gorby, Matt Alberda and Derek Dougherty—is backed up by a battery and is able to provide power for two consecutive days. It’s portable and includes two emergency lights, one surgery suction system and two outlets for charging tablets and phones.

The group worked with Martha Sommers, an American physician who has been working in Malawi for more than 15 years, and her sister Veronica Sommers, an engineer who has worked with Martha in Malawi.

“Knowing our hard work may provide someone a second chance at life is the greatest reward for us,” said Gorby. “Every engineering project is rewarding to the engineers once it comes together. That is one of the aspects that draws people to the profession,” he said.

Gorby, who works at GE Aviation as a hardware architect, said the team will be training Martha on how to use and set up the system, which can be disassembled in four parts. She and a youth group with transport it to Malawi within the next year.

Alberda and Dougherty work in West Michigan as full-time engineers. Alberta is a system engineer at GE Aviation and Dougherty is an electrical design engineer at Eaton Corporation.

Another group of Grand Valley students also worked with Martha to create a medical mobile app that provides instructions to help midwives in Malawi and Haiti deliver babies without a doctor present. The app was created based on the book, “A Guide for Midwives,” which was written by Martha’s sister Mary Sommers, a midwife and childbirth educator. The app was created by computing alumnus Olvi Tole, business alumna Kelsey Waldecker, and business students James Villar, Jennifer Mast, Holly Malinowski and Michael Angerbrandt.


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