600px-Pvreprap2One of the things that has made 3D printing so helpful is its portability. The impact the technology has made in developing countries is largely due to the fact that printers can be taken into remote areas, and crucial parts can be churned out in a matter of hours. Organizations like Field Ready and Enabling the Future, among many others, are built on their ability to reach even the most isolated people, in refugee camps, rural mountainous communities, or disaster-damaged towns. There’s one problem that does present itself, however. Frequently, the areas in most need of help are lacking in electricity, or only have inconsistent access.

There have been some creative solutions to work around the lack of electricity; Field Ready, for example, has powered its printers by hooking them up to car batteries. Solutions like that have their limits, though, especially when trying to take printers directly into people’s homes. Moreover, part of the goal of the aforementioned relief organizations is to introduce 3D printing as a permanent solution that can be implemented by locals, rather than a temporary one dependent on the presence of outside agencies.

That’s where solar power comes in. As we’ve seen, solar power has been right up there with 3D printing in terms of sustainable technology. Researchers at the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Lab (MOST) have developed an open source solar powered 3D printer that can be transported easily and operated in zero-electricity environments. The research group has been working on solar powered printers for a while, and their latest developments have been published in a paper called High-Efficiency Solar-Powered 3-D Printers for Sustainable Development.

300px-OSHlogoMOST is run by Dr. Joshua Pearce, a champion of the RepRap movement in 3D printing. The solar powered printers were developed from MOST’s convertible delta RepRap printer; links to all files, schematics and instructions for the group’s open source technology are available for free here. The newest iteration of the solar powered printer is even more efficient and effective, in that it can operate consistently through a single battery, even when there is a low amount of sunlight available.

“The open source electric control systems enables the 3-D printer to be autonomously powered from a battery when the PV modules are not supplying enough power, and then switch to charging the battery whenever there is excess power,” the study states. “Buck converters are used to control the voltage from the PV modules and the battery, while simplifying the electrical design compared to previous work.”
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The printer was subjected to extensive outdoor testing under varied conditions that included very low sunlight as well as zero sunlight. When operated by the battery alone, the printer can run uninterrupted for over seven hours, a major improvement over previous iterations, which required multiple batteries to keep them going. This means that the new version is not only more reliable, but it’s smaller and less expensive to make. It can be built for under $1,000, and is now small enough to fit into a 36-inch duffel bag. It can also be modified to accommodate a variety of tools. More information about this and other solar powered printers can be found here.
duffelbag“The results show the system performed as required under all conditions providing feasibility for adoption in off-grid rural communities,” says Dr. Pearce. “3-D printers powered by affordable mobile PV solar systems have a great potential to reduce poverty through employment creation, as well as ensuring a constant supply of scarce products for isolated communities.”
Those products include everything from replacement parts for existing items to vital supplies like eyeglasses. The newest updates to the solar-powered printer, which is still expected to undergo further developments, are another step closer to allowing impoverished societies to become fully autonomous through what the study calls “backyard factories,” even without access to electricity. Are you involved in any 3D printing projects currently that involve solar power? Tell us about it in the Michigan Tech Solar 3D Printers forum over at 3DPB.com.
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