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Portable batteries for a better quality of life

Generating and storing electricity free of charge and independent of location with a mobile solar power plant: this is how the company MPower intends to give people in sub-Saharan Africa more freedom and autonomy. ZHAW researchers support the project.

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Not only for private use: the portable battery storage units also serve to boost sales in local shops.

In the sub-Saharan zone, around 65 percent of people live without access to the electricity grid. The problem is particularly prevalent in rural areas. In addition to the approximately 634 million people in the region who live "off-grid", there are millions who struggle with unreliable electricity supplies. MPower wants to tackle this problem in an innovative way.

Together with the ZHAW Institute of Energy Systems and Fluid Engineering (IEFE) and the Ticino University of Applied Sciences SUPSI, MPower is working on a solution that is both reliable and environmentally friendly. Instead of generating electricity by burning fossil fuels, as has been the case up to now, MPower is focusing on a renewable source. Portable solar panels enable the charging of a battery that is designed for long life. The modular design of the energy storage units ensures that repairs can be carried out easily. Using specially developed software, MPower detects potential problems at an early stage and can thus protect the batteries from defects. The company also uses a new type of charging process: it enables batteries to be charged around 20 percent faster than before without heating them up additionally. Even dust and water cannot harm the devices: They are passively cooled and can therefore be completely sealed.

A pre-series model is being developed

The project supported by Innosuisse has recently reached the go/no-go milestone – the concept phase and basic clarification are now complete. Manuel Räber from the IEFE now has the task of developing a pre-series model of the battery storage unit. He is currently researching the individual components before assembling them into a compact portable energy storage device. The project ends at the end of 2020 – from then on it will be in MPower's hands to make further improvements and, above all, to bring the product to the customer. In Zambia, Cameroon and Togo, MPower already sells devices that can convert solar energy into usable electricity and store it. However, these devices still have a lot of room for improvement in terms of service life and functionality. This is precisely where the IEFE comes in. "A lifespan of five to ten years is the goal," explains Manuel Räber. To achieve this, he is working on power electronics, battery management and battery modules. The power electronics are responsible for enabling power conversion and thus harnessing the sun's energy. The battery management continuously checks the temperature and voltage of the battery block and switches off the power supply in an emergency.

An ambitious undertaking

The goals of the project are ambitious. The aim is to supply 280,000 households with electricity by 2024. This will give several hundred thousand people access to affordable, clean and reliable electricity. With its work, the IEFE can contributes to improving the quality of life of countless people.