Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Solar powered autoclave sterilizes medical equipment in off-grid locales

Solar powered autoclave sterilizes medical equipment in off-grid locales

Solar powered autoclave sterilizes medical equipment in off-grid locales

Sterile medical equipment is crucial in preventing infection, and something we take for granted with our powerful, industrial autoclaves. But in the thousands of off-the-grid clinics and health stations around the world, creating sterile equipment isn't so easy. That's why The Little Devices group at MIT choose it as a challenge, and their solution was a solar concentrating system that sterilizes medical tools using locally sourced materials and the sun.

The SolarClave uses the build up of the sun's power to heat and pressurise a chamber filled with medical equipment, killing any dangerous microbes. The system suspends an insulated "cooker" in a bucket over an array of 140 pocket sized mirrors. On a clear day, the mirrors concentrate the sun's power over 45 - 60 minutes to 250 degrees Fahrenheit - the temperature needed to sterilze the equipment. The sterilization cycle then takes 20 minutes.

The system meets U.S. Centers for Disease Control standards.

One of the critical measures for the team at MIT was that the system not be developed in the vacuum of laboratory conditions. They worked with nurse practitioners and health care workers in the field in Nicaragua to get feedback on how the device would best work in real world conditions - and how it could be sustainable in remote locations.

The team at MIT are the first to point out the input from the users in the field helped create a simpler, more effective solution in the end. First attempts used a boiler suspended over foil reflectors and a system of tubing to power a sterilization chamber a few feet away. This proved complicated to build, operate and fix in the field. 

The current solution with the mirror array uses a simpler "pressure cooker" over the mirror array, which is easier to fix if there is damage to one of the mirrors. It doesn't knock out the entire system, and replacement mirrors are more readily available than specialized foil or large mirror panels. 

Currently, remote clinics in Nicaragua and around the world have to rely on existing kerosene powered autoclaves or in more dire conditions, boiling medical tools. In many cases, the only solution is transporting a patient to one of these clinics or more sterile hospitals - incurring added time and risks a patient may not be able to bear. 

The SolarClave could prove to be a viable first line of defense against infection for those treated in local off-the-grid clinics. The system will be tested in three locations in Nicaragua over the summer and a search for local producers will follow. 

SolarClave via SmartPlanet, MIT News
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