Students design solar-powered autoclave

May 3, 2011 at 7:47 PM

HOUSTON, May 3 (UPI) -- Students at a U.S. university say sun power could sterilize medical instruments, helping solve a longstanding health issue for developing countries.

Engineering students at Rice University have fashioned a sterilizing autoclave using a Capteur Soliel, a device created decades ago by French inventor to capture the energy of the sun in places where electricity -- or fuel of any kind -- is hard to get, a university release reported Tuesday.

The Capteur Soleil is a steel A-frame with a bed of curved mirrors beneath the frame that produce steam by focusing sunlight along a steel tube at the frame's apex.

The Rice researchers use the steam to heat a custom-designed conductive hotplate in an insulated box to create an autoclave.

"It basically becomes a stovetop, and you can heat anything you need to," said Sam Major, a member of the team with seniors Daniel Rist, David Luker and William Dunk. "As long as the autoclave reaches 121 Celsius (250 F) for 30 minutes (the standard set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), everything should be sterile, and we've found we're able to do that pretty easily.

"We put about an inch of water inside, followed by the basket with the tools and syringes," Major said. "We've used some biological spores from a test kit, steamed them, and then incubated them for 24 hours and they came back negative for biological growth. That means we killed whatever was in there."

"This is really the latest iteration of a much larger project," said the team's faculty adviser Doug Schuler. "We already have a version of the Capteur Soleil being used in Haiti for cooking, but we felt it could do more."

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