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The Statesman


New mobile solar generator designed to power medical devices in blackouts

Brooke Ellison, shown above center, with her family at a Reeve Foundation gala in 2004, allowed researchers to test a mobile solar generator at her home for six months (PHOTO CREDIT : MCT CAMPUS)
Brooke Ellison, shown above center, with her family at a Reeve Foundation gala in 2004, allowed researchers to test a mobile solar generator at her home for six months. (PHOTO CREDIT : TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, Brooke Ellison and her team of science researchers embarked on a nearly two-year long project intending to tackle the issue of long-term power outages in communities suffering from natural disasters. Ellison allowed researchers to use her home for the field testing of a mobile solar generator for nearly six months, from February to June.

Ellison is the director of education at Stony Brook University’s Stem Cell Research Facility, the associate director of the Center for Community Engagement and Leadership Development and an assistant professor in the Ph.D. program in behavioral and community health.

A result of much deliberation and analysis among her colleagues in the School of Health Technology and Management and herself, the National Science Foundation/Department of Education-funded project aimed to “address those in need during a natural disaster,” Ellison said. The slant at which it was taken, however, coincided directly with Ellison’s personal health experience: living on a ventilator.

Ellison invested in the Nextek Power Systems STAR battery unit, complete with solar generator capabilities and battery storage. The STAR unit, which Ellison said was “used in Haiti several years ago, and on the South Shore to power some communities,” was tested by engineers in Ellison’s driveway.

While she said she owns “a propane-powered generator that turns on automatically when it senses power failure…what was most stressful was that the generator we had was never tested for the length of time it would be in use, and we lost power for ten days during the disaster.” Typically, generators are not designed to last that long, Ellison explained.

The way the technology works involves the conservation and conversion of solar energy. If a backup generator were to fail and the STAR unit were connected to a circuit, the STAR unit would supply the home with power while restoring the generator’s power. The approximately 10-foot-by-4-foot unit was “strange at first, but soon became an extension of the house as we moved towards alternative energy,” Ellison said.

“We wanted to form a think tank for solutions,” Ellison said, adding that “in the midst of evolving ideas, Superstorm Sandy hit.” She immediately highlighted her main goal as determining “what it [living on a ventilator] means to one’s quality of life.”

She said her family, as well as those living on ventilators around the world, faced a plethora of varying “health crises” due to their inarguably essential need for uninterrupted power.

The recommended course of action set forth by power suppliers at the time was to “go to the hospital,” Ellison recalled, perhaps one of “the most dangerous places to be, due to possible exposure to infection, and a host of other problems.”

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Feb. 28 report, “New York’s Bellevue Hospital Takes Mitigation Steps After Hurricane Sandy,” Bellevue Hospital which services more than 500,000 patients annually, was “forced…to close temporarily and move patients.”

The plight of this hospital, in addition to the many other challenges faced during the hurricane, brings into question the preparedness of medical departments and the availability of necessary equipment like ventilators in the face of an unforeseen disaster—further substantiating Ellison’s comments.

Ellison said what started out as a couple of researchers in a room soon grew across Stony Brook University’s Engineering Department through the involvement of Nextek, a Detroit-based tech company that provides people with energy-saving technology, and organizations like FEMA, the Department of Health and Human Services and multiple community partners.

Her team’s long-term plan for the STAR unit includes first and foremost making it portable to homes in need, and later to campus departments with a mass consumption of energy.

“The FEMA units are already in circulation, and go for about $25,000 per unit,” Ellison said. Deconstructing all arguments regarding the high cost of the unit, Ellison calls on the thousands of dollars spent in uncomfortable hospital intensive care units, for the sole purpose of access to a ventilator. In this way, the STAR unit becomes more practical and tends to a wider array of situations—not to mention “the level of comfort and security one feels in their own home.”

“This was an adaptation we never expected,” Ellison said of the alternative solar energy unit. “It’s a perfect example of the tremendous benefits derived when different departments and disciplines start working together.”

“The Engineering Department would never have known this was a problem, had we not reached out to them…talent would have been lost,” she said.

Ellison was recently nominated to be a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum. Being a Young Global Leader means being given a “five- to six-year term to help address problems on a  global level,” Ellison said. She said her ultimate hope is to one day see the mobile solar unit be brought to a global level.

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