Seed Fund Winners - NOMADD: The No-water Mechanical Automated Dusting Device
At King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), energy and sustainability are primary research drivers. University scientists and engineers are continuously working on new and novel ways of sustainable power consumption.
Continuing this spirit, one of the latest Seed Fund winning teams, made up of non-academic staff and headed by KAUST Schools physics teacher Georg Eitelhuber, has designed a device that can clean dust from solar panels with one crucial difference to others on the market – it doesn’t use any water.
The journey to solar and the little-known side effects
Energy from the sun will be a prime energy source for Saudi Arabia in the journey to diversify domestic power consumption. By 2020, the Kingdom aims to generate ten per cent of domestic electricity from solar power. With that, solar panels, systems and installations are becoming evermore present in the Middle East and other desert regions around the world.
However, while solar energy is a noble and worthwhile pursuit, many have not considered the rising energy and maintenance costs of such endeavors. These problems are due to two elements: water and dust.
Dust accumulates on solar panels worldwide, but even more so in desert installations, and can cause the devices to function inadequately in poor conditions. Currently, buildings with solar panel installations use automated water cleaning devices or require teams of cleaners using hoses to wash them down. The liters of water-per-year required to clean these panels can number in the millions.
Add the environmental cost of desalinating this water and, surprisingly, solar panels become much less eco-friendly.
Fittingly named NOMADD (No water Mechanical Automated Dusting Device) and designed for use in the desert region, the invention cleans solar panels via a daily dry sweep. It uses sensors to ensure it is not cleaning during humid temperatures, as humidity turns dust to mud.
Designed to be as “low-maintenance” as possible, NOMADD is powered by solar powered, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that garner solar energy. If there is a fault with the device, users are notified via a transmitter.
Testament to the collective talents of the international community at KAUST, what’s unique about this team is that the individuals involved are not faculty, researchers or scientists. The team is made up of German-Australian founder Georg Eitelhuber, American project director Jay Larson, and Saudi Omair Taibah, a consultant working with the Technology Application and Advancement Group (TAAG).
“We have developed a unique, new mechanical system, that directs dust away from the panel surface delicately and quickly," said Mr. Eitelhuber. "Even the thick dust that you get after a rain shower or sand storm in humid conditions.”
To begin with the team used LEGOs to rapidly perform design iterations and tests that enabled them to perfect the design – a process that is common practice with design houses across the world. Now, there are only four major components to the design.
“The full-scale build will now be simple to desert proof and will ensure reliability in the field,” said Mr. Eitelhuber. “And that's exactly the spirit we have tried to capture in the name “NOMADD” – the idea of being simple, rugged and robust enough to operate effectively in harsh conditions, for extended periods of time."
From a simple idea to prototype funding
Before applying for the Seed Funding, Mr. Eitelhuber explained that the team simply had an idea for this technology, but had no knowledge of how to take it forward. Over the past 18 months they sought expert advice on this from various departments in KAUST on how to take it forward.
Initial funding was provided from the Technology Transfer and Innovation Department, along with a professional project viability study and patent application assistance. Access to test solar panels was provided by the TAAG group.
They then attended VentureLab seminars and workshops and learned how to turn their idea into a prototype. “Before the VentureLab we sort of had this vague notion as an inventor when you have an idea, you give it to someone and something magic happens and you make money,” said Mr. Eitelhuber. “Getting that idea out of the clouds and into a systematic process of risk reduction and opportunity identification is what the Seed Feed has allowed us to do.”
“Georg and Jay were a great fit for VentureLab,” added Oleg Kaganovich, Director of New Ventures and VentureLab founder. “The program is designed to help scientists think like entrepreneurs, obtain a unique startup experience, and create a product to benefit KAUST, Saudi Arabia and the world. Georg and Jay had an idea and were working on a prototype, without sufficient clarity on the business opportunity, model, customer and specific market need. As an entrepreneurship development program that helps teams turn ideas into businesses and projects into prototypes through a hands-on, customer-focused iterative process, VentureLab helped them refine and focus.”
“The coaching and mentoring we received really let us understand the territory we were moving into. And that was something we had no idea of before,” said Mr. Eitelhuber. "From that experience we were able to map out clear goals and vision for the future of NOMADD.”
With the Seed Fund award the NOMADD team will develop a commercial prototype of the device in the next year, and then look towards distributing it in the Saudi market thereafter.
Strong community support
The team extended their thanks to the community and the various departments within Economic Development for all the support they received in the run-up to the last Seed Fund round.
“The amount of congratulations and support we got from everyone in the community was great. It’s been really heartening and has really helped us through, and it is such an honor to share this success with the community. I even hope a few people may be inspired by this to “give it a go” themselves,” said Mr. Eitelhuber.
“We feel we are testament to the fact that KAUST can recognize a good idea, and is then willing to back it and push it forward. That lets people know they are part of a community that has vision. We take great pride in driving a project like this, that will hopefully be one of many great solutions that KAUST will produce and address the world energy challenge.”
The KAUST Seed Fund Program is a product development funding mechanism that can take promising ideas further toward commercialization, and ultimately lead to the formation of a new business. The Seed Fund is part of the New Ventures group.
VentureLab is a KAUST Entrepreneurship Center program, which is part of the New Ventures group.