Fourth Year Engineering

Developing Cheap Efficient Water Turbines for a Remote Hill Tribe in South West China
(Alex Norman)

Bamboo turbineFor my 4th-year project, I wanted something which would give me experience working with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in 3rd-world development, ideally including research in the field. Countless meetings and e-mails later, I spent the summer between my 3rd and 4th years in China.

The project focussed on the Lisu people, a hill tribe in remote South-Western China. The aim was to give them an energy source for cooking to replace the use of fuel wood, which is leading to deforestation and serious erosion on the steep terrain.

I interviewed the Lisu villagers and evaluated their resources, before concluding that the main avenue for improvement lay in developing cheap but efficient water turbines that could be built and maintained in the hills. I designed, constructed and tested some sample turbines from bamboo and bicycle parts, as shown in the image.

They proved to be very efficient, and from this, I produced a blueprint for constructing turbines in Lisuland which Western agriculturalists working there are now using to produce a complete system which can be presented, demonstrated and taught to the Lisu tribe, with the intention that they then reproduce the systems themselves and teach others to do so.

It was as this second phase of work in China was getting under way that the project drew attention from the Royal Academy of Engineering Award for projects in 'sustainable development design', being nominated as the winner in Cambridge and coming second in the national poster competition held in London in July.

Development work can be very frustrating indeed; just finding the problem may involve overcoming huge cultural barriers and mutual misunderstandings, but it's incredibly interesting, educational and rewarding.