When the Santa Clara University students landed in Nicaragua, they quickly learned how much they'd taken for granted. Some outlying communities there have no power grid, so many homes have a solar panel or a wind turbine hooked up to a bucket of car batteries.
"Wind and solar have very intermittent power supplies, so you need some sort of energy storage device to provide power when the wind isn't blowing, when the sun isn't shining," said Michael Sizemore, a Santa Clara University senior.
But often, those same communities have no trash pickup. One student explained, "That smoke [in their video] is them burning trash. They burned their garbage, it was really nasty."
If they burn their garbage, it means the dead batteries wind up polluting the environment. So that's where the students' invention comes in.
"It's a technology that we hope can replace large scale batteries someday," said Sizemore.
The students created a small, rechargeable fuel cell. It charges by using solar and wind energy to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then, when the sun goes down and the wind stops, it lets those gases out of the tanks to form water again in a chemical reaction that makes electricity. The secret is a rubbery membrane that soaks up water like a sponge, instead of pumping it, which saves energy. The invention won them a prize from the Environmental Protection Agency in a national competition.
For the students, the award represents not only an engineering achievement, but also a milestone toward fulfilling the dream of the young professor who started this project before he died tragically last September.
"Anything you would want out of a teacher, Dan was," said Sizemore.
Professor Dan Strickland hand-picked these engineering seniors to work on the project before he died in a car crash on Highway 280.
"He interviewed them and he picked the ones that he felt kind of think like him. So in some way, I see a little bit of Dan in all these students," said Shoba Krishnan, Ph.D., a Santa Clara Electrical Engineering professor.
His colleague, Krishnan, took over the project after the students decided to continue it -- in Strickland's honor and with federal backing. The prize they won comes with a $90,000 grant to continue their research.
"I feel Dan would be very proud of us, if he could see us now," said Sandeep Lele, a Santa Clara University senior.