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Solar device sterilizes instruments

It failed as a solar stove, but this invention could be a boon to clinics in Africa

New York TimesNovember 18, 2012 


In an undated handout photo, Douglas Schuler, a Rice University business professor, holds a solar-powered autoclave. A study led by Schuler showed that the solar stove-turned-autoclave can effectively steam-sterilize surgical instruments. (Jeff Fitlow via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH STORY SLUGGED SCI SOLAR STERILIZE BY DONALD G. MCNEIL JR. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --


Solar power can steam-sterilize surgical instruments, according to a new study – but the contraption needed to do so is not pocket-size.

Sterilizing instruments needed in surgical emergencies like Caesarean births or appendectomies can be a problem in rural clinics in Africa: There may be no electricity, jugs of bleach or tanks of propane.

So a Rice University team recently modified a prototype of an old solar stove to power a simple autoclave, which is a pressure-cooker for instruments, and tested it in the Texas sun.

On all 27 attempts, it reached U.S. government sterilization standards.

How practical it is awaits African trials; it is nearly 12 feet long and 6 feet tall and has bright curved mirrors to focus sunlight on a water-filled pipe. On sunny days, it can make steam at 150 degrees Celsius (302 degrees Fahrenheit) from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Douglas A. Schuler, a Rice business professor and the lead author of the study, published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, said he “married into the project.”

His French father-in-law designed the solar stove years ago after a student trip to West Africa.

But women in Haiti, where they tested it, “just hated cooking on it,” Schuler said, so they found a different use for it.

The initial setup costs about $2,100. But sunlight costs nothing, making five years of operation about $2,000 cheaper than using propane.

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