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“By bringing personal power to some of the world’s most remote locations, the WindPax solution opens a whole range of possibilities.” - Justin Chambers, President, WindPax LLC
Around the world, more than 1.5 billion people live without access to electricity and an equal number cannot rely on their local electrical grids. Justin Chambers, founder and president of WindPax, sees this crisis as a design opportunity.
Provide affordable electricity to those who lack.
Distribute collapsible wind turbines.
As a senior-year mechanical engineering student, Justin Chambers and his advisor Dr. James Smith envisioned a personal wind turbine that outdoor enthusiasts, first responders, and military personnel could carry anywhere. Now, as a doctoral student in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at West Virginia University, Justin is continuing his quest to transform that vision into a successful technology enterprise.
“At first, all we wanted to do was reduce the number of batteries that people had to carry into the field,” says Chambers. “With a collapsible wind turbine, they could recharge the original set of batteries every night.”
After founding WindPax and exploring potential applications for the technology, Chambers soon realized that perhaps the most meaningful opportunity of all lay in the developing world, where roughly one fifth of the earth’s population lives without access to electricity.
“Through the Wisp, the company’s first collapsible wind turbine, WindPax can deliver lightweight, affordable wind turbines to people in remote areas of the developing world,” says Chambers. Available in 25-, 100-, and 400-watt configurations, portable WindPax turbines can supply enough electricity to power LED lights and small electronic devices, such as GPS systems and cell phones, as well as small refrigeration and health-related appliances.
“What motivates us is that we can take an idea and turn it into a design that could impact more than a billion people.” —Justin Chambers, President/Founder, WindPax LLC
Ideas are the easy part. “The big obstacle is going from idea to product and then to market,” says Chambers. To do that, one of Chambers’ first steps was assembling a team of engineers, designers, managers, and advisers who shared his passion for wind turbine technology and for bringing personal electrical power to the developing world.
“You have to surround yourself with the right people,” says Chambers. “It takes a special kind of person who wants to put in 12-hour days or get up in the middle of the night to answer emails. But once you have a network of people with that level of passion, it becomes easier to do everything—from creating and testing a functional prototype to raising funds and beginning manufacturing. What motivates us is that we can take an idea and turn it into a design that could impact more than a billion people. That’s amazing. "
Right from the start, Chambers knew that it was possible to design a portable, collapsible, wind turbine. The challenge lay in creating such a turbine that was durable, lightweight, and affordable to inhabitants of the developing world.
“It was also important to keep the design simple enough that it was as easy to ship and assemble as any other piece of field equipment, such as a tent,” says Chambers.
Chambers and his design team sought to minimize the number of turbine components and make them as interchangeable as possible. “By keeping the number of parts to a minimum, we hoped to make the turbines easy for people in remote areas to disassemble and repair with items common to those areas,” says Chambers.
“We want our wind turbines to empower people in the developing world, rather than just supply them with a product,” says Chambers. “Providing power day and night is just the first step.”
Using the turbines, which are manufactured from lightweight and commonly available aluminum and plastic parts, people in remote areas of the developing world can power LED lights and charge small electronic equipment, such as cell phones and GPS devices. “By introducing power, we’re also introducing new useful technology that people can use to better their lives.”
Because the WindPax design is relatively simple, Chambers also hopes to empower people in the developing world to assemble and distribute wind turbines in remote areas of the developing world. “This will create local jobs in manufacturing and distribution, as well as a new energy economy, in areas where none exist at the moment,” says Chambers.
By enlisting local support, Chambers also believes that it will be possible to spread the WindPax solution to more remote and hard-to-reach areas.
“The WindPax solution is a personal energy system. Here in the developed world, we have energy grids. In many areas of the developing world—where 1.5 billion people have no access to electricity at all—implementing energy grids is too expensive and time-consuming to be practical. It’s just too big of a leap. The WindPax solution is a bottom-up approach that can deliver power 24/7 on the personal level and bypass the need for energy grids entirely, much in the same way that many parts of the developing world skipped telephone landlines and went straight to cell phones.”
“Energy poverty is at the root of many problems in the developing world. By bringing personal power to some of the world’s most remote locations and enabling people to operate small lights, cellular phones, and electronic devices, the WindPax solution opens a whole range of possibilities. Rather than just supply a product, we hope to empower people in the developing world to use our products and the energy they generate to communicate, educate themselves, and even improve public health through access to diagnostic tools on smart phones, for example. We also intend to help people in the developing world to manufacture WindPax locally, thereby creating jobs.”
The WindPax design team set out to produce a collapsible wind turbine that was lightweight, durable, and affordable and used a minimal number of parts. They were confident that they could do this, but wanted to make sure that, in solving one problem, they didn’t create any new ones, such as creating waste that would ultimately end up in the landfill. Using powerful design tools, the designers modeled and analyzed the entire lifecycle of the wind turbine, exploring interconnections and attempting to maximize the positive impact of its designs. During the design process, the team explored a wide variety of materials—including aluminum, bamboo, and plastic—with the goal of balancing trade-offs between cost, sustainability, and product reusability, while creating a product with interchangeable parts that people in the developing world could modify, repair, or repurpose with ease.