February 10, 2017

Solar-Powered Sterile Boxes

Sitara Mathur, Solar Incentive Fellow

Access to safe, clean healthcare equipment is a serious issue in many parts of the world, particularly in developing nations or parts of the world that have recently undergone an environmental catastrophe. As noted in Science Daily, “infection control in the surgical suite really is a big challenge in the developing world,” particularly with surgical equipment and sterilization.  Another challenge in remote regions of the world is access to a consistent source of power. Solar electric systems are unique in that they can be used to produce power anywhere with access to the sun. When you combine the ability of solar electric systems to produce power in challenging locations with the need for sterile healthcare equipment, you get a solar-powered sterile box.

Students at Rice University have created a solar-powered sterilization unit through the use of a 20-foot shipping container. This box will be used to sterilize surgical instruments in locations that do not have resources to perform operations or access to modern hospitals. The unit is self-sufficient in both power and water, and its features include an intake for contaminated instruments and secure inventory storage.

The power produced by the solar panels will be used for electricity within the sterile box, as well as for cell-phone charging stations. In addition, water distribution can be obtained via tanks on the ground and the roof. Access to power and water allow for the instruments to be sterilized via a two-step process. First, the instruments are decontaminated by removing debris and soaking the instruments in an enzyme-based detergent. The instruments are scrubbed with a nylon brushed and then rinsed off. Second, the instruments are further sterilized in a steam autoclave that is heated via an electric hotplate. The instruments are then dried and placed in a storage cabinet, ready for use. Over the course of 61 trials, the system’s performance of sterilizing instruments for return to an operation room was nearly perfect.

The next step is for the sterile box to be tested in a clinical setting in Malawi in 2017. Hopefully, this small box can make a big impact!