BYU students have found unique ways to combine engineering skills with humanitarian work — turning children's play into electricity and coconuts into fuel.

In two separate projects this year, engineering students have shared their skills to help people in Ghana and Tonga use the resources they have to improve the quality of their lives.

In Ghana, Ben and Julie Markham, serving as senior missionaries in 2005, came up with the idea for children's playground equipment that could produce electricity. There, Elder Markham found that many of the school buildings rented by the Church for its meetings had no lights. His plan, he hoped, would have a three-fold benefit: A merry-go-round that would provide a playground for school children, electricity for their classrooms and a visual aid for teachers helping children understand scientific concepts. BYU students went to work to make the plan a reality.

For the Tonga project, Allyson Frankman and Jacob Jones, both BYU students, started a campus club, "Engineers without Borders." Soon the club evolved into a credit class with more than 30 students, a faculty adviser and a project. Following up on questions from a Tongan family, the class determined that they could make biodiesel fuel from coconut oil.

"We have so many opportunities and gifts and knowledge," said Brother Jones, a BYU student who graduated in engineering in April. "I wanted to use that to help other people. That was how it was with everyone. They want to use their talents to help other people."


A team of BYU student engineers unveiled this spring a prototype merry-go-round that, using a direct current generator system, is capable of turning the rambunctious energy of children into electricity that can light schoolhouses in places like rural Ghana.

Six engineering students labored on the project for two semesters to develop a device complicated enough to capture and translate human energy into electricity, but simple enough to incorporate old car parts.

"Portions of the merry-go-round were made from parts found at a scrap yard, which is what people have to work with in Ghana," said team leader Adrian Williams, a senior mechanical engineering major. "The project also promotes sustainable development because it is more than just lighting a schoolhouse; it is providing self-sustained education to these people so that they can be engineers and entrepreneurs themselves."

The "Empower Playground" is the result of a senior capstone project in BYU's Mechanical Engineering Department. The project was sponsored by Brother and Sister Markham. Brother Markham, a retired engineer, was initially attracted to the idea of human-powered energy after seeing children's exuberant reaction to newly donated playground equipment at a Ghanaian school.

"These kids were so hungry for something to play with that educators had to fence the playground to keep them out when they were supposed to be in school," he said. "I started thinking about all the energy going into that equipment and started to make some basic calculations."

Brother Markham and his wife hope to test the playground in Oda, Ghana, later this year with the help of other engineers and Utahns with ties to the area. Ultimately, he said, they want to extend the system to include windmills, solar panels and larger batteries, using the gallon-of-milk-sized generator for all kinds of human-powered projects.

Geoff J. Germane, a former BYU professor and founder of Germane Engineering, helped guide students as a team faculty coach in meeting the unique difficulties of harnessing human power.

"The biggest challenge is matching the low speed of children playing on the merry-go-round to the high shaft speed required by the electrical generator," he said. "The speed increase needed for the playground generator system exceeds that of the most common commercially available device, a windmill-driven electrical generator. The students needed to design a custom transmission to meet the unique requirements of the Empower system."

The merry-go-round is designed to produce 300 to 350 watts of electricity, enough to light three or four rooms from the same power that 60-pound children would expel climbing 10 feet of stairs in 35 seconds.


BYU student engineers returned from Tonga in May after successfully demonstrating to locals a better way to produce fuel — showing that it can, in fact, grow on trees.

The coconut oil biodiesel fuel the student team produced from modified chemical reactors, could, after further development, have the potential to help the island nation's economy and mitigate soaring fuel prices.

"The Tongan economy was centered around exporting coconuts and coconut oil until the '80s when soybean oil drove coconut producers out of business," said Sister Frankman, a chemical engineering Ph.D. candidate. "Farmers and processors were devastated, and the economy has never really recovered, but the coconuts are still there — they litter the ground."

BYU faculty were first approached by members of the Havea family, a Tongan family interested in biodiesel fuel and eager to get some assistance in the technical and business elements of the process. The answer came in the form of the special BYU class, Global Projects in Engineering and Technology.

"Students are asked to solve a real-life problem," said Brother Jones, undergraduate student team leader. "There is no carefully formulated answer in the back of the textbook. Students are required to stretch themselves to find the answers, but the reward of seeing the project implemented and the impact it can have on a society half way across the world is a life-altering experience."

After a full semester of studying coconuts, from their chemical composition to economics (and, on a study break excursion, their viability as bowling balls), the student team and faculty instructors visited Tonga May 8-22. There they trained locals to operate the biodiesel reactor and staged demonstrations for high schools and government ministers, with the latter culminating with a diesel engine running on a sample of freshly minted coconut biodiesel.

The process to turn coconuts into biodiesel starts with the meat, or copra, of the coconuts. The meat is grated, dried and then pressed to extract the coconut oil. Many Tongans, who have entire marriage rituals involving coconuts, are expert extractors and could use hand presses instead of diesel-powered ones if they want to cut costs. The oil is then mixed with two chemicals, methanol and sodium hydroxide, in the reactor for two hours to transition the oil into clean-burning fuel. The byproduct of the process, glycerol, can be made into soap or compost and sold along with the rest of the coconut husk and meat.

"It is a relatively simple process," Brother Jones said.

With Tonga diesel prices reaching upwards of $4.20 a gallon, that process looks even better. It takes 10 coconuts to make a liter of diesel, but a palm tree produces fruit each month for 65 years of its 70-80 year life span, which is why islanders refer to it as the "Tree of Life."

"I chose engineering because it's a promising career path, but at the time I didn't understand how engineering could allow me to help people," Sister Frankman said. "This class helps students see how they can use their engineering skills to directly improve quality of life for others. It opens their eyes to the possibility of turning an ordinary engineering career into a ministry."