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PowerPass Could Soon Energize Students Across Campus with Solar-powered Kiosks to Charge Their Phones

PowerPass mockup

The latest innovative enterprise from Sustainability Projects Abroad (SPA), a brilliant and idealistic consortium of UMass students led by some of our engineering undergraduates, is called “PowerPass,” which, according to its creators, is a sort of “power bank” and “walk-in, solar-powered kiosk that dispenses portable batteries for students to charge their phones on the go.” SPA has set up a MinuteFund, lasting until May 23, in hopes of supporting the installation of PowerPass on campus.

Support the SPA PowerPass project »

“We have set up a MinuteFund,” explains SPA spokesman Bryan Chua of the Chemical Engineering Department, “and are trying to fundraise $2,000 by May 23rd so we can work on scaling up a prototype that we can use as a proof-of-concept to UMass administrators to support our idea of having a network of outdoor solar-powered powerbank dispensing machines so that students never have to charge their phones using the grid again.”

Chua adds that “If all 23,000 students used PowerPass, there would be annual savings of $6,000 from estimated energy savings of 50 MWh/year — enough to power 1,500 homes for a day!”

The goal is to launch PowerPass on campus. The project began in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Innovation Makerspace, and a team of seniors in the MIE department have completed a proof of concept for their senior design class. A few students have shown interest in staying on campus over the summer to turn the proof of concept into a full-scale prototype.

The winding journey of PowerPass to its completion actually began last November at HackUMass, where an interdisciplinary group of UMass students created LiveWaterMap as an online web service to map water quality for the citizens of Puerto Rico suffering from water contamination after Hurricane Maria. After the formation of SPA from members of this HackUMass team and other students, SPA took a subsequent mission of mercy to Puerto Rico in January. Eventually, SPA adopted the MIE senior design capstone project developed by a team of students who came up with this new concept for phone-charging kiosks on the UMass Campus.

As Entrepreneur-in-Residence Eric Crawley says about all the opportunities and facilities for developing entrepreneurship on campus: “Leveraging makerspaces, design projects, hackathons, accelerators, mentors, and entrepreneurship classes and competitions, students can engage in and learn what it takes to turn an idea into a successful enterprise.”

Accordingly, PowerPass addresses an obvious need. As the MinuteFund pitch for PowerPass says, “Can you imagine surviving even a single hour without your mobile phone? The multitude of emails, appointments, reminders, news, and activity on social media have made mobile phones an indispensable device in our busy lives. What if your phone goes dead, and you don't have your charger with you? Sounds like a nightmare, doesn't it?”

The punchline is that “We’re PowerPass, and we are trying to combine sustainability and our drive for improving campus life at UMass Amherst. We came up with a unique system of borrowing power banks. We are in midst of building a walk-in, solar-powered kiosk that dispenses portable batteries for students to charge their phones on the go. Think about it. The feeling of low-battery anxiety would be eliminated, and students would be more prepared for their business of education. We are doing all this by relying on a resource, which we have ignored conveniently for years — solar energy.“

The goal of the PowerPass group is to work towards turning a class project into a much-needed and well-equipped system for the campus community. “With your support,” the PowerPass team says, “we will be able to begin scaling up the current proof-of-concept produced by the graduating seniors. We are hoping to spend our summer on campus putting into practice what we learned in class to make something feasible. We hope you will become a part of our drive to push student innovation.”

SPA is the same group that won four prizes at HackUMass last November 3 through 5 by creating LiveWaterMap , meant to counteract the devastation and resultant water shortage and contamination caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. As the creators explained their product, “LiveWaterMap is an online web service that collects and maps water quality data using GPS and time data — information that can be easily understood and made available for anyone, anytime, anywhere.” After SPA was organized from members of this team and others, it then backed up its idealism and creativity by raising enough money to visit Puerto Rico from January 2 to 14 and carry out an intensive campaign of water purification, water contamination education, the distribution of food and medical supplies, and other forms of physical and emotional support for the ravaged island. Learn more about SPA's efforts in Puerto Rico »

College of Engineering Dean Tim Anderson sums up how wonderful ideas such as PowerPass can spin out of college competitions, makerspaces, and capstone projects: Using the storage potential of cellphone batteries to mitigate the intermediacy of our 5 MWs of operational solar photovoltaic capacity should lower our energy costs and increase our microgrid resiliency. The ingenuity of UMass engineers is amazing. (May 2018)