March 09, 2010

From left, seniors Brandon Fox, Grant Parseghian and Danielle Renzi adjust bike trailer that will go to Uganda when Bicycles Against Poverty returns in August.

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By Sam Alcorn

LEWISBURG, Pa. — A student initiative to help alleviate poverty in a war-torn African country has morphed into hands-on learning and real-life design projects for two groups of Bucknell University engineering students.

It started in summer 2009 when Bicycles Against Poverty visited northern Uganda to distribute bicycles to people in the impoverished Gulu region. The bikes provide recipients with life-improving transport opportunities — everything from the ability to earn an income by ferrying passengers, transporting farm produce to market and fetching distant potable water. || See story

Muyambi Muyambi, the civil engineering and economics sub-senior who founded Bicycles Against Poverty, returned to the Bucknell campus brimming with ideas to make the bicycles even more useful. Could a bike's power be harnessed in a way to grind grain? Could a lightweight, but durable trailer be built and attached to a bike to increase the load that the bike's owner could safely carry?

Charles Kim, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and two groups of students — an independent study group and a senior project design team — are working to answer these questions.

Represented by seniors Danielle Renzi and Holly Hodges and junior Brian Chiu, all mechanical engineers, the independent study group is developing a bicycle-powered grinder that can be attached to a bike via a pulley mechanism to grind sorghum and millet into flour.

"Now, they do it by hand, in a mortar and pestle style," said Renzi.

"They're on their hands and knees and using their backs," added Hodges. "It's a really laborious thing for the women and children, and we're trying to come up with a better way."

Grinding enough flour for dinner can take as long as two hours. The bicycle-powered grinder could reduce that time to about 10 minutes.

Building such a tool is one thing, but key design considerations include that the device can be built inexpensively with readily available materials in Uganda. "It's difficult to do that — cost minimizing as much as possible and working with what resources and machines they have over there," said Hodges. "That's all an interesting part of the design process."

Kim envisioned a village sharing a grinder. "We didn't really intend for the grinder to be carried from place to place — maybe in someone's home or a in a centralized location in the village so that multiple people could use it in a community effort," said Kim, who added that Chiu has been tasked with designing a stand for the bicycle.

"You can buy a stand for $200 or so. But for a bike that is $75, a $200 stand doesn't really make much economic sense," Kim said. "So, we're trying to make our own stand for $20. The big challenge is to keep the cost low enough to make it an attractive option, while coming up with designs that are strong enough. It's a completely different design paradigm than what you have in the United States."

He picked up a metal joint to make a point.

"If you look at some of these designs, we're trying to make them for $30; in the United States they would be $200. It's difficult," he said. "Not only that, but we need to consider that our designs must be made over there, maintained over there and fixed over there — all these things. And a huge question that we're not addressing right now is, if it takes only 10 minutes to grind instead of two hours what do they do with that hour and 50 minutes? Can we provide some kind of infrastructure or education? How can we develop a model that's sustainable for them and not just help them save time?"

Bicycles Against Poverty plans to return to Uganda in early August - with a working grain grinder in hand. But if a senior design project team is successful, the bike-powered grinder won't be the only thing the group will be taking back to Uganda.

Seniors Grant Parseghian, Adam Andersen, Brandon Fox and Tim McClees have made substantial progress in designing a lightweight trailer that can be easily attached to a bicycle to greatly increase the load a bike can carry.

"When Bicycles Against Poverty went over to Uganda, they found out they were simply putting cargo on the bikes and walking the bikes. So, the people at BAP came back to us and asked what we could do," said Parseghian. "We brainstormed and thought the best idea would be a trailer so they can load a similar amount of cargo while still riding the bicycles."

As with the independent study team, design considerations call for keeping the cost down, under $75 in this case, light enough so they can fill it and still ride it and make it from parts that are available locally in Uganda.

Parseghian demonstrated a metal clamp that attaches to the rear frame of a bicycle that, in turn, is connected to a railed flat-bed trailer via a heim joint. The joint gives the trailer three degrees of freedom for turning and rising on uneven surfaces.

"We have two designs for the actual trailer itself and two designs for the connection," said Parseghian. "In a couple weeks, we'll bring everything down to one and build that. The idea is to make it manufacturable over there. We'll give them an instruction manual on how you get everything, how to put it together and how to manufacture parts you can't order."  

The design that Parseghian demonstrated weighed in at 34 pounds and was successfully tested with a static load of 550 pounds. The team's design requirement is that the trailer be strong enough to transport 200 pounds.

The bicycle projects have involved more than Bicycles Against Poverty, Kim and the student engineering teams.

"We've been getting lots of help from lots of different people," said Kim. "Among them, George Waltman, director of the Product Development Lab, as well as Gary Kahler and George Shellenberger in Bucknell's facilities shop. It's a huge collaborative effort, multi-disciplinary, multi-everything."

Contact: Division of Communications