Windmills Work: AUC, Princeton Collaborate for Water Management in Egypt

To tackle sustainable, resource-efficient water management and food production ­­–– two pressing global issues in today's world — AUC’s Research Institute for a Sustainable Environment (RISE) and Princeton University recently partnered on a summer internship program to test mechanical, wind pumping options for agricultural and non-agricultural water. 

The program, funded by the Bartlett Family Fund for Innovation and International Collaboration, was headed by principal investigators (PI) Tina Jaskolski, assistant professor of sustainable development at AUC’s School of Sciences and Engineering and associate director of research at RISE, and Lamyaa El-Gabry, lecturer at Princeton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE), with 11 students from both AUC and Princeton working collaboratively.

Students and Sustainability

Students have taken on the task of carrying out several test and experiments that determine the performance of their structure under different conditions. “The students are building and testing the windmills on campus,” said Jaskolski. “By doing tests, we deal with the challenges and go on to installation. We can start running experiments throughout the year: see how much water the system is pumping and based on that, we can recommend how it can be upscaled across Egypt.”

Students from both universities worked jointly to create the windmill structure from scratch, keeping in mind that it can be used as a model for the future. "The first half of it was a roughly to-scale model using sort of parametric variables so they could go back again to take exact measurements and get it to look exactly like we want it to," explained Nicholas Nelsonwood, a senior at Princeton's MAE. "We spent about three days making its parametric; so it can change sizes very easily and, in the future, people could use it in other sizes. "

For Lena Abdulhafez '18, AUC mechanical engineering graduate, whose work entailed programing the prototype of the project, said the experience was fulfilling in seeing how much of a difference it can make. "I personally learned a lot. I got the chance to see many projects that actually help sustain the environment," she reflected. "I never really knew that it would be very beneficial in reality."

Watch both Princeton and AUC students speak about their experience with the project here:



The program included lectures and work sessions at AUC, practical field work on campus and its Living Learning Laboratory, and excursions to the Delta, Nubariya and the Red Sea and excursions to the Delta, Nubariya and the Red Sea, led by RISE's Technical Manager, Hassan Husseiny. Nelsonwood expressed the perks that come with such projects in being able to meet Egyptians in different settings, such as Bedouins in the Red Sea region and knowledgeable engineers and experts. 

For Robert Cohen, another senior from MAE at Princeton, seeing Egypt's wind powers up close was one of the most beneficial aspects of the program. "The highlight of the trip was being able to see the Zafarana Wind Farm," he recalled. "Seeing the scale and the magnitude, and being able to see the turbines in flows, really granted us a new perspective on the project we're doing here."

AUC-Princeton Collaboration

The first-of-its-kind internship program goes in line with the Bartlett Family Fund’s goal of creating more partnerships and academic exchange between AUC and Princeton. Jaskolski sees Egypt as ideal for allowing hands-on experiences. “We decided that working in one or more of our partner communities would be a great opportunity for students from both universities to gain hands-on experience in developing sustainable technologies for rural development,” she reflected. “As instructors, we were delighted to watch how well the students from these two universities bonded over their joint interest in engineering, technology and sustainability, with varying knowledge, backgrounds and experiences. [Their interests ranged] from mechanical engineering to computer engineering, and this diversity proved to be a real asset, given the diverse deliverables of this internship.”

El-Gabry shared the same viewpoint, noting that hands-on engineering and real-life problem solving were an added value to this project, especially with AUC’s regional expertise in projects concerning water, energy and sustainability across Egypt’s deserts and the Delta. “AUC has successful projects in these communities, which paves the way for new projects such as this one,” said El-Gabry. “Princeton has a strong academic reputation and significant resources that support not only research, but also undergraduate education. There was no textbook solution to be found; the students had to use their knowledge and ingenuity to come up with solutions. They learned the value of having diverse teams and that everyone can bring something to the table.”

Read more about AUC-Princeton collaborations on anti-cancer drug testing and low-cost building skins through the Barlett Family Fund. 

Why Windmills Work

In Egypt, the combination of an increasing population, the need to produce more food, all while using a decreasing amount of water to do so poses a major obstacle. This prompted the RISE-Princeton collaboration, focusing on the exploration of mechanical wind pumping options for sustainable agriculture and non-agricultural water management, which would be tested in the desert oasis of El Heiz. “It is important that Egypt explores more water-efficient and resource-efficient technologies for farming and food production by making use of renewable energies instead of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources,” said Jaskolski.

But how do these windmills create a life-saving solution for this challenge? According to El-Gabry, it is a matter of simplicity. Windmills, unlike solar photovoltaic systems, provide a direct drive of the pump, while solar ones have to produce electricity that would then be used to drive the motor to operate the pump.

Currently, El Heiz works with diesel pumps, which only operate for a few hours a day and need to be physically transported to the site — making the process more costly and unsustainable. “Windmill pumps are quite robust,” El-Gabry explained. “If they are subjected to mechanical failures, they are easier to fix with local expertise.”

However, El-Gabry pointed out that the system would require more specifications to function at its full potential. These requirements for high performance are the very reason the project is undergoing a lot of test drives at AUC’s RISE. Michael Vocaturo, a professional technical staff member from Princeton, explained that the performance of a windmill is heavily dependent on wind speed, which varies by location. Therefore, a windmill can perform well at one site, but not as well at a different location.

“The windmill only works if wind speeds are high enough — the larger the wheel, the heavier it is and the higher the wind speed needs to be to produce any power,” El-Gabry noted. “So there will be times of zero production. For a large turbine, those periods may be longer. With wind power, you need to build a tower that is high enough in order to capture the wind. Any obstacles or buildings in the path of the wind can heavily undermine the performance of the windmill or wind turbine.”

But this does not disadvantage windmills. It only gives students and their PIs more to work with to reach a sustainable solution that benefits the varying regions and geographies.

"I got hands-on experience from the wind turbine: taking its measurements, seeing the results and figuring out actually if it will help in the community," said Abdelhakeem Amer, a mechanical engineering graduate of AUC. "I had the privilege of working in cooperation with many from AUC and Princeton. I learned a lot from them. It was a great experience."