Creative Solution Inspired by the Namib Desert Beetle

NYUAD students Mohamed Amine Belarbi, Coezette Sibanda, and Ping-yi "Benny" Lu take second place in the Siemens Student Award Competition.

What can an industrious beetle that is found in some of most arid parts of Africa teach the Middle East about solar power? According to a trio of NYU Abu Dhabi students who have taken second place in the Siemens Student Award Competition, plenty. 

On February 12, Hydrotech Cleaning Solutions, a team of students consisting of sophomores Mohamed Amine Belarbi, Coezette Sibanda, and Ping-yi "Benny" Lu, convinced judges that they had one of the region's best ideas for creative sustainable solutions to tackle energy issues in developing countries. And they modeled their innovation on the Namib Desert beetle.

With the United Arab Emirates' vision of diversifying its economy, the NYUAD team questioned UAE's position in the solar field. They then realized that solar panels here weren't efficient due to two main factors: dust accumulation, and water scarcity. Dust decreases the efficiency of the solar panels, while cleaning by shipping water deep into the desert is not only expensive, but also an inefficient process. It would cost USD 18 million over 30 years to clean and maintain the solar panels in a typical solar farm.

So the NYUAD group came up with an idea to create a wiper-like device that can harvest water from humidity, similar to the way that the Namib Desert beetle collects drinking water on its back. Emulating the unique composition of the beetle's shell, the result is a robotic wiper that stores liquid to clean solar panels every seven hours. If deployed as designed, the device would increase the efficiency of the solar panels by 15 percent, and help to light an additional 9,000 homes, saving up to USD 10 million over 30 years.

Hydrotech Cleaning Solutions fine-tuned their concept over six months of research. "We specialized in different fields and were able to combine our financial expertise with engineering," said economics major Belarbi. Lu, on the other hand, is double majoring in economics and visual arts while Sibanda is majoring in engineering. Together, their diverse collection of expertise and fields of study helped create a project that was visually appealing, financially viable and technically structured.

Although intimidated by graduate and research level competitors that specialized on renewable solar energy, nothing stopped the team from entering the competition. Belarbi said, "I believe no matter how intimidating it can come across, always participate. Entering a competition is the first step."

One of the main challenges the team had faced was coming up with a precise, mathematically accurate prototype within the stipulated timeframe. "We were very successful with the application, but it would've been much more persuasive if we had a substantial device that worked," Lu said.

With the USD 10,000 in prize money presented by the Minister of Culture, Youth and Development, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, and Chief Executive of Siemens Middle East, Dietmar Siersdorfer, the three NYUAD students plan to develop their project even further, possibly by churning out an advanced prototype device.