Caltech student wins $25K grant for 'green' refrigerator

IndiaManufacturing and EngineeringElectrical ApplianceDow Chemical Co.

The prototype for a solar-powered refrigerator that could ease the burdens of farmers from Pasadena to Punjab has earned a $25,000 grant for a Caltech aeronautics student and his colleagues.

Three years ago, Prakhar Mehrotra was on a foreign exchange program in Paris when he and three friends, all from India, came across an article in the Economic Times on a burgeoning problem in their homeland: About 30% of food grown in India spoils every year because farmers have no way of preserving their crops.

Some Indian farmers must drive to cold storage centers as far as 100 miles away. When they reach their destination, they sometimes find that there is no room to store their harvest. They are forced to sell it immediately for whatever price they can get.

Mehrotra and Devendra Gupta, Prateek Singhal and Vivek Pandey — graduates of the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur — decided to create a mobile storage device that farmers could afford.

The unit they are developing, powered by photovoltaic panels and offering a five-ton storage capacity, recently won a $25,000 Dow Resnick Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award. The contest was open to teams led by at least one Caltech graduate student and was co-sponsored by Caltech and Dow Chemical Co.

While Mehrotra, 27, continues with his Ph.D studies at Caltech, he said Gupta, Singhal and Pandey quit their jobs at investment banks in India to work on the prototype.

“Somebody has to work on this full time,” Mehrotra said. “If we make it a reality, it can’t be part time. I am finishing my thesis.”

The team created a company, Ecozen Solutions, and expects to have a working version of the container in four to five months. Pandey is the lead engineer on the project, Singhal oversees the solar panel installation, and Gupta manages the operation.

Mehrotra, meanwhile, has been busy meeting with investors, raising additional funds and exploring the container’s commercial possibilities. He met with Pasadena Farmers’ Market vendors this year to get a local perspective on what farmers need in a refrigeration device.

Vendors, especially those who haul perishables like meat and dairy products from miles away, expressed interest in the product, he said. “If a farmer is 15 miles away from the farmers market, he can use this as a U-Haul.”

While mobile refrigeration is not a new concept, Mehrotra and his team hope to make it more accessible.

“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “I’m trying to make [refrigeration] more cost effective.”

Mehrotra expects that the units will cost between $1,500 and $1,750. But he said the team is still raising money to complete the prototype.

Meanwhile, he’s envisioning a variety of applications for the product, including delivering medicine to remote clinics.

“How can I change the life of somebody? That’s the whole idea,” he said.

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Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ or on Twitter @LATiffanyKelly.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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IndiaManufacturing and EngineeringElectrical ApplianceDow Chemical Co.
  • The winning design
    The winning design

    A rendering of the mobile solar-powered cold storage unit which won Caltech student Prakhar Mehrotra and his team a $25,000 Dow Resnick Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award. They expect to have a working prototype in a few months.

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