KUALA LUMPUR: Stuck in a 14-day home quarantine, rural empowerment activist Adrian Banie Lasimbang decided to take advantage of the enforced isolation and come up with a working prototype of a solar-powered, electric buggy in the past two weeks.
The 43-year-old, who is also a senator from Sabah in the Dewan Negara (the Malaysian Parliament’s upper house), told CNA he was quarantined from Mar 23 till Apr 5 after coming into contact with a friend who later tested positive for COVID-19.
Although Mr Lasimbang - a politician from Democratic Action Party - tested negative, he was still ordered to stay at home for a fortnight to be completely in the clear.
“I had always planned for a solar buggy, but kept putting it off, because my team and I were busy with micro-hydroelectric projects here in Sabah and around the country,” said Mr Lasimbang, who heads the Center for Renewable Energy & Appropriate Technology (CREATE) Borneo, a social enterprise which specialises in rural electrification.
Normally, Mr Lasimbang and his team would be busy assisting villages, particularly those which are off the main power grid, with building their micro-hydroelectric power supply, or collaborating on other schemes such as installing solar-powered water pumps for rural water supply.
“With the quarantine and the movement control order (MCO), my team and I can’t carry out projects anyway, so we decided to finally put the concept to work. The NGO’s workshop is right next to my house anyway, and many team members couldn’t head back to their kampungs in places like Keningau or Ranau,” he added.
The MCO was enforced to break the infection chain. Originally scheduled for two weeks, it has been extended until Apr 14.
COVID-19 has infected about 4,000 people in Malaysia and claimed the lives of 63 people.
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PUTTING EVERYTHING TOGETHER
Hardware stores were initially closed during the MCO, but Mr Lasimbang has a stockpile of leftover materials in the workshop, from solar panels to steel tubing for the vehicle frame.
Building the frame was not difficult, he said. Installing the solar panels, integrating the electrical power system with the drive system, a 5.3 horsepower direct current (DC) motor, and making sure everything ran, took up most of the quarantine period.
The steering system was salvaged from an old Proton Wira, although Mr Lasimbang had to customise it to fit the much shorter buggy frame.
Mr Lasimbang’s idea was to create a usable and affordable transport system and power source for rural villages, which does not have to depend on generator sets run on expensive fuel.
"Otherwise, the kampung (village) folk would have to spend money and time to go to town, just to bring back fuel to run their generator sets or power their motorbikes," he said.
As such, the CREATE team installed four solar batteries, far larger than the normal buggy’s, to hold a 1,000ah charge. This also meant that the batteries took up nearly half the buggy’s weight.
To fulfil its role as a power source, Mr Lasimbang and his team also installed an inverter, to regulate and convert the flow of DC power from the battery to AC (alternating current) to power other electrical appliances at home.
WORKING OUT THE KINKS
It was not all smooth sailing building the frame, especially when the hardware stores were closed during the MCO’s first phase. The CREATE team did not have enough steel tubing, and Mr Lasimbang had to ask his brother, a contractor, to drop off extra steel rods at his house.
“During one test, the frame suddenly buckled, because of the oversized batteries. We had to dismantle the panels. I have welding certification, so I used a plasma torch to cut out the bent portion of the frame, re-welded the section, and reinforced the frame,” he said.
The solar panels are rated to generate 300w, which Mr Lasimbang felt was not really sufficient.
“But if you leave the buggy to 'dry out in the sun' the whole day, it’s enough to drive around for a few kilometres around the village."
“Peak power we can obtain from the system is 5kw (kilowatts). If you run basic appliances like a fan, lights, television set and charge your phone, you might use an average of 500w, we can sustain that for two to three days with a single charge,” Mr Lasimbang explained.
What happens if it rains and there is no sun?
“For that purpose, the inverter we put in is a bi-directional inverter. It doesn’t just convert the power from DC to AC. But if there’s no sun, you can also plug it into a power source and the inverter converts the house AC to DC to store in the batteries,” Mr Lasimbang explained.
Taking the concept further, the CREATE team also built a test charging station, using solar panels to help boost the charge on the buggy.
"But it's just for test purposes. There's been no real need for additional solar panels yet, because we can't fully test the range of the buggy yet," Mr Lasimbang noted.
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AIMING TO HELP RURAL COMMUNITIES
The vehicle is not going to win any speed records any time soon. Mr Lasimbang said after test runs around the compound and the village, the vehicle registered a top speed of just 25km/h.
“But it can seat six passengers, including the driver. And in a rural agrarian scenario, such as at the paddy fields, it can be useful to transport harvested rice in larger loads. I've seen farmers use their motorbikes to carry the sacks of rice during harvest season, but that can take several trips and it also consumes fuel,” Mr Lasimbang explained.
Recently, the Sabah government announced that certain businesses, including hardware shops, could operate twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7am to 7pm. Mr Lasimbang was hopeful he could procure the supplies and consumables needed to complete the project.
However, after he was given the all clear by the state health department, he went out to look for hardware shops and found none open in his area.
“If we can finish this, and once the MCO is lifted, I’d like to see how we can go about getting the buggy certified for public use, such as going to the Road Transport Department or the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation,” he said.
In the meantime, there are always improvements to be done, Mr Lasimbang said.
“We need to see how we can further improve vehicle safety, and also, how to reduce the vehicle's weight,” he said.