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fev 14, 2017
Innovation and technology

Amazonian river communities produce ice with solar energy

Fishing communities along the River Solimões in the Amazon are now able to conserve freshly caught fish and foods with solar-powered ice machines. The photovoltaic system was designed through the Solar Ice project, created by the Brazilian sustainable development research group Mamirauá Institute. 

The machines are located in the river village of Vila Nova do Amanã, and benefit about 60 communities along these upper stretches of the Amazon River. Called the Solimões, this whitewater river breaks off from the Rio Negro and extends upstream to the border of Peru. 

Because the communities do not have access to electricity, the Solar Ice project allows them the benefits of ice without having to purchase costly batteries that are toxic to the environment. The solar-powered technology was developed by engineer Carlos Driemeier during his post-doctorate research at São Paulo University's Institute of Energy and Environment. 

The machines are powered by 60 solar panels that capture the photovoltaic energy of the sun. The Mamirauá Institute brought the technology to the Amazon with a $160,000 grant from Google Brasil's Social Impact Challenge.

The Mamirauá Institute chose to host the machines at Vila Nova do Amanã, a small village of about 15 families whose only source of energy came from a diesel fuel generator functioning just three to four hours per day. Once the equipment was installed, researchers led classes for community members to learn to use the machine, including children and the elderly. 

Of the three solar-powered ice machines, each produces about 30 kilograms of ice daily in the form of over 20 giant blocks. The ice is shredded and stored in Styrofoam boxes, divided among local community members or sold to neighboring communities. Researchers believe that the machines will help over 100 local families increase their income by 12 percent over the next two years. 

Before the arrival of the machines, communities in the area used ice brought in from the closest city, about 10 hours away by boat. The limited quantities of ice were insufficient to properly conserve fish, or even food for sale and consumption. 

While the Mamirauá Institute designed and installed the solar-powered machine with its social and environmental impact in mind, the ultimate objective is to pass on the technological know-how to local communities. 

"After installing and passing through the experimenting process, we expect that the community takes care of this, makes this technology their own," explains researcher Iaci Penteado.

The machines are also the subject of an ongoing social survey. Technicians from the Institute check the machines on a monthly basis, recording data on ice production and its impact on families' income in the community.

"Monitoring activity is important, first, for social research, to see how the ice machine is impacting the community, how they are organizing themselves to collectively manage this technology," states researcher Penteado. "But it's also important because it allows us to add alterations to the project over time. We gather their opinions, as well as suggestions, to improve the project."