Sierra Leonean student generates clean energy from traffic and pedestrians

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A student from Sierra Leone who grew up in a displaced persons’ camp has invented a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power.

For his effort, Jeremiah Thoronka, 21, has been named the first winner of the Chegg.org Global Student Prize worth $100,000.

Announced for the first time in November at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the prize will be awarded each year to one exceptional student who has made a real impact on learning, on the lives of their peers and on wider society.

Mr Thoronka was selected from more than 3,500 nominations and applications, all champions of change, from 94 countries around the world. The list was whittled down to 50 and then, finally, to 10.

Mr Thoronka was born towards the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone and raised by a single mother in a displaced persons’ camp on the outskirts of Freetown where they had to burn wood for charcoal and for lighting and heating.

He witnessed first-hand how, in addition to the photochemical smog making respiratory problems commonplace, his young contemporaries fell behind in their schoolwork because of a lack of decent lighting.

This was the spur for his device that he began working on four years ago.

He told the GNA: “I have been interested in renewable energy solutions for a long time, growing up in Sierra Leone, where energy is a luxury and just 26 per cent of the population has access to electricity.

“I saw first-hand how children struggled to complete their homework because they didn’t have decent lighting, and how pollution caused respiratory problems for many people in my community.”

Mr Thoronka said he started working on the project, Optim Energy, when he was 17 and a student at the African Leadership University in Rwanda.

“But I wasn’t alone in developing the final product – I worked with an amazing team of volunteers, and received invaluable encouragement and support from my friends, family, and teachers.

“Without them, Optim Energy wouldn’t be what it is today.
“I am working on a patent for the device’s method of kinetic harvesting,” he added.
Optim Energy transforms vibrations from vehicles and pedestrian footfall on roads into an electric current.

It is different from established renewable energy sources, including wind or solar because it generates power without relying on changeable weather.
Also, there is no need for battery or electricity connection to an external power source.

Mr Thoronka is currently studying for a Master’s Degree in Sustainability, Energy and Development at Durham University in the UKOptim Energy ran a successful pilot programme in Sierra Leone, with just two devices providing free electricity to 150 households comprising around 1,500 citizens, as well as 15 schools where more than 9,000 students attend.

Mr Thoronka said he would use the $100,000 prize money to expand the business to provide electricity for 100,000 people by 2030.

“The prize money has been a huge help and… it will be used to expand Optim Energy, including setting up three more clean energy production sites in some of Sierra Leone’s most remote regions,” he told the GNA.

Given the dire need for energy in Africa in general, Mr Thoronka was asked whether he would be seeking commercial partners to grow the business.

He told the GNA: “I am open to having conversations with individuals or institutions to see what value they can add to Optim Energy.

“I am deeply committed to doing what I can to solve the energy challenges that Sierra Leone and Africa face.
“Energy systems around the world are struggling to keep up with urbanisation, and I hope my device can serve around the globe.”

He added: “It would be incredible for my device to become a major supplier of affordable, clean energy across Africa and the Global South.”

For a continent whose young people are struggling to be recognised, Mr Thoronka told the GNA: “This award is helping to shine a light on the brilliant young people everywhere coming up with innovative solutions to major challenges, from climate change to education inequality.

“But it is important to remember that collective action is essential to help Africa – and the world – overcome these difficulties.
“Everyone has a part to play,” he added.

Mr Thoronka, now an experienced renewable energy entrepreneur and scholar, is determined to make a significant contribution to renewable energy development and help create a secure energy future for Africa.

He is currently developing plans to expand into the healthcare sector, which needs power to chill medicines and vaccines and create sufficient light for treating patients after dark.

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