How the sun is saving lives in Uganda

 By RP Siegel

A solar power oxygen system developed in Alberta, Canada is saving lives in Uganda. Over 900,000 children are infected with pneumonia every year. Antibiotics are available but are difficult to access. Concentrated oxygen can keep a child alive while waiting for the drugs to take effect…

(Cover photo by

Pneumonia is a leading causes of death among children. Worldwide, as many as to 900,000 children die each year from the disease. In Uganda, up to 24,000 children age 5 and under are victims every year. While a free Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine (PCV) is being introduced, and is expected to save thousands of lives through immunization, for those children already infected, antibiotics are the treatment of choice. However, antibiotics take several days to work and if those children don’t have oxygen, they could die while waiting for relief.

That’s a problem in remote areas. Oxygen tanks are heavy and maintaining a steady supply of freshly filled tanks is beyond the capability of health services in poor areas. In developed countries, electrically powered oxygen concentrators, which use a compressor to pull oxygen out of the air, are often used in rural areas.

But what about developing countries that do not have electricity, or where electricity supply is unreliable as it is in Uganda? That’s why Dr. Michael Hawkes of the University of Alberta Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases (see photo below) came up with the idea of solar powered oxygen concentrator.


Using funds from a Grand Challenges Canada grant, Hawkes and his team began by building the system at the research ward at Jinja Regional Referral Hospital in Uganda. “We designed the system to run off the grid, but we had backup power (generator) and oxygen (cylinders) for this early experimental stage.”

They piloted the system on 28 children with pneumonia, demonstrating proof-of-concept that solar powered oxygen delivery is feasible, effective and reliable. Next, they conducted a randomized controlled trial in Jinja and a second hospital, Kambuga, in order to show that solar powered oxygen delivery is just as good as cylinder oxygen. “We enrolled 130 children, who were randomly allocated to solar or cylinder oxygen, and showed that clinical outcomes (length of stay, oxygenation, mortality) were similar in both groups. We concluded that solar powered oxygen delivery is just as effective as cylinder oxygen in terms of outcomes, but offers advantages in terms of reliability, convenience and cost.”

Over 900,000 children are infected with pneumonia every year...

According to the paper that Hawkes published in The International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, the system consisted of 25 solar panels, each one with a capacity of 80 watts. The panels were connected to eight batteries with 220 ampere-hour capacity each. An inverter then converted the DC current into the AC current required. This produced enough power to run the 300 watt oxygen concentrator, capable of producing up to 5 liters per minute of oxygen, around the clock.

To date, over 150 patients have be treated with solar powered oxygen. Hawkes is now working with the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the Ministry of Health of Uganda to expand solar powered oxygen to 80 hospitals across Uganda.


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about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.