Imagine a giant power bank. Now think of a giant power bank fuelled by solar energy, and visualise that at a pasar malam where traders need to light their stalls to generate income. You can see where this is going.

This power bank is the size of a shoebox and was conceived specifically for Malaysia’s night market traders, particularly women traders, who struggle daily with huge clunky generator sets – or gensets, in short – fuelled by petrol or diesel.

A genset powered by renewable energy is an enticing new idea. This one comes with a layer of heartwarming consideration for Malaysia’s small business people who are the backbone of the economy and the cornerstone of our communities.

For the longest time, our pasar malam traders have used petrol or diesel generator sets for lighting. These gensets are notoriously noisy, smoky, smelly, and in some cases look like they are going to burst into flames.

They generate temperatures of some 180°C and noise levels of some 70dB. They cost anything from RM300 to RM1,500, typically weigh about 20kg, and need regular maintenance. To use, it can cost about RM4 in fuel for a night.

Surely there could be a better, cleaner way to light our night markets? That was the question posed to Mohd Syaifuddin Mohd, a lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Petronas’ mechanical engineering department and researcher at the university’s Centre for Automotive & Electrical Mobility.

In 2011, he and his team of researchers were already working on designs for hybrid and electric cars. They figured the high energy density batteries – the key tech in electric cars – could be adapted to gensets.

The idea of greener gensets for pasar malam traders had first come from H2E Technologies Sdn Bhd, a green tech engineering startup in Kedah. With a partnership formally in place, Mohd Syaifuddin and his team matched their research to the real life problems of Malaysians.

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Big Power: Mohd Syaifuddin Mohd (left) and former student Mohamad Naim Al Amin, CEO of H2E Technologies, have worked on several versions of solar gensets.

It didn’t take long to develop their first prototype, ALAM 1.0, using deep cycle batteries. After trials in 2012, H2E Technologies sold 30 units to traders in Alor Star, Sungai Petani and Penang.

It was assembled in a garage-like workshop by shareholders themselves as no workers had been hired yet. It won a gold medal at the 2012 MTE.

ALAM is quiet and produces no smoke, odour or heat. It can be charged at any plug point (as you would a power bank) or at a designated off-the grid solar energy source. It requires zero maintenance and is generally problem free.

“This unit is intended for the future, when obtaining energy from a solar or other renewable sources will be commonplace,” says Mohd Syaifuddin. “Until then, a user can just plug into the grid, even at home.”

In 2013, the Advanced Lighting Application Module (ALAM) Eco Generator was fine-tuned into ALAM Mini, a shoebox-sized unit weighing just 2kg, which can slip into a backpack.

A user needs to spend about 60 sen to charge it to last an eight-hour work night at the pasar malam. Over 100 units were sold to traders at RM990 each. It won an ITEX 2013 gold medal.

Since then, ALAM Mini has gone on road shows and product launches with MOSTI and other agencies, in pursuit of the best business model to go fully commercial.

“We have received a lot of interest and feedback,” says Mohd Syaifuddin. “Traders have asked for a more powerful unit, so they can use it to operate small machines like blenders and mixers at the market.”

Other interested parties include agencies that need good lighting at roadblocks, guard posts, rescue operations, disaster work, and investigation in poorly lit locations.

“We also heard from the construction industry. They need portable energy sources when working on high rise buildings, for tasks like welding. All are attracted by its small size and weight and good power output.”

With liveable cities increasingly turning to bicycles as an important mode of transport, ALAM Mini could become a compact solution for charging stations for electric bicycles.

As an academic, Mohd Syaifuddin couldn’t help but think of his colleagues whose research work takes them into remote places like the jungle, mines and to sea. Among other things, they need power for cameras, laptops and smartphones.

“The applications are endless actually, especially because it can be charged by solar power and other small renewable sources.”

It is this feature that places Mohd Syaifuddin exactly where his heart is. He is officially a car-loving mechanical engineer in a relationship with electrical engineering.

While standing at this intersection, Mohd Syaifuddin fell in love with renewable energy. The first baby of that triangle was a green car.

As an undergrad at George Washington University in the United States, Mohd Syaifuddin was on the team that competed in the prestigious Future Truck 2000 Competition to design a split series-parallel hybrid sport utility vehicle of the future.

Later, applying his expertise in computer aided engineering design, he worked on solar and hybrid cars, buses and scooters at a tech company while he did a master’s degree.

He continued this line of research when he joined UTP’s mechanical engineering department in 2003. Three years later, he and his colleagues had built a 200hp electric car, which was featured in the KL International Motorshow 2006, using the same type of drivetrain technology currently used on Tesla electric cars.

Another ongoing project with H2E Technologies Sdn Bhd is a retro-fitted in-wheel motor to turn a gasoline car into a hybrid car. This is also being studied for commercialisation.

“Our work is aimed at sustainability and renewable energy,” says Mohd Syaifuddin. “Besides automotive, we have groups studying enhanced wind and river turbines which generate small amounts of energy. This is a low cost way of bringing electricity to remote communities.”

■ For more information, e-mail impact@utp.edu.my or visit utp.edu.my.