MIAMI — Imagine a team of doctors, soldiers or humanitarians airlifted into a remote jungle many miles from the nearest road or power grid. Within 24 hours, a fully functioning, fully powered medical clinic rises from the jungle floor.
Researchers from Florida International University are working with U.S. military planners to develop a makeshift mobile hospital that runs completely on solar power, can purify or desalinate up to 400 gallons of water per day and can treat dozens of people who consider electricity a luxury.
The project began a test run recently in the Honduran jungle.
If successful, the self-sustaining, tentlike structure could become a model for the U.S. military and American emergency response teams to set up field operations in remote locations.
FIU, already nationally recognized for its creative use of solar power technology, is receiving a $2.4-million grant to pursue the project with the Army.
The idea of "mobile medical readiness" was born at FIU's Applied Research Center as part of the school's role in the Western Hemisphere Information Exchange Program.
That program is a joint effort between the U.S. military and the militaries of Latin American countries "to develop a sustainable program that addresses key strategic issues in environment and renewable energy," according to an FIU brochure.
FIU and the military want to send mobile medical centers to remote villages in Central America to test their ruggedness and effectiveness.
If the tests go smoothly, the military may adopt the system for use worldwide in remote locations where liquid fuels are difficult to supply.
The transportable hospitals can also be powered using wind and running water, or biofuels harvested from local vegetation.
"The research really is about looking at those things that are available, and doing a military assessment in the field to see how they stand up under pressure," said Jerry F. Miller, associate director of military programs for the Applied Research Center.
From a distance, the hospital resembles the tents used by the Korean War-era doctors in the 1970s movie and television show M.A.S.H., which stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals.
A simple, rectangular tent, it covers an area about the size of a volleyball court but can grow.
But unlike the hospitals in the popular TV series, the plastic roof in FIU's circa-2008 MASH unit is covered with thin-film sheets of photovoltaic solar cells.
They are the thickness of two credit cards and can be rolled up and curved over almost any surface to produce electricity from sunlight, Miller said.
The energy from the cells feeds a battery system that keeps the power running day and night.
"This is the most cost competitive way to go for this application," said Bob Reedy, director of the Solar Energy Division for the Florida Solar Energy Center.
"Thin films can be flexible, so they can be put on a canopy. They are also very light, and they are very rugged, unlike glass, or rigid modules. They can take some damage and actually can even take a bullet hole."
Each thin-film strip produces 1.5 kilowatts of electricity, about the amount required to power a radio, a computer and some lights.
The canopy, set up at FIU's Engineering campus, recently had three strips, producing 4.5 kilowatts.
To compare, a 4-kilowatt system is enough to power the average American home; South Florida homes, because of energy-intensive air-conditioning, require 6-kilowatt systems, said George Douglas, a spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The price of the thin-film panels is still high because the technology is so new, but their potential is vast.
But not everyone is a fan of thin-film technology.
"Some people call them unbreakable; we call them already broken," said John Kimble, owner of Sun Electronics in Miami, which does not carry the thin-film panels. "Anything that's flexible will disintegrate under the sun."
FIU engineers have developed water-filtration and desalinization systems powered from solar and wind energy.
"These technologies can not only bring basic power, but can foster business diversification, growth and added opportunities — which in turn leads to less urban migration," said Carmen Algeciras, director of the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program at FIU. "Above all else, they are environmentally sound."