Open Source and Renewable Energy Solutions to Improve our Quality of Life

Want to be part of our Stories? 

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

I am currently the Richard Witte Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and a Professor cross-appointed in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the Michigan Technological University where I run the Open Sustainability Technology Research Group. I was a Fulbright-Aalto University Distinguished Chair (2017-2018) and am now a visiting professor of Photovoltaics and Nanoengineering at Aalto University as well as a visiting Professor Équipe de Recherche sur les Processus Innovatifs (ERPI), Université de Lorraine, France. I received my Ph.D. in Materials Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University. Then I developed the first Sustainability program in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and helped develop the Applied Sustainability graduate engineering program while at Queen’s University, Canada, before moving to Michigan Tech.

My research concentrates on the use of open source appropriate technology to find collaborative solutions to problems in sustainability and poverty reduction. Thus my research spans areas of electronic device physics and materials engineering of solar photovoltaic cells, and RepRap 3-D printing, but also includes applied sustainability and energy policy. My research is regularly covered by the international and national press and it is continually ranked in the top 0.1% on I am also the faculty advisor for the Michigan Tech Open Source Hardware Enterprise. I am the editor-in-chief of HardwareX, a journal dedicated to open source scientific hardware and the author of the Open-Source Lab:How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs.

My research focuses on open and applied sustainability, which is the application of science and innovation to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems. Specifically I am interested in exploring the way solar energy can be used to provide clean sustainable electricity through photovoltaic devices and how the sharing of open source hardware and software can create sustainable and equitable means of production (e.g. I create open source appropriate technology and other free and open source hardware).

 What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

When I was first an assistant professor I was working on a project to solar power laptops for the developing world. My students and I had developed this solar photovoltaic system that would be integrated into the back of the laptop screen and we wanted to prototype the case for it. I was finally at a university that had a rapid prototyping system and was super excited to try it out. Sadly, the proprietary tool ended up making a prototype plastic case that cost more than the solar and electronics and almost as much as the laptop. I started looking around for a solution that would actually work and found the self-replicating rapid prototyper project (RepRap)- an open-source 3-D printer that could print itself. I immediately jumped in with both feet and developed the Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs. Today my lab runs close to 100% on self-built open hardware, which has been getting progressively more sophisticated with time from help from all over the world.

Please describe the process of learning, iterating, and creating the project

Everything my lab does is free and open source. This allows us to avoid all the time other researchers spend wasting on talking to administrators, lawyers, getting patents, etc. Instead, we just focus on science and engineering. This allows us to move much faster than many colleagues that get bogged down in the morass of legal paperwork, patents, and obtuse contracts. This open-source way of inventing and working attracts others interested in our projects from academia, industry, and the maker community. The more we share and the better it is the more help we get externally. For example, Elsevier contacted me about writing the Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs because of research and designs I had published freely. More recently, McGraw-Hill approached me about bringing the same message I have for other scientists to the greater public in Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects.

Please describe the process of launching the project

We start by publicly posting our literature reviews and the methods we will use to validate our projects and inventions. Then when it is validated and peer-reviewed we share everything about the project: bill of materials, assembly instructions, CAD, CAM, electronic designs, operation instructions, firmware, software, etc. Depending on the project if it is the policy or general public relevant we will do a press release or a focused release to let a specific technical community know about it.

Since launch, what has worked to make your project grow/be successful?

The key is sharing. It is much easier to attract good talented people to work with you if you share high-quality open-source inventions and projects that solve people’s real problems.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

Today overall things are going well, solar is the lowest cost and fastest-growing source of electricity globally. Most consumers can save money moving to solar photovoltaic technology. In addition, open-source hardware is growing exponentially but is still roughly 20 years behind open source software, which now dominates the development of software. My goal for my research is to have an open-source and sustainable state. We are moving in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done on both fronts.

Through your science, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Knowing what I know now I would have never invested so much money and time on proprietary research equipment and learning closed software. In retrospect, much of my time spent on them was a waste. It is now clear that the open-source way saves 90-99% on research equipment and that if you want full control you need the source for software too. A good example is an open-source metal 3-D printer we developed that costs $1200 and replaces metal 3-D printers that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now we can make metal scientific equipment for the cost of metal wire.

If I would have made the switch earlier I would have saved a lot of money, which could have been invested in more researchers and we would be much further along now not only because of employing more people but also the knock-on effect as more people help open source projects.

Our readers would like to know more about you. Please describe your morning routine (first 2 hours of your day).

I eat breakfast and then most days I reserve for writing and research in blocks of time of many hours. This is important because if you allow yourself to be distracted you can’t dive deep enough to make real progress in research. Maybe a genius could do it, but mortals like myself need time to think.  I am an interdisciplinary researcher and the vast quantities of information I need to take in and synthesize demand large blocks of time. You must protect your time!

And how does a typical day look for you?

After the first block of hours then I teach or have research meetings with my students and collaborators. I communicate primarily via email and avoid all distractions and interruptions to the largest extent possible. The only people that have a direct line to me are my family and my students.

Slack, constant cell phone use, and text messaging breaks your concentration and radically reduces productivity. When I am in a meeting with someone they have 100% of my focus and attention – but I guard my time aggressively so I do not waste time in pointless meetings (or meetings that could be handled in a line or two of email). Finally, I do mindless administrative work when I am tired and my brain capacity is not fully needed.

What does your workstation look like?

I do most of my work on a laptop running Linux Mint and using only free and open-source software.

What platform/tools do you use for your professional life?

I run uBlock Origin on my browser so that I never see any ads. I did a study that quantified how much time you save with open-source ad blockers. Amazingly, the average Internet user would save 100 hours/year! My entire research group is run on the open-source wiki, running open-source MediaWiki software.

What secondary software and apps do you use daily?

In general, all the software I use is free and open source.  For writing, I use Libre Office. For CAD: OpenSCAD, FreeCAD, and Blender. For running my open source robots and 3-D printers I use either Marlin or our own Franklin firmware and slicers of Slic3r or Cura. For graphics, I use GIMP, Inkscape, and Krita. Once you limit yourself to FOSS you will find that there is some decent code available for free for most any software.

How do you stay up to date on news and resources?

Primarily online news and the local paper. I use Google Scholar alerts to keep up with the literature as well as

What have been the most influential podcasts, or other resources?

In general, I use the open-source communities forums to pick up new technical skills or solve tricky issues.

Advice for other scientists who want to get started or are just starting?

Share and you will be rewarded as I have shown in an article when I was just starting. Open source your work, post all of your articles in open access repositories and be open to collaboration with others. The more you share and the higher quality that it is  – the more benefits you will gain from the community.  Finally, use only (or to the greatest extent possible) free and open-source software and hardware. Often taking the easy route initially will bite you at the end. It is better to do a good solid job initially and ensure you control your lab completely.

Thank you very much for your time, Joshua. Where can we go to learn more?

Never miss our Stories!

Sign up for free and be the first to get notified about updates.

See more of our Stories

Open Source and Renewable Energy Solutions to Improve our Quality of Life
This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By using this website you agree to our Privacy Policy.
Read more