After 35 years creating innovative tools to fight global poverty, Compatible Technology International is now borrowing some insight from University of Minnesota engineering students.

Daniel Ross, Robert Belar, Elizabeth Vertina, Luke Bromback, Kevin Reddy and Ethan Brownell are teaming up to design a device that will help farmers in Malawi extract oil from peanuts and improve their income stream through efficient labor.

The St. Paul-based nonprofit has already developed a variety of tools to help farmers cultivate peanuts, or groundnuts as they are commonly referred to, in sub-Saharan Africa. Recent developments have included a lifter that gently pulls plants away from the ground to be easily gathered, a stripper that separates pods from roots, and a sheller that can easily shell whole nuts.

The production of groundnuts represents 25 percent of Malawi’s agricultural income, but the dependence on manual labor is a major barrier to producing and marketing farmers’ crops. Throughout most of Africa, groundnuts are cultivated on small plots of land without any kind of agricultural machinery. Even simple technological advancements can make harvesting groundnuts faster.

Alexandra Spieldoch, CTI executive director, said demand in the African peanut oil market is expected to increase from the rising price of other vegetable oils. If farmers can produce local, quality oil, they can sell to African buyers and processing companies, increasing their revenue and strengthening the Malawian economy. The oil can also be converted into peanut butter, an ingredient that improves food security and nutrition among the rural poor in Malawi.

Farmers in Africa can directly purchase the machines, which range from $50 to $280. “These have to be cheap. We’re dealing with people where their hourly income is 25 cents or less an hour,” said Don Jacobsen, CTI volunteer and mentor for the students. The challenge for the students was to create a project with materials that could be locally sourced for a minimal price, while also running without electricity or gas engines.

Over the past several years, CTI has done engineering projects with the University of Minnesota, St. Olaf College, University of St. Thomas and other Minnesota colleges. “We give them skunkworks projects to work on and develop prototypes or concepts that we can develop into a prototype,” Jacobson said.

The company’s latest project at the U had two main components. “One is to actually do this design project and fulfill the requirements that we’re given by our mentors. The other component is to make sure that everything is well-documented,” Vertina said.

Students ran tests on the machine’s best operating temperature, how much time the nuts needed to be under pressure and the best temperatures required for optimal oil extraction.

After months of tests, the students developed a prototype using a bottle jack, a heavy lifting device that can create significant force for the machine, which can be locally sourced in Malawi. “Most vehicles or auto stores have it. It’s an easily findable component,” Ross said.

The device they designed processes nuts after they are removed from shells, crushed and roasted. The hydraulic bottle jack applies pressure onto a cylinder containing the roasted groundnuts. The compression of the groundnuts forces oil through pores in the cylinder onto a collection device.

CTI is hoping that the prototype created by students can be improved upon and later fully developed as a design. “That’s bonus points for us, because it gives us a starting point to move from,” Jacobsen said.

Students had a multitude of senior projects from which to choose. Those who picked the current project said they appreciated its humanitarian aspect and wanted to create an impact on people’s lives. “The other projects were really good technical challenges, but this one was both a technical challenge and a social challenge,” Brownell said.

Now that the students have laid the groundwork, CTI will further research the market, eventually testing the product in Malawi, and gathering data on how to proceed.

Many of the participants said their time in the program has persuaded them to volunteer their engineering talents to other nonprofits after graduation.

“You have an opportunity that not many people do, you can make a real impact,” said Ross. “If you’re an engineer and you can have that opportunity, why wouldn’t you try to do that?

Alex Van Abbema is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.