From ice stupas to solar heated tents, the Sonam Wangchuk way of harnessing all energy natural

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He might be often ‘acclaimed’ as the real life Phunsukh Wangdu aka Rancho of the Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots but Ladakhi engineer, education reformer and innovator, Sonam Wangchuk would rather have the spotlight on his inventions through which he intends to serve the greater good of the real heroes of the country. And the breakthrough managed by a consistently innovative Wangchuk this time around is something even phenomenal- building up what is the world’s first ever solar heated tent.

Developing the prototype of the unique solar-heated tent for Indian Army soldiers stationed in the cold and high-altitude climes of Ladakh with his team at the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, that which is again another stemming from the genius mind of Wangchuk himself, this however isn’t the first time that the Phunsukh Wangdu of a world beyond the glittering expanse of the silver screen set out to build a structure deriving its essence from the wholly natural might of solar energy. With a similar project having seen light already almost a decade ago when a prototype of it was built out by Wangchuk for nomads living in the Changthang region, the present version is a reworking of the original which however failed to pick up even in its mass utility.

Not one to be disheartened though, Sonam Wangchuk set working on his vision once again, developing this time a tent specifically for Indian Army soldiers posted at the higher reaches of a Galwan Valley that is immensely susceptible to the ravages of the intense cold. Particularly after the Indo- Chinese border skirmishes of 2020, the Army had to station a large number of soldiers in places of such extremity where everyday survival is a struggle. Armed also with less than adequate equipment and accommodation facilities, the soldiers had no option but to rely on burning kerosene to keep themselves warm. While this practice of warding off cold is quite effective in use through history, the burning of kerosene presents itself as an immense environmental hazard. Additionally it also spells additional costs as well as being a drain on already scarce crude oil reserves, while being also a hazardous proposition for human life since kerosene oil is easily combustible and can therefore emerge to be the cause of serious fire accidents. Alarmed by such precarious state of existence for our soldiers, who are tasked with the all important duty of protecting their motherland, a forever visionary Sonam Wangchuk built the solar powered military tent, the Ladakh Solar Tent that which absolutely does away with the use of kerosene or other such heating agents to retain its warmth.

Completely insulated and that which can sustain even under sub-zero temperatures of minus 14 degrees Celsius without any such requirement of external heating but still maintaining an inside temperature of a far more comfortable 15 degrees, the specially developed tent relies on the heat of the sun to warm up its confines and maintain its temperature for 12 to 14 hours. Built out in a mere four weeks’ time, the insulated tent makes use also of water to build up the warmth as a solar passive structure that which is convenient in more ways than one. Portable, prefabricated and that can also be assembled on the spot, the tent tends also to be carbon neutral, as it makes use only of locally procured clean, green and insulated materials.

Built on such premises as similar to what determines the working of solar houses, Wangchuk’s prototype of the tent is very insulated from its surroundings with high degrees of solar intake and offers all the space for absorbing the sun. In also its simple design and principle of working that collects the heat from the sun, store it by means of water and rely on the tent’s insulation properties to help retain the warmth, the inventor himself posits it as suitable for use even outside military purposes, for anyone who needs ‘quick accommodation’ that is warm, heated and requires no fuel. Particularly for tourists camping out in such places that do not have the adequate provisions for it, the solar powered tent that is a sum total of its two parts, namely the greenhouse or solar lounge and the sleeping chamber can be a convenient option, especially when one takes into account also such associated factors of weight and cost.

When dismantled, each of the pieces weigh just under 30 kgs, which Wangchuk believes is not too arduous a load for jawans to carry along with them, even in high mountain reaches. Also offering more space than the container cabins of the Indian Army and at a cost almost half of them, these tents can accommodate upto 10 soldiers at a time, though they can also be assembled as per necessity for say 5 people or even a single officer.

The entire structure of the tent has been divided into two parts. With the ‘greenhouse/ solar lounge’ absorbing the sunlight into a space that can be however used only during the daytime for several activities and that which relays the trapped heat at night by means of a partition acting as a heat bank, the other half of the tent called the sleeping chamber comes insulated with a wind sheeter and warm coverings where the soldiers can sleep. All set to be tested at Chang-La pass, which at about 17,600 feet above sea level is one of the highest motorable roads in the world, for extreme weather and wind conditions only after which mass production will ensue subject to approval by the Indian Army, this however is not the first time Sonam Wangchuk has innovated on something exclusive to the needs of our army men and certainly not the first time he is working on harnessing solar energy. Back in 2018, Wangchuk had devised a similar means of accommodation for officers of the Indian armed forces stationed at 12,000 feet above sea level in Ladakh, when he had built prototypes of pre-fabricated solar heated mud huts with also a vision to do away with other heating solutions like burning diesel, kerosene or firewood.

Not just the Army however, Wangchuk’s principles of devising such measures that actively spell out lesser use of non renewable and even polluting energy sources finds expression also in his solar powered school built of rammed earth. The ‘Big Building’, located at Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, that which he also helped start back in 1988, won Sonam the International Terra Award for the best building in July 2016 at the 12th World Congress on Earthen Architecture in Lyon, France. Built using simple, low-cost traditional techniques on principles of passive solar architecture, the building comprises a big solar-heated teaching hall, along with several rooms for the students and other classroom and keeps all warm inside even at outside temperatures as low as -30 Celsius in winters.

Despite however his working with all things solar powered, Sonam Wangchuk’s best known innovation has to be the Ice Stupas that which are famed for bringing Ladakh’s once lost ghost villages back to life. In trying to devise a solution for the water crisis faced by farmers in Ladakh during the critical planting months of April and May before the natural glacial melt waters start flowing, Wangchuk ended up creating these ice stupas. As artificial glaciers that stores the wasting stream waters during the winters in the form of giant ice cones or stupas, and releases the water during late spring as they start melting and when it is needed for agricultural purposes, the ice stupa project became a success not just in Ladakh but also internationally.

What started as a work of purpose by Wangchuk in 2014 transformed soon into being a touritry pursuit as well as Wangchuk’s idea was implemented in 2016 at the Pontresina municipality of Switzerland as a winter tourism attraction. Winner of the coveted Rolex Awards for Enterprise for his path breaking venture, Sonam Wangchuk’s such terrific exploits of his own potential sure surpasses the enigmatic realm of a certain Phunsukh Wangdu of Bollywood, even as the real life genius continues to rubbish of any speculations linking him to the much celebrated fictional character. Indeed, for someone who harbours the ability to impact a change in the real world, even the highly imaginative realms of fiction are only a mere inkling of what he can go on to do and achieve in all his inspiring human nature.


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