Friday, August 01, 2008

EWB-SFP and the UCB/Google Pre-Engineering Camp

Part of EWB's mission is to educate and encourage the next generation of engineers in a way that leads them to want to be involved in technical humanitarian activities - it can take up to a generation to change society (to recycle more, use efficient light bulbs, reduce individual carbon footprints, have broader horizons than just your own country, etc.) so the best time to start is now. Google has graciously funded, University of California (Berkeley) is hosting, and EWB-SFP is teaching engineering topics to 30 gifted high school students this summer - we have projects on developing world fuel efficient stoves, pico wind energy (Guatemala), solar water pumping, and designing a water distribution system (Tanzania). Work sessions take place at UCB but we also have off site workshops for more detailed experiences.

As an example, Charlie Sellers' two 5 student stove teams are investigating options for cooking stoves in places where there is not nearly enough fuel for everyone - the refugee camps in Darfur are a good example of this so it is appropriate that one of the stoves being tested is our own Berkeley Darfur design! Their goal is to document experiments where they compare a typical 3 stone fire with various improved stoves burning a wide variety of fuels - such as ordinary wood, charcoal, paper pulp and sawdust briquettes, walnut shells, and more. There is no better way to test a new stove than by tending a fire in it for awhile - a real mother and cook has to tend sick children while cooking, and if the baby is sick then she has even less time to spend on a clumsy stove.

Wood is so scarce around these denuded camps that even saving half the wood compared to simple stoves may not be sufficient (but it sure helps) - the world is just starting to consider whether we need to re-think our approach to helping in large emergencies/disasters like this by providing instead densified waste biomass (a fancy term for briquettes of non-woody materials), either for the latest generation of improved stoves (like the sheet metal one for Darfur) or for briquette specific stoves like fan assisted gasifiers. Whenever there is a tsunami or major earthquake, enormous amounts of supplies are rushed in by select NGOs because other kinds of aid can't respond fast enough to replace an entire destroyed infrastructure - it is not the intention to replace everything for the long term, but immediately provide basic human needs like clean water, sanitation, shelter, and cooked food. We're not talking big screen LCD televisions here, just enough to stave off hunger and disease until the needs of millions of people can addressed more completely. As such, emergency stoves and fuel can be airlifted in, alleviating suffering and reducing the immediate impact on the local environment - these inexpensive stoves might only last until the emergency is over, but they may change the way they view stoves and cooking for the rest of their lives.

The students are creating presentations for Google HQ where they analyze how people cook, what they need out of their stoves, and which fuels might be best suited for a range of situations. One of the biggest challenges in the field is to overcome the natural resistance to change - if their mother did not cook with a new stove design or fuel, then the present generation of cooks might not want to either. Technology "fixes" which are not introduced appropriately are usually doomed to fail quickly - as soon as the engineers disappear the benefits don't seem nearly as apparent, spare parts and maintenance efforts are nowhere to be found, and people just plain have a tendency to prefer or to revert to old ways.

For a view of what things looked like, here is a preliminary Youtube video (Pat Coyle is behind the camera) of the day Alex Brendel visited to explain his briquettes made from waste such as paper, sawdust, and even algae. And here are some photos!

A visit to The Shipyard on Saturday gave an opportunity to try another type of improved traditional stove (the Justa, for Central and South America) and see a range of larger biomass gasifiers - including one that will run a car just on walnut shells. We cooked on the Justa, which seemed to take only a few sticks at a time to cook for everyone, with zero smoke coming out of the chimney. Everyone's experiences were accompanied by data taking, so that results could be graphed in Excel spreadsheets - the temperature of the water as it came to a boil, the amount of fuel used per minute to cook, and the temperature of the chimney gases.