… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

February 24, 2006

Dr. Amy Smith and Carbon Macrotubes

Filed under: Africa,Developing world,TED2006 — Ethan @ 12:30 pm

Dr. Amy Smith designs really simple things needed by an enormous number of people. From the “D-Lab” at MIT, she works on clean water, cooking fires and other problems that face people in the developing world. She starts by pointing out that more children under the age of 5 – 2 million a year – die from respiratory illnesses connected to cookstoves.

Bill Joy is interested in carbon nanotubes – Dr. Smith is interested in carbon macrotubes, or charcoal. The production of charcoal leads to massive deforestation, like we see in Haiti. Working in Haiti with Peace Corps volunteers, her team started making briquettes from waste paper… before discovering that there was only waste paper in the village becausse of Peace Corps paperwork.

A better option for Haiti is “bagas” – the waste from extracting sugar from sugarcane. It’s a pure waste product and is usually burned. By putting bagas into a kiln made from a 55 gallon drum, and removing air at a point in the process, you can produce a small, fine powder. A Ghanaian researcher remembered that cassava – which is also native in Haiti – can make a sticky paste. Mix this paste with the bagas dust and you get charcoal briquettes for cooking.

In India, smoky fires from cow dung are a major health problem. They looked for similar biomnass fuels and settled on wheat straw, bound together with a small amount of cow dung. But these briquettes crumbled, and didn’t burn as long as wood charcoal, though they burned cleaner. By compressing these briquettes, they now are better products than the wood charcoal available in the market.

An even lower tech innovation is corn cob charcoal, which Smith recently experimented with in Ghana. They don’t require compression, and are already available in an appropriate size. “This is about the most exciting thing in my life right now,” she says, handing out corn cobs to the audience. This is one of those rare cases, she tells us, where a decision has positive environmental, economic and health benefits simultaneously – money that women don’t spend on dirty, environmentally unfriendly cooking fuel can be used on education or child health.

New directions Dr. Smith is interested in are technologies to promote microfinance and microenterprise. She wants to see a focus on technologies that add value to crops for poor farmers, allowing them not to stop being farmers, but to stop being poor farmers. “We need to create this future and we need to start doing it now.”


  1. Did you know she went to Follen Church when I was a kid, was my youth group leader there, and also was my mentor when I joined the church? :) Say hello to her for me!

    Comment by Allegra — February 25, 2006 @ 2:22 pm

  2. I am really impressed by the idea of helping people living in the villages. I myself want to do a lot in this regard. Specially for the people of Africa who are suffering from drought for some time now. Keepup the good work lady.

    Comment by Qalandar Khan — March 5, 2006 @ 5:22 am

  3. The idea of micro finance I am thinking on the same lines these days too. But I would strongly suggest that please make it Interest free, and educate people to manage it at their own levels.

    Comment by Qalandar Khan — March 5, 2006 @ 5:23 am

  4. How does one go about making the briquettes out of bagasa for use for cooking. I live in the Dominican Republic and the deforestation that is almos complete in Haiti is being done here on our side of the island.

    Maybe if we can teach our rural areas to produce briquettes our of something other than wood we can start controlling this problem.


    Comment by Christina Baber — February 20, 2007 @ 7:21 pm

  5. Bagas (bagasse) is a staple component in the industrial ecology of the sugarcane industry in Brazil. As with other areas concerning bioenergy, Brazil is decades ahead of the rest of the world and serves as a great model for developing modest tech/high economic impact markets.


    Comment by michael — March 9, 2007 @ 9:32 am

  6. […] If it were socially acceptable to follow scientists around the world, hanging on their every word, as some people follow rock bands around the world, I’d be an Amy Smith groupie. Dr. Smith’s TED talk focuses on “carbon macrotubes” – charcoal, in other words – and the tremendous health importance of producing sustainable, clean-burning cooking fuel for the developing world. […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » Twelve great talks to watch, and no excuses for being bored. (Or boring.) — April 18, 2007 @ 2:14 pm

  7. […] In terms of what distracts me, I think M-PESA and other mobile phone cash systems are pretty much the shiniest things I’ve seen lately. Then again, I thought Dr. Amy Smith’s work on making sustainable charcoal was the shiniest thing at last year’s TED, so perhaps I’ve lost my geeky sense of shiny and adopted some new appropriate technology criteria instead. (”Crunchy”? “Useful”? “Dull”?) But M-PESA makes me want to go out and start businesses, which is a classic shiny response. […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » Ooh! Shiny! — April 28, 2007 @ 5:03 pm

  8. I’ve been trying to find out more about this concept to apply it in (East) Timor Leste, as corn is an easy crop to grow over there- am still searching for leads as i haven’t heard back from the people i wrote to at MIT.

    in the vein of alternative fuels, have you seen this?

    great blog, Ethan
    any hints on how you keep it so free of spam-entries?

    Comment by Anita — May 1, 2007 @ 12:02 am

  9. I am interested in the corn cob process too for our school in Nigeria but can’t find out any information. Any help?

    Comment by Chuck — August 3, 2007 @ 6:06 pm

  10. I’m working on a project in Malawi and I think this is a great idea-has anyone found any more specific information on corncob charcoal? Perhaps we can coordinate to get a little attention from the people at MIT?

    Comment by Kevin — January 24, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

  11. Kevin, Amy’s pretty responsive. You’d want to contact her via D-Lab – http://web.mit.edu/d-lab/

    Comment by Ethan — January 24, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

  12. I found this website which has a technical manual for sugarcane charcoal as well as the following site which has instructions on making corn cob briquettes: http://www.nyas.org/ebriefreps/ebrief/000588/pdfs/corn-cob-charcoal.pdf


    Comment by Kevin — January 24, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  13. […] Hearing Smith speak at the TED conference helped convince me that one of the most interesting problems to be solved in the developing world is charcoal. Charcoal is an extremely popular cooking fuel in developing nations – it’s cheap, easy to use and can be bought in very small quantities. (Even if propane cooking gas were comparable in price, the cost of a gas burner and the propane tank would put it out of reach of most poor people.) The downsides of charcoal are numerous, but two factors are especially important: fumes from charcoal kill 2 million children a year and contribute to the respiratory illness of millions of others, and charcoal is exceedingly environmentally destructive, as it produces carbon dioxide when produced and when burned, and causes deforestation. […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » Biomass charcoal in eastern DRC — August 1, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

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