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.”