A Healthier, More Efficient Way to Cook

International Herald Tribune

September 29, 2010

NEW DELHI — In tens of millions of homes in rural India, the kitchen is a cramped space with walls blackened by soot from open fire hearths.

Women spend hours every day in unventilated spaces cooking meals over smoky fires fueled by wood, dung and other biomass, often with small children in tow. The daily routine of inhaling toxic fumes is exacerbated by the long blow pipes that women use to keep cook fires burning.

This everyday scene has deadly consequences. Each year more than 1.5 million people worldwide die prematurely from lung cancer, emphysema, childhood pneumonia and other ailments caused by indoor air pollution — fumes from open cooking fires —  according to the World Health Organization. In addition, millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are generated every year because about three billion people worldwide rely on open cooking fires.


The easy solution would be to switch to cleaner fuel, like liquefied petroleum gas or kerosene. But these fuels are too expensive for many people in developing countries. Groups like Envirofit, a nonprofit organization based in Colorado, are offering another solution: clean cookstoves.

Envirofit says that its stoves reduce harmful emissions 80 percent compared with traditional cooking fires, use 60 percent less fuel and cut cooking time 50 percent. In addition to creating a healthier environment at home, women and children can devote less time to foraging for fuel.

Ron Bills, chief executive of Envirofit, first visited southern India in 2007 and saw how village women coped with the laborious task of cooking a meal. “You could see a woman blowing into a pipe to keep the fire lit, breathing smoke with a child in tow,” said Mr. Bills, formerly the chief executive of Segway, the maker of electric two-wheeled personal transporters. In the developed world “cooking a meal is something we take for granted. You just turn on the gas on your stove or turn on a microwave.”

Envirofit’s cylindrical metal stove looks like a lobster kettle or a small bucket. Wood or biomass is fed into an opening at the base of the stove and burned. Pots and pans rest on top. Simple as it looks, however, the design is based on five years of market research and a program of research, development and testing involving the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory at Colorado State University, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Shell Foundation.

The push for clean cookstoves to reduce indoor air pollution was elevated from a public health backwater to a high place on the global agenda last week, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of the United States kicked off the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in New York, at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. The $60 million public-private campaign, led by the United Nations Foundation, aims to have 100 million households using clean, efficient cookstoves by 2020.

“Today we can finally envision a future in which open fires and dirty stoves are replaced by clean, efficient and affordable stoves and fuels all over the world — stoves that still cost as little as $25,” Mrs. Clinton said. “By upgrading these dirty stoves, millions of lives could be saved and improved.”

Through its commercially operated Indian division, Envirofit has sold more than 150,000 portable cookstoves in India, priced at $12 to $25.

Customers typically are people making $2 to $10 a day, but about 95 percent of stoves are bought in cash without loans.

When designing Envirofit’s cookstove, engineers used computer modeling to study the flow of heat and smoke in a combustion chamber and determine the best size and shape for the stove. Researchers developed a metal alloy and insulation that could withstand high temperatures.

“Sheet metal or carbon steel will burn through in matter of weeks,” Mr. Bills said. “Stainless steel with a high nickel content becomes very expensive.”

Envirofit’s final product is an iron-based alloy developed with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Envirofit’s stated mission, “to improve the human condition on a global scale” has unlikely origins in a U.S. competition in 2002 to retrofit snowmobiles.

Its co-founders, Tim Bauer and Nathan Lorenz, then graduate students at Colorado State University, won the competition with a design to convert two-stroke snowmobile engines into cleaner, more fuel-efficient direct injection systems.

Mr. Bauer and Mr. Lorenz realized the larger potential for their work even then. “There are only 100,000 snowmobiles in the United States. But there are millions of autorickshaws in Asia,” said Mr. Bauer, referring to the three-wheeled taxis common in developing countries. Organizations in the Philippines heard about their work with snowmobiles and asked for help retrofitting polluting, fuel-guzzling two-stroke autorickshaws.

Work on clean cookstoves began in earnest when Mr. Bills met representatives from the Shell Foundation at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in 2006. “It is exciting that this technology has the potential to affect half the world’s population and make life a little easier,” Mr. Bauer said.

Envirofit makes 90 percent of its sales in India. But it started in business in Africa this year, in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Mali, Ethiopia and other countries. Plans are in the works to expand in Latin America.

The Shell Foundation, the charitable arm of Royal Dutch Shell, had been working on the issue of indoor air pollution for 10 years. The foundation last week pledged $6 million to the Global Alliance on Clean Cookstoves.

In spite of the support from Mrs. Clinton, “plenty of work remains in raising awareness about indoor air pollution and making clean cookstoves more efficient and affordable,” said Simon Bishop, head of policy and communications at the Shell Foundation. Global standards must be implemented and governments need to promote testing and certification of clean stoves. “This is an infant industry. We are going to need a lot of Envirofits,” Mr. Bishop said. “The world needs more energy but less carbon dioxide.”




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