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Project Cooking Up Stoves For The Poor

COTTAGE GROVE - The test kitchen at Aprovecho Research Center west of here looks nothing like that of television chef Emeril.

For starters, tester Jeremy Roth is wearing what looks like a gas mask. And he's testing cooking stoves, not recipes: The World Food Program has commissioned Aprovecho to build fuel-efficient, low-polluting cooking stoves fashioned from the very tin cans in which food aid is delivered.

Jeremy Roth tests a stove
Jeremy Roth tests a prototype stove that may reduce fuel needs and health concerns in Third World areas. Photos: Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard

The "refugee stove project" should help tens of thousands of the world's poorest people - including Indonesians whose homes were swept away by the Indian Ocean tsunami - build free stoves to cook relief shipment staples such as rice and lentils.

And it should protect their health in the process, project director Dean Still said.

"This is what we love to do here at Aprovecho," he said. "It's very rewarding to work improving the quality of life for poor folks across the globe ... With a little guidance, stoves are a technology that they can produce and therefore they can maintain."

Aprovecho stove
Aprovecho Research Center's stove designs make use of items such as cans that transport relief supplies. Photos: Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard

The tin can stoves will build on the nonprofit organization's 25-year history helping Third World residents improve upon open cooking fires. Still and his colleagues have incorporated Aprovecho's "rocket elbow" stove design in a prototype using two actual, empty 5-gallon World Food Program cooking oil cans. One is cut up and fashioned into an L-shaped fire chamber and minichimney, which is placed inside the other can and surrounded by insulating wood ash.

But the stoves also will benefit from Aprovecho's recent $77,567 grant from the Shell Foundation to test the emissions and efficiency of 20 relief stoves already in use. Health concerns are driving the research, conducted for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the United Nations Partnership for Clean Indoor Air.

Which gets us back to the mask worn by Roth. It is actually attached to a hose delivering fresh air from outside the test kitchen, which has no chimney to simulate the actual conditions endured every day by the world's poorest cooks and their families.

Inhalation of the particulate matter in cooking fires is linked to asthma and cancer - not to mention carbon monoxide poisoning because of fires in closed spaces. The latter poses a threat even when not enough gas is present to cause death - daily exposure has been likened to smoking five packs of cigarettes a day, Still said.

"The United Nations estimates that 2 billion people a day are still cooking with open fires," he said. "Respiratory disease is the fifth-leading cause of death in the developing world, and 1.6 million people per year die from breathing wood smoke."

Now that Aprovecho researchers are scientifically evaluating cooking fire emissions, they don't find those numbers surprising.

"The Murdoch Foundation of Portland gave us $25,000 to purchase this equipment, which analyzes gaseous emissions and particulates," Still said. "We will use that data to write a book for the EPA, funded by Shell, on how 20 stoves used around the world function."

To test each stove, the researchers build a fire with a precise amount of wood beneath a hood that captures smoke as they boil 5 liters of water. A computer spits out a graph showing second-by-second levels of particulates and carbon monoxide.

The Aprovecho researchers are delighted by the data on their tin can prototype.

"It turns out to be better than a lot of more sophisticated models," Still said. "Isn't that cool?"

Compared to an open fire, the can stoves slash fuel consumption, carbon monoxide levels and particulate emissions about 50 percent. Still credits the rocket elbow system developed by Aprovecho technology director Larry Winiarski.

Aprovecho aims to finish the project by spring. It will culminate in prototypes and 5,000 "how-to" booklets going out to World Food Program distribution centers in 160 countries.

Cooking is necessary for most of the 4.9 million tons of food the program distributes to more than 100 million people, said Caroline Hurford, a Rome-based spokeswoman. Among likely beneficiaries of the new stove, she said, will be those homeless in the wake of the Dec. 26 tsunami that wiped out entire villages in South Asia.

"Especially in Indonesia, where thousands have lost so much, including their cooking facilities," she said.

Editorial Notes: A big problem in the South is deforestation caused by lots of people depending on wood to cook. More efficient stoves is one way to help alleviate the problem. I think we will adapt to a low energy future by taking many small steps like the high-efficiency stove, rather than through high-tech miracles. What if the industrialized countries spent as much money on projects like this as they do on developing a new potato chip? -BA

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