Campus & Community / News

Geography professor and engineering students cook up green stove design for Guatamala

2011 graduates Justin Huff and Brad Halvorson working in their stove design. Photo: Chase Squires

When a University of Denver professor looking for a solution found engineering students looking for a problem, the result was the definition of DUing.  

Geography Associate Professor Matthew Taylor has spent 15 years working in rural Guatemala, helping the poorest inhabitants live better lives. He and his students have helped villagers build effective, cheap water filtration systems and helped others extract water from morning mist in arid climates.

Last year, after years of living among Guatamala’s poor and watching them cook on inefficient, smoky stoves that in some cases are little more than indoor campfires, Taylor went to DU’s engineering department looking for a better way.

Three DU engineering students adopted his cause as their senior project, and this month, Nathan Germann, Brad Halvorson and Justin Huff think they’ve found an answer … or at least the start of an answer.

They are building a cleverly designed stove to look like the villagers’ existing stoves, but fitted with carefully designed insides that provide for better air flow and insulation. The result emits less carbon into the atmosphere, burns less wood, gets hotter faster and funnels smoke away from the women and children who spend much of their time in the kitchen.  

To get there, they spent the better part of the year in design and research, including a trip with Taylor to Guatemala.

“At one point, I’m standing in the kitchen with some women cooking, and there are like 9-year-old kids in there with us, and the smoke inside was so bad I couldn’t stand it, I had to get out,” Huff says. “I don’t know how they do it. Day after day, they’re breathing that in. It’s a real hazard.”

Taylor says in addition to the damage these smoky stoves do to the health of the people living inside the home, inefficient wood stoves are a global scourge, contributing to climate change and in many areas leading to deforestation. Research finds wood cook fires are responsible for 18 percent of the earth’s warming, and in rural Guatemala where 88 percent of households depend on wood stoves, firewood makes up 50 percent of the country’s annual energy budget.

“This is an issue that’s always been near to my heart,” Taylor says. “This came to me because recently there’s been a lot of focus around the world on improved cook stoves.”

A public-private partnership called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves reports there are 3 billion people worldwide using open campfires or inefficient stoves leading to 1.9 million premature deaths each year. Children living in homes dependent on open fires face increased risks of contracting pneumonia. The alliance is leading a charge to provide 100 million homes worldwide with better stoves by the year 2020.

“That’s not a lot of time,” Taylor says. “They want to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into this improved stove program, but it’s going to vary country by country, you can’t invent one stove and expect it to work in India and Guatemala. In India, they use a very small stove, in Guatemala there’s a preference for very large stoves which have a large surface area to cook tortillas.”

The students recognize that the challenge isn’t just mechanical, it’s also cultural.

“One of the big factors is cultural acceptance,” says Germann. “There have been a lot of stoves made, but they take them down there and they aren’t used. So we wanted to base it on something that they’re familiar with and that they use, so what we’ve done is basically all internal and you can’t see.”

Germann explains that the students are using specialized materials that insulate the inside of the stove, funneling all the heat up toward the big metal grill, called a plancha. Then they created an air chamber under the fire that creates better airflow for more complete burning and easier cleaning.

And that’s not just speculation. In testing, the students measure particulate matter coming out of the chimney, they take heat readings and record the time it takes to boil water. Having accurate data documenting improvements is vital to Taylor’s plan. As Huff fed carefully measured sticks of wood into the fire, Germann called out readings and Halvorson recorded the data on a laptop computer.

The information will prove important because to pay for the new stoves, or to retrofit old stoves, Taylor says the project will need funding. If the students can accurately measure how much carbon is kept out of the atmosphere with the new stoves, companies or countries could subsidize stoves in exchange for carbon offset credits.

The senior project is the last big push toward graduation for the students. Germann and Huff are aiming for graduate school next, and Halvorson will put his degree to work in the oil and gas industry.

If everything works as they hope, their stove could help save a forest, save lives and save the environment. And they can wrap up their undergraduate careers with a final “A.”  

To see the stove in action, visit the video on YouTube.

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