This fuel-saving stove saves lives too

Purpose-built, wood-burning cook stoves have been in use for hundreds of years, so could they really be made any more efficient? And even if we could improve stove design, would it make that much of a difference?

The answer to both questions is an emphatic yes.

Not only can cook stove technology be dramatically improved, but doing so could be life-saving. Pollution from wood-burning indoor stoves still widely used in developing countries can cause all kinds of respiratory problems and is even blamed for many premature deaths every year. And in conflict-torn regions like Sudan’s Darfur, a better stove can prevent women in refugee camps from having to exchange precious food for fuel … or to risk assault or death by venturing out to gather firewood.

As of October 2011, more than 20,000 such stoves have been distributed in Darfur. The Berkeley-Darfur Stove, as it’s called, was designed with the help of scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and is tailor-made to meet the needs of Darfuri women struggling to feed their families amidst grinding poverty, violence and depleted natural resources.

Starting with a standard cook stove design, the researchers spoke with Darfuri women to figure out how to adapt the technology specifically for their living conditions. The changes they made include air openings that allow the stove to keep burning efficiently in windy conditions with blowing sand and a small fire box opening that keeps the need for firewood to a minimum, cutting consumption by about 55 percent.

“Not only are these fuel-efficient stoves reducing the domestic burden and violence against women, but they are addressing associated environmental issues, like deforestation,” said Diana Gee-Silverman of Plan Canada, an NGO working with the Darfur Stoves Project. “When you take into account the work we’ve done to mobilize communities to participate in the project, it’s been a win-win on so many levels.”

The project has been supervised by Ashok Gadgil, director of the Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division. Gadgil, who has won numerous awards for his work on sustainable technologies, this week added another honor to his resume: a $500,000 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Zayed Future Energy Prize.

Gadgil called the latest award a “tremendous validation of my lifelong passion and efforts for energy innovation and sustainability.”

First awarded in 2009, the Zayed prize recognizes innovation, leadership, long-term vision and impact in renewable energy and sustainability.

“Winning the Zayed Future Energy Prize deepens my commitment to energy innovation for sustainability,” Gadgil said. “Together with my colleagues and co-workers, I will continue to advance the research, design, testing and scale-up of fuel-efficient low-emission stoves for about three billion people (mostly women) that use biomass for cooking.”

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