Tuesday, December 22, 2015

By Clare Roth and Ben Kieffer

In much of the developing world, fossil fuels and electricity are too expensive to be legitimate options for cooking. Instead, people there use wood burning

stoves that create environmental impacts of their own, chief among them desertification of the forests that supply the wood, and soot released when the wood fails to burn completely.

To combat the issue, engineers and groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have attempted to develop energy-efficient cookstoves that release less emissions. Great strides have been made, but there are still two significant barriers to widespread use: cost and cultural resistance.

The first is intuitive, argues H.S. Udaykumar, professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Iowa. A hundred-dollar, or even thirty-dollar, cookstove isn’t an achievable or practical purchase when you’re making a dollar a day.

Tackling the second is less straightforward.

"One of the impediments to inserting new technologies to new places is that there are lots of cultural and other social issues that can impede the progress of these technologies,” he says. “If you’re trying to give them a high-efficiency cookstove, they don’t use it.”

This is particularly true given the place cooking has in culture.

“Cooking is so, I don’t know what it is— my colleagues in Women’s Studies call it the heart of the home. So trying to change that practice has a lot of resistance.”

So he developed a simple metal insert that fit into the cookstoves people in India already used. The grate increases airflow, allowing the wood to burn more cleanly and completely. That means less of the soot that causes serious lung problems from smoke inhalation and less wood cut down from nearby forests.

The grates aren’t just easier to implement, they’re far cheaper as well.

“The government in India actually offers a subsidy on those $30 cookstoves to the tune of $7. What we’re seeing is this is way below even the subsidy they’re offering. And it’s a simple thing. There should be no real resistance to just sticking this in their traditional hearth.”

Though the Udaykumar’s grates will be used almost exclusively in small rural communities in developing countries like India, he argues the cookstove issue is critical to those in the first-world as well. He says the lung problems caused by smoke inhalation disproportionately affect women and children in the developing world, but the climate effects of inefficient burning are global.

“We think of these as local problems that apply to women and children in these really remote areas, but actually it’s a global problem because it connects to all of us, not only in terms of climate change but in terms of deforestation.”