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Impoverished Haiti has sugar to burn

Engineers: Cane charcoal could help solve cooking fuel problems

Haitians examine briquettes made from sugar cane.



Technology (general)

(CNN) -- Little is simple in Haiti, not even boiling water.

Impoverished citizens of the Caribbean nation have long been lacking in many regards -- from overarching aims like fostering prosperity, health and stability to more mundane things such as electricity and appliances.

Even wood is in short supply, leaving many reliant on possibly toxic, often ineffective briquettes made from waste paper to cook.

The latter issue got the attention of Amy Smith and her cohorts at the D-Lab, a hands-on and instructional program dedicated to using engineering and technology to improve lives in the developing world.

"You couldn't even heat water with it, let alone boil water," Smith said of the waste paper briquettes after they were examined at the D-Lab's base at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Read more details)

Taking that fact and a host of other health, environmental and economic issues into account, Smith said, "We decided that there was a need for an alternative cooking fuel."

The requirements were basic but not necessarily easy to meet: The fuel had to be simple, effective, cheap and plentiful in Haiti.

Given that challenge, the D-Lab's engineers began sifting through -- and burning -- garbage. They ultimately settled on sugar cane, a common crop in Haiti.

"Sugar cane [waste] works well because it's not used for anything else [and] there's no real nutritional value for it," said Smith. "And the charcoal that it produces is pretty good."

Heightened need

The problems with the waste paper briquettes often used by Haitian villagers extended well beyond their effectiveness.

For one, such briquettes' fumes posed potentially major health risks. This issue is especially critical in Haiti and other developing countries, where acute respiratory infections are a top cause of death for young children.

Breathing indoor cooking fires is typically a significant factor in such illnesses, Smith said.

Moreover, a high deforestation rate -- 98 percent of Haiti's landscape is tree-free -- has left Haiti lacking a wood supply and especially vulnerable to flooding and landslides.

In September 2004, for example, Hurricane Jeanne killed more than 3,000 Haitians and damaged around 300,000 homes.

The need to preserve whatever trees remain is especially critical, given that forecasters are predicting 8 to 10 Atlantic hurricanes this year.

For all these reasons, the D-Lab team went to work. Their first tasks: Pick up the trash -- direct from Haiti -- and then set it ablaze.

"We had a suitcase full of agricultural garbage," recalled Smith. "We had sugar cane, corn husks, peanut shells, corn cobs, everything."

The engineers were able to create a charcoal that could be produced easily and at low cost.

Traditional charcoal is available in Haiti but, like kerosene, is prohibitively expensive. A bag that lasts about 45 days costs about $70 Haitian dollars, but most adults do not make more than a few $100 per month, if that, according to Smith.

The MIT team then held a field trial in Petite Anse, a small and especially poor fishing village on Haiti's northern coast, working closely with local residents to produce and test the sugar cane charcoal.

In a case study produced after the trip, the D-Lab concluded that the final product had similar "energy density" (which relates to its heat and duration, thus cooking capacity) as wood charcoal and could be produced locally for about one-third of the cost.

The advantages of sugar cane charcoal include improved taste, availability and economics, Smith said.

"This is a situation where you have a fuel [that] is cleaner burning ... And being able to provide alternative cooking fuels means people won't have to cut down trees," Smith said, calling it a "win-win project."

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