Helping improve lives in developed countries
Amy Smith at work in Haiti.
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(CNN) -- Amy Smith, an instructor at MIT, is working on an alternative cooking fuel for underdeveloped countries that would decrease the need for wood, limiting deforestation.
She spoke to CNN as part of a series called "Explorers," a feature focusing on 12 innovators trying to change the world.
Question: What do you do?
SMITH: I do engineering design for developing countries, focusing on technologies that help improve the lives of people who live in villages in developing countries around the world.
Q: How did you come up with the idea?
SMITH: I was in Haiti with a group of students working on a variety of projects, and one of the things that they became interested in was a press that had been ... making ... cooking briquettes out of waste paper.
They brought samples of the briquettes back here to MIT to test them. And what we found out was that they didn't actually burn very well at all. You couldn't even heat water with it, let alone boil water for cooking a meal.
So, that's when we decided that there was a need for an alternative cooking fuel.
Q: What are the problems with fuel production?
SMITH: Haiti's a good example of the environmental issues that can be associated with cooking fuels.
Most people use either wood or charcoal for their cooking. And what that means is that you'll find deforestation is a big issue.
In Haiti, the country is 98 percent deforested.
The price of kerosene is expensive, they can't cook with fossil fuels and electricity isn't available in the villages.
From a health point of view ... the number one cause of death of children under 5 [years old] in the world is acute respiratory infections caused by breathing indoor cooking fires.
[There's an economic factor, too] in Haiti, it's quite expensive to buy charcoal. A bag of charcoal that lasts about a month and a half costs about 70 Haitian dollars. An average family ... earns maybe only a couple thousand Haitian dollars per year. And so, therefore, a fifth of [an average family's annual] income [is] being spent on cooking fuel.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of using sugar cane?
SMITH: Well, we'd actually been collecting agricultural waste materials because we were interested in seeing whether we could turn them into charcoal to use as part of a water filter.
We had a suitcase full of sort of agricultural garbage that we were bringing back with us anyway. We had sugar cane, ... corn husks, ... peanut shells, ... corn cobs, everything.
Sugar cane works well because it's not used for anything else. There's no real nutritional value for it. So, you're not taking away, for example, cattle fodder, in order to make the charcoal.
We did some tests burning [sugar cane waste] and the charcoal that it produces is pretty good.
Q: How does this help the people of Haiti and the environment?
SMITH: ... This is a situation where you have a fuel which is cleaner burning, so it's helpful for people's health.
On top of that, you have the possibility of reforesting areas where deforestation has been an issue. This can help prevent erosion. The recent flooding in Haiti was largely attributed to the fact that hillsides were deforested.
So, being able to provide alternative cooking fuels means people won't have to cut down trees.
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