November 12, 2010

Gelled ethanol, an experiment in clean cooking and sustainable business


An ethanol gel-fueled stove is field tested in rural Ghana, where the fuel, and the stove, could cut the health and environmental damage associated with gathering wood and burning it indoors. Photo credit: Brian McCollow

Ghana has spent the last decade trying to reinvigorate its sugar industry after two sugar mills shut their doors and left sugarcane growers without a buyer. Cane goes wasted and farmers are jobless.

At the same time, wood is the cooking fuel of choice among the poor, even in Ghana’s cities. The evils of cooking with wood are well documented: Not only does gathering it intensify deforestation, but indoor fires take a toll on the cook’s cardiovascular health.

Sugar isn’t just sugar

Pirates and cruise-ship-party goers know that sugarcane, fermented and distilled, makes rum. It took some engineering students at Arizona State University to point out that further distillation makes ethanol, which can be gelled and burned as fuel. In Ghana, gelled ethanol is creating jobs in cane growing communities while taking the pressure off forests and peoples’ lungs

Viewed in that light, the vacuum the sugar mills left began to look like a business opportunity to ASU’s Global Resolve program. Global Resolve is a learn-by-doing educational program that solves problems in international development.

How to gel ethanol

Ethanol production is relatively simple: After fermenting sugarcane, boil it to distill and collect the ethanol. The organic material that remains is fertilizer that can nourish the next cane crop. To gel the ethanol, mix it with a chemical such as calcium acetate.

Ghana isn’t exactly replete with gelling agents, so Global Resolve teams have had to import what they need. Unfortunately, the white powders are waylaid by cautious customs officers. There may be a local fix, however: Calcium acetate is made with limestone, which is mined in Ghana, so it could be produced there. That’s something the ASU team is looking into.

Optimizing a stove

Gathering and selling wood to the city dwellers is a kind of self-employment in rural Ghana. The gelled ethanol would replace the wood they sell, but the new fuel wouldn’t be for the villagers, it would be for the cities.

“In the rural villages, they’re probably not going to pay for gelled ethanol,” Mark Henderson, director of ASU’s program, explained. “But in the cities they will.” Nobody will buy it if it costs more than wood, so to bring down the cost, Global Resolve is also designing stoves that optimize fuel consumption.


Inside the ethanol production plant. Photo credit: Brian McCollow

Education is a two-way street

Global Resolve teams designed and built a still in Domeabra, a rural town surrounded by cane fields. The story of their visits is told in photos, video and a travel log by one of the students, Brian McCollow. McCollow’s collection portrays a thrilling integration of students with people who are not shy of the camera; it looks like a memorable cultural experience for the students and an opportunity for them to flex the muscles of their American engineering educations in a developing country.

“It’s always a two-way street,” McCollow told E4C in an email. “We all gain insight, knowledge, and experience as we work with local populations.

“This summer we tried something new: We broke off into small groups and just roamed around in the village of Domeabra,” McCollow said. “Each group had a translator, and no one knew we were coming, but it turned out to be probably the best way to experience Ghana for the first time.”

A word on Global Resolve

Global Resolve is a coalition of students and faculty, a local NGO called CEESD, and community leaders where they work. Members of the program design new products [link to twig lights] to solve problems, then build businesses to distribute them. It’s one of a growing number of such programs in the United States, India and elsewhere (check back here for a link to E4C’s guide, coming soon).

Like many of the new breed, ASU’s program is meticulously inclusive. The teams of students and faculty come from across academic disciplines, not just engineering and design departments, and they collaborate with local governments, NGOs and their academic counterparts at local universities.

“We’ll send ASU students to live in the villages for a couple of months to help start the business ventures,” Henderson, said. “Based on their preparation, their enthusiasm and the contact we’ll have with them all the time, we think it will be successful. It’s an experiment and we’ll have to see.”

For more information, please visit the program’s site. And McCollow’s travel log and photos (here, here and here) are recommended for a vicarious work trip with an exuberant guide and prolific photographer.

An Introduction to GlobalResolve’s Global Impact Entrepreneurship Course

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