A breath of fresh air
UTS engineering student Alexandra Devlin spent 14 months in South-East Asia researching alternate options to traditional biomass stoves, potentially avoiding 4 million premature deaths.
This real-world application of technical and professional skills, developed during her Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) Diploma of Professional Engineering Practice, is just one example of how engineers can develop and build innovative solutions to transform communities around the world.
The demand for cleaner air
My final-year Engineering Capstone Project was centred around advanced biomassorganic matter derived from living, or recently living organisms. cookstove technology. The target market was the broader Southeast Asian region but more specifically, Laos. It was on my New Colombo Plan Scholarship program that this project came about. I was living, studying and working in Southeast Asia for over 14 months. During my time there I visited many of the provincial homes of my local friends. I was overwhelmed by the sheer density and quantity of smoke emitted from the firewood and charcoal stoves. The health impacts on the family members from breathing in toxic chemicals was obvious, so too was the environmental hazards. I made it my number one priority to determine a viable and effective cooking alternative solution to solid fuel combustion for poor households.
Test, test, and test again
I was lucky to be introduced to Dr Paul Olivier by my manager at the time from The Asia Foundation in Hanoi. Dr Paul had invented an advanced gasification cookstove that not only transformed biomass into high-grade and clean heat energy, but also transformed biomass into value-adding biocharThe rich carbonaceous product of thermochemically treated biomass. This product had significant potential in the Southeast Asian market due to the domination of agriculture in low socio-economic areas.
I decided that I would test and validate the extent to which pollutants were reduced, and efficiency was increased, by using the gasificationThermochemical process that converts biomass into syngas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide) and biochar, using one-third of the oxygen that combustion does. technology as opposed to open-fire combustion. In Laos, I completed significant field investigations in the homes of community members, using top quality air quality monitoring instruments from Australia. I successfully proved biomass gasification significantly reduced pollutants (up to 93%) and increased efficiency (up to 62%).
Technical skills are important, but you also need strong personal skills
This project involved a multi-faceted approach to problem-solving, encompassing environmental science, systems engineering, renewable energy, waste management, anthropology and agriculture. My field investigations were often carried out without the aid of a translator, so I was challenged to be creative with my communication methods. At the core of this project was a deep understanding of the social and cultural context of Laos. By living and learning directly with the people, I could comprehend their needs, constraints and societal norms.
Preventing premature deaths
Through feasibility studies, my project deduced that small-scale crop residue agricultural waste products, including those from the field and processing. gasifiers have the capacity to replace all household solid fuel combustion. Globally, this means all households could cook food in an efficient and non-polluting manner.
In effect, 4 million premature deaths (WHO 2016) could be avoided each year from ensuring indoor air is of high quality, provided the technology was deployed across the entire developing world. Close to 140 million productive person-years (World Bank 2015) could be regained annually from reduction of biomass fuel collection time and substantial reduction of cooking times. Globally, US$222 billion (World Bank 2015) could be saved each year.
During the project, I was honoured to host Ms Karen Lanyon, Australian Consulate-General for Vietnam, at the research project in Dalat, Vietnam, to explain the project and its potential impacts. I also received the People’s Choice Award at the UTS FEIT Capstone Showcase. Today, I work with the start-up non-for-profit ‘From The Ground Up’ where we are preparing a social enterprise plan to disseminate the clean cookstoves in Nepal. Simultaneously, a postgraduate business student is developing a sustainable business plan for the product.
Shape the future
Engineers need practical, creative skills to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Discover an engineering course to help you change the world.