U.Va.-South African Collaboration Produces Clean-Burning, Efficient Cook Stoves, and Much More

September 05, 2012

Last fall, two students stood at the front of their “Development on the Ground” class at the University of Virginia and described a mysterious-sounding device called a “rocket stove.”

Michael Bugas, a third-year global development studies major in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Nick Allen, a third-year double major in computer science and global development studies in the College, had seen the stoves in South Africa during a previous study-abroad program and described how they work.

They told their classmates not be confused by the unusual-sounding name, which suggests things shooting into the air.

“The rocket stove is a high-efficiency, wood-burning stove made entirely from bricks and metal,” Allen said. “The way it gets the ‘rocket stove’ name is there are two chambers in the bottom of the stove. One is for a wood inlet, and one for an air inlet.”

When the air and fuel meet in the bottom of the chamber, the hot air is compressed upward toward the cooking pot, much like a rocket.

Bugas and Allen told their classmates the stoves are an increasingly popular, inexpensive and important tool that can vastly improve the health of women and help alleviate deforestation and slow climate change in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And the work of getting them into communities is regarded as more important than ever, as witnessed by the United Nations’ recently created Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves.

The materials are easy to get and the stoves inexpensive, averaging about $125 apiece. “The impact that you’re getting with that $125 U.S. will create one stove, which can make food for 200 people,” Bugas said.

Arianna Parsons, now a fourth-year College student double-majoring in global development studies and economics, listened intently during the presentation last fall and decided she wanted to learn more.

Fast forward to May: Parsons was on her way to South Africa to work with Bugas, Allen and Rachel Boots, a third-year civil and environmental engineering student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science after winning a grant from the Jefferson Public Citizens program. Their adviser was Ray Smith, a Ph.D. student in civil engineering. Their mission: field research on cook stove technology in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces.

Bugas said the project dates to 1998, when Carol Anne Spreen, an assistant professor in the Curry School of Education, first met some teachers from Limpopo’s Mashamba Presidential Primary School. In the years following that meeting, Spreen traveled to the school frequently and school staff asked her to work with them to find a way to reduce the large amounts of smoke that wafted from their fires, which burn most of the day.

“She saw there was a smoke kind of boiling out of the outdoor kitchens,” Bugas said. “During the summer time, the windows could not be opened because the smoke was just too thick and it was rolling right into the classrooms.

“In 2008, a group of U.Va. students went to the school to work collaboratively with students and teachers to create a design which came to be the rocket stove.”

Project adviser Robert Swap, a research professor in the College’s Department of Environmental Sciences and recent recipient of a teaching award for excellence in education abroad, said the benefits to the school were immediately apparent.

“The cook staff loved it because they could cook 18 liters of corn porridge and they didn’t burn themselves, and it took less time,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”

In addition to safety and efficiency, the wood-burning stoves reduced fuel requirements by 50 percent and drastically reduced the amount of smoke produced by cooking fires. That allowed the primary school to redirect some of its money toward expanding a garden, thereby producing fresh food for school meals.

The garden also proved to be a money-maker. “Whatever vegetables they didn’t use, they were able to sell to the community,” Swap said.

Since their return to Charlottesville, Bugas and Allen have kept in touch with their collaborators in South Africa. They are hoping to pass the baton to a new group of students so the work can continue next summer.

Allen said true collaboration is the key to a sustainable project. “The project is only as good as the sustainability that follows. We by no means were the driving force. I think both sides were needed, and that’s how it should be,” he said.

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Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications