In 2003, following a series of tribal and political uprisings, the Sudanese government sanctioned violent militias, called the Janjaweed, to destroy entire villages in the western province of Darfur. Since then, a brutal campaign has targeted civilians, killing more than 400,000 people and fundamentally altering their way of life. More than a decade after the beginning of the conflict, 1.4 million people still live in densely populated refugee camps.
During the first years of displacement, women had to walk for up to seven hours outside the safety of the camps to collect firewood for cooking, putting them at risk for violent attacks. In 2005, the U.S. government approached Ashok Gadgil, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division, in search of a hands-on solution to this devastating problem.
At first, said Gadgil, he didn’t know how he, as an engineer, could hope to ease the refugee crisis. But when he learned that women in the camps cooked using traditional methods in which their cooking pots sit atop three stones, with a fire burning in the middle, he saw the spark of a solution.
“A three-stone fire is the least efficient way to take energy from the fuel wood and turn it into heat into the pot,” said Gadgil.
The efficiency of a typical three-stone fire is 5 to 6 percent. Poor combustion of the wood means that the fire’s chemical energy isn’t transferred to heat, and what heat there is transfers poorly into the pot.
“So I figured I should be able to design a stove that should be cheap, should work with their pots, with their fuel, with their cooking style,” he said. “And something that should be at least 25 to 30 percent efficient.”
Along with Ken Chow, an engineer at the lab and a member of Engineers Without Borders, Gadgil designed a stove that requires only a quarter of the wood that a traditional stove burns.
“That means they’re not going out every other day,” he said. Instead, the women would need to venture outside of the camps only once a week, since they would be burning less wood to cook the same amount of food.
Gadgil and his team called their invention the Berkeley-Darfur Stove. But changing the stove itself wasn’t enough to ensure efficient cooking in the camps.
“Five things go in to determine the efficiency of a stove in the real world,” said Gadgil. “It’s not just a stove by itself. Get the cook to tend the fire right, make sure that you understand what kind of cooking is going on in what kind of pot, make sure the pot fits well over the stove and oxygen supply is controlled but adequate, and make sure all of that works with the right kind of fuel that’s available locally.”
While there was still firewood to be collected outside the camps, fewer trips by the women meant decreased risk of rape. Now that the areas around the camps have largely been deforested, better stoves mean that the women must sell less of their precious food supply to buy wood.
Since the team finalized the design in 2009, nearly 40,000 stoves have been distributed to refugees.
A nonprofit called Potential Energy, based in Oakland, has taken over the Berkeley-Darfur Stoves Project, and now works with other community organizations to manufacture the stoves and get them to the people who need them. After being shipped to Sudan, the stoves are assembled from simple, lightweight kits in a workshop in Darfur that is staffed entirely by workers who live in the camps.
But fuel efficiency isn’t the only problem with traditional cookstoves, and the problems aren’t unique to Darfur. The U.S. Department of Energy took note of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s success with the Berkeley-Darfur Stoves, and in 2013, as part of a broader global effort to address the harm caused by cookstoves, came to Gadgil with an even more destructive stove problem long overdue for a solution.
Three billion people – more than half of the world’s population – eat food prepared on open fires or “biomass” cookstoves. Some, like the stoves traditionally used by the Darfuri women, burn wood. In other parts of the developing world, coal, animal dung, or other fuels are used.
When these materials are burned indoors, they release toxic fumes and dangerous amounts of soot. Every year, about four million people in developing nations, mostly women and children, die of illnesses caused by inhaling the smoke from these fires. Exposure leads to low birth weight, childhood pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma and other serious chronic illnesses. Lower respiratory infections were the leading cause of death in low-income countries in 2011 and are predicted to be the top cause of death in Africa by 2015.
The inefficiency of the stoves also contributes to poverty — up to seven hours of labor per day, and half of a family’s income, can be expended on firewood.
In addition to this devastating human toll, cooking fires contribute greatly to deforestation and climate change. The burning of household biofuels is the second greatest contributor to global warming, second only to motor vehicles.
The Department of Energy’s missive was clear: invent a new stove that would produce ten times less pollution than the traditional cookstoves currently in use around the world. To help, the government has funded a state-of-the-art stove-testing laboratory at the lab in Berkeley, where Gadgil and his team of students and engineers are working furiously to cook up a prototype.
Gadgil said that he is confident that, at least in the lab, the team will have a new “ultra-clean” stove design built and tested by the fall of 2015.
The new stoves would cost between $30 and $40 each, he said, and would not require electricity. The stoves are most needed in Asia and Africa, but South and Central American countries also would benefit.
In addition to paying for the stove-testing lab, Gadgil has proposed that the energy department should help pay to train engineers from other countries in building and operating similar labs in their own countries. If all goes well, he said, this training should begin in 2015.
“We want to elevate global technology on stoves all around the world,” said Gadgil. “World-class science and technology, applied to big and often desperate problems of the people at the base of the global economic pyramid, can help improve their lives.”