I’m driving north into British Columbia, a couple weeks ago, picking up the first scratchy signals of CBC Radio. It is an interview with Bruce Mau, environmental design god and founder of Massive Change. He’s asked, What are the critical design issues for the new millennium? His reply is not theoretical or abstract in the least. He says: “We must address the everyday needs of the planet’s people.”

He gives an example. Millions of the world’s people cook their meals indoors, he says, using wood or other biomass fuel. Many cook over “three-stone” fires, where the “stones” support the pot and the combustion occurs uncontained. The poor combustion efficiency and poor heat transfer combine to produce smoky, carbon monoxide-belching fires and extremely dangerous indoor air quality. As a result, millions of women die each year from CO poisoning and respiratory diseases caused by cooking.

“Really?” says the interviewer.

Fortunately, Mau says, there are now excellent designers studying this problem and developing solutions that can be implemented in a variety of geographical and cultural contexts. I smile to myself, because I have just come from meeting with the very elite of this group: the appropriate technology development folks at Aprovecho Research Center in Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Aprovecho is an institution worthy of more than just this brief mention in a blog. It is both a research facility and a teaching institution, addressing a well-rounded curriculum of the art and science of sustainable living: agriculture, forestry, domestic architecture and construction, and appropriate technology. For the past eight years, the appropriate technology folks have focused their efforts on the study of fuel efficient biomass cookstoves.

“We began from the same premise that others had been working from,” explains Research Director Dean Still. “We just assumed that three-stone fires were bad, and just about anything we might do would improve combustion efficiency. It turns out, you can build a pretty decent three-stone fire; and it is remarkably complicated to design a clean-burning stove that can be easily and inexpensively mass-produced, and that will be accepted by the women who use them.”

Stovers at Work

Aprovecho is among the world leaders in the designing and testing of biomass cookstoves. It’s annual Stove Camp attracts engineers and appropriate technology advocates from across North America and around he world.

Yoo-Mi and I initially found our way to Aprovecho on the advice of our friend, Mouhsine Serrar, who, along with his work on solar ovens, is bringing cleaner-burning cookstoves to the villages of his native Morocco, Mauritania, Ghana, and elsewhere in Africa. We needed to learn as much about stoves as we could, and in the shortest time possible. We had signed on to a project team lead by the estimable (and quite wonderful) Ashok Gadgil to bring higher efficiency cookstoves to the refugee camps of Darfur, Sudan. I’m sure you’ll hear more about that project as our mid-November departure for Sudan approaches.

Showing off the New Rocket Stove

In any event, the folks at Aprovecho, including Dean, Mouhsine, Damon Ogle, Nordica Huddleston, Peter Scott, and Ken Goyer have spent many hours taking us through the stove design literature, demonstrating the successful and not-so-successful design features, helping us to understand and utilize the technical data Aprovecho has amassed over the years, helping us to build high-efficiency stoves, and teaching us how to use them properly. These are people who know only generosity, and for whom advancement in the state-of-the-art is only valuable once it is disseminated.

We are thankful and honored to be working with the inspired and inspirational people of Aprovecho. I am hopeful that our relationship with is only at its beginning.


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