Creating a cleaner cookstove

Thanks to a grant from the Department of Energy and strong community partnerships, Ph.D. student Garrett Allawatt is helping engineer a cleaner cookstove for developing countries.

Be a world of good

Half a world away, Kenyan women are crouching over a three-stone fire — literally three stones propping up a pot over an open flame — feeding it the wood they collected on their weekly expedition. 

The journey to gather fuel, which takes seven hours round-trip on average, is dangerous. Women, carrying 45 pounds of branches and twigs, are vulnerable, exposed to violence, harassment, sexual abuse — all in an effort to simply feed their families.

A woman prepares a meal using a clean cookstove.

This is a reality for nearly half the world’s population, which has relied on three-stone fires for everything from eating to heating for generations. That’s billions of people burning wood, charcoal — whatever they can find — in their homes, inhaling smoke and fumes daily. The effects, from deforestation to cruelty against women to the deaths of more than 4 million people annually, are devastating.

So with a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy, the University of Washington is doing something about it.

With guidance from mechanical engineering professors Jonathan Posner and John Kramlich, Ph.D. student Garrett Allawatt works with a team that has one mission: to create a cookstove that’s not only cleaner and more efficient, but that will be readily adapted by countries — Kenya specifically — accustomed to cooking over a traditional three-stone fire.

Garrett Allawatt

Garrett Allawatt

The crew partners with local cookstove manufacturer Burn Design Lab, taking the ferry to its Vashon Island headquarters once a month to see their designs actually being built. From there, stoves are sent to Kenya, where focus groups test and give feedback.

Allawatt first got involved with the project after his thermodynamics professor sparked his love for mechanical engineering and its real-world applications and introduced him to research opportunities “Right away, as an undergraduate, I was working with graduate students and being invited to meetings with professors I’d never even seen before,” he says.

Professors like Kramlich, who took note of Allawatt’s skills and offered him a research assistant position on the clean cookstoves project. Allawatt and his team developed a Tier 4 stove — the highest ranking on the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves’ scale in terms of efficiency and fuel use, total emissions, indoor emissions, and safety.

The group, which includes a handful of engineers and a student majoring in public health, is primarily focused on making on a model that can hit the market and be adapted now, though — not generations from now.

That means carrying over as many elements as possible from the three-stone model, from the height of the stove to actually being able to see the flame — something that’s inherently less efficient, but of utmost importance if the clean cookstoves team wants their stoves to actually be used.

“You might think it’s obvious that cleaner is better, but for someone whose culture has been so adept to doing it one way, they’re just not going to use it if you hand them something that’s totally different,” says Allawatt. “At the UW, mechanical engineering isn’t just about theory. It’s about doing things that are actually going to impact people.”

The UW’s first generation cookstove developed with Burn Design Lab will start production in Nairobi, Kenya this summer thanks to an $800,000 investment from Unilever and Acumen and be sold across Africa for roughly $35 each, but the team is far from finished.

Allawatt, who’s developing a free program that allows users to design a stove and then compute its efficiency all on a cell phone (a drastic change from the current model, which requires thousand-dollar programs on thousand-dollar computers), says the one of the group’s main goals is to find — and make available — as much information as they can.

“We’re in this to share our findings, from drawings to data, trying to help as many people as possible.”

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