A stove created at Berkeley to help refugee women survive the dinner hour
| 08 May 2008
The conflict in Darfur, an arid place the size of Texas, has left rural villages burned to the ground, families torn apart, and the landscape devastated. As many as 400,000 people have died due to violence, disease, and starvation over the past five years. Some 2.5 million now struggle to survive in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad, where women must trek several miles to search for firewood. Their journeys take nearly seven hours roundtrip and often expose them to the brutality of the Janjaweed, roving militias that prey upon refugees.
In 2004, the United States Agency for International Development contacted Ashok Gadgil for help. Gadgil, an adjunct professor in Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group and a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, had an idea: to design a fuel-efficient, portable stove for Darfur. He enlisted LBNL engineer Christina Galitsky and a team of graduate students to join the project.
Gadgil, originally from Mumbai, came to Berkeley as an international graduate student to study physics. He is drawn to projects that will improve life in developing countries: In the early 1990s he designed a device that uses ultraviolet light to quickly, safely, and cheaply disinfect water of the viruses and bacteria that cause cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and other deadly diseases. Now patented, and manufactured by Water Health International, the simple machine (called UV Waterworks) is used in Mexico, the Philippines, India, and Ghana.
More recently, he and Galitsky have been exploring ways to remove arsenic from well water in Bangladesh, using ash. “Christie is not only an outstanding thinker who applies her mind to solving real-world problems,” says Gadgil, “she’s a risk-taker in the best sense of the word.”
Risk was certainly part of the equation when the researchers traveled to Darfur in November 2005; a week earlier, the United Nations had withdrawn all its aid workers from the region because they were being targeted by Sudanese combatants. At one of the camps they visited, in Kalma, they found more than 90,000 men, women, and children living in mud huts. “The conditions were appalling,” recalls Galitsky. “You could see the desperation everywhere, the terror in their eyes and voices.”
The team had brought with it a cylindrical stove, two feet high and 14 inches in diameter, made of sheet metal. Galitsky rolled up her sleeves, lit the stove, and cooked a potful of assida, a Sudanese daily staple: sticky dough made of flour, oil, and water, topped with fried onions, tomatoes, meat or yogurt, okra, and spices. As the women watched her cook using only half as much wood as they would need to fuel a traditional three-stone fire, word spread quickly. At an encore demonstration, more than 250 women, 100 sheikhs, and others of high rank came to witness this feat. Even the camp leader, who was running a high fever, left his sickbed to attend.
Back in their lab, the team has further refined the stove, which is now four times more fuel-efficient, requiring 75 percent less wood than it did when first demonstrated in Darfur. Additionally, the stove can be assembled easily from flat kits and without access to electricity.
Plans are in motion to begin mass-producing the stoves, at least 300,000 of which are needed. The hope is that production of the stoves will soon be turned over to the people of Darfur, bringing them jobs and income — as well as the peace of mind that comes from fueling the preparation of a daily meal without being shot for their pains.
This article is adapted from the spring 2008 issue of The Graduate, published by the Graduate Division (www.grad.berkeley.edu).