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Fort Lewis College brain power targets quality of life in Ecuador

Release Date: 11/13/2008
Contact Information: Laurie Williams, Fort Lewis College, (970) 247-7160; Cynthia Nolt-Helms, Program Manager, P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet, (202) 343-9693; Suzanne Ackerman, USEPA, (202) 564-4355; Richard Mylott, USEPA, (303) 312-6654

Effort to develop prototype biogas cook stove as alternative to polluting, resource intensive fuels

(Denver, Colo. -- November 13, 2008) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is providing the Fort Lewis College student chapter of Engineers Without Borders with a $10,000 grant to help design and produce integrated biogas stove units for villages in the mountains of central Ecuador. The stoves will combine a simple cook stove burner with a digester that creates methane gas from organic wastes, providing a cleaner, more efficient fuel source for cooking and heating.

The grant is being awarded under EPA's People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) program, a national competition that enables college students to research, develop, and design solutions to sustainability challenges. The P3 program also provides key technical assistance in moving the developed and developing world toward sustainability. In addition to the Fort Lewis College project, EPA is awarding 43 P3 grants for a total of $880,000 to student teams representing 39 institutions of higher learning in 23 states.

“The beauty of the People, Prosperity and the Planet program is that it harnesses one of our most abundant natural resources: student brain power,” said Dr. George Gray, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “Through innovation and creativity, these student teams turn environmental challenges into opportunities that protect the environment, build new businesses, and create new careers.”

The Fort Lewis College student chapter of Engineers Without Borders is working with the villages surrounding Mount Chimborazo in central Ecuador, an area inhabited by the indigenous Quechua people of Puruha nation. During a recent trip, the students conducted a data collection and needs assessment and determined that one of the major problems facing the villages was the use of household open fires for cooking and heating. Typically fueled by firewood, dried dung and crop residues, this highly inefficient cooking and heating method poses potential health risks, particularly poor indoor air quality, and contributes to the rapid depletion of natural resources such as forests.

The acquisition and use of biomass fuels for heating and cooking presents a widespread problem for the majority of people on the continents of South America, Africa, and Asia. Inefficient cooking and heating practices (wood burns at 5–8% efficiency and cow dung at 3–5%) not only pollute homes but also deplete local resources and require increasing amounts of time and energy for fuel acquisition. These factors challenge the sustainability of local and global environments, as well as the health and economic prosperity of vast numbers of people in the developing world.

Properly designed and used, anaerobic digesters (a process of converting organic wastes to methane) mitigate these environmental and human health impacts. Harnessing this process as a fuel source process improves sanitation, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, reduces demand for wood and charcoal for cooking, provides a sustainable source of high quality fertilizer for crop production, and helps preserve forested areas and natural vegetation. For the developing world, the greatest biogas benefit may be the alleviation of a very serious health problem -- poor indoor air quality.

The Fort Lewis College project will design, construct, and test a simple and affordable anaerobic digestion unit incorporated with an efficient cook stove design to meet the daily cooking needs of an average Chimborazo household. Specifically, the anaerobic digester will produce at least 2 m
3/d of biogas using local animal and food wastes as the feedstock. This integrated system will eliminate indoor air pollution, reduce the environmental impacts of biomass burning and fuel collection, and convert waste products to value-added organic fertilizer. The students intend to use this project as an opportunity to develop a model biogas digester/cook stove system that can be transferred to other communities in Ecuador, the Andes, and potentially around the world.

The entire project will be student-designed and integrated into Fort Lewis College engineering and sustainable agriculture courses. Construction and testing of prototype units will be conducted at a high-altitude agricultural experiment station located in Hesperus, Colo. Once the digester and cook stove units are developed, students will provide the communities with all necessary maintenance and operation capabilities and will conduct health and environmental education activities that complement project objectives. Field evaluation of the biogas fertilizer will include both crop production test beds and greenhouse trials.

EPA's grant to Fort Lewis College is just one of several innovative projects awarded today as part of the 43 P3 Phase I grants and six Phase II grants to teams from last year. For example, a team from Appalachian State University is designing a coffee wastewater treatment system that produces ethanol and bio-gas for possible use as car fuels. Gonzaga University students are building an educational center and dormitory in Kenya, where students will learn how to implement sustainable water filtering technology and identify local energy sources. Students at the University of California-Davis are designing an innovative and efficient means of producing plastic from wastewater.

The P3 Award includes the possibility of additional (Phase II) funding up to $75,000 that gives students an opportunity to further develop their designs and move them to the marketplace. An American Association for the Advancement of Science panel will evaluate the projects and make recommendations to EPA, who will choose the winners. The next P3 Award Competition will be held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as part of the National Sustainable Design Expo, April 18-20, 2009.

EPA and its partners launched the P3 Award in 2004 to respond to the challenges of the developed and developing world in moving toward sustainability. Student-led P3 projects are helping to achieve the mutual goals of economic prosperity while providing a higher quality of life and protecting the planet.

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Press Release: Fort Lewis College brain power targets quality of life in Ecuador