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Generating power from cooking stoves: An example of sustainable international development

With Dr Séamus O’Shaughnessy,
Ussher Assistant Professor, Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering,
Trinity College Dublin

Article by Dr Kate Smyth, Consultancy Officer, Trinity Research and Innovation

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Between the growing urgency of climate change and the influence of right-leaning political leaders such as Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and recently Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro – who has come under criticism for his management of the fires in the Amazon – it seems ever more urgent to have an acute focus on sustainability and on highlighting issues of global economic and social inequality.

It is part of the central role of universities to engage with these issues, which are some of the greatest challenges of our times. Research and academic consultancy work taking place at Trinity College Dublin can often make a positive effect in these areas.

One of Trinity’s strategies in contributing to this has been the recruitment of forty academics to become “Ussher Assistant Professors”, with the goal of achieving a greater impact on real-world political, social, and cultural issues.

One such Ussher Assistant Professor is Dr Séamus O’Shaughnessy, who began his role in September 2016, with a focus on Energy and Sustainable International Development. Dr O’Shaughnessy, whose background is in mechanical engineering, previously worked with expert engineering professor Dr Tony Robinson in projects to do with measuring heat transfer and forms of convection (when a fluid is heated, generating thermal energy).

Dr O’Shaughnessy had previously been a Research Fellow at Trinity, and over time became more focussed on the crossover between engineering and sustainability. He has a research team that has been involved for several years in bringing off-grid electricity to communities in developing countries, by using the waste heat produced during cooking on stoves.

In 2015, Dr O’Shaughnessy and Dr Robinson worked on a project in Malawi, funded by Irish Aid and Concern Universal, which sought to install a device in cookstoves that could make enough electricity for helpful applications like powering a mobile phone charger, lights, and radios. An article was published on this in the Irish Times and a BBC video shared online gained 23 million views.

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On foot of this, in 2018 CO2Logic – a Belgian carbon-offsetting company which focuses on developing world contexts – sought out Dr O’Shaughnessy and invited him to engage in some consultancy work for a similar project in the North of Benin, Africa.

CO2Logic’s work ties in with the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies of companies to make a positive impact on their environment, with clients including IKEA, Axa Insurance, and UCB Pharma. They have worked in many developing countries around the world, including Uganda in relation to tree conservation and Kenya in relation to water treatment.  

In Benin, CO2Logic had partnered with a local NGO called EcoBénin, which works towards local development projects for a “responsible, fair and supportive human development”, as per their website. Many of the communities in Benin live according to traditional cultural and social mores, living in round mud huts and cooking on open stoves. Their traditional stoves produce a great deal of smoke and respiratory health issues. In order to obtain enough fuel for the stoves, they required a large amount of wood, and deforestation and desertification has become a major concern in this region.

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EcoBénin have developed a new kind of cookstove called “Wanrou”, a fixed mud stove with separate air and wood supply, a grate and a chimney (as shown above). These require significantly less wood and keep the smoke away from the user, the process is cleaner for the environment but also healthier for the villagers.

According to CO2Logic, the cookstove users only use half the wood, which has a substantial influence on the climate: “The emission reduction equals the effect of 10,000 flights between Brussels and Marrakech.” They state that 3,500 new cookstoves have been installed in the region, and 1,000 households can save 3,000 tons of Co2. CO2Logic contends that “these actions are crucial for the climate, to avoid deforestation and to sustain the living conditions of local families.” 

As an academic expert with experience in the field, Dr O’Shaughnessy was asked to provide the missing link in this partnership between CO2Logic and EcoBénin: a technology derived from his background in heat transfer and thermal energy that could potentially be adapted and integrated into EcoBénin’s cookstove. This technology – the TEG (Thermal Electrical Generator) – could be used to provide enough electricity to complete low-power actions such as charging a mobile phone or LED lighting.

The TEG device also helped the companies to gather information about the usage of the stoves in the community. Prior to this, they relied on interpersonal interviews with stove users to gather data about the impact of the stoves on their lives. However, interviews like this can be subject to response bias, particularly acquiescence bias, where participants seek to please the interviewer rather than report the truth of their experience.

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The data obtained through Dr O’Shaughnessy’s device means that the company can responsibly provide meaningful solutions to communities in developing countries. According to CO2Logic’s website, “with EcoBénin, CO2Logic is helping put in place all the relevant tools to ensure that the monitoring in terms of reduced local wood consumption and CO2 emission is exact and indisputable and that the scientific basis for the calculations can be proven transparently. The credibility and traceability of these CO2 reductions will be unquestionable.”  

Having adapted and provided the technology for this specific project in 2018, Dr O’Shaughnessy went to Benin himself in February 2019. He found that the work was going well, and that the data provided by the TEG device was useful. He believes that this kind of data cataloguing is essential for making such projects effective.

He also suggests the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration in projects such as this, for example with researchers from ecology, sociology, gender studies, psychology, anthropology. It is not enough to have the data; you need to know how to apply it to provide technology that can actually be useful. This depends on gaining an understanding of cultural traditions, behavioural patterns, gender norms, and political beliefs.

After this piece of consultancy work, Dr O’Shaughnessy is now looking towards employing more researchers to participate in a larger and potentially interdisciplinary research project, which can have a broader impact in this field.

September 2019

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