Solar Roots

Provide training and equipment for renewable energy sources in low-income communities and developing nations.
Apr 6, 2015

The Four Brick Stove

The clay/straw bricks straight out the moulds
The clay/straw bricks straight out the moulds

For the last two years, I have been working on developing a stove based on a design I got from my good friends, Jon and Flip Anderson of Corvalis, Oregon. At first, we called it the Four Brick Stove, but as time has gone on, I have expanded it to what is now a Six Brick Stove. Jon and Flip have been building stoves like this for years in Haiti and Timor L'Este and I first experimented with it in Haiti in 2013. One of the great benefits of such a design, is that it can be made out of several different materials. Usually Jon and Flip use clay, mixed 50/50 by volume, with insulating material such as straw or sawdust and this is how I started in Haiti and Burma. However I was not fully satisfied with the results, due to poor quality clay, and as it turns out, my lack of understanding how to work the clay, to get the best out of it.

Later, I began experimenting with a mixture of cement and rice husk ash, which makes very neat bricks. One of the great advantages of this material is that the bricks can be made only 1.5" thick, providing  great savings in the cement component, which is relatively expensive and requires much energy in its production. One of the great design features of the 4-brick stove is that the bricks are "keyed" to stay upright, and not collapse in on themselves. Another important feature is that the bricks can be scaled up to almost any size. This is particularly useful when it comes to making a powerful stove for instutional use, like the one we put inside a 55 gallon drum.

My goal is to learn how to make the bricks out of high quality clay and rice husk ash and to fire them properly to withstand the heat of daily cooking. In this, I hope to work with potters that I have recently met in Burma. They have the experience with the local clay and in particular, the heat-resisting clay called kaolin. So, I have many more experiments ahead of me. If you like our work and would like to support it, please consider making a donation. Thank you!

Assembling stove in Burma, now with a 5th brick
Assembling stove in Burma, now with a 5th brick
Stove now with 6th brick, adapted for 55gal drum
Stove now with 6th brick, adapted for 55gal drum
The clean lines of the cement/rice husk ash stove
The clean lines of the cement/rice husk ash stove
The glow of clean burning sticks in a large stove
The glow of clean burning sticks in a large stove
A large stove in action in Naung Taung monastery
A large stove in action in Naung Taung monastery
Mar 9, 2015

New Solar Home Systems in Kandaw village

Loading up the motorbikes for the last leg!
Loading up the motorbikes for the last leg!

Working again with Alein Ein, the Myanmar NGO that helps communities recover from the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, Solar Roots went to a community in the north west of the Ayerwaddy Delta, near Pathein. This was a village called Kandaw and the population belongs to the Pwo Karen group. Although not badly damaged during Nargis, the people of Kandaw stand out as having started one of the most successful savings group in the Delta area. What is a "savings group"? Well, we've all heard of the very popular micro lending schemes, where villagers can borrow small amounts of money at low rates of interest to start a small enterprise. However, in the usual model, this money comes from outside the community and the interest generated goes back to the big city, where the bank is located. Alein Ein have pioneered a new model where the community sets up a savings group and members contribute a small amount each month. But with 100 members, as in Kandaw, the saved amount accumulates quickly, and is soon ready to be lent out to a group member. Alein Ein has used this savings group concept to great effect in fostering community building in the areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis.

The villagers of Kandaw are rice farmers and proud of the Pwo Karen culture and language. They even have a few motorbikes in the village - but almost no-one had electric lights or phone charging capacity. Alein Ein invited us to come to the village to give a 2-day solar training and I saw this as an ideal opportunity to test out some of the new small solar home systems. Previously, we had introduced systems where the recipient had an LED light and a battery, but had to take the battery to a central charging station twice a week. The new systems we introduced at Kandaw are self contained units which include 2 LED lights, a USB phone charging port, a charge controller, a battery and a solar panel, all designed to work together. One model, from China, cost around $36 and another, larger system, built in Myanmar, cost $55. We brought six of the Chinese and four of the Myanmar systems. I like to support local enterprises where I can and I suspect that the Myanmar system will be more popular, as it is more powerful and can be repaired locally.

I had two volunteers from UC Berkeley with me and the villagers treated us all like loyalty. We were given meat at every meal, which I am sure the villagers only eat occasionally, when no guests are around. The Pwo Karen are Buddhist, in contrast to their cousins, the Sgaw Karen who live in the mountains near the Thai border and are Christian. To a greater degree, the Pwo Karen have been able to hold on to their culture and language, since they have been less affected by outside influences. We were treated to a two hour presentation of their traditional dances, with all the young folk dressed up in traditional costumes. We were also presented with Karen tunics for MIchael and myself and a dress for Lisa. It was humbling to be treated so well by people who have so little.

I did my usual  2-day solar training, explaining the basics of photovoltaics and emphasizing the need to carefully manage the usage of the system during the rainy season, when the available sunlight is much reduced. In point of fact, it was rainy season when we were there - extremely hot with violent daily rainstorms. I will be very interested to revisit Kandaw, to check up on the performance of these solar home systems and see if they really hold up in the rigors of the tropical climate. It will be a delight to check in again with the good friends we made during our first visit to the good folks of Kandaw.

Please let me know if you like the work that Solar Roots is doing. Your feedback and continued support is what makes this work possible. Thank you, Bruce.

Chinese made (silver, left), Myanmar made (white)
Chinese made (silver, left), Myanmar made (white)
Learning about tilt angle and solar output
Learning about tilt angle and solar output
A total of ten systems were donated to villagers
A total of ten systems were donated to villagers
Ladies doing the books during a savings group meet
Ladies doing the books during a savings group meet
The young Karen boys demonstrate traditional dance
The young Karen boys demonstrate traditional dance
Jan 6, 2015

Stove Factory in the Delta

The rice-husk burning kiln
The rice-husk burning kiln

During my trip to the Mangrove Services Network (MSN) in the Delta region of Bogale, I had the great fortune to visit a small stove factory that they had helped establish. The mangrove forest, which used to grow extensively on the shores of the Ayerwaddy River Delta has been decimated in recent years by people establishing shrimp farms and cutting the trees for conversion into charcoal. I was shocked to learn that shrimp farms only have a limited productive life and are often abandoned after only 5 or 6 years. Of course, once removed, the mangroves take decades to re-establish themselves by natural regeneration, if they ever do. The loss of the mangrove forest was a significant contributing factor intensifying the extensive destruction and loss of life caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. To counteract this, the work of the Mangrove Services Network has two main thrusts. The first is to identify the strongest mangrove species that will re-establish quickly and permanently and help the local people to plant these trees in their community. The second thrust is to help local inhabitants develop alternative sources of livelihood, so they are not forced to cut the mangroves for income.

One of these MSN livelihood projects was a stove building factory using a kiln that burns rice husks as fuel. Rice husks are a low value by-product of rice growing in the Delta and are freely available everywhere. Without a good draft of air, they tend to smolder and produce a great deal of smoke. However, MSN overcame this drawback by using a 30ft high chimney which creates a huge draft that helps the husks burn cleaner.  They have a damper in the system that allows them to control the burn and thus, the temperature of the firing. A wonderful by-product of this process is the ash that is left when the burning is complete. Rice husk ash is high in silica content and when added to the clay mix, it gives the stoves added insulation and resistance to heat. For me, this a win-win situation: a waste product from agriculture is being used productively, then the by product from its combustion is helping the stoves perform better and last longer.

But there is still room for improvement. In the future, I hope to work with MSN to improve the design of their stoves. At the moment, they are using a knock-off version of the Thai bucket design. While cheap to produce, it is not a very efficient or clean burning design. On my next visit to Bogale I hope to help the stove builders learn about the principles of the Rocket Stove and develop with them a design that will fit their production facilities and be popular in the local market. Please help Solar Roots and the people of the Ayerwaddy Delta to preserve the mangrove forest and to improve the lives of the local inhabitants. Your support is greatly appreciated. 

Forming the stoves using a spinning mold
Forming the stoves using a spinning mold
Worker holding the mold, with wet stoves
Worker holding the mold, with wet stoves
Project Director with burned rice husks behind
Project Director with burned rice husks behind
Mixing and extruding the clay
Mixing and extruding the clay
A special stove for burning sawdust or rice husks
A special stove for burning sawdust or rice husks

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