John Higgins with his diesel from plastic retort
It’s Summertime again and Thida Win and I have returned from Burma for another 6 months in Northern California. Like last year, we made the journey up to Cottage Grove, Oregon for the annual Stove Camp event. But this year was different – there were 3 separate stove-related events – all back-to-back. It was true StoveFest for two weeks!
First was Stove Summit, which was held at the headquarters of InStove, the makers of large institutional sized stoves and co-hosted by Stove Team International. This event had over a dozen separate presentations and workshops and it was often difficult to select between competing options. I met many old friends in the stove world and in addition made several new contacts, which is always exciting. I enjoy these events so much because they always inspire me to keep on going in the field and they provide me with new ideas from folks that are trying them out around the world.
Notable presentations for me were by Vahid Jahangiri of International LifeLine Fund, who has more than 20 years experience in the NGO field, and Dale Andreatta on “Designing Practical Stoves”. There were also very informative panel discussions on local production of stoves and how to get funding for your stove project. There were a few demonstrations too, the most novel of which was by John Higgins of the University of Kentucky, who showed us how to make diesel fuel from plastic, using a retort, heated by a rocket stove. All in all, the First Annual Stove Summit was a great success and we look forward to next year’s event with anticipation.
Then it was on to Stove Camp 2016 at the Aprovecho Research Center. Usually there are about 30 or so attendees, but this year, it only attracted around 10 participants. Most of the attendees had their own stove to “put under the hood”, that is, to test for level of emissions and pollutants, so although small, it was a hard-core group! Thida and I didn’t have a stove to test, so we floated between different groups. As usual, I enjoyed working with Larry Winiarski, the inventor of the Rocket Stove, who this year was working on a cyclone incinerator.
During this Stove Camp I increasingly felt that stove development is not where my passion lies. I can’t get too excited about focusing exclusively on one design of stove to reach the now extremely rigorous emissions standards. I began to feel that I should put stoves on the back burner, as it were, and begin to explore other aspects of the biomass burning conundrum. I began to think of where the majority of fuelwood comes from – primary (old growth) forests. OK, we accept that 2 billion people will rely on biomass for their stove into the near and middle future – but do we have to accept that this fuel will come from primary forests? Could we not prioritize the planting of forests and woodlands specially for fuelwood? I know some people are doing this, but in Burma, very few indeed. I have always felt a great affinity with trees and both my house in California and the one in Burma are set in the middle of the forest and woodland. Who knows where this new inspiration will lead me. I will keep on giving trainings in stove building, but my focus will be wider.
The last event that we attended in Oregon was the first West coast Biochar Convergence. Biochar is something of a new subject area for me, although, not entirely foreign. I was aware of biochar through my friends who are developing TLUD gasifier stoves that produce charcoal as a by-product. Briefly, charcoal is beneficial as a soil amendment. It absorbs and holds water, air and nutrients, making them available to plants. Charcoal works best in soil if it is composted with other organic matter first. Composting makes it more compatible with soil. When we add charcoal to soil it becomes biochar. Since the planet is suffering from a surfeit of carbon dioxide, many people are looking for ways to sequester carbon in the ground, to remove it from the equation. If it can buried in the form of charcoal and this is beneficial for soil fertility, then we have a win-win situation. The production of charcoal for fuel in developing countries is a notoriously polluting business and the last thing we want to do is produce more CO2 and pollutants while trying to mitigate climate change! So, in short, Biochar is a controversial issue. Its proponents claim that it can significantly reduce CO2 levels and at the same time increase soil fertility. Its critics say that it’s fertility benefits are unproven and it might even increase CO2 levels. As with most revolutionary and disruptive technologies, the jury is out for the meantime. But it is a subject that I wish to pursue and I can already see applications for it in our Burma work.
So, after two weeks of breathing smoke, getting our hands and faces sooty and staying up late talking about the intricacies of burning woody materials, we headed back to our home in Northern California. It was a great experience and we will definitely return next year. The good folks at Aprovecho Research Center and InStove provided the perfect environment for us to learn and network and we thank them heartily.
Stove history with Larry, Nordica, Dean and Damon
Larry and I are stumped!
"The Trough" - a primitive charcoal making device
Thida and I with Fred, the founder of InStove
Dale with his experimental "big-mouth stove"