How MIT made harnessing sun easier in Tibet

June 22nd, 2008 - 6:38 pm ICT by IANS  

New York, June 22 (IANS) In Tibetan villages, there are two ways to cook a meal - the traditional open fire fuelled by yak dung or scarce wood, and solar cookers made of two-inch-thick concrete covered with a mosaic of small glass mirrors. The fires produce a lot of smoke, which, especially in the confined quarters of a kitchen, can lead to lung diseases. The solar cookers are clean, but so heavy that it takes four people to move one, and they have a poorly engineered focus that sometimes lights fires, cooks food unevenly or even damages metal pots.

When Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) student Scot Frank and Catlin Powers of Wellesley College visited Tibet two years ago, one thing they kept hearing from the villagers was that it would make a big difference to their lives if there was a solar cooker that was better engineered, reports ScienceDaily.

They wanted it to be light enough to be carried when they went off to spend the day tending their fields, yet strong enough to stand up to the strong winds that howl across the Tibetan plateau.

A team of students from MIT and from Qinghai Normal University in Tibet’s Amdo region ended up doing exactly that.

The lightweight cooker, inspired by Tibetan nomadic tents, is made of yak-wool canvas panels, supported by bamboo ribs, and faced with reflective mylar.

Easily disassembled and transported by one person, the cooker can then be quickly reassembled in the field and staked down solidly on the ground to resist the wind.

Later this year, the students will begin testing their prototype in several villages, and make the design available to local factories for manufacture.

The team, called SolSource Tibet, entered MIT’s annual IDEAS competition for technologies that have the potential to make significant improvements in the lives of people in developing countries, and won one of two Yunus Innovation Challenge awards, winning $3,000 to help develop the project.

The goal was to find “improved designs and incorporate alternative materials for a more effective device, while still using local materials and production centres”, said Frank.

The new cooker could find widespread application, he says, not only in Tibet but in surrounding areas in China, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan.

The solar cooker can be made at a cost of about $17, said Frank - about the same price as the current heavy concrete model.

In addition, the cookers can be fitted with an extra attachment and used to heat homes, for an additional $26, comparable to the cost of the non-renewable-fuel stoves presently used for heating.

“After initial field testing this fall, we expect artisan training of the existing solar cooker factory workers to begin in January 2009. I will be onsite to assist in training and technology transfer,” said Frank.

“Our discussions with the solar cooker factory owners indicate that full-scale production could begin in summer 2009,” although that may depend on the results of the field-testing and any modifications that result.

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