Engineers Hone Clean-Energy Stoves For The World Almost half the world cooks its food with solid fuels like wood and charcoal. But these methods are bad for the environment and can be deadly. At a nonprofit organization in Oregon, engineers are building and tweaking stoves that use minimal wood, don't release much smoke — and are cheap enough for the Third World.

Engineers Hone Clean-Energy Stoves For The World

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Although half the world still cooks its food with solid fuel - wood, charcoal and the like - but all that cooking smoke kills. One and a half million people die of smoke-related disease every year. It's one of those problems that may seem too big to solve until you meet the stove geeks of Oregon.

NPR's Martin Kaste has the latest story in our series on social entrepreneurs.

MARTIN KASTE: There are the big reasons to try to reduce the amount of wood people use for cooking. There's indoor air pollution, deforestation, global warming and then there are the reasons that Americans can barely contemplate.

Veronique Barbelet of the World Food Programme does work in war zones.

Ms. VERONIQUE BARBELET (Protection Policy Officer, World Food Programme): You hear women in northern Uganda and places like that telling you, my choice is between, you know, going out there and collecting firewood and being raped, or for my husband to go and get killed. And I'd rather go and get raped.

KASTE: So the World Food Programme has turned to Aprovecho, a small nonprofit that got its start in the late '70s making clay cook stoves in Latin America. Aprovecho is Spanish for - I make use of.

(Soundbite of hammering)

KASTE: Today, Aprovecho runs a rustic research center down by the railroad tracks in the Oregon lumber town of Cottage Grove. Their whole purpose is figuring out how to make cheap stoves that burn minimal wood cleanly. It's harder than you think, says Damon Ogle.

Mr. DAMON OGLE (Retired Mining Engineer): Our ancestors have been making fires for probably 400,000 years. And we still don't know how fire works.

KASTE: Ogle is a retired mining engineer who now spends his time doing this. Right now he's lighting a stove built out of a 55-gallon drum.

Mr. OGLE: You say it's not rocket science, and that's true. Rocket science is very simple and straightforward to what's going on in your fireplace or in one of these wood-burning stoves.

KASTE: Wood fires involve hundreds of chemical reactions with a flurry of hard-to-predict currents and vortexes. Still, after 30 years of serious tinkering, Aprovecho has figured out how to make fire a lot more efficient. This particular stove can cook rice for 20 people with two fistfuls of sticks. The World Food Programme plans to use it in African refugee camps.

But Ogle and his colleagues still aren't satisfied.

(Soundbite of stove)

KASTE: Now they're trying to figure out how to fuel it with animal dung because they're told in some camps dung is more plentiful than wood.

Fred Colgan is feeding the stove with a simulation of the pressed dung used in Sudan - at least he says it's a simulation.

Mr. FRED COLGAN (Institutional Stoves Program Co-Director, Aprovecho): My wife asked me that question when I put them in the oven last night, is there dung in there? I said, no, no, honey, there's...

Unidentified Man: No. No, no, no.

Mr. COLGAN: No, no, no. I wouldn't put dung in your oven.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KASTE: These guys are self-described stove geeks. Thirty years ago, a mechanical engineer joined the group and he came up with a design they now call the rocket stove - basically a well-insulated combustion chamber that channels hot gases directly at the food. That design made Aprovecho the organizational godfather of what's now a rapidly growing clean cook stoves movement. But as that movement grows, there's also increasing debate over methods.

Professor BRYAN WILLSON (Mechanical Engineering, Colorado State University): There have been thousands of stoves programs. I'm familiar with hundreds of them and it's hard to identify programs that have been successful.

KASTE:�Bryan Willson is a professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State. He says it's time to stop thinking about cook stoves as the province of charities and NGOs.

Prof. WILLSON: There's a global need for 500 or 600 million cook stoves. And no one's willing to write a big enough check to donate our way to that solution. So we really need to develop products that people will want to buy.

KASTE: For stoves to become as widespread as, say, cell phones, Willson says they need to become the object of consumer desire. So he started a company called Envirofit, which mass produces slick-looking rocket stoves in China.

(Soundbite of hammering)

KASTE: Back at Aprovecho, they don't exactly disagree with this, they also have a spin-off company that mass produces rocket stoves. But they're conflicted because they don't want to compete with other stove makers. They believe in sharing their designs, like open source software.

Mr. DEAN STILL (Executive Director, Aprovecho): So it's the opposite of what we really believe in.

KASTE: Talking to a group of visitors, executive director Dean Still says he even has qualms about stove design competitions.

Mr. STILL: You're not as likely to share information if you think you can win a million dollars by keeping it to yourself.

KASTE: But he's not dogmatic about this. Like most people here, he says he's open to pretty much anything that'll get more clean, efficient cook stoves to the people who need them. Still, it's pretty clear that Aprovecho doesn't really need the incentive of prizes to keep on tinkering.

Unidentified Man #2: We're boiling water.

Unidentified Man #3: Hey.

Unidentified Man #2: We've been - we got 15 liters in about 18 minutes to a boil. I'm ecstatic.

KASTE: As they celebrate another pot of boiling water, it's hard not to share in their geeky delight.

KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.