[Stoves] A community of rocket scientists? (Re: Xavier)
miata98 at gmail.com
Thu Aug 18 00:05:12 MDT 2016
Nikhil Desai again. Apologies in advance for ruffling feathers. I think of
feathers as sacred biomass; emissions from their roasting propitiate the
(Thank you, Xavier, for introducing Manifesto Convivialiste. For
English-speakers, look here
I am allergic to neo-Malthusians and "de-growth" advocates, but I do admire
ecologists and planners.)
You put forth questions it took me some time to think - can I combine my
skepticism with optimism?
I come up empty - you know, old dogs can't learn new tricks - but let me
try to reformulate or advance new questions:
You: "1. What are really the efforts done on fundamental research on
biomass combustion for cookstoves? Who is seriously working full-time on
2. With what manpower?
3. Is this research organized?
4. Is it heavily financed as it should be?
5. Do we really think this research effort is up to the challenges we are
Let me ask:
1. Whose cookstoves and whose biomass? Why are we hung up on biomass
generally, despite the recognition that except at very high temperatures
and in very controlled, steady-state situation, biomass of any type burns
differently in different environments, different types of biomass burn
differently, and the cooks have different requirements and habits? Poor
customers with no time or money to mess with small, variable amounts of
cooking are better off giving up cooking, and have indeed done so. Add to
that all the variations in the sources of biomass and in their alternative
uses. "Biomass cookstoves for the poor" is a racket of big promises and
repeated failures; in the last 60 years, we have just blown smoke rings.
I suggest dropping forever the pretense of "renewable biomass",
"deforestation," and "premature mortality" or "deforestation". Rich country
universities will keep churning out convenient truths for themselves that
have no relevance to a poor household cook.
Instead, we could define small research projects specific to selected types
of biomass and/or in selected geographies for selected customer types, the
poor or rich, household or commercial, and see the cook's constraints and
desires from HER point of view. (This is not easy; sociological surveys
haven't produced anything worthwhile yet on what cooks - women or men -
want. I would rather put some psychologists to work on. "What do women
want?" Rather, how do the family hierarchy and control, economics and
nutrition, play into cooking choices?)
It will get more difficult as the range of biomass "marketshed" gets
narrower - some people have no land or trees of their own - and as we look
at poorer households. The rich are far more alike in their tastes and
behavior. The poor are every bit different from each other, until you come
up with an aspirational product.
But I have not yet seen a single effort to characterize biomass markets and
supply chains, uses, customers. Forest economists do some of that for
timber and biogas technologists make different types of digesters, so on;
the stovers are rocket scientists who only know how to launch balloons.
2. Who should finance this research - whether as diversified as I suggest
(after all, much research goes on for agriculture, forestry, livestock,
food processing, and has gone on for a couple of centuries in Europe and
North America) - and why haven't they done so? Some ten years ago, the Gang
of Four on energy and development (Jose Goldemberg, Thomas Johansson,
Amulya Reddy, Robert Williams) had proposed A global clean cooking fuel
"to bring about a worldwide shift to clean fluid fuels for cooking and
heating in 10-15 years’ time". I thought the proposal was ridiculous - a
"clean cooking fuel bureau" in the UN under their guidance?? - but they
seemed to have the right direction - in the near term, "fitting stoves that
burn solid fuels with flues" and then "fluid fuels".
But 12 years later, what do we have? Generic solid biomass stoves again?
"Clean cookstoves" performance testing for, heavens, boiling water
Cooking is more than combustion. Kitchen is more than cooking. A home is
more than kitchen. A marriage or family are more than a home. Early 20th
Century designers of gas and electrical home appliances knew this every
bit; just go see women's magazines in UK or US of the 1930s on, and even
Indian "family" magazines and newspapers from 1950s on. Seems to me some of
us biomass stovers are stuck in our childhood fantasies of atomic energy -
atomic toasters, atomic kettles. Just that now we call them biomass stoves
and keep playing the fiddle to donors' tunes.
Some aerospace engineers have other ideas - see DESIGN OF A THERMOELECTRIC
or Conceptual design of a thermoelectric Edu-Kitchen system
The beauty of this approach - howsoever unrealistic and unmarketable - is
that it attacks the problem of cooking and lighting, and home energy use
generally. As distributed generation and storage might. There may also be
What it doesn't do is dwell in manure and dead wood.
Missionaries of dung, straw, flake and waste, unite! You have nothing to
lose but your own delusions.
On missionaries' positions, next time.
(India +91) 909 995 2080
> Message: 6
> Date: Thu, 4 Aug 2016 22:25:14 +0530
> From: Xavier Brandao <xvr.brandao at gmail.com>
> To: stoves at lists.bioenergylists.org
> Subject: Re: [Stoves] Two current articles on stoves and stove
> Message-ID: <81331990-33c1-af82-6476-7ee3926d901f at gmail.com>
> Content-Type: text/plain; charset="utf-8"; Format="flowed"
> Hello all,
> The Caravan article Crispin shared is a perfect illustration of
> the distrust for the improved biomass stove technology.
> The World Bank CSI is a pragmatic approach I believe, it is an example of
> how a far-from-ideal situation can be assessed fairly (the cookstove sector
> needs work on standards and protocol, it needs building on best practices),
> and how it can be the basis for a call for action. The WB asks not to
> lament, but to work on improving what can be improved.
> I am also more of the optimistic kind, and the optimism, we need to share
> it: why do we think biomass cookstoves are still worth working on? Why are
> we still doing what we do despite the previous setbacks?
> I feel we should make ourselves ready to answer important, and
> valid, questions such as the ones from The Guardian or the Caravan
> articles. This is advocacy.
> I am not sure we are completely prepared to do so.
> At Prakti we have interacted with a lot of other stakeholders,
> other social businesses, distributors and NGOs, investors. And sometimes
> also journalists. And sometimes we hear: "oh, another cookstove company"
> "oh, cookstoves have been around for a long time, but haven't really
> taken off". We sometimes face scepticism, worse, defeatism. With almost
> the idea the cookstoves are not necessary. If we believe they are, we
> need to hear and consider their arguments, then to have thought about
> our arguments as well.
> First, I feel we might need to think ourselves more as a community
> or sector, with common goals and interests. Healthily competing or
> rather working together on a common issue.
> Nikhil said:
> "There is no "stove community" but a slum of labs and computers, each hut
> producing its own meal and emissions."
> Research efforts are indeed scattered and lack coordination. But I believe
> there is a stove community, and quite an active one. Participants and
> readers of this list have a lot in common. Communities are nothing but the
> sum of all individualities after all. We are scattered, but it doesn't mean
> we cannot work better together. I see a lot of exchange and collaboration
> here. And everyone is trying hard.
> And as a community, I feel we have to explain what we do, advocate why our
> cause is important and why our action is still relevant. And if it is still
> relevant. I believe it is. So before being able to answer, we must make our
> own in-depth self-assessment.
> This is what the GACC is doing by representing us and lobbying for
> us, there is also the CLEAN network in India, and some other
> organizations. But additionally, we might want to agree on certain things.
> And this stovelist is still the most lively space for exchange.
> There is an initiative of French intellectuals called
> "Manifeste convivialiste". They are advocating that, in order to make the
> world a better place, rather than focusing on what they disagree on, they
> should ocus on what they agree on.
> That could be something like:
> "We as a sector are facing challenges: biomass combustion is
> extremely complex, our target markets are challenging. Our efforts are
> scattered. But our mission remains extremely important, and the improved
> biomass cookstoves remain a relevant solution to the global problem of
> unclean cooking."
> For example, that is a start. From there, what is the first of
> these challenges, and how to tackle it?
> Let say the first and main challenge is the complexity of
> biomass combustion (problem) -> we need more R&D to understand and find
> ways to improve it while making stoves cheaper (solution).
> A few persons mentioned in the article seem to agree:
> * ?My sense,? Saran said, ?was that the problem needed
> top-level technology.?
> * ?We started out with the dream of a global innovation competition,?
> Rajendra Prasad, a professor at the Centre for Rural Development and
> Technology at IIT Delhi, one of the official stove-testing labs,
> said. ?And now we?re back to mud stoves.?
> * Scientists who spoke to me on cookstove design frequently compared
> their challenges to rocket science. The technical problem is
> surprisingly difficult. Combustion of solid fuels such as wood,
> dung, coal and agricultural waste is far more complex than that of
> gases or liquids such as LPG or diesel. Lighting a wood stove can
> set off many more chemical reactions than burning gas, and the
> emissions process can?t be modelled easily?understanding depends on
> trial and error. Scientists also know less about solid-fuel
> combustion than they do about rocket propulsion. Stoves are not a
> glamorous technology, and have attracted relatively little research.
> A scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi told me
> that students are so embarrassed to be working on a stove project
> that they ask to call it by another name.
> So, there is a need for a lot of work, and there is a need for
> top engineering and scientific talents. How to attract top talents?
> * with R&D budget and attractive wages
> * with good communication about our sector
> * by simply ... going and talking to them. Telling them about our
> work. And trying very hard to build partnerships.
> But first we need to assess that we need them, and that R&D is
> the problem. And I have the feeling we believe a bit too much that we
> are gonna sort all these issues by working in our garages on our spare
> time and by organizing stove camps. Don't get me wrong, stove camps are
> great and lead to a lot of information being exchanged. But this is far
> from being enough, we need to be much more ambitious. We need renewed
> efforts and smart ways to attract, develop, and retain talents. At Prakti
> we have put an increased emphasis on that, for example we have an
> ongoing partnership with Engineers Without Borders U.K.
> Because today, frankly:
> 1. What are really the efforts done on fundamental research on biomass
> combustion for cookstoves? Who is seriously working full-time on
> 2. With what manpower?
> 3. Is this research organized?
> 4. Is it heavily financed as it should be?
> 5. Do we really think this research effort is up to the challenges we
> are facing?
> If we answer "No" to the question 2 to 5, then we have a start, and we
> know where next to put our efforts.
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