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Harnessing the Tibetan sun

June 7, 2008

Student project aims to reduce deforestation and lung disease
David Chandler
MIT News Office
June 4, 2008

In many villages throughout Tibet, there are two ways to cook a meal.
There's the traditional open fire, fueled by yak dung or the region's
increasingly scarce wood. And then there are solar cookers,
concentrating mirrors made of two-inch-thick concrete and 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 disease. 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 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 lightweight enough to be carried
with them when they went off to spend the day tending their fields or
their flocks, 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 producing exactly that. The lightweight
dish they produced, 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. In the fall, 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.

Frank, a senior with a double major in biology and electrical
engineering and computer science, has spent about a year and a half
in the Tibet region over the last four years, and plans for the new
solar cooker emerged from discussions he and Powers had with
villagers there about how to improve their situations.

They then teamed up with MIT students Orian Welling, who had
previously taught design fundamentals in Qinghai, was familiar with
the area and has a background in photovoltaic solar design, and Brad
Simpson, who has worked on research in clean-energy generation and
had an interest in high-altitude problems, to work on the prototyping
and actual construction of the test models. The goal was to find
"improved designs and incorporate alternative materials for a more
effective device, while still using local materials and production
centers," Frank says.

The new cooker could find widespread application, he says, not only
in Tibet but in surrounding areas in China, India, Nepal, Bhutan and
Pakistan, and potentially in similar high-altitude regions in South
America as well.

The solar cooker can be made for a cost of about $17, Frank says --
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 they presently use for heating.

"After initial field testing this fall, we expect artisan training of
the existing solar cooker factory workers to begin in January 2009
when Catlin, Brad and I will be onsite to assist in training and
technology transfer," says 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.

And beyond that, he says, "we will be continuing with our other
projects in the area: water and air-quality analysis, bilingual
science book publications, and testing novel locally appropriate
renewable electricity generation techniques, for which we are
currently applying for patents."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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