Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Elegance Epitomized

In engineering, the best designs are termed "elegant". "Elegant" means many things in a particular context, but it boils down to doing the most for the least amount of time and effort. Elegance isn't something that just occurs naturally - it's bought with thought, research, experimentation, and refinement. There are many examples of elegant design, the Douglas DC-3, the first truly modern airliner, the Electrolux Model V, a simple and safe refinement that became virtually synonymous with "vacuum cleaner", the Apple Macintosh, the first truly modern personal computer, or the Brooklyn Bridge, the world's first steel cable suspension bridge, which was half-again longer than the next longest at the time it was built, and has lasted 125 years. What these designs have in common is that they performed their function far better than any others existing at the time, and they did it in a way that was safe and economically efficient.

Another such design is illustrated in the photo above. It's the Berkeley cookstove (PDF), a highly-efficient camp stove that is designed to be manufactured and used in refugee camps in the Darfur region of Sudan.

An estimated 2.2 million refugees huddle in makeshift camps in the Darfur region of western Sudan. In the camps, they are safe, but they cook their meals over inefficient wood fires, and as already scant forests are depleted they must venture ever farther to gather fuel—up to 9 miles in some cases. Away from camp, the men risk being killed and the women raped or mutilated by the Janjaweed militia.

When a program officer from the U.S. Agency for International Development asked Ashok Gadgil, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., to help solve the problem, Gadgil recruited LBNL colleague Christina Galitsky, an environmental energy researcher. Together they traveled to Darfur to meet the refugees and learn about their cooking needs. Back at LBNL, they and a team of students developed a high-efficiency cookstove made of in-expensive sheetmetal. There’s nothing high-tech about it—a few pieces of bent metal and a cast-iron grate improve combustion and energy transfer—but it uses 55 to 75 percent less wood than a cooking fire, slashing the time refugees need to spend in heightened danger. The stoves fit local cookware, and shield flames from the region’s strong winds. Each stove costs about $15 and should last about five years. “We have not invented something altogether new,” Gadgil says, “but we have tuned the technology to work with the refugees.”

Efficient Cookstove Saves Refugee Lives in Sudan's Darfur Region

That's Ashok Gadgil and Christina Galitsky in the photo, by the way, modeling one of the stoves. While that's the entire text of the article, there's a video at the story link that explains how the stove's design evolved. The materials for each cookstove cost less than $20, and they can last five years, returning many times the initial investment in added safety and lower environmental impact. They can be constructed locally using low-tech tools, and fit with the local ways of cooking.

It doesn't get much more elegant than that.

Of course, there is a catch. Someone has to buy these things so they can be shipped over to Darfur in time for the holidays. You can help, by ordering one through The Hunger Site. I think I'll buy two. Designs like this don't come along every day.

(h/t Kevin Hayden)

UPDATE: As Kevin and his friend eRobin point out, there are other things you can give besides the gift of survival. Working Asset's CREDO is accepting donations for calling cards for wounded veterans.

I suppose I should also point out that as an engineer, I can tell you that nothing gives us more professional satisfaction than seeing our work being used by people. That's especially true when they use it for something important or meaningful. While it's a small thing compared to the survival of refugees, it's fair to say that the students who worked on the cookstove design will also appreciate your donations.

UPDATE 2 (Nov. 24): Added a link to a paper by three Berkeley students on the cookstove, since the original link there was repetitive.

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