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Texas resident Don O’Neal manufactures 2,500 inexpensive cookstoves a month for some of Guatemala’s poorest residents, but he knows he can increase that fourfold with the help of Colorado State University students.
A group of senior mechanical engineering students is working at Colorado State labs and in Guatemala to reduce costs and increase production of O’Neal’s stove, called the "ONIL." The students are working under the tutelage of Professor Bryan Willson in the College of Engineering’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory. Students working on the project include Andrew Abell, Allison Daigre, Elisa Guzman, Robert Nelson and Kurt Miller.
The stoves recently attracted national attention in Guatemala when Guatemala’s first lady, Wendy Berger, showed them to U.S. first lady Laura Bush. Wendy Berger’s programs have led to the installation of several thousand of the stoves in Guatemala.
"Another pair of engineering eyes is always useful," said O’Neal, who recently visited the students on campus. "I’ve met with the students several times and really found them to be very competent and eager and just fun to work with."
The body of the ONIL stove is made of cast concrete. Curing of the concrete requires six to eight hours, so only one or two stoves can be made each day from a mold. The students are implementing a process that reduces the curing time to two hours, so four times as many stoves can be made each day.
"We are working on making the process faster, better and cheaper," said Guzman, a senior mechanical engineering student who spends at least 20 hours a week on the project with her team of four students. "Don’s 10-year plan is to produce 1.3 million stoves."
"The students have worked hard on this project and are eager to continue the strong relationships they’ve built in Guatemala," said Patrick Fitzhorn, professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State. "This is yet another example of Colorado State’s commitment to using real solutions to solve huge global problems."
O’Neal, a retired mechanical engineer, designed the stove after numerous trips to Guatemala as a volunteer. He noticed many women and children with severe, painful burns from campfires used for cooking. He distributes the stoves through his volunteer work with HELPS International, a Christian-oriented program that provides education and literacy, medicine and other services and programs to people in the underdeveloped world.
He contacted the Colorado State students to improve the stove’s efficiency through Willson, who is director of the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory. Willson and O’Neal met through their work with Engineers in Technical and Humanitarian Opportunities of Service. O’Neal is on the board of directors; Willson is active in the organization.
Willson is known internationally for his research to produce cleaner burning engines and cookstoves and to improve the stability of electrical grids that run on clean energy such as wind power. Research in his laboratory led to the creation of Envirofit International Inc., a non-profit corporation that develops new solutions for global challenges and disseminates technologies originated at Colorado State. Envirofit has been named by the Stanford Social Innovation Review as one of 10 innovative technology companies that create global social change.
O’Neal is trying to do his part to help people who can’t help themselves.
"In most of the rural areas, they still cook on open fires in the middle of the floor," O’Neal said. "Kids stick a hand in the fire, and that hand is ruined for life."
His stove uses basic materials such as concrete blocks to get the stove off the floor and keep its sides cool. The stove also has an exhaust system that cuts down on pollution – a leading cause of death for children under 5.
The stoves cost about $60 each to produce. Aid agencies finance most of the cost of the stoves for individuals but require that they make a small monetary contribution or participate in community service.
"Cost is a big factor, and many areas can’t afford anything," said O’Neal. "We work as best as we can to have a program where it preserves their dignity. We maybe subsidize 90 percent of it, but they put in a little bit so they feel they have some ownership."
Students at Colorado State are also working to reduce the costs of the stove. Their "recipe" for the concrete stove body is becoming more affordable.
They’re making modifications partly from their experience as engineers-in-training and partly from visiting with families in Guatemala.
"It really opened our eyes when we got to see the effect of our engineering decisions," said Bobby Nelson, senior mechanical engineering student, of the students’ trip to Guatemala. "We can see the effect and ask people how the stove affects their lives."
"Putting a face to the technology was the most valuable thing ever," Guzman said. "We got to meet with 60 to 100 people in a couple of days when we were there. If everyone made a difference one person at a time, what change we’d see in the world."