Dordt College News

Heating up

January 19, 2011

First-year engineers tested their biomass cookstoves during the last week of classes in December.  Some students made adaptations as they tested their designs, and a few roasted marshmallows as part of their testing—and ate them of course.

First-year engineers get hot project

Dr. Kevin Timmer’s first-year engineers are taking on a hot design assignment: creating an improved TLUD biomass cook stove.

“It’s a great project,” says Timmer, “because there is a great deal of information out there about these stoves, and they cost next to nothing to make.” A TLUD (Top Lit UpDraft) biomass stove can be made out of something as simple as a large tin can. Holes are placed near the bottom and more holes are made near the top. When biomass—wood chips, dry grass, or crop residues—is placed in the can and lit, the bottom holes provide only enough air to keep it smoldering.  As the smokey gases rise, they ignite when mixed with the extra air supplied by the upper holes, creating a flame that can be used for cooking—with little smoke or harmful gas residue going into the air.

“The stove is really a small gasifier,” says Timmer.  Gasification technology is one of the leading areas of research that is focusing on using biomass as a sustainable replacement for fuels and plastics. “I think it is neat how a couple tin cans have allowed The biomass stove project was both successful and enjoyable, says Professor Kevin Timmer. them to dabble with a technology that is at the forefront of addressing our energy future.”

Timmer has had lifelong passions for renewable energy technologies and healthy ecosystems.  He has been able to unite those interests since working on a doctorate in biomass gasification.

“I am intrigued by the prospect of maintaining healthy, diverse ecosystems, like tall grass prairies, while simultaneously harvesting a sustainable energy resource,” Timmer says.

Creating an improved biomass stove is more than an academic exercise. Biomass cook stoves are a hot topic in development circles today.  It is estimated that as much as half of the world’s population cooks with biomass each day. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been advocating them—and with good reason. People in developing countries spend a significant portion of their income on fuel for cooking—or they deplete local forests. In addition, they suffer from lung and eye ailments caused by the smoke from traditional methods of open flame cooking. Inexpensive, well-designed biomass cook stoves save people money, use fewer scarce resources, and improve health conditions for those who use them.

It’s also a good project to help students understand the opportunities they have to be God’s hands in his world, believes Timmer. Tin cans are often available in refugee camps, and many communities in developing countries have access to blacksmithing skills.

The students start by researching TLUD stoves and the limitations of current designs. They then choose some aspect of the stove that they would like to improve. Timmer has them describe, from a Christian perspective, how this project could serve people and the creation by answering basic questions such as who the stove would be for, how it could affect the user, and what impact it will have on the non-human creation. After students decide on the improvements they’ll make, they describe how the device will be constructed and used, and then they generate a solid model of the stove on the computer before they build it.

“Students were excited about being able to design and build something low tech but yet on the cutting edge of technology,” says Timmer. The fact that it could fill a desperate worldwide need likely helped.

“And playing with fire is universally appealing,” adds Timmer with a smile.


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