The D-Lab/HFI Biomass Fuel Research Team: Back in the Lab

By Dan Sweeney,  D-Lab Scale-Ups Research Scientist, and students

D-Lab's Biomass Fuel Research Scientist Dan Sweeney (right) 


MIT Independent Activities Period trip to Uganda


Howdy friends, Dan Sweeney here from the Harvest Fuel Initiative (HFI) and the D-Lab ScaleUps biomass fuel laboratory where we're fresh back from a productive field visit to Uganda during January. 

Five D-Lab students and I worked with HFI partnersNakabale Integrated Development Group and Teso Women's Development Initiative (TEWDI)  to test and implement improvements in their briquette production sites - solar dryers, rainwater collection, engine maintenance to name a few.

In addition, we performed a large amount of tests to measure efficiency and emissions of the fuel briquettes and improved cook stoves compared with traditional wood charcoal and 3-stone fires in actual use conditions.

We're now back at D-Lab, where a new team of students, along with some familiar faces, are scraping the char out from under our fingernails and putting on our lab coats on to perform controlled fuel and stove evaluations, develop a cleaner burning and more efficient charcoal kiln, understanding what makes a quality fuel, and regularly check in with our research partners in the field for feedback on the recent innovations and new challenges. See below for more on our students' current projects.

There's no shortage of work to be done, but at the end of the day our team at D-Lab and in the field are making progress toward overcoming barriers in producing sustainable, clean fuels for their communities. Look forward to seeing you in the lab!

Harry Thamon '17 (left)

Hi, I'm Harry Thaman, I'm a freshman at MIT looking into either Mechanical Engineering or Materials Science. I've been working at D-Lab as a charcoal research student with Dan Sweeney during this semester. My project is focused on developing a data acquisition system for our fuel test lab, and using analytical instruments to measure physical and chemical properties of biomass feedstocks and char products. I am very passionate about both the positive benefits that the charcoal itself provides, as well as the secondary benefits such as the prevention of deforestation, the reduction of greenhouse gasses emitted and the opportunities it provides to farmers and entrepreneurs in developing countries. I am excited by this project and really enjoy working with the group to come up with innovative solutions.

Fernando "Nani" Ruiz '16 (right)

Hi, I’m Fernando Ruiz but most people call me Nani. I am a second year Mechanical Engineering student at MIT and I am currently working as an undergraduate researcher at D-Lab. I am working on a project to address the need for improving sustainable charcoal production. Current practices of charcoal production are unsustainable; consumer need for an alternative and low-cost household fuel source has grown due in large part to the decreasing availability of forest resources. The project I am working on will try to address this need, and is part of a larger D-Lab effort to develop technologies for producing charcoal briquettes from agricultural waste. Our project aims to gain a better understanding of the materials and existing kiln technologies used for making biochar from agricultural residues, then taking that knowledge to design a more efficient and cleaner burning on-site charcoal kiln.

McCall Huston '16 (left)

I am McCall Huston and I am an MIT sophomore majoring in Mechanical Engineering. As part of the D-Lab: Development class I was able to travel to Uganda over IAP with a team of students and a researcher from D-Lab. While we were there we performed evaluations of many combinations of fuel types and cook stoves. In particular we worked with TEWDI and tested their improved cook stoves and sustainable charcoal briquettes. We collected a lot of data from the tests including emissions, fuel efficiency, and stove thermal efficiency. During this semester, I am compiling and analyzing the data that we collected in order to draw qualitative-based conclusions about the various stoves and fuels that we evaluated. We are hoping to be able to share the findings with TEWDI and the broader development and bioenergy research communities in order to broaden improvements for both people’s health and livelihood, and the environment.

Isabella Didio '16 (left)

Hi, my name is Isabella Didio and I am a sophomore majoring in Mechanical Engineering at MIT. This past IAP I went to Uganda on a D-Lab trip to work on projects related to sustainable charcoal fuel production. Now I am working in D-Lab to perform similar tests in the laboratory. I’ve already helped with the construction of a stove and fuel test hood. Soon I will perform the tests we did in the field in the test lab, so we can measure efficiency and emissions in a more controlled environment. I will also help to perform high repetition tests so we obtain better data about measurement uncertainty in stove and fuel testing. The goal of this work is to help charcoal briquette producers market their products as safer and more efficient than other fuels, and motivate improved test methods that account for large measurement uncertainty.

Members of MIT Engineers Without Borders

Engineers Without Borders is a nonprofit group that partners with communities in developing countries to improve their quality of life. The focus is on implementation of sustainable engineering projects, while getting the community involved. MIT Engineers Without Borders has worked on rainwater catchment tanks in Ddegeya, Uganda, portable showers for a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, and developing a low-cost and locally sourcable science curriculum for a public school in Malawi. We’re excited to work with D-Lab to develop reduced-emissions, energy efficient kilns for use in Tanzania!  Our members are current MIT undergraduates that span a variety of class years and departments.  Charcoal team members are Janet Lin ’15, Jaya Narain ’15, Kali Xu ’15, and Cody Diaz ’16, Jason Hyun ’17, Madeleine Severance ’17, and Harry Thaman ’17.