Millions Are Affected By Cooking Fire Smoke Each Year. Researchers Hope A Small, Cheap Fan Will Help

Jul 18, 2017

In many developing countries, families routinely cook on open fires, often in poorly ventilated homes. According to the World Health Organization, the smoke from those fires lead to the premature death of more than 4 million people each year.

In rural Uganda, families often burn dried banana leaves.

"Which doesn’t combust very well, so it’s very inefficient so it makes a lot of smoke,” said Josh Shapiro, an engineer with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab

He and his team have come up with a solution that works without the need for electricity.

It starts with a small fan.

“Typically the air in their home just doesn’t move,” Shapiro said.  “As long as you have enough back pressure to start moving the air, that’s all you need. It kind of wants to follow its friends.”

Shapiro's interest started in 2011, when Toyota launched a competition challenging engineers to come up with new ways to use technology developed for the Prius. Some of the models included a solar-powered fan that would vent the hot air that builds up in a parked car. The idea was to allow the owner to enter a cool car, even on a sunny day.

Shapiro and his team decided to use that technology to pull cooking smoke from homes. Toyota gave them some money to install the fans in six homes in Makukuulu Parish, Uganda.

Shapiro remembers visiting a home where the fan had been installed, but was not turned on.

“We went in and couldn’t breathe and so one of us ran in holding our breath, turning the fan on," he said. "In like two minutes, it was clear and we were just in there talking."

Once the units were installed, Toyota lost interest in the program and it languished until last summer when Shapiro and his team decided it was time to expand the program on their own.

The units installed in 2012 were a bit clunky and used dryer vent tubing to move the smoke. Most are no longer working.

One of the six units installed in Ugandan in 2012 hangs over the cooking area of a home. Shapiro says the average home is 8 feet by 8 feet.
Credit CREATE lab

The newly redesigned units are about the size of a deck of cards, use flexible rubber tubing and include a small LED. 

Shapiro and his team are trying to raise $10,000 through crowd sourcing. The money would be used to build and install 25 units in the same rural village.

But this time, they have an eye on sustainability.

“We wanted to install a few side-by-side with some people that we’ll meet there and then train them how to do it,” Shapiro said.

The remainder of the units will be installed by trained Ugandans and, with a few spare parts left behind, they would be able to make basic repairs.

The circuit boards will be built by a company in Pittsburgh. The cases will be 3-D printed in Pittsburgh and the team hopes to purchase as many of the other parts as possible from sources in Africa.

The units fully charge in about six hours and a single charge can run the light and fan for about 14 hours.

Shapiro said that’s enough for at least two days' worth of cooking.

Each of the 25 units will cost about $175, but Shapiro says the goal is to get the price down to $10 through mass production. However, he’s not looking to make this a business.

“We’d love to either start a nonprofit or find one that’s already existing to help us build more and work more on a sustainable solution,” he said. “We still have plenty of work to redesign and make it cheap.”

If the fundraising goes well, Shapiro said he hopes to be installing the units in Uganda in January of next year. 

In this week's Tech Headlines: 

  • Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute say they have a computer that can understand human gestures. The researchers used a two-story dome laced with 500 video cameras gather the needed data. Associate professor of robotics Yaser Sheikh says the breakthrough could make it possible for people to interact with computers in new and more natural ways, such as communicating simply by pointing. On a larger scale, he says a self-driving car could get an early warning that a pedestrian is about to step into the street by monitoring body language.
  • Since doctors have been putting artificial implants into humans they have been working to better understand how and why the body attacks the implants. New research at the University of Pittsburgh suggests the immune system could actually assist the body in accepting implanted biomaterials. The National Institute on Aging, has awarded Pitt assistant professor Bryan Brown a five-year, $1.57 million grant to examine how aging affects implantable medical devices. He says as the body ages it’s immune response changes and that could provide insight into how to improve outcomes.