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Cooking up a health design

April 28, 2011

If you had to choose a venue for your professional design debut, few locations could beat the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. – just ask Aaron Smith, senior industrial design major in The Design School in the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

For the past nine months, Smith has been working with ASU’s GlobalResolve, a social entrepreneurship program housed on the Polytechnic campus, to design, build, test and refine the prototype for a cook stove. Smith’s design was part of an exhibition of student projects that accompanied the 2011 annual conference of the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. Out of hundreds of submissions, only 15 NCIIA-supported projects were selected. ASU was the only university to be represented by two projects, including Smith’s prototype.

Why, you might ask, is a cook stove being showcased at a conference on innovation? Well, it turns out that Smith’s design could help save lives – millions of them – in poor nations around the world. Common to many of such countries is the problem of dirty cooking fuels such as wood, dung, coal and crop residues. Burning these fuels in close quarters concentrates such dangerous emissions as smoke, particulates, carbon monoxide and benzene. According to estimates by the World Health Organization, each year indoor air pollution from cooking fires claims the lives of 1.6 million people in the developing world. Nearly two-thirds of these casualties are children.

The stove project grew out of trip, which Smith took to Ghana in the summer of 2010. It was led by engineering professor Mark Henderson. As cofounder of GlobalResolve, Henderson oversees university-wide groups of faculty and students who tackle public health and environmental problems in poor nations, most notably in Ghana.

To help combat the problem of indoor air pollution, GlobalResolve developed a cleaner-burning, ethanol-gel concentrate that can be made from plants such as sugar cane. To make the gel fuel cost competitive with charcoal, the program also has been working on refinements for a super-efficient companion stove that could be constructed of cheap and readily available materials.

In July 2010, Henderson contacted Smith for help on the project. It turns out that the industrial design student was the perfect candidate for the job. Before returning to school at ASU to study industrial design in The Design School, Smith worked for 12 years as a professional welder. And several design courses at ASU prepared him for hands-on, transborder design. In spring 2010, for example, Smith participated in a Global Impact Entrepreneurship class that partnered ASU students with teams from TERI University in Delhi, India. Together they created a concept for a portable water-treatment device that could be deployed in a shantytown near the city’s airport.

But perhaps Smith’s most useful qualification was this: he’d already spent time in Ghana observing the cooking habits of people in their homes environments. Ghanians favor two basic kinds of cook stove designs, Smith points out.

Commercial stoves often repurpose the metal rims of car wheels that have become too damaged for use in transportation. Scrap metal pieces are welded on to this basic frame to provide legs, a food grate and potholders.

Another stove, known as a coal-pot stove, is made from a series of metal sheets that are cut and shaped by hand.

Smith’s redesign melded the two stove traditions and then retrofitted them to accommodate the gel-fuel source, calibrating its proper placement so that the fuel's BTUs were directed into heating food rather than the surrounding air.

To make cooking easier for users, he also incorporated into his design the round, wide-bellied proportions of a pot that is commonly found in Ghanian households.

During the 2011 spring semester a team in Ghana is putting the new prototype through rigorous field testing at the Mount Olivet School in the city of Kumasi. Staff cooks, who prepare twice-daily meals for more than 600 students at the school, are using the new stove design alongside traditional charcoal-burning ones. The on-the-ground team in Ghana also has collected data from surveys with hundreds of Ghanian women who have commented on the redesign. Armed with the feedback, Smith will return to the drawing board and the metal shop for further refinements.

This semester, Smith also is part of a student team working on the design of a physical therapy system to help patients in the U.S. with their in-home rehabilitation routines in The Design School’s product-development program InnovationSpace. The team is sponsored by the global design giant Herman Miller.

In fall 2011 Smith will begin graduate work in The Design School. He plans to resume work on his real passion: the design of human-powered transportation in developing nations. Among his goals is the design of an affordable cargo-hauling bicycle that can be locally built and sold in countries like Ghana, where people have been forced to import such basic, but expensive, technologies. Smith already has a stockpile of design research, returning from his trip to Ghana with 2,000 pictures of people riding bikes and pushing carts.

“I came back invigorated by the possibilities for using my skills as an industrial designer to help better the lives of people in countries like Ghana,” says Smith. “I discovered that social entrepreneurship is the direction I want to take.”

Adelheid Fischer,
Program Manager, InnovationSpace