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Sending green energy to Africa

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Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 9:00 pm

Thanks to the Jesuit network and a $10,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, senior engineering students are producing the educational material to help people in Kenya sustainably improve their way of life.

The "Green Energy for Kenya" project consists of a four-part system that includes technological advances of windmills, solar water heaters, a rain water collection system and grain drying and storage bins.

"[We are] putting together simple, picture-based manuals on how to put together [these technologies]," said Dr. Philip Appel, associate professor of mechanical engineering and adviser for the project.

The project is financed by a grant Appel applied for last May. The grant is sponsored by the EPA but is known as a "P3 Award." The three Ps stand for people, prosperity and planet.

"The money is to get students excited about sustainability on the planet," Appel said. He believes the P3 award is fitting for this generation because of concern for efficiency and promotion of action.

Appel attributes the idea for the project to the Jesuit connections in Africa, as well as the Jesuit emphasis on education. Appel and his team have received feedback from Kenyan Bishop Maurice Crowley, as well as from Gilbert Nalelia, an adjunct professor, who is from Kitale, Kenya. Nalelia meets with the group once a weekto go over design ideas.

The group of students working on the project consists of Lauren Panasewicz, Brett Boissevain, Pat McCormick and Isaac Stickney, who will travel to Washington, D.C., in April to present their ideas along with other schools who received P3 awards.

In years past, a senior engineering group designed water filters to fulfill the need of potable water. Green Energy for Kenya has branched into what Appel calls "the system" approach. He explained that you can't fix one single problem, but have to take a broader approach to improve sustainability techniques.

"[The structures] are self-sustaining where the people can keep the technology for themselves and build them inexpensively," Isaac Stickney said. Stickney, a senior, specializes in windmill construction. He explained the materials to manufacture these technologies to be as simple as 55-gallon drums and steel pipe, both of which are readily available to Kenyan farmers.

The materials may be inexpensive, but the project is cognizant of finances. "How do we help them increase revenue to afford these systems?" Appel asked.

Kitale is an agricultural city in Kenya of about 100,000 people. To sell grain in the market of Kenya, the crops must be at 13 percent moisture content, down from 50 percent at the time of harvest, Appel said. To get the crops down to 13 percent, the crops are left to dry in the sun with a lookout to protect the crops from animals and thieves.

Through using the drying bins, the crops dry much faster, are protected, and then are stored until the winter season. Usually in Kitale the crops are sold within the week of harvest, but the ability to store the crops increases their market price when sold at a later time, Appel said.

The efficiency of these systems will decrease labor and increase health, according to Appel. Since there is usually single or few energy and water sources, carrying clean water and getting energy has become a full time job. In most cases, the responsibility of these chores falls on the women and prevents them from going to school. Appel said many young women are also facing health defects from the smoke inhalation from cooking with coal three times daily.

Beside the human aspect, there is a deforestation problem in Kenya due to the amount of resources used to function in daily life. As Stickney points out, the resources needed to make the kilns run to filter the water - such as wood and coal - require a need to reduce consumption in other areas. Hence the system approach that has provided alternative energy sources so that the natural resources are used for safe drinking water.

The involvement of Gonzaga students has more to offer in the future. "Once a generation is educated they insist on educating their children," Appel said. Plans to provide the knowledge for sustainability include a school donned SWEF, or Small World Education Foundation.

Local Rotarian Paul Zimmerman is the president of SWEF. Appel said Zimmerman will go to Kitale this May to deliver the manuals and begin construction on a school facility so SWEF can continue the education process.

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