Sunday, 18 March 2012

Lecture : How do you get down from a Yak ?

Dr Mike Clifford presented a rather unusual talk at The University of Nottingham recently. Part of their series of Science Public lectures, the talk was entitled “How to Get Down from a Yak”

Dr Clifford is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Engineering and has research interests in appropriate technology, composites processing, dynamical systems, and fluid mixing. It was the first of these that was the focus of the talk, covering a number of projects that aimed to help communities in the developing world. Many of these projects were undertaken by students in collaboration with the Christian relief and development charity Tearfund and with Engineers without Borders.

Handily, descriptions of many of these projects can be found here.

It’s perhaps worth looking at one of the projects mentioned (not in the link above) in a little more detail.

In 2010, MEng student Ellie Griffiths spent time with innovative Indian stove maker Prakti where she first worked in collaboration with Prakti for her final year dissertation where she designed and built an improved cookstove. As part of this effort, she researched what aspects of a stove were important to the women who actually used them. The rather interesting results are shown below:

Stoves : What people want from them
Ease of Use15%
Time to Boil11%
Pan Compatibility6%
Ease of Lighting5%
CO2 emissions4%
Exterior Temp1%

The Prakti Stove - lookin' good !

It’s worth noting that there is a worldwide community of people and organisations involved in designing high efficiency stoves for the developing world. And also in championing similar innovative technologies. Incidentally, the Wikipedia page on stoves is also something of a revelation, and it worth a visit just to see the ornate stoves that were installed in French Palaces

Another, somewhat related project, resulted in a stove being developed for Eritrea. The development of this was helped by some Eritrean cleaners at Notts Uni who kindly put prototypes through their paces and provided feedback to the development team.

Dr Clifford emphasised that technology needs to be appropriate, mentioning Schumacher’s (not that one, this one) book “Small is Beautiful” as being a good starting point to understanding the concepts of “appropriate technology”. Dr Clifford also pondered on the fact that despite the best efforts of many charities to introduce new technologies to the developing world, the biggest success story has been the mobile phone - a technology that has had no charity backing but one that people in the developing world have quickly recognised as being something that can give them real benefits, ranging from the farmer who can find out about wholesale prices to the young entrepreneur who makes a living selling airtime.

He also suggested that the best kind of technology transfer involved person-to-person contact, for example, someone going from house to house and talking to individual families about their cookers, understanding their needs and then suggesting small, cheap changes that they can make to improve performance, such as installing a chimney to extract fumes that would otherwise cause eye irritation. But this kind of thing doesn’t play well with donors as what they would like is to be able to say that X number of nice shiny new cookers have been distributed to villagers in an area.

In response to a question asking why developing countries were not able to develop these kinds of technologies themselves, Dr Clifford suggested that Notts Uni was able to offer some value, such as the ability to perform computer modelling to simulate heat flow in an oven.

In terms of the benefits for the students, Dr Clifford hoped that the projects had taught the students to question their decisions when designing equipment, taking the example of a bread oven for Uganda that was designed to be assembled using hundreds of nuts and bolts (because labour was cheap) instead of being welded (as welding equipment was scarce)

On the other hand, he also pointed out that when people tell you what they want, it isn’t always what they really need. Again, the example was the bread oven which was designed, as requested, to make 300 loaves per day. Unfortunately, it was only after the oven was delivered that the people using the machine realised that they couldn’t make dough fast enough to feed the oven, so it could not be used at anything like full capacity unless the owners invested in some dough making machinery.

Literally buns in an oven!

In the last of a slightly worrying series of cautionary tales, Dr Clifford narrated a tale from Nepal, where indoor air pollution from cookers is a real problem. A charity working there installed chimneys and new stoves in a number of wooden roofed dwellings. For the first six months after installation everything seemed to be going well, with the women and children reporting much lower incidences of eye and chest irritation. But then all the roofs fell in - because the smoke that had been irritating the people had also being killing termites in the roof. With the smoke gone, the termites were free to eat away at the woodwork.

The moral of the story clearly being to watch out for unintended consequences.

Oh and one last point, Dr Clifford did provide an answer to the rather cryptic question in the title of the talk “How to Get Down from a Yak”.

The response is “You don’t, you get down from a duck”, which he then quickly followed up with a description of a project in Tajikistan to try and separate the very soft down that Yaks possess from the rought, stiff, guard hairs that covers it. This turned out to be quite a difficult gig and at the time of he the talk, was a problem that had not been satisfactorily solved, although you can see a video about the project here.

Yaks have soft down? Who'd have thunk it?

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