andean solar cooker project (d-lab: energy)

In March 2015, I embarked on a journey to a small village near Quehue, Peru with a few classmates and students from UTEC (Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología). We were there, during spring break, on behalf of an engineering class about energy in developing countries. My team was looking into alternatives for the traditional method of cooking with bosta (dried dung) indoors due to the damaging respiratory effects. Our goal was to develop an analogous method that would preserve the locals lifestyles as much as possible while alleviating some respiratory strain.

After three flights and a long ride in a minibus, we arrived in our village in the Andes. Temperatures dropped as soon as the sun set, the air thin at 12,400 ft elevation. We slept in sleeping bags on concrete in the newly built community center and ate at the only restaurant in the town.

During the day, we took a small van through windy mountain roads until we reached distant clusters of farms in more remote areas. We conducted interviews with residents, with our friends from UTEC translating to the best of their ability. The locals predominantly spoke Quechua, but much of what they described could be carefully observed. They showed us their stove setups and their methods of harvesting crops, building roofs, and making clothes. I measured solar data, took note of what materials they had access to, and asked about their daily schedules and habits. When we weren't conducting interviews, we spent time with the kids at the school, teaching basic English and playing games with them. In the evenings, we ate dinner together, went stargazing, and chatted with residents at the town center park.

Soon, it was time for us to leave - our desire for warm showers at odds with the sense of connection we'd built with the community. Once we reconvened in Boston, my team researched and brainstormed many different types of solar cookers, including box cookers, parabolic cookers, panel cookers, etc. Solar cookers would make use of the location's weather and proximity to the sun, and since many of their recipes required long cook times with little intervention, this solution seemed appropriate. With the constraints of cost, available solar energy, manufacturability, robustness, and availability of materials, we created a Pugh chart and eventually settled on a simple box cooker. Our final design would be built from adobe, ichu (local insulating grass), glass, and sheet metal. Due to the timeline of the course, we were only able to build two prototypes. Testing was difficult since Boston temperatures hovered around freezing for the duration of our testing timeline, but we sent blueprints and design guidelines to our teammates in Lima, and they intend to complete the project at UTEC for further testing and iterating.

I completed this project with a distinct realization that engineering without social context was impossible, and developing strong social science skills would be critical in the design and creation of the world's most needed products. I began a minor in anthropology with a particular focus on human health, and chose to concentrate on human-centered design within my mechanical engineering major. Despite the brevity of the trip, lessons learned from Quehue, both directly and indirectly, were some of the most persistent from my MIT experience.

Skills practiced

Ethnographic research, user centered design, prototyping, resource analysis