Published: April 16, 2020 By

 Students will model their building after Rwandan housing.
The students will model their building after Rwandan housing.

Some 3 billion people in the developing world use stoves fueled by kerosene, wood, animal dung or coal for cooking, heating and lighting. Pollution from burning fuels indoors increases the risk of respiratory illnesses including childhood pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular diseases and lung cancers.

Each year, more than 4 million people die prematurely from illnesses attributable to household air pollution, 99 percent of which occur in developing countries.

A team of four engineering undergraduates has undertaken a project to help improve the health of people in Rwanda who use these polluting stoves.

The students’ project, named Solar Housing for Engineering (SHE), focused on designing a Rwandan-style hut where air quality research can be conducted. The structure will be built on CU Boulder’s East Campus to serve as an on-site laboratory for cookstove-related air quality research.

“Smoke from cookstoves is one of the number one killers globally,” said Kate Johnson, one of the team members on the project. “There are millions and millions of families worldwide who rely on indoor cook fires for their food.”

In addition to Johnson, the team members are Katie Lindberg, Antoinette Ridgel and Meghan Vonk. All are seniors in environmental engineering.

The SHE project is for their senior design class in environmental engineering. 

Indoor air pollution has many potential solutions including providing cleaner fuels or better ventilation. This home will enable researchers to test multiple solutions. The project allows students who might not be able to travel to other countries to work on engineering projects for the developing world. 

“We are making it as close as possible to Rwandan conditions while understanding that we’re building this in Colorado,” Johnson said. “It has to withstand snow loads, different temperatures and wind loads. Those are things we have to consider. We’re looking at making it an adobe construction with a tin roof. Another thing about the home, it needs to be completely self-powered.” 

The idea to replicate a Rwanda hut came from CU’s Mortenson Center in Global Engineering, a program that focuses on undergraduate and graduate levels. The Mortenson Center trains engineers to work with institutions and communities worldwide to develop tools and ways to tackle global challenges. One of the center’s research initiatives is indoor air quality in the developing world, focusing specifically on Rwanda for this project. 

Since travel to the developing world to conduct research can be financially inaccessible for some students, they had to find a way to perform accurate experiments that would still involve students in the work. 

“This team was professional, hard-working and dedicated,” said Michael Walker, an instructor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at CU. “This is one of the strongest teams I have had the opportunity to work with the past few years.”

The team designed the structure and all of its components, including the materials and layout, the ventilation system (to remove pollutants between experiments), and a photovoltaic array so it’s completely self-powered. 

They also designed mathematical plume models to predict the paths and concentrations of airborne contaminants inside the structure. Construction is scheduled for spring 2021.

The structure will be student-built. A separate team of researchers with the Mortensen Center and CU will use the hut to perform the indoor air pollution research.

“This senior project definitely benefits our education and future careers in several ways,” Johnson said. “Our senior design class is taken at the end of four years of environmental engineering courses and is a chance for us to take principles learned in those courses and apply them to a real-world project. It also gives us valuable experience working to meet a client’s needs, which is extremely important in environmental consulting.”