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Rice-powered stove ignites new hope for poor farmers

Once thought to be waste, rice husks now can be used as clean, cheap fuel for developing countries.

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“Nobody told Alexis Belonio you weren’t supposed to do this with rice husks,” says Anderson. “So he just went off and did it.”
The secret to Belonio’s success is good engineering and adequate air, Anderson explains. His design includes a small electric or battery-powered fan that circulates air through the husks, enabling them to burn more efficiently.

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The fan and fuel sit in the bottom of an iron and steel tube more than a yard long. The tube traps the gases the husks release when they’re lit – mostly hydrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide – and combusts them at the burner on top of the tube. Users can raise or lower the flame by changing the fan speed. When the husks have burned, the remaining charcoal can serve as a fertilizer for crops.

“This technology is superior to virtually everything else out there,” says Anderson. “Belonio stimulated me and others to go back and look again at rice husks and other fine materials.”

Belonio’s stove does have its drawbacks: It requires access to batteries or the electrical grid, and its $20 price tag is too steep for the poorest potential users.

“[The cooker] isn’t exciting until it’s affecting the lives of many people and you can prove that,” says Mr. Smith, noting that Belonio’s stove has not yet seen widespread testing in the field.

Abundant resources
To millions of people in the world’s rice-rich regions, the stove could offer a cleaner, cheaper cooking option that recycles an existing waste with little impact on the environment.

“In Myanmar, I recently visited a mid-size rice mill that was using rice husks to power the mill, produce electricity for the house, and do the cooking on four larger stoves,” says Martin Gummert, a specialist for the International Rice Research Institute. “There were still husks left.”

Mr. Gummert estimates that the world’s 645 million-ton rice harvest in 2007 generated 129 million tons of rice husks. This leaves an abundance of fuel for Belonio’s stoves, which can wring about 20 minutes of cooking time from one pound of husks.

Because rice husks are cheap and widely available, running the Belonio stove costs only 20 cents a day in the Philippines – most of which is the cost of running the fan. That can save farmers more than $150 a year on fuel compared with regular stoves.

The stove’s promise hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last month, watchmaker Rolex named Belonio as one of its 10 exemplary innovators. Belonio says he plans to use the $50,000 prize to build a stove demonstration and research center in Iloilo, Philippines. He’s also working with an Indonesian company to manufacture 30,000 units for distribution – and that, adds Smith, will be the technology’s ultimate test.

“If people end up using it day in and day out,” he says, “then Belonio’s got it.”