In May of 2011, Jeff Seay, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Kentucky at Paducah, led a group of students to a design competition sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency called People, Prosperity and the Planet in Washington D.C. At the National Sustainable Design Expo where the group displayed their designs for biodiesel production, Seay was approached by Isaac Zama, a representative of the African Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (ACREST), a technology center located in the West African country of Cameroon. Zama said that for the last several years, ACREST has been working with student design groups at American universities to develop new technologies. From high-efficiency cooking stoves to a hydroelectric power generating station at the facility, student groups were working with technicians to create low-cost, sustainable technologies that improve the quality of life of the people of Cameroon.
At that time, a group of students from Purdue University had visited Cameroon and produced what they termed a “basic utility vehicle”—a three-wheeled farm cart built from junked car parts, lumber, sheet metal and piping, yet containing a diesel engine. The vehicle was cheap enough that it could be manufactured at the ACREST site and sold inexpensively to local villagers. Zama’s question to Seay and his group was: “Can you build something that will produce biodiesel for the basic utility vehicles and generators in Cameroon?”
Perhaps that sounds like a minor challenge for a chemical engineering professor and a group of students who were talented enough to compete at a national design competition in Washington D.C., but Zama’s proposal contained unique design requirements.
First, the biodiesel processor could not cost more than $100 in U.S. currency to produce. Essentially, the materials to be used would be similar to those in the basic utility vehicles—junked parts, discarded oil drums and scrap metal. Second, the device could not contain any electronics, a wrinkle that eliminated the normal way engineers make biodiesel—using precise temperature controls, a circulating pump and instrumentation. Third, the group would need to produce the biodiesel from indigenous oils, such as palm and jatropha oil.
Suddenly, Zama’s challenge became a lot more interesting.
Nonetheless, Seay agreed and he and his students began working on a prototype with the intent of reassembling it in Cameroon the following spring.
“For us, it was fundamental engineering,” said Seay. “It was exciting to work on something we knew people were waiting for.”
The team, consisting of Seay and seven undergraduate students, worked throughout the year and eventually settled on a design that incorporated a double-boiler system and a car radiator as a reflux condenser and was fueled by charcoal.
“It is a lot like melting chocolate, only we used local oils, wood ash and wood alcohol,” said Bradley Butler, one of the mechanical engineering students who helped with the design. “Because we couldn’t use a mechanical pump, we controlled the temperature of the substances so they would interact.”
The group departed on May 7 for Paris en route to Douala, Cameroon. Not a single student on the team had ever traveled internationally prior to the trip; however, concerns about strenuous travel demands and culture shock were tempered by the knowledge that 10 days was not much time to reassemble their prototype, incorporate design changes and train ACREST’s technicians on how to use and reproduce it.
After spending the night in Douala, the team was glad to trade the stifling urban heat for the cool of the mountains. In addition, meals featuring traditional American fare mitigated some of the unfamiliarity that goes with visiting a new country.
“The weather and the food were awesome,” said Seay. “The students enjoyed the village and because there was so much to learn and accomplish, the students didn’t have time to sit around and think of home.”
According to chemical engineering student Christina Willett, the largest cultural difference didn’t come from the kitchens, but the intersections.
“The biggest shock I experienced was the lack of traffic laws. It seemed like everyone was just playing chicken with each other,” she recalled. “And, of course, the fact that very few people spoke English so it was very difficult to communicate.”
Despite being 6,500 miles from Paducah and visiting a different continent for the first time, once in ACREST’s technology center, the team’s engineering instincts took over. While touring the facility, technicians demonstrated one of their recent innovations—a higher efficiency cook stove. Seay said the cooking stove was a game changer.
“When we saw the cook stove, a light bulb went off. We all looked at each other and saw a different way we could design our processor. It led us to redesign what we originally had in mind.”
Design changes were also needed when the team discovered the palm oil they were planning to use is actually a food source for the locals, used to make a dish called “yellow sauce.” While they were able to use palm oil and successfully convert it to biodiesel, Seay and the students decided it made more economic sense to search for another kind of oil. The solution came in the form of castor oil.
“Castor beans grow wild in that region and no one eats them. They also grow in land that isn’t suitable for farming, so we are looking at obtaining castor oil and working on the chemistry to convert castor oil to biodiesel.”
So how does Seay and his team plan to test the viability of castor oil, given that they left their prototype with ACREST?
“We’re going to have to recreate our prototype right here in Paducah,” Seay grinned. “What we develop has to be able to be manufactured in Cameroon or they won’t be able to use it.”
When asked if future visits to ACREST are in the works, Seay left no doubt.
“We’re definitely planning to go back. We have applied for another People, Prosperity and the Planet grant and will be presenting once again in Washington D.C. where the top groups earn $90,000 in funding. That would give us plenty of options for partnering with ACREST on this project as well as others.”
For now, the team feels good about its accomplishments and the students appreciate the way their education allows them to address some of the world’s greatest challenges.
“I am very proud of the work we accomplished while we were there, and I am going to really miss some of the friends we made while in Bangang,” said Willett.
Zachary Watson agreed and perhaps best summarized the intent and success of the trip.
“The good thing about being an engineer is that when you see a problem, you can do something about it.”