Monday, Jan 22, 2018
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Engineering hope: Students, faculty developing life-saving indoor air quality solutions in Peru

Faculty and staff from Seminole State – including (starting second from left) Kirk Sawyer, professor/program manager, engineering technology; AnneLiese Busch, director, Center for Global Engagement; and Michael Staley, associate vice president, School of Engineering, Design and Construction – visited the remote village of Luquina Chico in Peru in summer 2017, identifying and implementing several life-saving engineering projects that will alter the way villagers live for years to come.

What started as a mission to design a solution for efficiently heating water in a remote village in Peru quickly morphed into a much larger service-learning opportunity for the students, faculty and staff of Seminole State College of Florida.

Last summer, three faculty and staff members from the College traveled to the Luquina Chico village in the high-altitude destination of Lake Titicaca, Peru, to discuss how engineering technology students can develop a solution that will not only provide hot water, but will also improve air quality for village residents and guests.

Originally, village leaders asked engineering faculty from Seminole State to help develop a method to heat water for the homes that provide “home stay” for eco-tourists. Warm showers are important to the eco-tourists that visit this destination high in the Andes Mountains. However, after several email exchanges and phone calls with a local contact, Seminole State faculty and staff determined there is a much greater need within the rural village. Most of the homes in Luquina Chico still use open fires or stoves burning organic waste for cooking and heating, causing the homes to fill up with smoke and toxins that create extremely poor indoor air quality and severe respiratory health risks. 

The use of inefficient cooking fuels (e.g. wood, crop wastes, charcoal, coal, animal dung) and technologies produce high levels of household air pollution with a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small soot particles that penetrate deep into the lungs. In poorly ventilated dwellings, such as those in Luquina Chico, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for fine particles. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 3 billion people still cook and heat their homes using solid fuels in open fires and leaky stoves; most of these people are poor, and live in low- and middle-income countries. In Peru alone, it is estimated that 6,420 people die each year due to health effects resulting from open-fire cooking and heating. The WHO also estimates that more than 50 percent of premature deaths due to pneumonia among children under five are caused by the particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.

“Having an open fire in your kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour,” said Dr. Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health from the University of California at Berkeley, who began to measure air pollution exposure from cooking over open biomass cook stoves in the 1970s. “Unfortunately, we have not made a lot of progress in the past decades and household air pollution is still the largest single health risk factor.”

When AnneLiese Busch, director of the Center for Global Engagement at Seminole State, identified this water-heating, service-learning project for students in the College’s School of Engineering, Design and Construction, she had no idea just how big this project would become. But after learning of the debilitating conditions in these Peruvian homes, Kirk Sawyer, professor and program manager of engineering technology, and Michael Staley, associate vice president of the School of Engineering, Design and Construction, knew they had to take action.

Busch, Sawyer and Staley visited the village last summer, setting in motion a service-learning opportunity for students that will last well beyond their years at Seminole State College. The goal of the site visit was to validate the College’s understanding of the engineering problem and the human barriers to adoption of the life-saving technology.

“This [project-based learning] approach has been shown to deepen understanding of complex engineering topics, increase retention and create a more work-ready graduate. Expanding this concept to include project-based ‘service’ learning, we are also teaching students that the knowledge and skills they are acquiring can not only change, but also save, lives.” 
                                                                                     - Michael Staley

This academic year, teams of students have been hard at work developing, refining and testing viable solutions to this indoor air quality issue, under the guidance of Professors Sawyer and Staley. “Our approach will be similar to alternative energy projects. We plan to reduce their reliance upon the solid fuel stove by incorporating alternative methods to heat water and cook many of the local foods. Then we will design a stove and fuel solution to satisfy the remaining demand mitigating the indoor air quality issues and related health risks,” said Staley. 

One method showing real promise is utilizing the region’s naturally high solar radiation. Peru has many natural resources; however, sunshine is often overlooked as a viable energy source. Because of its elevation at nearly 13,000 ft., the village has significantly higher solar radiation than at sea level and longer peak durations. Professor Sawyer incorporated the solar cooking challenge into a course he taught over the summer in which students validated the concept of cooking rice and quinoa, main staples in Peru, using solar thermal energy. 

Students are also designing and testing methods of solar water heating for sanitary purposes as well as passive solar heating of sleeping rooms. These energy solutions will accompany projects with engineering, design and construction students to outside bathroom structures delivered by the Peruvian government. Each bathroom structure contains a commode, sink, shower, laundry tub and washboard. And while more than 40 of these precast concrete outhouses were delivered to the community by the Peruvian government to enhance sanitary conditions, these structures were never installed. Septic tanks are stacked in piles, and most lack water supply lines, sanitary waste lines and power. When Busch, Sawyer and Staley were in Peru last summer, every resident surveyed said that they would use the restrooms if they were functional. 

This year, Seminole State College engineering technology students will also explore solar and hydroelectric energy solutions including simple but highly innovative storage devices using gravitational potential rather than the chemical energy storage of most batteries. This solution is simple, inexpensive and utilizes the natural geography and resources of the region.   

Upon completion of these projects, several students will be selected to visit the small Peruvian village during Spring Break to implement the chosen design solution. Sawyer stated, “We will select the best overall solutions and begin implementing these solutions over the next couple of years.”

Staley notes that this presented a great opportunity to incorporate cross-disciplinary service-learning projects within the School of Engineering, Design and Construction to help students better understand the real-world applications of their studies.

“We have been working to expand the project-based learning approach within the engineering technology program over the last several years. This approach has been shown to deepen understanding of complex engineering topics, increase retention and create a more work-ready graduate. Expanding this concept to include project-based ‘service’ learning, we are also teaching students that the knowledge and skills they are acquiring can not only change, but also save, lives.”

The “improved” stove design as provided by the Peruvian government. Unfortunately, as suggested by Seminole State engineering faculty Kirk Sawyer and Michael Staley, the major flaw in this design is that it vents too much heat out the stack, leaving homes very cold during the winter. This has slowed adoption significantly. The College plans to develop ways to reduce villagers’ reliance upon the solid fuel stove by incorporating alternative methods to heat water and cook many of the local foods.


Seminole State College of Florida's School of Engineering, Design and Construction offers more than 50 degrees and certificates, including bachelor's degrees in construction, engineering technology, information systems technology and interior design. The programs prepare students for a wide variety of careers in the built environment and information technology.

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