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Liu et al./Science Advances

Flame Retardant in Lithium-ion Batteries Could Quench Fires

A powerful flame retardant added to lithium-ion batteries that only gets released when the devices get too hot could help keep them from catching on fire, a new study finds.

When lithium-ion batteries overheat, they can burn through clothing, burst into flames and even explode. Such "thermal runaways" have led some engineers to explore the creation of lithium-ion batteries with their own fire alarms or chemical additives that can prevent short circuits.

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Illustration of lightbulb with dollar sign filament

Calculating the Full Cost of Electricity—From Power Plant to Wall Socket

graphic link to the landing page for The Full Cost of Electricity

The Full Cost of Electricity is an interdisciplinary initiative of the Energy Institute of the University of Texas to identify and quantify the full-system cost of electric power generation and delivery—from the power plant to the wall socket. Its purpose is to inform public policy discourse with comprehensive, rigorous, and impartial analysis.

The generation of electric power and the infrastructure that delivers it is in the midst of dramatic and rapid change. Since 2000, declining renewable energy costs, stringent emissions standards, competitive electricity markets, and a host of technological innovations—coupled with low-priced natural gas
post-2008—have combined to change the landscape of an industry that has remained static for decades. Heightened awareness of newfound options available to consumers has injected yet another element into the policy debate surrounding these transformative changes, moving it beyond utility boardrooms and legislative hearing rooms to everyday living rooms.

The Full Cost of Electricity (FCe-) study employs a holistic approach to thoroughly examine the key factors affecting the total direct and indirect costs of generating and delivering electricity. As an interdisciplinary project, the FCe- synthesizes the expert analysis and different perspectives of faculty across the University of Texas at Austin campus, from engineering, economics, law, and policy.

In addition to producing authoritative white papers that provide comprehensive assessment and analysis of various electric power system options, the study team developed online calculators that allow policymakers and other stakeholders, including the public, to estimate the cost implications of potential policy actions. A framework of the research initiative, and a list of research participants and project sponsors are also available on the Energy Institute website.

To introduce the FCe- study and associated white papers to our EnergyWise audience, IEEE Spectrum is posting blogs from the team from now through April as each white paper is released and hosting all of this material on a special FCe- project page. Interactive calculators and other tools developed as part of the study will be linked so that readers can do their own calculations and add to the discussion. We hope the debate is lively over the coming months. 

Carey W. King is the assistant director and a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute.

Disclaimer: All authors abide by the disclosure policies of the University of Texas at Austin. The University of Texas at Austin is committed to transparency and disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.  All UT investigators involved with this research have filed their required financial disclosure forms with the university. Through this process the university has determined that there are neither conflicts of interest nor the appearance of such conflicts.

WattTime feeds EV chargers real-time intel on a power grid's ever-shifting carbon footprint

WattTime, the Tool That Tells You When to Charge Your EV to Keep It Green

Gavin McCormick’s attendance at an EcoHack in San Francisco ultimately sidetracked his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley, but for a clean cause: software initiated at the 2013 event has transformed the budding economist’s nascent research into a potent tool for squeezing the cleanest performance out of power grids. Real-time algorithms from WattTime, the Berkeley-based nonprofit that McCormick cofounded and runs, are telling electric vehicle owners when to charge to minimize their carbon footprints and predicting which renewable power projects will deliver the biggest CO2 emissions reductions. 

WattTime tracks swings in carbon dioxide emissions as a grid’s power supply mix shifts from minute to minute. Its intelligence, explains McCormick, comes from mining two datasets. The first is power market data. Algorithms trained on that data enable WattTime to predict what power plant will ramp up to meet new electrical demand at any moment in 106 markets across the United States. 

WattTime turns that ‘marginal’ power supply prediction into an estimate of ‘marginal’ carbon impact by plumbing an underused database from EPA’s Air Markets Program. That database contains hourly records of pollution and fuel consumption for every U.S. power plant. “It’s been around for about 40 years and no one was paying attention to it,” says McCormick.

The resulting estimate of CO2 per kilowatt-hour can be strikingly different from a grid’s average emissions intensity—the most commonly used metric for evaluating power consumption. A grid delivering 90 percent nuclear or renewable power, for example, will have very low average emissions. But WattTime can spot when such a grid is ramping up a carbon-spewing coal plant to meet additional demand, and thus has very high marginal intensity.

WattTime is partnering with manufacturers to empower consumers to make cleaner choices. For example, a line of EV chargers from San Carlos, Calif.–based Electric Motor Werks communicates with WattTime when a car is plugged into the charger and then schedules charging to deliver the greenest fill possible.

eMotorWerks claims its JuiceBox Green can cut CO2 emissions by up to 60 percent relative to conventional EV chargers. In fact, analysis by WattTime suggests that chargers designed to optimize for price, rather than emissions, can actually increase carbon emissions (see graph).

Canadian smart thermostat provider Energate, meanwhile, is looping in WattTime’s intelligence to time electric heating and air conditioning for minimum carbon emissions. A pilot of the devices is underway in Chicago. Two more partnerships are in place and “many others are kicking the tires” says McCormick, including energy storage system firm Advanced Microgrid Solutions.

These devices turn the tables on power supply, enabling consumers to essentially game the grid and help keep the highest carbon power sources from ramping up—or even from turning on in the first place. WattTime guarantees at least a 5 percent reduction in emissions. But McCormick says it can deliver up to a 100 percent reduction in some locations such as Hawaii, where curtailed solar power is often the marginal power supply.

WattTime’s next big play is targeting the installation of clean energy. Their algorithms can predict where deploying solar and wind farms to regions are likely to displace the dirtiest fossil fuelled power plants.

WattTime is already providing such advice to corporations investing in renewable power, via the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Boulder, Colo.–based energy think tank. However, McCormick says dramatically shifting investment trends will require an overhaul of carbon accounting schemes, which mostly certify carbon reductions based on grid averages. 

Within six months they hope to achieve a first breakthrough, gaining acceptance for marginal intensity accounting by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol—the leading global carbon accounting standard. McCormick says their petition is, like his nonprofit’s mission, about leveraging marginal emissions data to drive cleaner use of electricity, rather than advancing their proprietary system: “We want them to accept anyone with technology like ours.”

Sacramento Eco Fitness cyclers pedal on SportsArt's ECO-POWR spinning bikes

Are Stationary Bikes that Generate Electricity Making a Comeback?

On 18 December, a new gym opened in downtown Sacramento, California. When its members attend a cycling class, they’ll be riding on expensive exercise bikes that generate electricity, help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and maybe give them some motivation for pedaling harder.

The Sacramento Eco Fitness gym estimates that it will recover the approximately US $26,000 price tag for its 15 eco-cycles in one year.

Yet in a 2011 IEEE Spectrum feature, mechanical engineering consultant Tom Gibson estimated that a human can only generate about 50 to 150 watts of electricity during an hour of cycling—hardly enough to power a gym. He concluded that electricity-generating bikes were a “marketing gimmick” and that it would take “decades” for gyms to recuperate the initial investment.

Eco Fitness founder José Aviña sees things a little bit differently. “We want [our members] to be proud of the hard work they put in every time they show up to cycle,” he writes in an email.

The 15 electricity-generating bikes come from SportsArt, which began operations in Taiwan in 1978.

The ECO-POWR SportsArt bikes look similar to traditional bikes, but something changes when you plug them into a 120V wall outlet and start cycling. First, an internal generator produces low-voltage AC from the pedaling motion. The voltage is then boosted to a higher level and converted to DC. Then it’s converted to a 60-hertz AC waveform and filtered. Any surplus electricity left after powering the bike—about 74 percent of it—can go back to the power grid.

The extra tech does come at a price: SportsArt bikes can be more expensive than some traditional models. The SportsArt ECO-POWR cycles and elliptical machines range between $2,795 and $7,395 list before bulk discounts, according to a commercial pricing sheet from SportsArt. The G510 spinning bikes that Eco Fitness uses cost about $1,700 each ($2,795 list), but Aviña says he could have gotten the competing Sole Up-Right Cycle on sale for $1,299 (regular $1,799) before sales tax with free shipping.

He decided to purchase the SportsArt ECO-POWR bikes because they include an app that tracks how many watts a cycler generates. The app lets cyclers compare their gym’s wattage output to the output from other gyms in Europe, Asia, and Canada.

He thinks this knowledge will drive gym members to compete and work harder. And in terms of cost—he thinks there are several things that will let the gym get its money back.

He admits that yes, membership fees are higher. Eco Fitness costs at least $80 per month, and he says that while it’s cheaper than nearby boutique gyms that charge $150 or more, big-box gyms as close as 2.5 kilometers away have “much lower” membership costs.

But he still thinks the electricity from the bikes would go a long way towards the gym’s sustainability strategy, because for safety the city of Sacramento would require a permit for installing solar panels and there is limited roof space even if panels were approved.

The facility will offer three 45-minute cycle classes a day for 12 people. He estimates each class would produce a surplus between 400 and 800 watts during that period as long as everybody puts in similar effort. That would be almost enough to cover the coffee machine, two LED TVs, and two laptops.

He says that besides a 24-hour streelight outside the building, the gym keeps its electricity usage low. The building has a skylight: which reduces the need for artificial light. It isn’t open 24 hours, and staff members unplug tech and exercise machines when they’re not in use. During winter or summer months the gym would need to use AC or a heat lamp, but the gym could offset these needs with solar panels in the future.

SportsArt vice president Ivo Grossi says the company targets mid-size boutique gyms because they can are willing to test innovations. Big chains—such as Crunch or Life Time—wouldn’t go for a product like the SportsArt bikes yet. “We’ll get there,” he says.

Grossi says that the bikes are in the same range as products by Life Fitness, Matrix Cardio, and Precor—the “cost is the same” as a “top-notch” commercial bike. SportsArt does this by sacrificing a 6 to 8 point margin on gross profits.

BeachFit, a small chain in the United Kingdom, has three facilities with SportsArt ECO-POWR bikes. The gyms are analyzing the exact energy effects of the SportsArt bikes, but owner Paul Crane says energy bills have gone down and membership has increased—particularly among 20-30 year olds—since the newest facility opened in Lancing, West Sussex in June 2015.

The BeachFit gyms have a membership fee of about £30-35 ($40-$45) per month. They are encouraging members to sign up by offering an incentive: for every 500 watts of electricity a member contributes they get a 5 percent discount on the membership fee, up to 20 percent off.

“At the moment, the energy produced is small,” Crane says, “but it’s making a difference.”

Greg Kremer, a mechanical engineer at Ohio University who works on human-powered vehicles, writes that although there have been some technological advancements in efficiency, output electricity is always limited by human input, the bike’s power requirements, and any energy losses of the power-generating equipment. He also writes that “utilization rates of exercise equipment vary over time of day and season, but are much lower on average than most people would like to admit.”

“If you want to save energy and get exercise,” he writes, “ride a bike or walk to work or school—you get the exercise, and the energy use is directly avoided. [That’s] real savings.”

A view of Ascension Island from a GoPro attached to a UAV

Drones Take to the Skies to Screen for Methane Emissions

When you think of greenhouse gas emissions, you might be thinking of carbon dioxide—but methane is another significant contributor to warming that’s on the rise. Sources include large grassfires, leaking natural gas wells, natural wetland processes, belching cows, or even farting termites. But the relative contribution of each of these sources to Africa’s methane mix has been hard to track. And that’s important data to have, because the tropics account for 40 percent of global emissions. Last month, researchers report in Geophysical Research Letters, that a drone on a remote tropical island may solve that mystery.

The magic of Ascension Island, located in the middle of the South Atlantic, is the way the air flows, says Rebecca Brownlow, an atmospheric science Ph.D. student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Above about 1.6 kilometers from sea level, the air is coming straight from southeast Africa. Below it is the South Atlantic’s mix. Subtracting that from the African air gives a good sense of how much methane is generated in Africa. And the best means of making those measurements is with a high-flying drone.

“There was no other way to take these samples and to make these measurements,” says Rick Thomas, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. Existing methane ground monitoring stations in Africa can’t discern region-wide effects, because they can’t tell how methane would end up mixing in the atmosphere.

But at this sweet spot on Ascension Island, called the trade wind inversion, drones can do the job. Scientists have tried several technologies to go above the trade wind inversion. Satellites are not accurate enough to identify the sources of methane, balloons are too time-consuming, towers are too short, and airplane flights are too expensive, the researchers say.

Drones have already been deployed to monitor methane from landfills in the UK as well as gas leaks in the United States. But the tropics are understudied, Brownlow says.

The researchers built their own drone for the Ascension Island job. They made the air-frame from carbon-fiber tubing and loaded it with a 32,000 milliampere-hour, 6-cell Lithium polymer battery. The drone carried a Tedlar plastic bag and a pump to capture and store atmospheric gases. Although CO2 can escape the bag, methane molecules are too large to leak out, Thomas says.

After launch, a computer guided the drone during its climb—as high as 2,700 meters—to get above the trade wind inversion. Ground controllers knew it had reached the inversion when the temperature went up and humidity dropped. They then signaled the drone to start pumping air into the bag.

The drone collected one or two samples at different altitudes, four to five times a day for about 20 minutes. The researchers swapped out batteries in-between flights.

Besides being atmospherically ideal for methane measurements, another advantage to Ascension was that its remoteness made it much easier to get clearance from authorities to fly at high altitudes than in a densely populated or high-air-traffic area, says Thomas. The drone only flew when there were no other flights that could interfere; the island’s government helped coordinate emergency services and logistics (such as closing a road), and the team always communicated with air traffic control.

Still, controlling for external factors when the drone was out of sight was difficult. “There’s a step change in the complexity of dealing with a platform when you can’t see it,” he says.

When the drone returned with the samples, the researchers analyzed the carbon atoms inside with a mass spectrometer. Different methane sources emit methane containing different carbon isotopes, so the researchers expected that during Africa’s peak biomass-burning season, the ratio of isotopes would indicate a clear signal of grass-fire burning.

Oddly, the ratios of carbon isotopes suggested that none of the methane sources—whether fossil fuels, swamps, or cow flatulence—was an overwhelming contributor. Thomas says this lack of distinguishability simply signifies the need for additional measurements.

Damien Maher, a biogeochemist at Southern Cross University in Lismore, New South Wales, Australia, characterizes greenhouse gas emissions. He was not involved in the study, but writes in an email that it’s important to characterize the greenhouse gas sources in order to correctly target emission reductions.

He writes that several groups are working on using drones. The technology still requires collecting samples and measuring with high-precision instruments on the ground; there are no sensors for measuring methane concentrations and the carbon isotope ratios small enough and lightweight enough to mount on a drone.

In the future, Thomas hopes to make longer term measurements and to add more automation to the drone.

Photo of a Lego model of the Danish island of Bornholm

How a New Middleman Might Help Balance Electricity Grids

A few years ago almost two thousand bold households on the Danish island of Bornholm joined a surge pricing experiment run by their electricity utility. It was supposed to empower the utility and consumers with a simple, direct market (“The Smartest, Greenest Grid,” IEEE Spectrum, April 2013).

The EU-funded project, called EcoGrid, won widespread buy-in from residents, who could also earn small payoffs when they reduced demand.  Yet researchers reported last year that they could reduce demand by only 1.2 percent of peak load, despite early predictions of up to 20-percent reductions for so-called virtual power plants. The market model was missing something.

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Smoke pouring from smokestacks

ARPA-E Under Trump

Since the surprise victory of Donald J. Trump on 8 November, the future of United States’ leadership in the emerging clean energy industry has been a subject of speculation. As a climate change doubter and outspoken advocate of the coal and oil industries, the president-elect’s energy policies will undoubtedly represent a bold departure from those of the Obama administration—the most clean-energy-friendly presidency in history. But just what the new president-elect’s energy policies may be and how and when they come into force remains unclear today.

One of the Obama administration’s chief instruments for supporting advances in clean energy has been the Department of Energy’s tech incubator, the Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). As a recent overview report notes, since 2009 ARPA-E has provided $1.3 billion in funding to more than 475 projects in next-generation batteries, grid operations, power electronics, and clean energy. These projects have to date resulted in 36 new companies, and $1.25 billion in publicly-reported, follow-on funding from the private sector. Yet the mandate and perhaps even continued existence of ARPA-E under President Trump is still an open question.

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A German flag with the coat of arms flies in front of a home with solar panels

Germany's Aggressive Switch to Renewables Will Save €149 Billion

The switch to renewables in Germany is saving money and creating jobs, according to a new economic analysis by the international consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). The report finds that the German government’s 2015-2020 climate action plan and energy efficiency measures will save about 149 billion euros.

Research that appeared last month in Earth Systems Science Data suggested that global carbon dioxide emissions will be growing slowly, thanks in part to reduction moves by China and the United States. Several research projects have that a downturn in the use of fossil fuels in the United States that would come from switches to renewable energy could save U.S. consumers money, but coal’s not dead yet. President-Elect Donald Trump insisted during the campaign season that supporting the U.S. coal industry will help the economy and create jobs. Meanwhile, India plans to double coal production by 2020.

Germany’s goal is to lower its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020. Both the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)  and even Germany’s environment ministry have raised doubts about whether the government can actually reach the target in time, but its proposed measures include using more renewables, improving energy efficiency in buildings, and reducing agriculture or vehicle emissions.

Overall, PwC estimates that 79 specific measures from Germany’s plan will create investments of 125 billion euros in new technology infrastructure, leading to €274 billion in savings—a net savings of €149 billion, Deutsche Welle reports.

The PwC report finds that the energy sector would lose about €10 billion, but other business sectors would save about €84 billion and the state would save about €26 billion; an extra €73 billion would come to the government from related tax revenues. Consumers would end up saving about €25 billion.

PwC estimates that the program will also create 430,000 additional jobs.

All in all, that would be good news for Germany. The federal environment minister said in a press release that the climate action program is kind of like an economic stimulus package.

A security camera is seen outside the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) headquarters in Ottawa January 28, 2015.

Why Do Hackers Love to Attack Canada’s Energy Departments?

New data reveal that hackers compromised systems in Canadian government agencies dealing with natural resources, energy, and environment 2,078 times this year.

Last month, Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) reported that it had detected 4,571 instances when government systems were compromised by hackers since 1 January. By a large margin, the majority were in natural resources, energy, and environmental agencies. It found less in other areas of government—the next most-targeted sector was industry and business development (with 954) and then government administration (with 387). The statistics are the first of their kind, Globe and Mail reports.

Out of the 4,571 system compromises, the CSE only found three cases where data was “ex-filtrated”—once in the natural resources, energy, and environment sector. It reports that stolen information was unclassified.

“These statistics are a clear indication of the very real threat that exists,” says Canadian parliament member Matt Jeneroux, who requested the data from the CSE.

In the report, the CSE broke down the statistics into 11 sectors, instead of individual departments, because disclosing departments “could provide hostile actors with an understanding of the vulnerabilities of the Government of Canada” and how well the government can detect cyberattacks. Agencies within the affected sector had little to say about the report. Canada’s National Energy Board and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited did not respond to requests for comment. Environment and Climate Change Canada as well as Natural Resources Canada referred IEEE Spectrum to the CSE.

The agencies list some of their responsibilities on their public websites. Canada’s National Energy Board, for example, is involved in energy regulation and evaluation during pipeline or power line projects. Natural Resources Canada, meanwhile, offers policy or helps conduct research in fields from explosives to energy sources and distribution.

The news comes while around the world, electricity grid cybersecurity has become a growing concern. In December 2015, hackers cut off power to over 200,000 people in Ukraine—the first confirmed cyberattack to take out an electricity system. 

The Canadian numbers appear quite high when compared to those available in the United states. A Freedom of Information Act request by USA Today revealed that the U.S. Department of Energy detected 159 successful intrusions between 2010 and 2014. At the time, officials didn’t say whether any data was accessed that related to the operation and security of the U.S. power grid, USA Today reports.

A spokesman for the CSE writes in an email that the CSE will not provide details about “specific cyber threat actors or cyber security incidents,” in order to protect the efficiency of classified cyber-defense methods that secure the government’s networks. However, he writes that the CSE blocks over 100 million attempts to find vulnerabilities or compromise government networks every day. These hacks can come from “hacktivists” acting for political reasons, criminals, terrorists, and nation states.

Jeneroux will consider whether to request further information from the CSE. “It is important that the Government of Canada continue to identify these threats and determine ways to secure our information and protect our national security,” he writes.

A collection of Sanivation's poop-based fuel briquettes

Kenyan Startup Uses the Sun to Turn Human Waste into Cooking Fuel

In August 2015—after a couple of years of testing—a company in Kenya began commercially treating human poop with the sun’s heat to create an environmentally friendly fuel source. This week, Sanivation plans to turn on a new continuous-flow system that will help it scale up to support many more customers than it could previously.

“We can treat thousands and multi-thousands of peoples’ shit continuously,” says Sanivation CTO Emily Woods.

In developing countries, the International Energy Agency estimates that about 2.5 billion people cook with biomass: charcoal from forests, agricultural waste, animal dung, and other sources. In Kenya, charcoal provides about 82 percent of the energy in urban households and 34 percent of the energy in rural households, according to the Kenya Forest Service. Yet its use is leading to major deforestation2013 research found that the demand for charcoal was about 16.3 million m3, but there was only a supply of about 7.3 million m3. Not to mention that the air pollution from inefficiently burning solid fuels such as charcoal can kill about 4.3 million people a year.

One solution to these problems could be switching to cleaner cooking stoves, but some research points out that new technology adoption is difficult. Instead of swapping stoves, changing fuel is another possibility—research by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, and Health concluded that the electricity generated from the world’s collective human feces could power up to 138 million households, for example.

And that’s where Sanivation steps in—providing an alternative cooking-fuel source to local small businesses and restaurants. Woods says Sanivation’s sun-treated poop fuel briquettes can burn two times longer than normal charcoal, yet release about one third of the carbon monoxide and particulate matter emissions. Each metric ton of the briquettes saves about 88 trees yet they are “comparable” in cost even with charcoal’s rapid price fluctuations.

Before this week, the team of about 50 was able to process about 2 metric tons of waste every month in batches. In the new continuous-flow system coming online this week in Naivasha, Sanivation estimates it will be able to process 6 to 8 metric tons of waste every month, decreasing the amount of physical space required for processing, and increasing the number of customers from hundreds to hopefully many more.

The process starts with fecal waste that the company collects from latrines and ends with a fuel briquette.

The first stage is treatment. Sanivation applies heat to sanitize the waste—waiting in a container—and remove any harmful pathogens.

Sanivation's waste treatment system: a solar concentrator with a receiver that heats up fecal matter
Photo: Sanivation
Sanivation’s waste treatment system uses a solar concentrator to heat up fecal matter. Primary components include the Scheffler dish reflector (mirrored surface), the beige hopper to load the poop, and the large-bore-pipe heat exchanger.

A glass and steel parabolic disk with an area of about 5 m2 acts like a solar concentrator. When the sun’s rays hit the disk, it reflects the light and focuses it onto the glass side of an approximately 13- by 13-centimeter receiver containing the waste. The waste starts warming up to about 60° C—the other sides of the receiver prevent the heat from escaping because they are insulators: cement or fiberglass.

The trick to the treatment is that once poop gets hot enough, pathogens disappear. One estimate says this happens after waste is heated to 60° C for one hour. Woods says many researchers are working on finding the lowest possible temperature and time to sanitize waste, but for now Sanivation errs on the side of caution and goes to 60° C for three hours.

Before this week, the team would check that the batches went above safety requirements and then mix the product with waste materials such as charcoal dust or sawdust. Feces have a high fiber content, so when cooled and dried after heat treatment, a hard and solid briquette forms. (Woods says the details of the processing are “kind of our secret” but “you get a nice, solid, very dense, very flammable material.”)

Sanivation's agglomerator
Photo: Sanivation
Sanivation’s agglomerator acts like a cement mixer to combine ingredients and apply tumbling pressure to the feces binder and the carbonized agriculture waste.

In the new continuous-flow system, the waste heats up for about five to 10 minutes, and is routed via pipes to insulating cement and fiberglass containers, where it sits for a total of three hours before moving into the briquette production stage. Sensors throughout the container monitor the temperature.

Woods says rolling out a new system like this is hard, because it’s difficult to get equipment such as a seal fixed or replaced due to the availability of parts and manufacturing quality limitations. “We can’t just swing down to the Home Depot and pick up a new seal,” she says.

Still, this week should be the week it goes live. “I think we’re about ready to put some poop in it,” she says.

Salim Mayeki Shaban, the founder and president of the African Christians Organization Network in Kenya, creates charcoal from an invasive species called water hyacinth instead of trees. He sells special stoves that can use and produce his charcoal sustainably—primarily as a fertilizer ingredient but also for fuel.

He writes in a Skype message that maybe about 70 percent of the people in Kenya still use normal charcoal in part because of cost deterrants but mostly because of a “lack of knowledge” that could be improved by going out in the field with demonstrations and training. He writes that most people switch to alternatives once they learn about them.

Björn Vinnerås, an environmental engineer at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, develops on-site sanitation systems in Sweden, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. One of his projects collects poop and urine—but instead of converting it into fuel, he, like Shaban, also creates a fertilizer for plants. “If you can really turn the waste you have to manage into a resource,” he says, “I see a really big benefit of it.”

Unlike other alternative charcoal sources, Vinnerås says, Sanivation’s system addresses the problem of where to put waste that overfills latrines: if it winds up in a landfill, it act as a pollutant. He says the image of human manure might make it difficult to receive public acceptance, but at the same time, some people in rural areas already use cow dung as fuel. “So it can be found within the culture already,” he says.

Woods says people always bring up the poop imagery, but she says Sanivation hasn’t found it to be a problem. “Once people try it, they rarely still have a problem with it.” The company is upfront about it, but the briquettes don’t smell or look like poop. 

Besides social and political obstacles of not being from Kenya, she says the main challenge is quality of supply. The other materials Sanivation uses to create the briquettes are often filled with contaminants such as dirt that can lower the briquette quality.

She says Sanivation is doing particularly well with local businesses because it meets sustainability regulation—most of the charcoal sold in Kenya, she says, has been created illegally, so business owners don’t have to worry about the company suddenly disappearing like traditional fuel providers. In October, Sanivation sold about 8 metric tons of briquettes to about 20 small businesses and restaurants.

The company has targeted small businesses and restaurants first because they buy in bulk: a business would buy between about 200 kilograms to 2 metric tons of briquettes while a household could only buy kilograms. However, the company plans on expanding to the household market because households “will pay more.” Woods also hopes to reach out to more municipalities, both about the fuel briquettes and the custom toilets Sanivation sells to improve sanitation conditions.

“It’s all pretty simple technology, and that’s actually key to working and operating in Kenya,” she says.

Future improvements could include switching to conveyor belts to move the feces and other waste products around. Next year, the team hopes to get the system processing 30 metric tons per month.

“These other forms of fuel, they’re just so needed,” she says.


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