Guest Articles

April 29

Reid Harvey

Ceramics in Global Development: How an Affordable, Overlooked Technology Could Spark a Micro-Scale Industrial Revolution

In sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world in general, thousands of women, girls and small children die every day due to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, caused by smoke and fumes around cookstoves used indoors with no ventilation. But though people in the industrialized global north know about the dangers of pathogen-contaminated water in the developing world, there has been a lack of awareness about the health hazards of air pollution around cookstoves.

Vast numbers of people whose daily income is under US $1.00 tend to cook on three rocks formed into a triangle, with a pot balanced on top. The women and girls who do the cooking are stoic while breathing this polluted air, in much the same way that women and girls spend hours acquiring water each day – even though it is not safe to drink.

Though the problems of polluted air and contaminated water have plagued poor communities forever, both issues can be addressed with genuinely sustainable new ceramic technologies, which can prevent smoke around cookstoves and treat pathogen-contaminated water. At TAM Ceramics, where I work as a senior scientist/ceramic designer, we’ve developed innovations focused on ceramic water filters. Our water filters feature systems of granulated ceramics, coated with a small amount of silver that’s bonded to the granules. Pathogens filtering through a bed of the filter media make repeated contact with the silver metal and are essentially destroyed. These systems represent a genuinely sustainable technology that will be low-cost and user-friendly, with production possible in close proximity to the target market.  We are hoping that production will begin in the coming months, most likely starting in Nigeria, Zambia and/or South Africa.


Using Ceramics to Build a Better Cookstove

When it comes to cookstoves, innovations in ceramics have also opened new possibilities. Ceramic has been used for years in cookstoves, which often consisted of very large ceramic cylinders with three pot-rests at the top, fabricated using local clays. But since these stoves were usually used with wood rather than smokeless (but expensive) charcoal, they caused the same problems as traditional three-stone cooking. Their real advantage was greater energy efficiency. In 2008, however, the NGO Aprovecho introduced a far better design for stoves: the rocket stove, which is remarkably efficient in burning bio-mass, giving no smoke at all – a breakthrough of huge implications. Due to a narrow vent between the cook pot and the stove liner, as well as the shape of the combustion chamber, the stove cooks at a high enough temperature to burn up the smoke.

But in spite of these advantages, the original rocket stove design presented several drawbacks that many people considered insurmountable:

  • It was difficult to produce them at sufficiently low cost to be affordable to the poor, while also making them truly energy efficient;
  • They would only provide a smoke-free fire if there was a half inch distance between the cook pot and the stove liner, which meant that the stove could only accommodate cook pots of a very specific diameter;
  • Metal rocket stoves would become dangerously hot to the touch, while ceramic ones, though cooler, were more fragile.

Tackling these problems required a breakthrough in ceramic science and design, in which the rocket stove is fabricated using special curved insulating bricks composed of powders of charcoal and clay. With powdered charcoal, there is more bonding between clay particles and thus the bricks have far greater strength – even when fired in a bonfire rather than a kiln. This simple leap in design was largely inspired by the cylindrical, top loading kilns that are frequently used by art ceramists, which are built out of insulating bricks.

Once fired the black bricks of the charcoal/clay combination become the characteristic color of pottery, the charcoal having burned out. Pores of the burnout of charcoal are too small to be visible, so the bricks appear to be solid – but they’re also remarkably lightweight. These ceramic rocket stoves cook at a high enough temperature to burn up the smoke, but due to a thin insulating wall, the outside remains cool to the touch – something that’s practically unheard of with a metal stove. The bricks used in these stoves can be made with mass production techniques implicit to ceramics, beginning with conventional model and mold-making approaches using, for example, commonly available gypsum plaster. Using only four thin-walled master molds made of plastic or hard rubber, it’s possible to locally produce curved bricks for stoves that can accommodate cookpots having any diameter between 24 and 48 cm. This will allow local clay workers to make stoves compatible with any cookpot of these sizes – making them far easier for customers to use with their existing cooking equipment. And as a bonus, the process of making ceramics using models and molds will serve clay workers well in the subsequent production of other ceramic products.


Empowering Local Artisans and Entrepreneurs

Perhaps most importantly, these techniques allow ceramic rocket stoves to be produced and sold at low costs. The final cost would be determined by the local economy, but local clay workers could make the bricks for a low hourly rate, while community members fabricate the stoves and sell them, familiarizing others in their communities with their value and proper use. I’m currently preparing with an Anglican priest, Father Bartholomew Segu, to begin spreading these stoves around Tanzania. To that end, Segu and others have recently established Advocates for Social Cohesion Foundation, a Tanzanian organization that will implement the stove project. We’re now working to secure funding to produce the master molds for these stoves. We ultimately hope to train rural clay workers in the usage of these molds, giving them proper guidance in establishing microenterprises to help produce and distribute ceramic stoves.

Though stove production is simple, the biggest challenge in putting ceramic rocket stoves into wide usage will involve encouraging new users to continue with the stoves. Many have never had a chance to go to school, and have always cooked on three-rock fires, so they may easily become discouraged by lack of familiarity with the stoves and go back to cooking on three rocks. Consequently, a proper periodic routine of monitoring and evaluation will be essential – though this would be most viable if introduced by entrepreneurial neighbors, rather than outsiders.

As with stoves, monitoring and evaluation would also be necessary for water filters built from this new type of ceramic. But we must also recognize that any local enterprises that are developed in rural and peri-urban communities as a result of the new availability of ceramic water filters and cookstoves will be most effective when initiated with a social impact focus. A business-centric approach, with a humanitarian face or not, is bound to fail, since management will naturally focus on locations where conditions offer the biggest profits, overlooking the areas where the need for these interventions is greatest. Largely because of this, it is only grassroots development that shows real promise in disseminating these products. It could well be that technologies implemented locally, without recourse to outside resources, would offer the best prospects for a transformative approach.

Aside from health-related ceramic products like clean stoves and water filters, micro-scale industrial development could be jump-started using ceramic techniques and design. Such ceramic methods as clay material processing, and the forming, finishing and firing of ceramic ware would not only increase the availability of consumer products like stoves, filters and dinnerware, but also of local manufacturers’ other products, like bricks, electrical ceramics and foundries. In fact, foundries built using available ceramic resources along with scrap aluminum could foster a micro-scale industrial revolution. Melting and casting aluminum machine shop parts, then fabricating the machines from these parts could provide the seeds of industry with very little need for resources from outside, other than education and training.

Indeed, nearly all of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals could be advanced through the innovative use of ceramics, toward objectives ranging from environmental health to infrastructure and responsible production, to job creation and skills development. The potential of ceramics in global development deserves greater attention and bolder action from the sector’s leaders, funders and policy makers.


Reid Harvey is Senior Scientist at TAM Ceramics.


Photo courtesy of author.

Homepage photo from World Bank Photo Collection, via Flickr.




global development, SDGs