MIT’s Guru of Low-Tech Engineering Fixes the World on $2 a Day

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Peruvian village of Compone lies 11,000 ft. above sea level in El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Flat but ringed by mountains, the tallest capped year-round in snow and ice, the valley is graced with a mild climate and mineral-rich soil that for centuries has produced what the Incas called sara-corn.

The farmers of Compone feed corn to their livestock, grind it into meal, boil it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and stockpile it as insurance against future unknowns. They burn the corncobs, stripped of kernels, in the earthen stoves they use for cooking and to heat their homes.

It’s the stoves that worry Amy Smith. One morning, the 45-year-old inventor stands on the front lawn of the town’s community center, beside a 55-gal. drum packed with corncobs that is billowing smoke, a box of matches in her hand and dressed for comfort in faded jeans, avocado T-shirt and a baseball cap pulled over a thick curtain of dirty-blond hair. Smith is ringed by three dozen campesinos who make no move to dodge the lung-burning, eye-stinging cloud. If she just waited a few minutes, the embers would burst into flame on their own and the smoke would dissipate in the intense heat. Instead, she drops a match into the barrel, then jerks her hand back. Nothing happens.

Smith is trying to turn the cobs into charcoal. For an award-winning engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this would seem to be a humble goal. Wood charcoal has been in use for thousands of years. However, for many of the world’s poor, it can be a life-saving technology. Compone’s farmers are among the 800 million people worldwide who use raw biomass-agricultural waste, dung, straw-for fuel. Globally, smoke from indoor fires makes respiratory infections the leading cause of death for children under the age of 5, claiming more than a million young lives a year. Charcoal burns much more cleanly. “I don’t know how quickly we can change cooking habits here,” Smith says, “but I’d like to see people breathing less smoke inside their homes.”

A well-liked instructor at MIT and member of the Popular Mechanics editorial advisory board, Smith is a rising star in a field known as appropriate technology, which focuses on practical, usually small-scale designs to solve problems in the developing world. She has brought four undergrads to Compone, along with Jesse Austin-Breneman, an MIT graduate who works for a community organization in Peru, and one of her engineering collaborators, 53-year-old Gwyndaf Jones. To get here, the team has lugged bags of tools and low-tech gadgets, water-testing equipment and a heavy wooden crate bearing a pedal-powered grain mill more than 3500 miles in taxis, airplanes and buses.

The charcoal project is the responsibility of Mary Hong, a 19-year-old branching out beyond her aerospace major this semester. She and the other students, coincidentally all women, are enrolled in Smith’s D-Lab, a course that is becoming quietly famous beyond the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass. The D is for development, design and dissemination; last fall, more than 100 students applied for about 30 slots. To prepare for their field work, D-Lab students live for a week in Cambridge on $2 per day. (Smith joins in.) Right now, eight more D-Lab teams are plying jungle rivers, hiking goat trails and hailing chicken buses in seven additional countries-Brazil, Honduras, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, India and China. In Smith’s view, even harsh aspects of Third World travel have their benefits. “If you get a good bout of diarrhea from a waterborne disease,” she says, “you really understand what it means to have access to clean drinking water.”

Smoke continues to envelop the ruddy-cheeked spectators in Compone. Children dart in and out of the circle as if playing in a sprinkler. When the smoke starts to dissipate after another try, her students, who have been watching nervously, let out a hopeful gasp. But just as quickly the white cloud is back, lazily boiling out of the drum.

Fortunately, Smith seems impervious to embarrassment, like the ringmaster of some traveling circus to whom an endless progression of dusty venues has taught one lesson: Never stop the show. Her toothy smile stretches wider as she strikes another match (“I’m really a pyromaniac”) and another (“that’s why I have so few hairs left on my hand”) and one more (“it’s a personality disorder”) until-ta-da! Flames jet out and she jumps back ahead of a whoosh that feels like a punch in the chest. The smoke vanishes.

After 10 minutes, Smith touches her new boot to the side of the barrel-sure enough, the rubber sole starts to melt. That’s a sign for Hong to make the drum airtight. The student gets help to lower it to the ground, blocking holes drilled into the bottom, and then seals the top with a steel lid and dirt. Inside, the corncobs will slowly carbonize, impurities baking off over the course of several hours. The result will be black, corncob-shaped charcoal briquettes.

MIT team leader Amy Smith.

Amy B. Smith grew up in the Boston suburb of Lexington, Mass., not far from MIT, where her father taught electrical engineering; Smith’s mother taught math and Latin in a local school. A childhood year the family spent in India sparked Smith’s interest in the developing world. “Seeing that many people living in poverty must have made a lasting impression on me,” she says, “because I’ve known my whole life I’d do this work.” As a child, she set aside half her babysitting earnings for UNICEF; then, after completing her undergraduate degree at MIT, she joined the Peace Corps and spent four years working as a beekeeper and teacher in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert.

Smith returned to Cambridge to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. According to Smith, her advisor, professor Carl Peterson, was one of the few professors who didn’t make her feel foolish because of her passion for simplicity. “He has the gift of seeing the underlying physics and understanding energy flows and work flows of a system almost instantly,” Smith says. When he assigned his students the task of redesigning a hot-melt glue gun, Smith’s classmates turned in drawings showing multimember linkages and other complex proposals. Smith’s design cut out all but two parts. “I felt like such a goober,” Smith remembers, “but he said, ?No, this is much better.’”

She finished her degree in 1996, and went looking for design challenges, turning first to her contacts in Botswana. The AIDS epidemic was raging. “I met with someone from the ministry of health, who predicted that by the year 2000 a quarter of the population would be dead. These were the kids I had been teaching while in the Peace Corps,” Smith says. “That was hard to hear. But I don’t do biomedical research. I wasn’t going to find the AIDS vaccine.” The epidemic highlighted the poverty of rural medical centers, which lacked the electricity needed to do even simple, overnight lab tests. That was something Smith could tackle. She developed a “phase-change” incubator for culturing samples that relied on a simple chemical process, rather than electricity. The project won Smith the first of several engineering prizes, the $7500 B.F. Goodrich Collegiate Inventors Award.

After returning to Cambridge, Smith completed a design she’d begun during grad school for an improved electric mill to grind grain, a project with the potential to reduce drudgery for women worldwide. “People in the U.S. would be like ?that’s cool,’ but they didn’t really understand because none of them had spent hours with a mortar and pestle grinding grain by hand,” she says. “I had.” The mills already on the market broke easily and the replacement parts were expensive and hard to find; the machines tended to join the carcasses of other nice inventions shipped from labs in Europe and America and then undone by a lack of spare parts and followup.

Despite their simplicity, Smith’s creations made her a minor celebrity at MIT, and in 2000 she became the first woman to win the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. The same year, she began teaching full time at the university. It was nearly 30 years since German economist E.F. Schumacher had published Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, the book credited with launching the appropriate technology movement. Schumacher argued that many of the infrastructure projects funded by the World Bank and other organizations hadn’t improved lives on the village level. “He rightly and aptly pointed out that big solutions don’t fit for villages. You have to make it small,” says Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises (IDE), whose own low-cost pumps and irrigation technologies have helped millions of farmers. “That’s what Amy does-she understands design for people who live on a buck a day.”

Smith was ready to inspire a new generation of engineers, but she quickly saw that her students-few of whom had her Third World experience-were working in a vacuum. In 2002, she launched D-Lab, bringing students to Haiti, where they were inspired to find an alternative to burning wood charcoal, critical in a country that is 97 percent deforested. Her team developed a way to carbonize sugar-cane waste fibers, called bagasse, then combine the material with a binding agent to form charcoal briquettes. The experience cemented Smith’s belief that the next stage in appropriate technology must be to design hand-in-hand with the end user. “Designers in the developed world rely on focus groups and user input,” she says. “Why not do that in the developing world?”

The charcoal project established her as the world’s leading expert on what she jokingly calls “carbon macrotubes,” a nod to that darling of the high-tech world, carbon nanotubes. Smith rents an office for a Haitian group that has taught the technique to hundreds of their countrymen, and the process is being adopted in Rwanda and other countries. At MIT she still sends up clouds of smoke doing practice burns to experiment with various materials. “Donkey dung is really nice,” Smith says matter-of-factly, “because it’s prebriquetted.” (Her students roast tofu dogs over the barrel fires to comply with university rules that allow open fires only for barbecues.)

MIT instructor Amy Smith and students Jackie Gold and Mary Hong label samples from Compone’s municipal water supply, which they will culture for E. coli and other contaminants (far left). Corncobs can be converted to clean-burning charcoal in a 55-gal. drum (left); the process takes several hours.

Smith’s team and the residents of Compone eat lunch as the corncobs slowly carbonize in the drum. Austin-Breneman hands out slabs of cheese and bread, and points people toward a plastic crate of sodas. Men and women-some in iconic Indian fedoras, others in ball caps-lounge on the grass, while two pigs nibble leftover corncobs. “The most important thing we’re doing is bringing consciousness to our community,” says Richard Llamacponcca Ravelo, a surveyor from the nearby city of Cusco who grew up in Compone and invited Smith to visit after meeting Austin-Breneman. “We want people to realize that the custom of burning corncobs is very unhealthy-using charcoal instead would be much better.”

Several campesinos migrate to the community center’s porch, where Jessica Leon, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering major, pedals a stationary bike to power a small grain mill. She and Gwyn Jones built the bicim?quina out of angle iron and recycled bike parts back at D-Lab, borrowing the design from a nonprofit group in Guatemala called Maya Pedal. “Most of the welds are mine,” Leon says, beaming. “At MIT the focus is often on theory or cutting-edge technology, but with Amy you learn about a real problem and then actually do something about it-not just in a lab but with materials you can see and feel.” Unfortunately, the bike’s chain keeps popping off. A few men pipe up with suggestions in Spanish and Quechua, the local Indian language. Jones turns to Leon with a smile. “A town of any size has people who can work on bikes.”

Not that he really needs the help. Jones helped found Merlin Metalworks, one of the world’s premier makers of high-end bicycles, in 1986; the company produced the first high-strength titanium alloy frames and supplied equipment to Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond. He sold the company, walking away with enough of a payout to spend his time wrestling with technology for poor villages. “Amy’s not charismatic in any traditional way, but her sense of purpose and enthusiasm are infectious,” says Jones, who is just one of the talented people to be captured by Smith’s hard-to-resist gravitational pull. “She’s tough, but not macho. If she’s traveling and can’t find food or a place to sleep, it doesn’t make the slightest impression on her.”

“You can’t say no to Amy Smith,” says Kenneth Pickar, former chief technology officer for the $6 billion aerospace division of AlliedSignal and now a Caltech mechanical engineering professor. Last summer, Smith recruited Pickar to help launch the International Development Design Summit (IDDS), an event that she intends to hold annually. It was a month-long bust-your-knuckles workshop that drew problem-solvers from about 20 countries. The goal was to spur a new approach to appropriate technology-co-creation, in which engineers disseminate not just inventions, but design skills.

It’s early in her career to start talking about a legacy, but Smith’s greatest impact may come through such efforts, rather than from her own designs. Many entrepreneurs have proven the scalability of their products, Pickar says, but “Amy has demonstrated the scalability of her passion. When you look at all her acolytes continuing the march, I’m confident her approach will work.” One of those influenced by Smith is former MIT student Shawn Frayne, who has developed a valve for plastic water-disinfection bags and who won a 2007 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award for his work on a revolutionary wind-power generator for lighting homes. A former D-Labber, Jessica Vechakul, is designing bicycle ambulances for use in Zambia. And Smith is personally funding Austin-Breneman’s two-year stint in Peru, partly from a half-million-dollar MacArthur genius award she won in 2004.

In Cusco, Peru, handheld metal corn shellers based on this plastic original may soon ease an everyday chore for villagers. “Women may spend thousands of hours shelling corn each year,” Smith says.

The simplest technology on display in Compone creates the biggest stir. It’s a thick, tapered plastic ring, lined with ridges, that Smith picked up in Zambia. She gathers the villagers around a colorful wool blanket piled high with dried corn on the cob. Women here spend many hours painfully prying kernels off cobs with their fingers. Smith inserts an unshelled ear into the ring and twists. The ridges in the ring dig into the cob, popping dozens of kernels with every motion. Faces brighten, and a few women unconsciously rub the joints of their thumbs. The mayor of Compone goes first, the crowd laughing as he twists too fast and the cob breaks. But he quickly finds his rhythm, exclaiming “Interesante! Interesante!” as the kernels explode from one cob after another. Even the scrawny dogs hanging around the fringes get excited, poking their heads in to nibble scattered kernels and then darting guiltily away.

“A small improvement like that can make a huge difference in people’s lives,” Smith tells me. “It might mean they can plant three extra rows of corn because they have more time, or maybe their kids don’t work as much, and instead they go to school.”

By the end of the afternoon, Smith’s team is fried by the equatorial sun, huffing in the thin air and exhausted by the struggle to communicate in Spanish. Smith cheerily tells the wilting group that some locals have challenged the Americans to a 3-hour uphill hike to take samples from Compone’s water source, starting at dawn the next day. “They were trash-talking about us gringos not being able to hack it,” she says with a grin. “I, unfortunately, was trash-talking back.”

In the morning, the sky can’t choose between sunshine and spitting rain as we trudge behind a pair of local water overseers to a series of springs. Except for bird song and the crunch of gravel underfoot, all is quiet. Conversation ebbs and flows, ranging from how much energy we’re expending going up and down small hillocks to African beekeeping practices to favorite colors from childhood. For Smith, it was brown. “I just felt for brown,” she says, pausing to catch her breath. “Here you have a color of so many useful things and yet it’s no one’s favorite.”

Smith’s admirers like to trade stories about both her bottomless energy and her occasional fits of unselfconscious geekiness. During her Peace Corps stint in Botswana, she sang her own Setswana translation of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” at a school ceremony, only to learn later that the phrase was a euphemism for passing gas. A few years ago at MIT, she helped launch an annual design contest called Duct Tape Delusions. (“Bring your dreams. We’ll bring the tape.”) Her own duct-tape clock hangs on the wall at D-Lab near a coffee table she made from a concrete latrine slab on blocks. (“D-Lab,” Smith says, “is more like the developing world than any other place at MIT.”) Her big red Craftsman toolbox has drawers labeled: “things that write or measure,” “things that cut” and “sticky things.”

The hike to the water source is exhausting (score one for the Compone locals)-and we arrive back at the community center tired, thirsty, sunbaked and laden with samples. Two years ago, community volunteers used pickaxes and shovels to bury a 4-mile-long water pipe to supply Compone. While that made life easier for villagers, the water needed to be boiled for safety-local leaders are hoping Smith will have a solution.

As the team prepares the samples using one of Smith’s incubators, Leon discovers that parts-steel washers, rubber gaskets, wire mesh-are missing from the testing equipment. “They must have fallen out of a bag,” she says, sighing. The team improvises. Jones files off the edge of a tin petri dish and chisels out the center to create a washer. Leon and neuroscience major Jackie Gold hop a colectivo, one of Peru’s crowded stop-and-start minivans, for Izcuchaca, where they buy a pair of children’s rain boots to cut into gaskets and hardware cloth to stand in for the mesh. Later, working cross-legged on the floor of the municipal building, the students are upbeat. “I like that we’re using a shoe,” Leon says, holding up a bright-blue rubber ring scissored from the boot. “That’s the whole point of this trip-innovation.”

Last fall, Smith and “a bunch of real professors” (she is officially a senior lecturer) traveled to Saudi Arabia to present their research. “Everyone else had all these equations and graphs and differential this and that,” she says. “And I’ve got a picture of a kid with a bucket of water on his head and a corncob turned to charcoal.” The audience bombarded Smith with questions and ideas. “Sometimes people don’t refer to what I do as real engineering,” Smith says. “It’s so simple. But sometimes simplicity is harder than complexity.”

In recent years, design for the developing world has received increased attention, thanks partly to a well-publicized effort to build laptops cheap enough to supply school children in the poorest countries. Perhaps, given time, such a technology will be transformative. But most of Smith’s work is based on the notion that hacksaws, wrenches and welding skills can still make a difference.

Before we leave Peru, Smith visits a dirt-floored metal fabrication shop in Cusco. There, she convinces a tradesman to machine a stainless-steel corncob sheller to match the plastic one she had shown off in Compone. The sheller quickly takes shape amid a shower of sparks and the strobe pops of a welder’s torch. It occurs to me that I may be observing the birth of a local industry. Out in the diesel-choked street, Smith pauses for a moment. “There’s this belief that in order to stop poverty, we have to find ways to get people to stop being farmers,” she says. “What we need to do is find ways to stop them from being poor farmers.”

Source: Popular Mechanics (link opens in a new window)