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October 11, 2007

Purdue students build solar oven for use in Tanzania

Solar oven
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A solar oven designed by Purdue University mechanical engineering students in an effort to save valuable forests and lives was presented to officials in Tanzania recently during a workshop there.

E. Dan Hirleman, the William E. and Florence E. Perry head of the School of Mechanical Engineering, along with students Matt Carroll and Jeff Velker, both of St. Louis, displayed the solar oven technology in September at the Solar Cooking Technology Workshop in Morogoro, Tanzania. Purdue's oven was one of seven demonstrated.

Hirleman said Purdue started working on the project this spring with a seed grant from the Shell Oil Co. The design requirements restricted participants to using only materials that could be manufactured and processed in Tanzania. The ovens had to be light enough to be carried on a bicycle, last 10 years or more, reach temperatures of at least 270 degrees, be large enough to hold two 2.5-quart pots and cost $30 or less.

Since $30 is equal to the average monthly wage in Tanzania, the Purdue team looked at ways to make the oven as inexpensive and lightweight as possible while using a design that reflected local cultural practices.

"I supervised a senior design team this summer whose prototype was quite successful," Hirleman said. "A generous donation from alumnus Ken Decker allowed two of our students to travel with me to Tanzania, make the presentation and meet with potential users, manufacturers and suppliers for the Purdue oven."

Decker, of Lafayette, Ind., is a 1964 mechanical engineering graduate. He is a patent attorney who does consulting work and, with his wife, Kitty, have established scholarships for Purdue students in many areas.

"Exploiting solar energy is critical for Tanzania," said Finias B. Magessa, executive secretary of the Tanzanian Solar Energy Association, who attended the workshop. "The Purdue team constructively contributed towards helping solar cooking to penetrate the poorest regions of our country."

The Purdue design team focused its model on heat transfer, computational fluids, sensors, materials and manufacturing processes. Purdue's design used recycled lithographic newspaper printing plates for the solar reflectors. The team also developed a polishing method for those plates, designed hinges from recycled nails and metals that could be routinely manufactured in Tanzania, and fabricated seals from recycled tennis shoes.

"Entrepreneurship will be critical to infusion of this clean technology into Tanzania," said Linus C. Gedi, an agrifood specialist of the Small Industries Development Organization of Tanzania. "I was pleased to see the Purdue students include economic and cultural factors in their design to the extent that their concepts will be quite helpful in building a set new micro-enterprises."

Tanzania officials have said the need for firewood, charcoal and other biomass for cooking has not only decimated the country's forest cover, but also led to a large number of related deaths.

"I knew the health implications of cooking indoors with charcoal were dire," Hirleman said. "But I didn't realize until the workshop that, according to the World Health Organization, deaths attributable to smoke inhalation from biomass fires for cooking are greater than malaria, roughly equal to tuberculosis and about half that of HIV/AIDS. So if solar ovens like the one our seniors designed can become routinely used, it will save lives in Tanzania and neighboring countries."

The School of Mechanical Engineering serves more than 1,250 undergraduate and graduate students and has extensive facilities that include two major satellite research laboratories, the Ray W. Herrick Laboratories and the Zucrow Laboratories (formerly the Thermal Sciences and Propulsion Center), and more than 30 additional instructional and research laboratories. In addition, a comprehensive computing system environment, libraries and technical services support the school.

Writer: Clyde Hughes, (765) 494-2073,

Source: E. Dan Hirleman, (765) 494-0539,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Purdue mechanical engineering students Jeff Velker and Matt Carroll, from right, explain the solar oven design to participants at the Solar Cooking Technology Workshop in Morogoro, Tanzania. (Purdue University photo)

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