Nicole spent IAP in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania working at a sustainable coal production plant. She tested the charcoal briquette drying system currently used and implemented improvements to make the drying take place more quickly. At the end of the month, she provided the company with important information regarding which drying method was the most efficient and which direction to move toward in for the future.
7 January 2015 – FAQs
Over winter break, I was asked a slew of questions about my project this IAP, so here I’ll clear a few things up.
1. How can charcoal be sustainable?
Good question, since it sounds like an oxymoron. Burning charcoal releases pollutants into the environment, so it definitely is not the cleanest source of energy. However, there are many ways to produce charcoal. The method that immediately comes to mind for most people is mining charcoal from the ground. Some day, this charcoal will run out, thus it is deemed unsustainable. Another unsustainable charcoal production method used frequently in Tanzania involves cutting down trees and making charcoal by carbonizing wood. This method has contributed to severe deforestation in Tanzania, leading to the need for charcoal that can be sustainably produced. The plant I’m working at produces charcoal from char made by local farmers who carbonize their agricultural waste. This could be corn or coconut husks, grass, weeds – pretty much any plant works. These farmers are given a kiln and trained on how to carbonize plants to make char, and then repay the cost of the kiln through char deliveries and even make a profit once the kiln is paid off.
2. Shouldn’t you be promoting solar power or something more environmentally friendly than charcoal?
You make a good point. Charcoal is kind of a dirty fuel, and solar cookers do exist. Unfortunately, these solar cookers take much more time to heat up than traditional coal or wood stoves, and require too much social change in terms of how people would use them, so they just haven’t caught on too well, at least not here in Dar. The good thing is, the way ARTI produces charcoal is sustainable – solar power is used where possible, especially in drying charcoal briquettes.
3. Did you get all your vaccines?
Yes. I promise you yes. You have no idea how many times I have been asked this question.
4. Wait so what exactly are you doing?
I mentioned earlier that drying is a bottleneck in the production process. So much so that in order to produce at capacity, we would need 26 more drying systems just like the ones we have, which consist of 6 large drying racks covering about 200 square feet. That much space is not available at the production plant. Another problem is that briquettes are laid outside to dry. This is great during the dry season, when the sun and the ocean breeze provide pretty good drying. However, it’s much less effective in the rainy season, when briquettes have to be covered all the time to avoid eroding away and take nearly forever to dry. My plan for the month of January is to understand the baseline temperature, humidity, and drying time of the briquettes, and then to make modifications to the drying system, which will, if all goes well, decrease drying time. I’ve also got a super cool gadget to work with (Shoutout to Richard Li, who created this awesome product), which we call the SmartDryer system. The SmartDryer controls a fan, which turns on when humidity in the dryer gets too high, and turns off if humidity inside is low enough, or when humidity outside is too high for the fan to be useful.
5. Why did you decide to do this?
Also a great question, with kind of a confusing answer so I’ll give it my best shot: Basically, this summer I was doing some soul searching and trying to figure out what to do with my life. I decided that I want my career to have something to do with social impact, and I also knew that I love traveling. The combination of these two interests led me to explore development. What I didn’t realize at the time was that there’s a lot more to development than just wanting to help others, because there are a huge range of issues and specialties that you can work in. After picking the brains of every alum I could find in DC this summer, I knew that in order to figure out whether I was truly interested in international development work was to dive in head first. Given my major (chemical engineering) and a summer’s worth of industrial manufacturing experience, I thought that energy would be a good sector to work in and that working at the ARTI plant would be a great way to combine my skills with the experience I wanted to get. To be honest, I’m still trying to get a clear definition of what exactly development work means (or rather, what it could mean for me). Maybe this is the month I’ll figure that out. Stay tuned.
10 January 2015 – First Week Complete!
I’ve been at the ARTI charcoal production factory for about a week. The beautiful weather has been great for drying the briquettes, and now that I’m running tests that only require my attention once every two hours, I’m sneaking in some work time to write my blog.
On my first day at the plant, Alan, the plant manager gave us a tour. I immediately remembered my first day of work two summers ago when I was working in an Iam’s dog food factory as an engineering intern. There, I was shown around as well. I saw offices of the plant manager, the engineers, and the technicians. I walked through large storage rooms full of dog food, and through the spacious production floors. The charcoal factory was a bit different. There is one large cement floor with roof overhead. The inventory is piled at the edges, and production equipment is placed wherever there is space. There are no offices, but there is a desk placed randomly on the floor where Alan does his calculations. I think it’s rather comfortable to make a workspace out of the bags of char that are everywhere – there’s a nice breeze, shade overhead, and I can make a convenient spot for my toolbag and notebook. It’s a great place to post up and analyze data.
Charlie and me sitting in my office, which doubles as the inventory room and the production floor
Toward the end of my first week, I began testing charcoal drying using the solar dryer that had been put together last summer. The dryer consists of a solar collector, where air is heated, and a cabinet, where charcoal is placed until the high temperature and natural convection allows the briquettes to dry. My testing involves weighing briquettes every two hours and logging the temperature and humidity over the course of three days. I wanted to take a look at the fan on the top of the dryer today, but we didn’t have a ladder. Instead, Dennis pulled his truck next to the dryer so I could see it.
Rahim and me weighing a tray of briquettes
Me checking out the fan on top of the dryer
Right now, the cabinet dryer is not performing very well, but that was expected based on previous analyses. I’m hoping to rig up the dryer with some mirrors and a fan to see if that helps improve the drying process.
My favorite part about the charcoal factory is the laid back atmosphere and the amount of autonomy that the workers have. They are free to spend time resting, cooking lunch, and chatting with each other, but they work really hard and are extremely productive throughout the day. The workers are also incredibly invested in improving their production process. Even though my testing requires changing processes and taking repeated, somewhat strenuous, measurements multiple times a day, the workers are excited to see new changes taking place and trust in the process a lot. It’s a great feeling to be so trusted, but it also puts a lot of pressure on me to get a lot of good work done this IAP.
Sharing some ugali with the women at the plant
15 January 2015 – Lesson One: Have Faith
This week we began altering the cabinet dryer, making changes that we hope will increase the cabinet’s ability to dry briquettes. The first of these changes was adding mirrors around the outside of the solar collector to concentrate sunlight on the collector. On Monday, I talked through this plan with my supervisors, Manon and Potnis. Both thought it was a good idea, so they summoned Kennedy, the technician, along with one person who worked in the company store who could translate.
I wasn’t exactly prepared for this meeting. Manon requested a list of materials, but I wasn’t even sure how big we should make the mirrors. Kennedy and I went and measured the lengths of a similar solar collector – I was hoping to use the same ratios in order to make a larger version. At some point during this process, Kennedy and the translator both disappeared. It didn’t really matter, because I still didn’t know how much plywood we would need, or what other materials would be necessary. I tried to make calculations as quickly as I could, and once I had an idea of what size to make the mirrors, I drew out a really scaled down version, ripped and folded it, forming a tiny version of the picture I had in my head. As ridiculous as this felt (and probably sounds), this piece of paper was the saving grace of the project, because it allowed everyone to see a 3-D model of what we were trying to build.
Once I tracked everyone down, Kennedy and I went to the factory to see the cabinet dryer. He took some measurements and had me write down a list of materials (thank goodness he has so much more expertise than I do in the area of building things). Within 5 minutes, he had hopped in the car to go buy materials, and about an hour later he returned with plywood, metal rods, and hinges. Turns out none of my calculations were required in order to buy these materials.
Kennedy began building. I would try to help where I could, which mostly consisted of holding wood as it was sawed or approving various angles and sizes. I was a bit worried as this process began, because I wasn’t sure whether my idea had been correctly communicated, and since I couldn’t communicate with the builders, I had a hard time understanding their construction plan. But as I watched, like magic, my small paper model became a reality.
Having faith means trusting people – knowing that Kennedy would do a good job, accepting that he has the expertise when it comes to building things, and allowing him to work his magic without freaking out that it won’t turn out right. It means learning to trust in myself – in my ability to communicate and in my design skills. It means having the ability to let go of the tiny details and hold on to what’s most important.
Kennedy, setting up a frame for the mirrors
Finished product, all mirrored up. You might notice here that we also changed the material on the sides of the drying cabinet. The hope here is that the translucent material will allow light to get in and continue heating briquettes.
21 January, 2015 – Finally, a Kink
If you’ve been following my blog, you might have noticed that everything seems hunky dory all the time. I’m ahead of schedule, I’m having so much fun, I did a bunch of shopping for materials and found everything I needed. I promise I’m not delusional or lying to you, it’s just that my first two weeks here went by with very few hiccups. Just to prove it to you (and partly as an outlet for my frustration), I’m going to document everything that has gone wrong in the past two days.
The new cabinet dryer had been performing really well for about four hours. The briquettes inside were losing about the same amount of mass as those outside, and I was so happy because the system seemed to work.
The next day, it rained.
The lack of sun meant the cabinet dryer, which had been designed to use solar heat, turned into a cold, wet, box that basically prevented any type of drying. To make matters worse, the SmartDryer system was glitching – the fan, whcih should have been running throughout the night, had stopped, and there was so much moisture that liquid had condensed on the inside walls of the dryer. Sigh.
My first course of action was to determine the problem with the SmartDryer. It seemed as though the outdoor humidity sensor had gotten wet, as it was reading a constant 99% relative humidity. I know it’s humid in Dar es Salaam, but trust me, 99% is way off the charts. In removing the sensor, I also managed to dislodge a few crucial wires, which rendered the display screen useless. Frustrated, I removed all the equipment from the cabinet system and took it to the office to repair everything. A few drops of solder later, the system was back to normal, and this morning I re-installed everything.
Now I’m sitting at the factory. The sun is shining, the fan is turning, but unfortunately the briquettes are still quite dewey. Tonight we’re going to try a few changes to the rack drying system, so I’m hoping that at least one test will produce positive results. Until tomorrow, my loving fans. Keep your fingers crossed that the glitches ease up.
23 January, 2015 – Superstar Status
Yesterday was a pretty nice day. After repairing and reinstalling the SmartDryer system, the cabinet dryer began working again. It didn’t have the great results I had hoped for, but the drying rate was much better than the previous cabinet, which means the changes we implemented actually worked, just not to the degree I had hoped. That’s fine with me – baby steps are key.
A working SmartDryer system!
We also got the chance to visit Dr. Rajabu, a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam. He showed us around the beautiful campus, and offered advice on drying techniques. He mentors a few students who have projects very similar to ours, using dryers that look almost identical. Per his suggestion, my last experiment will involve allowing briquettes to dry outside for the first few days, and then complete drying in the cabinet dryer. The idea here is that the bulk of the moisture evaporates, so the dryer doesn’t get filled with excess humidity, but its heightened temperature can speed up the tail end of drying. The other huge area Dr. Rajabu was able to help was in providing a source of Visqueen, the clear, almost wax paper like material that works really well for solar drying. Initilly I wanted to make the walls of the cabinet dryer out of Visqueen, but we couldn’t find it. One thing I’ve learned about working in a developing country is that finding materials is half the battle. There’s no Home Depot waiting around the corner to provide seven types of the one screw that you need – you’re lucky if you find one in the right size, and if you don’t, you figure out how to deal with it.
Post-meeting with Dr. Rajabu at the University of Dar es Salaam
The workers at the factory are particularly good at ‘dealing with it’. For example, yesterday I was trying yesterday to solder some wires back together after extending the length of one of the temperature sensors in the cabinet dryer. Unfortunately, the type of socket needed by the soldering iron wasn’t available at the factory. I showed one of the workers, and without a pause, he rigged up the socket, sticking the plug in as far as it would go and using a nail to ground everything. Very impressive.
James and I solder some wires
After returning to the factory, we met two investors who were visiting the factory for the day. I explained how the cabinet dryer worked to one of them, and he was really impressed. We discussed ideas for a bit, and then he took a video of me talking about the dryer and my experiments. I felt like a movie star. Or a famous scientist. I don’t know which, but it was really great to chat with him, especially because he was so optimistic and so excited about the project.
29 January 2015 – Goals Accomplished
This IAP, I set out to Tanzania with a two basic goals in mind:
1. Make the ARTI solar dryer actually dry something.
2. Figure out whether development is something I actually want to pursue.
1. This Dryer!
The information gained from this month’s research is important, even though we didn’t find the miracle dryer we wanted. We found that although the top rack briquettes dry quickly, those beneath can take an extremely long time, and it is those briquettes that benefit from being placed inside the cabinet dryer.
So did I achieve my drying goal? I certainly think so. The dryer works much better now than it did before because of the changes that I implemented, and even though it isn’t the number one solution to all of our drying problems, it sheds light on what could be. The most important takeaway, in my opinion at least, is understanding that natural drying works really well, and realizing that we really need to leverage that.
I’ve had an incredible month here in Tanzania, learning about international development. In my first post, I mentioned that I don’t really know how to define development work, that I don’t think I have a full understanding. Over the month, I think I’ve been able to start refining that definition – this is what I’m currently working with:
Development work is when you do something in a developing country that helps the people there. It’s something you do because you believe that everyone has the same basic rights, and that there are people out there who aren’t getting their fair share. The work aligns with the need, and the bumps in the road are unique. The work done by ARTI is driven by the faith that Tanzania can do better than the deforestation that wood charcoal causes. By the belief that families deserve to be healthy and have access to a high quality but low cost cook-stove that will allow for good air quality in their home. By the knowledge that when students have access to bright solar-powered light in the evenings, they’re less likely to cut their education short.
If you’re like my parents, you’re probably wondering whether I’m going to continue down this line of work in the future. Based on this experience, I’d really like to. I’d love to spend more time in Tanzania, learning the language and being able to communicate with everyone who lives here. I want to become more immersed in the culture and to see more of what goes on behind the scenes at ARTI – to really understand how a buisness is run here. However, I don’t know if energy is “the thing” for me.
You know, that “thing”. It’s what keeps you up late at night; it’s the topic you could talk about all day; it’s the one cause that you might even put your life on the line for. Well, for me, energy is not that. Don’t get me wrong, this stuff is really important, but I feel I’m missing the human piece. In order to really connect with what I’m doing, I need to see the direct impacts of my work on the people it’s impacting. It feels good to know I’m working for a company that is helping the environment and changing lives, but those lives feel so distant to me. So yeah, I’ll probably try to keep doing this type of stuff. The work is unique, the people are awesome, and let me tell you there are a plethora of problems to be solved. But in the energy sector? Not so sure about that one. But this definition I’ve got? It needs some refining, and the only way to make that happen is to keep getting more experience!