Hi I’m T.H. Culhane, a National Geographic Explorer, a Google Science Fair judge for the past 6 years and… a science teacher.
While living and working with these so called “Zabaleen” or “garbage people” in an environment that is a public health nightmare, filled with rats and flies and the stench of rotting meat and vegetables and the acrid smoke of burning plastic, my task has been to help improve conditions by working on the low-tech science of local household waste transformation using a form of livestock that everybody has: bacteria. My task has been to use simple applications of science, technology, engineering and math to design with the “other 90%” and make life better.
I would like to share with you some of the details of these experiments and show you how you can get involved in these life saving efforts, but first I want to give you a little background on my story.
Did you know that over 4 million women and children die from indoor air pollution because of dirty fuels? And that the collection of wood and charcoal for heating water to bathe and cook is one of the primary drivers of deforestation, habitat loss, biodiversity loss, flooding and consequent topsoil loss, to say nothing of risk of fire and burns caused by these unstable fuels? It is sobering to think that something we take for granted – heating water and cooking – can have such a huge impact on human health, animal welfare and the state of our environment, but this is one of those inconvenient truths. And I was determined to help solve the problem.
Now you may have heard of the “clean cookstove” initiative that Julia Roberts and Hillary Clinton and others are working on, where, by providing improved stove designs we can reduce both the firewood and charcoal consumption and the attendant smoke by about 50%. And you have probably heard about attempts to replace the charcoal and firewood with something called “biochar” made from compressed waste straws or other biomass. All of these things are good because they reduce the impact and mortality. But here’s the problem: without the clean cookstove initiative we have 4 million deaths a year; with it we reduce that rate by half, which is laudable, but we still have 2 million deaths a year, and that is unacceptable. As students and teachers of science, can we really conscience settling for these losses?
And this is to say nothing of the losses of life and the suffering produced from the outputs of the very bathrooms and kitchens where the hot water produced by unclean fuels is being used.
Let’s talk about kitchens and bathrooms for a moment – think about it:
Frustrated, the rats nibbled the child’s ears and nose and eyelids and gave her a deadly infection. This tragedy is not uncommon and I felt we had to stop it. Poisoning or trapping the rats wasn’t working.
In January of 2009 my friends from the Zabaleen school, where we were teaching kids the math and science necessary to be better trash recyclers, asked me to go to India to learn from their scientists how to better deal with urban wastes. What I found in the slums of Pune, India, two hours from Mumbai, astonished me and changed my life forever.
At Solar CITIES we put home and community scale biogas at the center of our sustainable development efforts. It is the missing piece of the sustainability puzzle. It is the solar plexus of sustainability, the literal "guts" of any system that tries to reduce, reuse, recycle and thrive. All the other forms of renewable energy struggle with intermittency problems -- the sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow, there isn't always rain or snow and the rivers don't always flow. But toilet wastes and food wastes and organic residuals, these are always with us. And they need to be dealt with, so they pay their own costs, turning from problem to solution.
Over the last 7 years, as you can see from this interactive map on our website, solarcities.eu, I have built and trained people to build systems out of every possible material… from plastic water tanks to cement monoliths to pvc bags, and in places from Alaska to Botswana, from rural villages and urban apartments to schools and colleges and hospitals.
We are part of an international movement; our facebook group, Solar CITIES Biogas Innoventors and Practioners, has over 7000 active members and we are all seeing the same results. On our community website, Biogascentral.net, people are doing citizen science and putting their projects on the map. We just need more science teachers and students and practioners doing this work, improving the systems. As we like to say, “we are science teachers and students, not waste management or energy professionals – so please DO try this at home!”
One of the major focuses of our research, that my students and I have been working on for the past two years, is the creation of literal “try this at home” “in-house” biodigesters, basement biogas systems like this one in a middle class house in New York and this one in a Menonite basement in Pennsylvania and this one in an ecolodge in the wilds of West Virginia, where all the food wastes are ground up in the insinkerator in the upstairs kitchen and then go down to the basement to be fermented so that within 24 hours of feeding the clean cooking fuel goes up to the kitchen and the rich liquid fertilizer or “compost tea” goes to the garden or to porch and rooftop soil free hydroponic and vertical aeroponic systems.
Meanwhile we have been building our simple Solar CITIES IBC tank based system in homes and schools, like this high school in Alaska and this one in inner city DC.
We will be deploying this system in refugee camps starting with Pakistan and Lebanon and Turkey this summer and fall. We are excited because this system that we’ve devised uses a self regulating heat coil that can be run on solar energy to keep it warm and productive on cold nights.
And the fertilizer that it creates is exactly what we need to close the cycle, growing rooftop and urban jungle gardens of nutritious food on a liquid fertilizer that is replaces all commercial fertilizers and is perfect for hydroponics, aquaponics and vertical aeroponics.
The basic point of all this is that these life saving interventions didn’t come out of some corporate laboratory or government think tank. These are innovations that come from citizen science, when students and teachers work together to explore the possible and refuse to let environmental degradation continue while waiting for politicians or experts do the solving for us.