Two UI professors work to create inexpensive solar cooker


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Three billion people worldwide use firewood for cooking.

The women of Karech Village in western India alone harvest 70 pounds of firewood a day to use for that reason.

This constant use of firewood leads to rapid deforestation and also puts women in grave danger — smoke inhalation is the fifth-largest killer in India.

Students and faculty gathered at the University of Iowa Obermann Center for Advanced Studies on Wednesday night to hear of two UI professors’ efforts to develop an inexpensive solar cooker that they believe will address both problems.

“I never imagined I’d be collaborating with an engineer,” said Meena Khandelwal, an associate professor of anthropology and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies.

Mechanical engineering Professor H.S. Udaykumar approached Khandelwal at an international-programs conference last year after he linked the unsuccessful integration of cook stoves in the past to issues associated with women.

“If the solar cooker doesn’t work for women, it is not going to be adopted into their way of life,” Khandelwal said. “A generation ago, women would just collect wood right outside their homes.

Because of deforestation, they are walking for hours and hours everyday to collect it.”

Udaykumar said the solution to this problem was to create a solar cooker that could be used during non-daylight hours.  He said the affordable solar cooker is planned to consist of a lens, a cube-shaped storage device made of aluminum, and an inside solar source.

“We want it to store the energy so [women] can take it inside later and cook,” he said. “No one wants to be outside during the day in 120-degree temperatures.”

Because the sun shines around 300 days a year in India, solar energy will never be in short supply.

While the two professors plan to continue their efforts to develop a successful solar cooker, they are also making an effort to reduce their own carbon footprints.

“We can give them the tools to change, but I realized that I was a part of the problem, and I need to change as well,” Udaykumar said.

They have also included students in their efforts.

“I feel and I believe my students feel that at some point you need to do something beyond critique,” Khandelwal said. “I want to get students involved and engaged in research that is oriented towards solving a problem. I’m excited that my students and I are working on something together.”

Obermann Center Assistant Director Jennifer New said that Udaykumar and Khandelwal meet at the center once a month with a group made up of diverse areas of knowledge to further discussion about the linkages between deforestation prevention and bettering the lives of women and girls in India.

“We’re really happy to support a collaboration that is coming from such separate parts of campus,” she said. “It’s really exciting to see people who wouldn’t usually be working together doing so.”

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