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Low cost charcoal without wood.

ARTI of Pune wins the Ashden Prize for a system to turn sugar cane leaf trash into a resource.

The Ashden Award is the greatest prize that exists for innovative work concerning the environment in the Third World. Dr. A D Karve on behalf of ARTI, Pune walked up recently to receive the prestigious Rs.20 lakhs award at a ceremony in the UK. The judges declared themselves as 'excited' about his work - an integrated fuel-from-waste system that can create thousands of rural entrepreneurs all over the world, while saving trees and reducing petro dependance. It is a success that took six long and little sung years in rural Maharashtra.

Priya plays with cane leaves:

Actually the adventure began with Anand Karve's adoring daughter, Priyadarshini in 1996. She was looking for a subject to research for her Master's thesis and chanced upon sugar cane leaves. Is there no use for this huge waste resource of Maharashtra? It doesn't decompose easily, cattle has no esteem for it and farmers consider it a disposal problem. They simply burnt it where it lay - in their fields.

Priya tried shredding and briquetting leaves in general in order to create fuel pellets. They were intractable. The process cost more in terms of energy than could be locked in the end product. "The problem is that leaves are a springy mass and not easily compacted. Cane leaves in addition contain a high silicate fraction - which is like sand," says Priya.

Priya's academic pursuits distracted her for a while and there the matter stood until she finished her doctoral thesis in physics. She came back to the idea and decided to char the cane leaves. A proposal by her to try this out got her funding under the Young Scientist Programme of the Department of Science and technology. By now her father, Anand Dinkar Karve was beginning to be impressed by Priya's work and the potential of the idea. A scion of an illustrious family of Maharashtra given to learning and social activism, Anand Karve is a doctorate in botany from the university of Tubingen, Germany. After many positions of 'employment' he finally gravitated to his true love: making science and technology solve India's rural problems. Appropriate Rural Technology Institute [ARTI] started in 1996 by a group of scientists and workers, carries out development work on a dizzying variety of projects, funded by various agencies. Sample these: making tissue culture affordable to farmers by a post culture multiplication method, an optimising terra cotta sensor/controller for drip irrigation, a roofless 'green-house' that is right for India, a low cost method to fabricate carts using bamboo instead of steel and so on. "He's a restless 65 year old, bubbling with energy and he can attract and motivate groups of people to explore new ideas," says Priya. Even as this article is written he is in far Tripura, [-which incidentally,is noticed by main-media only when there is trouble there] working among farmers on local problems. "I haven't seen him after he got the prize. Before I could catch up with him, he was off to the North East," smiles Priya.

Char it!:

Back to our story now. The potential was like a mountain that *had* to be climbed. Maharashtra, India's largest sugar producer, generated an annual waste of five million tonnes of leaves. If only they could be made to cook meals in homes, the environment could be protected, trees and petroleum saved, employment generated and fields cleared.

But the gritty cane leaf stood defiant. Having failed to compact it mechanically, ARTI decided to char it to produce charcoal. This seemingly obvious approach had not so far been attempted anywhere. For equally obvious reasons: unlike wood the traditional candidate for charcoal, cane leaves present a large surface area per given weight. Thus the leaves 'burn' rather than 'char'. Many initial attempts by ARTI failed.

The breakthrough came when they thought of packing the leaves tightly in a retort [which is really a can with a lid]. Starved of oxygen the leaves pyrolised and crumbled, yielding charcoal powder. Karves knew now they could reform the rowdy leaf. Since then, their approach has been to develop an integrated technology that can trigger hundreds of rural businesses.

A rural business system:

The kiln itself was designed to be hand made and small enough for a farmer's backyard. It was easily top-loaded by removing the hood. The original steel cans failed frequently. Karve's replaced them with standard stainless steel lidded cans available throughout rural India. 7 of these could be snugly fitted in the kiln. The cans were densely packed with leaves to minimise space for oxygen. The fuel to fire the kiln is also cane trash, burning on a grid below the cans. The narrow air spaces between the cans force the flue gases to fully work on their task of heating the cans before escaping to the chimney. And, finally in a deliciously innovative twist, they put a tiny hole at the bottom of each can: as the process went on, gases of pyrolysis within the cans escaped from the bottom, burnt as fuel and helped increase overall yield. The ARTI kiln today delivers a whopping 27% of input as charcoal powder.

After a 45 minute firing, the stuff inside the kiln is easily pulverised with a light roller. To bind the powder, a low cost starch made from floor sweepings of flour mills is used. To turn out briquettes, the powder is mixed with starch and extruded using a manual meat grinder/extruder. Simplicity all the way!

Karves did not end there. Simultaneous, with all this work on kilns, they were working on a cooking system too: a domestic stove to burn ARTI charcoal and a double walled family cooker!

Priya says delightedly: "The business is not viable when scaled up: thus it cannot be hijacked by big business! The moment you start transporting leaf trash, the costs will get at you. But if a farmer's family sets up a backyard kiln, they are in business! In the 25-week cane harvest period, the family can make 15 tonnes of charcoal worth Rs.75000. What's more, they can also make and sell ovens and cookers." That's tempting business even by urban standards.

Reversed flow:

At the yield ARTI has achieved, the revenue works out to about Rs.1000 per tonne of leaf trash. Multiply that by 5 million tonnes for Maharashtra alone and you get the size of trash gold India is sitting on. Most of all, all that money will go from urban to rural pockets. And oops, we forgot the small,incidental matter of saved trees, petro rupees and the environment! For the ARTI stove user the economics are attractive. The charcoal is expected to be priced at Rs.7 per kG. For a typical boiled and steamed Indian meal, a family of 5 can get by using just 100 gm of ARTI pellets in an ARTI cooker. Frying and grilling could take a little more but costs still beat kerosene by a ratio of 1:6. The corner chhaat- and chai- walla may have to drop prices!

And all of ARTI's and Karves' knowledge will remain in public domain. Their prize money will be spent on fifteen demonstration centres in Maharashtra and for developing and distributing design, dies and moulds for making the cookers and stoves. They would also be spreading the idea and offering training and counseling.

Not surprising, really!:

A clue to the rare breed of Karves lies in the bearded elder in the picture alongside. He was born in a once wealthy but then impoverished family in rural Konkan in 1858. He put himself through education while working to keep his household going. Widowed early, this brahmin boy caused a social explosion by marrying a young widow, an act that was to earn him ostracisation and extreme hardship for several decades. But that only motivated him to work for the welfare of inhumanly treated widows of early last century. He founded the first university for women in India and also a progressive home for widows. He gave over all his earnings to the causes he believed in and at age 85 was still founding institutions for public welfare. A grateful India crowned him with Bharat Rathna and he died, aged 104 in 1962. He was Dhondo Keshava Karve - affectionately known as Maharshi Karve. Anand Dinkar Karve is his grandson.

Insufficiently appreciated by many, a perennial stream of Indians has reached out to fellow men with care and concern for their well being. It's on that stream's banks that India has survived these 5000 years. Maharshi Karve's offspring keep that stream in flow.

Appropriate Rural Technology Institute [ARTI]

2nd Floor, Maninee Apartments,

S.No.13, Dhayarigaon,

Pune 411 041, India.

Phone: 91 020 4390348/4392284

E-mail: adkarve@pn2.vsnl.net.in


Jun 01,2004
Dec 04,2002


A D and Priya Karve