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Posted: November 02, 2009

Cote’s Colorado: CSU energy lab goes global

Nonprofit spinoff develops products for the developing world

Mike Cote

First of two parts

The Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory at Colorado State University has a sign outside that might make you think you're at CSU. But this lab is a couple of miles from the rest of campus - a fitting locale for a research center that develops real-world applications that transcend the halls of academia.

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What gets done here - from giant natural gas engines for industrial use to small cooking stoves built for the world's poorest people - spends little time on the shelf. That's what Bryan Willson envisioned when he founded the engineering lab.

"While we do a lot of publication, stopping there is not very satisfying," Willson says. "We really want to go the next step and put those discoveries into products and get those products into production. That's the point at which your work 
has impact."

When the lab opened in 1992, research on how to build engines that are more energy efficient and create less pollution or alternative fuels that reduce the dependence on fossil fuels attracted little attention.

"Oil was at $14 a barrel and dropped down to $9 a barrel. No one really cared about energy. And, in fact, energy programs across the country were shutting down," Willson says. "We were able to build this program in the face of those low oil prices because of this solutions focus."

Over the past few years, the world has caught up to what the lab has been doing, and Willson has earned a growing international audience. By the end of our one-hour interview, he was scrambling to prepare for the next one: A contingent from Mexico was about to arrive for a tour. And the following week Willson was scheduled to travel to Chile, Argentina and Columbia.

"Now that all of a sudden energy and climate change are very large issues, we have a very large dynamic and responsive organization that is able to take advantage of a lot of these new opportunities," says Willson, who at age 50 this year earned his 20-year CSU pin, got an AARP card and hit 1 million in frequent flier miles.

Fueled by conservation

It's no small irony that a building that once housed a coal-fired power plant is now home for a team of researchers who are studying alternative energy technologies. But while the solutions coming out of this lab reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the selling point for the eventual products rests largely with their ability to reduce fuel consumption.

That's the case for the two products the lab developed through its nonprofit company, Envirofit International. A taxi driver in India might not be willing to spend $300 to convert the two-stroke engine of his three-wheeler cab to reduce air pollution.

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But tell him he can cut his fuel costs by more than 35 percent and you can convince him to take out a microcredit loan that he can pay off over time from his new savings, Willson says.

Envirofit developed the retrofit kit based on technology CSU students originally conceived to cut pollution by 300 times for snowmobiles in 1999 by upgrading the carburetor with a fuel-injection system. The retrofit reduces air pollution in the cab engines 70 percent to 90 percent. Without it, each three-wheeler produces about as much pollution as 50 modern automobiles, Willson says.

"And there are 50 to 100 million two-strokes in Asia, so you're looking at over 2½ billion car equivalents of pollution," Willson says.

Since Envirofit's launch in 2003, the company has introduced the kits for sale in the Philippines, completed a demonstration program for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in India and will soon be selling them in Sri Lanka. The researchers founded the company out of necessity.

"We were not able to find a company that wanted to take on the challenges of developing and disseminating technology products at the bottom of the economic pyramid," Willson says. The goal of the company is to "develop a suite of technologies that can improve the human condition in the developing world."

The company's other flagship product is a portable clean-burning stove developed with funding from the Shell Foundation, which committed up to $25 million to design and distribute 10 million of them to India, Africa and Latin America. Nearly 3 billion people - almost half the world's population - cook their food over open fires indoors using wood or dung, wasting heat and producing toxic fumes that kill 1.6 million people every year.

And it's a problem that has escalated as fast as the world's population, despite various initiatives over the past 30 years.

"Thirty years ago, we needed 300 million stoves. Today, after hundreds of programs we need 500 million stoves," Willson says. "So we're not keeping up with the increasing need."

Envirofit's latest model, an insulated lightweight metal model about the size of a slow cooker pot, produces only a fraction of the emissions of stoves typically in use and increases efficiency by using about half as much fuel, Willson says.

Getting the stoves to the people who need them remains a challenge. At about $30 each, they represent a major household purchase, thus the emphasis on the increased fuel efficiency.

"It was really important in the two-stroke product that there was a fuel savings. That's what allowed the technology to pay for itself," Willson says. "Similarly, that's very important with the cook stoves. In many cases, the women gather the wood so they aren't paying for it directly, but there's a huge time sink in that." In places where residents buy wood, they may be spending as much as 40 percent of their income on fuel, he says.

To promote the stoves in India, Envirofit and its commercial distribution partners created a commercial to educate women about how to use the stoves - and brand the product as a must-have status symbol.

"We have a short Bollywood movie that's been made of two families," Willson says. "The family that cooks on a traditional stove: He's kind of fat, and the house is kind of dingy. But the family with the Envirofit stove: She's beautiful, and he's handsome, and the house is beautiful. It's not real subtle, but it gets the message across."

As with any new technology, encouraging people to make it a part of their everyday lives might take as much ingenuity as it did to create it.

"The things that are appealing to the women are that it uses less fuel, it cooks faster, and we've also tried to make it a thing of beauty," Willson says. "An aspirational product that people will want to own."

Next month: Biofuels and engine research at the CSU lab. 

On ColoradoBiz TV: Watch a multi-part interview with Professor Bryan Willson at cobizmag.com on the Planet-Profit Report channel.

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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