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New Study Reveals Higher Environmental Impact from Cookstove Emissions

Cookstoves are a main part of numerous homes across Asia: families frequently use readily available and inexpensive biofuels — such as dung or crop chaff — to cook the food needed to live.

Researchers from Washington University spent time on the ground in India, conducting live tests and measurements to determine the true scope of cookstove emissions in India. (Photo: Rajan Chakrabarty)

Many research groups from around the world have previously revealed, smoke emitted from stoves used for both cooking and heating have a definite, harmful environmental impact. Most studies were based on laboratory experiments carried out in India. Despite this and progresses in technology, many people are hesitant or unable to adopt the newer, cleaner cookstoves. For a number of years, a collaborative team from Washington University in St. Louis has explored the issue and probable solutions. Their research offers them a better picture of the topic’s real scope.

The research was recently published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and was the conclusion of field studies undertaken by faculty members at Washington University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science and the Brown School. In December 2015, the researchers spent 20 days conducting a series of tests in Raipur, India where over three-quarters of families use cookstoves to make their meals.

Working along with researchers from Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University in Raipur and the Indian Institute of Tropical Metrology, as well as partners from the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, researchers burned a wide range of biofuels obtained from different parts of India, cooked a variety of meals in many varying ventilation situations, then recorded the resulting emission levels using high-tech particle measurement devices. The data was collated in St. Louis and the results were astonishing: in certain cases, more than twice the emission levels were detected than in the earlier lab findings.

Rajan Chakrabarty, assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering at the School of Engineering & Applied Science said;

We went out to the rural parts of India to see what was really happening. Traditional cookstove burning is one of the largest source of pollutants in India. We found it’s a really big problem; this is revising what people knew for decades.

While additional investigation is required to assess the exact effect of cookstove emissions on the health and climate, the team says their work builds the foundation for more improvement in the process by which those effects are assessed and measured.

“We went in with some real advanced instruments to map out detailed information on the emissions,” said Pratim Biswas, the Lucy and Stanley Lopata Professor and chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering. “We also used low cost sensors that we developed.  A large number of these could be simultaneously deployed to provide information on the spread of the plume. It’s not about taking a single reading.

This then allows us to eventually determine the regions of hot spots and what locations would have high concentrations,” he said. “This detailed characterization of the situation is very critical, and that can only happen in the field. We can’t be doing it here in the lab.”

Our project findings quantitatively show that particulate emissions from cookstoves in India have been underestimated.

Rajan Chakrabarty

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