June 27, 2010, Updated September 14, 2012

Israeli engineering students target problems with pollution and fuel in Nepal, in a project that’s creating better engineers and possibly better human beings.



Engineering students from Israel’s Technion have developed an anaerobic digester to help solve fuel and pollution problems in Nepal.

Inspired by a lecture from Bernard Amadei, a US engineer from Colombia University who founded Engineers Without Borders, a group of 30 Israeli engineering students decided to open a chapter and a goodwill project of their own last year. They are now working through Engineers Without Borders to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution in Nepal, while providing a much-needed source of energy.

After piggybacking on the efforts of an American project there, the Israeli undergraduate and graduate students found a way to make their own impact on one of the biggest local issues in Nepal: Women in their 40s suffer from severe respiratory problems caused by the local cooking fuel. The country is grappling with deforestation as wood is harvested for fuel for cooking, while animal and human waste continue to pollute Nepal’s abundant waterways.

Combining their engineering skills with their desire for social action, the Israeli students and their supervisor Prof. Mark Talesnick from the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Technion – Israel Institute of Science designed an easy-to-construct anaerobic (without air) digester. It is a composter for all kinds of waste (including human excrement) that transforms its byproducts into biofuel for cooking gas.

They developed a prototype in Israel and then carried it on their backs from the plane to the village in Nepal. Today, there are about 40 such digesters in place thanks to their help. They hope that their solution, where a reusable Styrofoam frame is used to cast dome-like digester structures in the ground, will be modeled and developed by Nepalese contractors to alleviate the pollution and fuel problems.

Tons of water, not a drop to drink

“Nepal has tons of water but you can’t drink it,” Talesnick tells ISRAEl21c. “That’s because it’s polluted from both human waste and animal waste. They have no energy, no natural sources of fuel. Stuck between the Himalayas and India, they cut down trees which results in soil erosion and deforestation.”

It’s the indoor cooking with firewood that causes respiratory diseases in Nepalese women when they are only 40 years old, he explains. “We wanted to build something to deal with this issue. While anaerobic digesters are not new to the east – there are about 200,000 in India, Nepal and China, it’s difficult for people to use them and build them,” he says.

And it’s hardly surprising that there’s initial resistance to the idea, as the system is fueled by human waste, animal waste and food compost. “It’s hard to get used to the idea that you are going to cook on shit,” the professor says bluntly.

Another challenge is teaching the locals to build the composters effectively. Normally built by children, first a four-and-a-half foot pit, spanning seven-and-a-half meters, has to be dug. Next the kids build the walls, cover the pit with soil and cast a concrete slab over the construction. When the concrete hardens, they dig out the framework for the digester, which is a time-consuming and difficult process.

Better engineers and better human beings

“It’s hard work and sometimes dangerous so we came up with a way to build a strong, light and reusable form,” Talesnick explains. The Israeli students put their heads together to engineer the reusable frame that can be used every four days – which is the length of time it takes for the concrete to harden.

According to Talesnick, the project includes all the aspects of engineering – evaluation, identification of problems, planning and implementation, and knowledge transfer. “The students taking part in this project will not only be better engineers, but also better human beings,” he says. “This is not just a challenging engineering activity, but also – and perhaps more importantly – an important educational activity.

“We started working in Israel and tied up with a group from Colorado working in Nepal on something else. We piggybacked on their project to come up with a project of our own,” continues Talesnick, originally from Kingston, Ontario, who earned his engineering degree at the University of Toronto, and his two later degrees at the Technion in Israel.

The Israeli-made solution is now working to benefit a village of up to 4,000 people in East Nepal.

“We changed the construction process to make it easier for them to build digesters,” he tells ISRAEL21c, noting that the students opt to participate as an extra-curricular activity, but a joint Colombia University-Technion summer school course will cover some of the issues involved in this special social action project.

Now looking to bamboo

The six Israeli students and their advisor were able to travel to Nepal recently to install the new composters thanks to generous funding from three Israeli bodies, including the Ted Arison Family Foundation. However, the money was all spent, and the project is currently on hold.

Still committed for the coming four years, Talesnick promises that next semester the students will engage in a new chapter of the project: A way to construct the framework for the digester from local materials, like bamboo, that can be found in the jungle.

Always learning from experience and attempting to move forward, Talesnick admits that, “The way we did it was not completely sustainable,” and stresses that he is a civil engineer who tries to incorporate sound environmental principles in every project for which he consults.

He is currently working on developing the biofuel, bioreactor idea for Israel’s Bedouin population, along with local partners including Ilana Muellem from the Arava Institute. Under his supervision, his students are building a world-class field lab to test the safety of any byproducts that will come out of the reactor, such as the compost.

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