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Engine Generator for the Rural Poor

Posted by ifzama 
Engine Generator for the Rural Poor
January 06, 2011 08:47AM
Hello Folks:
I am a newbie to this list, and have found it very informative. My interests are however, in electricity generation using biomass for rural folks in Africa. I am from Cameroon, where most villages lack electricity, but with lots of biomass that could be used to generate electricity. I visited the Penn State University stand at the EPA P3 competition in DC last spring, and they were displaying a system that seemed very simple. However, it appears that they are shelving the idea for lack of funding.
Does anyone know of the existence of such a system that is working that might be of help to folks in rural parts of Africa?
I have attached pictures that I took at the EPA P3 competition.
Here is a description of their project culled from the EPA P3 competition website.
Isaac Zama
Final Report: Design of an Engine Generator for the Rural Poor: A Sustainable Systems Approach
EPA Grant Number: SU834327
Title: Design of an Engine Generator for the Rural Poor: A Sustainable Systems Approach
Investigators: Colledge, Thomas H. , Boehmann, Andre , Chen, Lu , Dzwill, Alex , Gathenya, Mwangi , Hayek, Christopher , Hicks, Michael , Johnson, Ryan A. , Kuria, James , Lloyd, Wallis , Myers, Neil , Ndiva, Joseph , Otieno, Bernard , Pantalone, Steve
Institution: Pennsylvania State University
EPA Project Officer: Nolt-Helms, Cynthia
Project Period: August 15, 2009 through August 14, 2010
Project Amount: $9,990
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2009)
Research Category: Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Challenge Area - Agriculture , P3 Challenge Area - Energy


Numerous university initiatives focus on technology-based social ventures to address the needs of the poor and the underserved – those at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP). These endeavors are well-meaning, creatively designed, and enthusiastically deployed. However, for many of them, the sustainable impact does not match the sustainable vision set forth at the outset of the projects. Oftentimes in such projects, an inequity exists – with the balance being tipped in favor of the educational experiences for students, and technology development, rather than on the long-term, sustainable impacts on the communities. For successful BOP ventures, the development and implementation processes are as important as the technological product itself. This project is based on the premise that successful, sustainable projects are largely determined by the people of the communities themselves, and that ‘outsiders’ can only play a limited role. External actors, while well-intended, may fail to identify the most significant barriers to sustainable development. A holistic approach is warranted with intimate collaboration with host partners to achieve economic, social, environmental, and technological sustainability.

Toward that end, extensive customer surveying and interviewing of a wide cross-section of Kenyans was undertaken. The customer needs survey consisted of interviews with more than 150 farmers and others across the western, central and eastern regions of Kenya. The survey results confirmed the dire economic conditions found in many areas of Kenya and that basic living conditions need to be addressed – issues such as adequate housing, water sourcing and treatment, wastewater treatment, and energy access. Concurrent with these efforts, however, is the urgent need for enhanced productivity of the farmer, employment, and business development. The results indicated that a primary objective needed to be the design and fabrication of a low-cost, innovative, sustainable means to provide electrical power to subsistence farmers in Kenya in order to enhance their agricultural productivity, and the creation of businesses based on this technology. Integrating the design of appropriate technologies in a systems approach, incorporating an entrepreneurial and educational mindset at the outset of the program, is what is unique about this project. The model emphasizes the importance of adequate infrastructure, agricultural production, education and training, as well as entrepreneurial engagement for the rural poor – to ensure the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of the innovative technology developed. This report focuses on the design of the technology ‘product’ of this comprehensive model.

Toward that end, a system approach was warranted. Partnerships with Jomo Kenyatta University and the Children and Youth Empowerment Centre to create a demo village to house the effort was undertaken. The village effort is outside the scope of this project, but is integral to the end product. The specific goals of this project included:

development of an appropriate fuel source for the unit
design and fabrication of an efficient, low-cost boiler system
design and fabrication of an innovative, low-cost, easily fabricated, durable engine-generator,
institutionalization of an education and training program for workers to operate and maintain the systems, (next project phase)
institutionalization of a program that oversees entrepreneurial business development to include: (next project phase)
Sale of the biodiesel fuel
Creation of a soap making business utilizing the glycerol by-product of the biodiesel system, and
Sale of the engine-generators themselves to both farmers and would-be entrepreneurs.
The engine-generator ‘system’ will be a primary microenterprise in the demo village and will address research areas as follows:

Agriculture production for feedstock will be explored in rural Kenya.
The use of marginal land rather than land suitable for food production will be sought.
Materials and Chemical research area will be addressed through the appropriate bio-based feedstock effort. Finally, Energy research area will be addressed in the production of energy by the engine-generator.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

The system consists of a fuel source (a biodiesel system), a combustion/boiler system, and a steam engine/generator. The biodiesel system proved to be simplistic in its design and low cost; it successfully made high-quality biodiesel in an efficient manner. The main issues to overcome will be safety training and proper placement of the reactor in an adequate facility. The cost was $980.

The combustion/boiler system consisted of a Kenyan Ceramic Jiko and a pressure tank. Calculations were done to determine what BTU amount was needed to heat two gallons of water to produce 40 PSI of pressure. This amount was found to be approximately 6910 BTUs. Testing was performed on the tank/Jiko system and determined that the unit produced a sufficient number of BTUs using the biodiesel fuel. After initial testing, the steam generation system produced approximately 30 PSI of pressure. Wrapping the tank with insulation the steam generation system was able to produce 60 PSI of pressure. The steam generator was able to produce the correct amount of steam but it took approximately an hour to do so. The cost was $250.

The steam engine system itself was operated at 30 psi and was operating at 126 rpm. The engine was prone to binding and had to be reset. This issue is being addressed. The cost was $550.

Finally, the generator operated successfully. The cost was $200.

The entire system was placed on a pivot to allow for removal of the water tank from the boiler to prevent firing of an empty tank.


The emphasis in this project is not placed merely on the sustainability of the equipment; but rather, a holistic approach to sustainability – incorporating environmental, social, technological, and economical aspects to ensure that sustainability. Toward that end, community assessments were undertaken early in the relationship to determine widespread community needs, goals, hopes, and resources. This assessment process was staggered over multiple semesters in eastern Kenya, central Kenya, and finally western Kenya. Commensurate with these surveys was the design and fabrication of the biodiesel system. This system was constructed and operated at the CYEC site during the summer of 2009 by the Penn State students in anticipation of the steam engine project. Fall 2009 saw the design and fabrication of the steam engine itself – with further refinement made over the spring semester 2010. The combustion system was designed and fabricated during spring 2010, along with the development of the business plan for the steam engine-generator business. The first iteration of the entire system will be fully operational at the end of spring 2010, and evaluated during the summer 2010, when the team travels to Kenya to continue collaborative design of the second iteration and evaluation of the system.

The Phase I results proved that the system consisting of fuel produced by the farmers could provide electrical power for use on the farm. The biodiesel system and the generator operated exceptionally well for their intended use and market. The combustion system required an hour to produce steam – a potential drawback in an entrepreneurial effort. The system does offer adequate performance capabilities. The engine itself is prone to bind and additional iterations are required to reduce vibrations and provide system stability. The overall goal of the effort was to provide a means for subsistence farmers in rural Kenya to obtain low-cost electricity to make themselves more productive – and to do so while creating entrepreneurial opportunities. The system designed has the potential to achieve this goal, but additional design iterations and experimentation are required. A key aspect in moving forward is the reduction in cost for the system. This currently is being addressed.

Proposed Phase II Objectives and Strategies:

Phase II of the project involves additional iterations of the design and prototyping as follows:

Biodiesel system (and other alternative fuel sources) will be optimized and reduced in cost.
Combustion system for steam generation will be optimized and reduced in cost.
Steam engine-generator will be enhanced through the redesign to eliminate as many moving components where wear may occur as possible.
Educational and training efforts on fabrication, operation, and repair of the system will be undertaken.
Education and training in entrepreneurship will be implemented.
Phase II of this effort is to include:

A second iteration of the design of this technology, but at Penn State and at JKUAT, while concurrently collaborating on a second iteration of the business plan. This will necessitate materials and supplies for fabrication of the three primary components.
This model then will be field tested in Kenya, including the educational and training components consisting of technical training on the equipment, as well as entrepreneurial training for the would-be entrepreneurs. This will necessitate travel to Kenya by the team of education, business, and engineering students and faculty.
Thus, as illustrated in the proposed schedule for Phase II, fall semester 2010 and spring semester 2011 will see the re-design and optimization of the three key components of the system. During spring semester 2011, the new business plan and education/training materials and pedagogy will be fully developed. Summer of 2011 will see implementation of each of these components in Kenya: a second community assessment, education/training and overall project evaluation. This second assessment will require transport funding and data gathering equipment.
The final year of the project will refine the combustion and engine systems following input from the community and users as well as final system fabrication issues. Again, a re-iteration of the design effort.
Final testing, implementation, and training will be undertaken spring 2012.
The development of the capability to fabricate the system at CYEC is dependent upon receipt of proper equipment for the work to proceed. Equipment for fabrication at CYEC includes items such as: lathes, drill presses, power saws, tools, fasteners, welding equipment, etc.

Supplemental Keywords:

Steam engine, electrical power generation, agricultural power

Progress and Final Reports:
Re: Engine Generator for the Rural Poor
January 06, 2011 07:01PM

There has much more work done on this topic by others. Complete working village systems for power and micro rural industries are already sold by a company called Tinytechindia by Mr V K Desai. Some details can be seen at:


Graeme Vagg
Re: Engine Generator for the Rural Poor
January 07, 2011 12:39AM
Hello Isaac,

You mentioned getting electricity to the BOP and the dire economic conditions prevalent among the rural poor. A couple of things come to mind. The first of course is in defining people as poor. It's a hard label to escape from and separates people from any mainstream economics energy wise and psychologically. It kind of turns them into victims and mankind doesn't do well as victims.

In this survey of 150 farmers was there a general consensus as to the minimum electrical power output usable? I am thinking that smaller gen-sets can be linked together to increase output when needed. Now such gen-sets need to have some parameters set out in using a steam engine to combine the best efficiency with the best reliability. The higher the temperature-pressure combination of the steam the better efficiency will result and such low cost engines will need to be using oil as a lubricant, so the oil in the steam would place the high temperature limit.

Boiler steam at more than about 700 deg will start becoming a problem and may produce carbon deposits where not wanted. A pressure of around 400 - 600 psia would correspond to this temperature. Such an engine should give decent economy and reliability without any exotic materials. For these pressures a Lamont type of boiler would be easiest to control but for reliability and costs sake the recirculation pump of the Lamont might be much. Anyway knowing the general Horsepower output expected from a small gen-set would be a good first parameter to start with.

Also there are many more electric motors available than generators. As far as equipment costs, converting a motor might be a cheaper option than using a generator. An AC induction motor run faster than its rated line rpm will pump energy back into the grid in sync. Most people don't know that. Such a generator could aid an existing AC generator.

Best, -------- Bill G.
Re: Engine Generator for the Rural Poor
January 07, 2011 07:48AM
Take a look at the following site [openfarmtech.org] and see if anything Marcin is doing may be of use, or interest. In particular watch the videos, they do a pretty good job of explaining the purpose and results.

"Open Source Ecology is a movement dedicated to the collaborative development of tools for replicable, open source, modern off-grid "resilient communities." By using permaculture and digital fabrication together to provide for basic needs and open source methodology to allow low cost replication of the entire operation, we hope to empower anyone who desires to move beyond the struggle for survival and "evolve to freedom." "
Re: Engine Generator for the Rural Poor
November 23, 2011 09:17PM
While my first reaction is to push this sort of project, I want to add a cautionary note. Large chunks of these poorer areas are being deforested by people just looking for some cooking fuel. What effect will harvesting biomass for fuel have? Generating any meaningful amount of power takes significant fuel. Unless you have some ready source of easily obtained weeds, scrub or other useless form of cellulose, you may end up causing more harm than good. Steam locomotives went a long way to deforesting the eastern seaboard in the early 19th century before the railroads started burning coal.
Re: Engine Generator for the Rural Poor
November 24, 2011 10:53PM
Much the same deforestation took place on the islands in the St. Lawrence River to fuel the steamships during the 1800's. Once coal became available, the woods grew back. One thought for the equatorial lattitudes and mountain regions would be investigating solar heated boiler coils for daytime use, at least for temps up to around 400° F. I know that the flat solar panel made by my company has to handle temps up to 395° F. Perhaps lenses or reflectors could be used to drive the temps higher yet. This wouldn't replace other fuels, but certainly could supplement them where feasible.
Re: Engine Generator for the Rural Poor
November 27, 2011 11:53PM
Jim, in the past I have seen designs to put Fresnel lenses in front of the cells to concentrate the light, but as far as I know no one is selling them. The concept was make smaller cells with higher density input per cell. Even then, you still have the basic problem. Sun goes down at night, then what? Every solution so far is very expensive.

Heard an interesting POV on a PBS program tonight. A sane person in the Greenie group pointed out causing huge economic dislocations for questionable benefits will never work, too hard to sell to the public. He proposed putting the money for enforcing Kyoto-style enforcement into R&D. Still nonsense, but at least it might do some good.

If the Greens really want to save us, instead of erecting a new socialist utopia, why is it the one power source with the real potential to accomplish that is totally ignored in Obama's energy program? I am talking about hydrogen fusion. You get the fuel from water, and the exhaust is helium. What could be better?

Downloaded the administration's total energy program bill, and did a word search. Fusion was nowhere. This guy is a fraud.
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