Emily Floess is a Masters student in Environmental Engineering and a Graduate Research Assistant in Professor Tami Bond’s research group. Emily’s research directly contributes to the Stored Solar Stove Project, which seeks to find solutions for the Global Cooking Problem.
The problem is this: Nearly half the global population cooks using solid biomass fuels such as wood, charcoal, and dried animal dung. These cooking methods add to household air pollution, and it is estimated that more than 4 million people die annually as a result of the inhalation of the resulting particulate matter.
The solution, as Emily and her team see it, is to create a cooking device that doesn’t need these dirty fuels. They’ve developed a solar stove device they’ve dubbed a Sun Bucket, a silver cylinder that looks a bit like a stock pot and has a flat cooking surface on one side. When set in the focal point of a sun-reflecting dish, molten salt technology will store thermal energy inside the highly insulated, specially coated storage bucket. The prototype weighs approximately 22 lbs when in use, but the team is working a lighter model that will be available to people who have trouble lifting that much weight.
The Sun Bucket can store energy from one charging session for about a day, depending on the duration and intensity of sunlight it was exposed to and the ambient temperature the vessel is surrounded by. With no fuels burned, this form of energy collection creates no harmful particulate matter.
Emily’s primary role in Stored Solar Stove Project is to build a Solar Resource Map that will be used to determine the ideal locations for Sun Bucket use. This map will be made using energy balance calculations she developed and will account for variables such as weather data (cloud cover and ambient temperature) and the physical mechanics of the device (absorption and insulation capacity). The results from her energy balance calculations will be integrated with geographic information to create the resource map, giving researchers insight into the best places to concentrate stored solar stove deployment efforts.
“I was brought on to the project mostly because of my math skills, I think, to help come up with the energy balance calculations,” Emily said, “and I was particularly interested in this project because of its international application. I spent a few years in Liberia working for the Peace Corps, and I love international travel and work.”
Before joining the Peace Corps, Emily earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Illinois, but near the end of her degree, she sensed that her interests were headed toward the environmental realm. This interest, combined with a mathematical talent and global awareness gained through international travel makes her ideal for such an ambitious project.
“There was one child I knew through my time in the Peace Corps in Liberia who coughed a lot,” she said. “I did not realize it at the time, but I would not be surprised if it were from cooking with charcoal.”
Emily’s ability to make these sorts of thoughtful observations helps her make the connection between what goes on in the lab and apply it to the real world.
Application of the technology developed from Stored Solar Stove Project is not only useful internationally, however. Emily and her research group are working with the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, where it is estimated that half of the homes do not have access to gas or electricity for cooking purposes.
“New Mexico is a great place to study the solar stoves because the temperatures are mild and there is a lot of intense sunlight,” she says, “but it does not need to be warm to use the stove. The Sun Buckets still work when it is cold out; they just cannot store the energy for as long because of the more rapid heat loss caused by the cold air.”
One question that may come up when considering a solar cooker is this: What can these things really cook? Of course, if people are going to use them, they need to be able to cook something people want to eat, not just boil water for soup. In an August 2016 excursion to Northern Arizona, the Stored Solar Stove team was able to bake two homemade, medium-thick crust pizzas (1.3 lbs of food) in 55 minutes.
Emily is excited to have found a Masters program that combines so many of her interests, and she says her contribution to iSEE’s Stored Solar Stove project will make a difference.
“I get to apply my math skills, but I also help out in the field with measurements, so I get to see where the numbers come from,” she said. “The map I create will be the first of its kind for this project, and I look forward to getting it out.”
— Lois Yoksoulian, iSEE Graduate Student Communications Intern