(Article originally appeared in the Waste and Recycling News)
Peanut pioneer George Washington Carver would likely be tickled to know he has a handful of disciples in New Jersey.
Near Earth Day, eco-aware engineering students at Rowan University earned a trip to the nation’s capital by adding to an already-impressive list of 300-plus uses for the fruit, shell and foliage of the venerable “goober pea” that the Tuskegee Institute inventor experimented with in his lifetime.
The team of five seniors at the Glassboro, New Jersey school has perfected a simple method for transforming crushed peanut shells into charcoal-like briquettes. Now they’re in the midst of figuring out how to transfer this low-technology solution to a tiny country in western Africa where peanuts are plentiful but trees are becoming scarce because families harvest the wood as cooking fuel.
“This has the potential to empower a lot of women in Gambia,” explains Hong Zhang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering advising the students. “Fewer trees will be cut down and families will be able to save time by not having to collect the wood.”
Peanut production is close to 7% of the gross domestic product in Gambia, a nation of 1.7 million people where agriculture accounts for almost one-fourth of the economy and employs about three-quarters of the labor force.
Rowan’s project was one of fifty-five at colleges nationwide that not only received seed money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency but was also invited to participate in the EPA’s eighth annual People, Prosperity and the Planet competition in mid-April on the National Mall.
Known by its slimmed down moniker “P3,” It’s a showcase for young visionaries with a green bent.
“They have the energy and enthusiasm,” Zhang says about the students he supervises with fellow professor and engineer Jess Everett, “We want to help them improve their skills.”
Every year, Rowan’s College of Engineering gathers ideas for dozens of potential projects from private industry, inventors and government agencies. Students then hone their team-building capabilities by participating in these hands-on endeavors that are the equivalent of a senior thesis.
Team member Jessica Tryner, who heads up Rowan’s chapter of Engineers without Borders, brainstormed the peanut shell-to-briquette undertaking. It stemmed from a conversation with a friend who had just returned from Gambia – a narrow, river-rich country half the size of Maryland – and noticed women struggling to find firewood.
“Our challenge became, how can we offer a small-scale answer, and how can we do that with available resources?” the twenty-one-year-old says about the plight she tackled with fellow seniors Nick Falvo, Dan Lavertu, Nicholas Mirto and Ed Trapper.
“These days, the trend is that engineers can’t just be in our little box. We’re not just looking at the engineering factor but also the human factor.”
After experimenting with piles of “recipes,” the team discovered that peanut shells crushed with a mortar and pestle and then mixed with the proper ratio of water – not corn starch or rise flour – created dense durable briquettes that burn most efficiently.
In tandem, the students perfected designs of two simply assembled presses – one constructed of wood, the other crafted from a steel scissor jack – that would allow Gambian women to punch out briquettes, sun-dry them, then ignite them under cooking pots supported by three large stones.
“These tools are very primitive,” Zhang points out. “But lots of times high-tech is not the way to go to improve somebody’s quality of life.”
Next year’s students will be tasked with coordinating efforts with nonprofits such as the Peace Corps, Concern Universal, and Horse and Donkey to execute on-the-ground distribution of this peanut-shell ingenuity.
Zhang clearly savors the opportunity to give book-smart engineering majors hands-on lessons for a complex, global job market. And his pupils are quick studies.
“We’re doing research not just to help our grade but for something that could help people in the not-too-far-off-future,” Mirto concludes. “It’s pretty rewarding to know that we can make a difference.”