Monday, July 2, 2012

Now we're cooking: Ovens for a hot, crowded world

The recent record hot day in Atlanta, 106 degrees, inspired an Emory staffer to bake chocolate chip cookies on his dashboard. Photo by Stephen Beehler.

As a heat wave bakes the eastern United States, nearly 2.4 million people who are accustomed to pressing a button to alter the air around them have been left without power. It’s a good time to think about all the people who live their whole lives without modern-day appliances, and how the burgeoning human population, climate change and declining resources are converging into a recipe for disaster.

Every branch of science will be needed to solve this simmering stew of problems, says Emory physicist Sidney Perkowitz. For a recent issue of Physics World, he writes about the history of stoves and ovens, and how physics is tackling some of the environmental and resource usage issues associated with cooking.

“Despite the rapid development of cooking technology and its gastronomic application since 1800,” Perkowitz writes, “two to three billion people worldwide, mostly in developing countries, still eat food prepared by the ancient method of cooking over open fires or in rudimentary stoves fed by solid fuel – wood, agricultural residue, animal dung and sometimes coal.

“Cooking over open fires or on primitive stoves presents a series of costs. Most sobering is the health cost, in the form of some two million annual deaths caused by respiratory illnesses arising from indoor smoke. Our climate also suffers, with these cooking methods increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide by about 3 percent per year and producing black carbon (a main component of soot) and other emissions caused by inefficient burning. Also, the heavy consumption of biomass at up to two tons per family per year, often in a non-sustainable form, leads to deforestation.”

Perkowitz describes several stove designs aimed at helping solve the global cooking issue:

The rocket stove is a simple device based on convective flow of heated air.

The Oorja stove, developed for Indian households by First Energy and the Indian Institute of Science, uses a combustion process, powered by rechargeable batteries, to lower fuel use and emissions.

The Stove for Cooking, Refrigeration and Electricity (SCORE), developed at the University of Nottingham in the UK, actually uses sound waves to generate electricity along with heat for cooking.

It remains to be seen if these designs will prove successful in the developing world, where many people struggle to afford food, much less something to cook it on.

Meanwhile, if you're an American planning to cook out this 4th of July, you may want to consider using the dashboard of your SUV.

Crime may rise along with Earth's temperatures

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