The University of Michigan’s Better Living Using Engineering Laboratory’s (BLUElab) Biogas Project focuses on the use of anaerobic biodigesters to recover energy from waste. This group is advised by Dr. Steven Skerlos and is a team of undergraduates and graduates from different disciplines that do work on the project as an extracurricular commitment. The group’s goal is to promote the implementation, acceptance, and use resource recovery systems in developing and developed nations in order to improve human and environmental health. This summer, five members of the group traveled to Nicaragua as part of a service-learning trip in order to work with local communities in collaboration with Green Empowerment (NGO in Portland, OR) and AsoFénix (NGO in Nicaragua). This entry was written by Lindsay Krall and Sherri Cook.
We traveled to Nicaragua at the end of August, 2009, to start building a relationship with the local communities, learn about current renewable energy projects, and help install two biodigesters for energy recovery from animal waste.
The trip and associated design course is supported by the Multidisciplinary Design Minor (MDM) within the College of Engineering and taught by Dr. Skerlos. This course focuses on the projects in Nicaragua with the goal of promoting sustainable energy in Latin American. As an outcome of the class, we plan to develop a general methodology for a community or a family to decide on the best biodigester system for their use; the methodology and assessment will focus on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the system’s installation and use. Also, we hope to improve the current designs by incorporating feedback about the use, our research, and updates from the field in order to promote sustainable waste management in developing nations.
Installing digesters in Nicaragua was a great experience for our team. The year before the trip, group members read literature to learn more about the systems and ways to improve current designs. During the trip, we saw several current biodigester projects as well as a micro-hydro project.
After our arrival in Nicaragua, we discussed Green Empowerment’s and AsoFénix’s various projects in Bramadero and Potreritos with our trip leaders Jason, Sara, Seth, and Jaime. We drove across the rolling Nicaraguan countryside to Bramadero, where we stayed for the first four days of our trip, and met our gracious hosts. On our first day of work, we took measurements and began working on the Ferro cement style digester in Potreritos. We got down and dirty in the field breaking volcanic rocks and digging a two square meter hole, which, by the end of our trip was ready to become a working system.
The next day, we built a composting latrine in the Bramadero schoolyard. We worked with Tilo, (the head of a local community water committee) and Antonio (a trained mason) to take dimensions, mix cement, build iron support rods, lay the bricks, and develop a structure that will provide the school children a new latrine and a source of compost. The children enjoyed learning about the project and construction as we did.
Upon completing the latrine, we returned to Potreritos to complete the Ferro cement digester by laying the cement foundation and capping it with low density PVC that can be bought locally in Nicaragua in case repair is necessary. We also aligned and built the piping to collect the biogas so the family can light their stove. Our last project was to install a high density polypropylene digester. We used a machete to chop wood and build a fence that will prevent animals from puncturing it.
At the end of our trip, the team went to San Jose to see the micro-hydro project and explore the tropical forests of the country. During this part of the trip we hiked through the forest to see a micro-hydro project, swam near a waterfall, drank local coffee, and saw howler monkeys.
Our trip gave us insight to where we would like to take the project. Our multidisciplinary minor students are now designing our own digester to study, experiment with, and explore various methods by which to optimize their output.
Pictures provided by:
Heather Dorer, Zijia Li, Jason Selwitz, and Lindsay Krall