Scientists in Duluth say they might have a solution for two of West Africa's most vexing problems -- an invasive cattail plant that's choking out rivers and lakes and the rapid consumption of wood that villagers cook with.
And the effort may just slow the expansion of the Sahara Desert into formerly forested land.
Researchers at the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth have worked for about two years to develop a process to turn an aquatic plant called "typha" into a charcoal-like briquette for cooking.
They've already brought 220 pounds of the plant to Duluth to test using a new hydrothermic process, and small-scale testing has been successful.
"This plant is choking out the villagers' access to their only water supplies; they can't get to the water. It's so thick the cattle can't get to water," said Matt Aro, an NRRI researcher who usually specializes in finding new products and markets for northern Minnesota wood products.
The plant-filled shallows of waterways also make perfect breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitos, including those that carry malaria.
Making a useable product out of an invasive plant might also take some pressure off the cutting of dwindling acacia trees to make into charcoal the villagers use for their cooking fires, a process that is spurring deforestation and allowing the Sahara to spread into what had been cropland and forest.
"This situation really is a catastrophe. Everywhere below the big dams across West Africa, this plant is spreading and causing havoc," said Peter Strzok, founder of the Agency to Facilitate Growth of Rural Organizations or AFGRO. "And then you have this rapidly expanding desertification. ... These people are cutting down their dwindling trees to cook the food we (the U.S.) give them."
The problem is rampant across Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria and other West African nations, Strzok said.
Strzok, a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer, has been involved in West Africa relief efforts since 1986. He said previous efforts to export Minnesota-made cooking briquettes to Africa failed for political reasons. But Strzok predicts exporting Minnesota technology that allows Africans to make their own briquettes, and solve their own problems, will work.
The concept sounded good enough for Dow Chemical Co. last week to award the NRRI's Aro a $10,000 scholarship toward his Ph.D. studies at the Twin Cities campus. The Dow contest recognizes students and universities for research that promotes sustainable solutions to the world's most pressing social, economic and environmental problems.
Aro topped five other finalists to land the scholarship but notes that he's just part of the larger NRRI project. Aro's expertise at NRRI is calculating the economics of harvesting a biomass fuel source -- in this case, the typha plant -- and making it into a useable product.
"We know we can make a good burning fuel out of this very wet plant without having to expend energy drying it first," Aro said. "Economically, we know it makes sense. ... What we don't know is what we need to do to make it socially acceptable. What does it need to look like or smell like? What shape should it be to make it something people are willing to use as their fuel?"
Don Fosnacht, director of the NRRI's Center for Applied Research and Technology Development, said he expects to hear within a few weeks whether the project will win a grant to build the pilot plant machinery in Duluth, test the equipment and then ship it all to Mauritania. The plant will be able to make about 2 tons of cooking briquettes per day, enough not just to supply a village for cooking but also for villagers to sell and expand their economy.
In the process, tons of typha will be gobbled up.
Fosnacht said he plans to travel to Mauritania in February to meet with officials of the government. But the same technology, in part developed by researcher Andriy Khotkevych at the NRRI's Coleraine lab, may someday make a low-pollution fuel out of Minnesota biomass from forests or farms, Fosnacht said.
"We're developing a technology that we can bring back to the U.S. and Minnesota and use to convert crop waste and other biomass into an alternative, domestic fuel source" with lower mercury and sulfur footprints, Fosnacht said. "But, in the short term, it makes sense to try to use this to solve what really is a humanitarian crisis."