At her 8-to-5 job in Windsor, Amanda Huber helps manufacture biofuel that powers American vehicles. To the typical U.S. driver, it’s the ethanol that gets them to work and transports mass amounts of goods.
For two and half weeks in Africa, though, Huber, putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week, helped produce fuel from an unusual source by American standards — cassava roots — to be used for a simpler purpose, but one that ultimately has a bigger impact in the lives of that country’s people: fuel for cooking stoves.
The goal of the endeavor is to help replace charcoal, which is heavily used in cooking in Africa but has grave health risks.
The United Nations estimates some 80 percent of Africans still rely on solid-based fuels like wood, dung, and especially charcoal, for cooking. It’s often burned indoors, in poorly ventilated family dwellings, where the smoke has disastrous health impacts.
The U.N. estimates smoke inhaled in this way leads to 1.9 million deaths a year in the developing world.
“To say it put everything into perspective would certainly be an understatement,” said Huber, who serves as the process manager at Front Range Energy in Windsor.
Huber was the first person from the American ethanol industry to volunteer at the African plant, which is still in its start-up phase.
Between arriving in Africa on Nov. 18 and returning home on Dec. 4, Huber took part in the CleanStar Mozambique project; a corporate partnership of the American ethanol industry which has built the small ethanol plant in the African country. There they make ethanol out of roots of cassava plants — the third-largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics.
As was pointed out by Dan Sanders, vice president at Front Range Energy, the cassava used in the cooking ethanol is grown by area farmers, who supply directly to the ethanol plant.
Replacing charcoal with a locally grown crop as the primary source of cooking fuel would have benefits for the local environment.
According to U.N. reports, forests are disappearing across Africa at twice the worldwide average rate. In 2009, that rate clocked in at about 15,400 square miles of lost forest per year.
One of the major forces feeding that devastation is the demand for charcoal.
The plant only began functioning a few weeks before Huber’s arrival.
She said there are about nine to 10 workers at the facility, who are still ironing out the details of its operations.
She said operating an ethanol plant in under-developed Mozambique had its advantages; because of the lack of materials and available tools, the equipment was simple. If any equipment were to break down, she said, it would have taken about 10 days to get shipped in from another country, like South Africa.
But it also had it’s disadvantages; because the equipment was so basic, many things required extra manual labor.
There were also language barriers to overcome.
“It was hard work ... probably the hardest I’ve ever worked,” said Huber, a Fort Collins resident who celebrated her 37th birthday during the trip. “But knowing what it was benefitting, it was awfully rewarding.”