Haiti / DR border Haiti / DR border The border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in 2011. Once nearly identical, the Haitian side has lost most of its forest, as trees were cut down to burn for fuel after the devastating 2010 earthquake. (Photo: United Nations Environment Programme / Flickr)

Saving forests by powering rural communities with biogas

Innovative units aim to reduce deforestation and indoor air pollution in off-grid areas.

Many rural societies throughout the world depend on open fires to cook, light and heat their homes. 

Depending on wood fire means depending on lots of wood, and that can quickly mean deforestation. Compared to more modern fuel sources, open wood stoves are inefficient and create indoor air pollution. The World Health Organization says 4.3 million people die each year from exposure to indoor air pollution, often caused by their traditional open stoves.

But a new initiative is providing off-grid rural communities with a safer and more sustainable method for cooking and lighting their homes, the HomeBioGas machine, the first of which are being deployed now. 

The machine, invented by Israeli biologists Yair Teller and Oshik Efrati, harnesses a simple chemical reaction from mixing water with manure and food waste to create pure methane gas for fuel that can be used in gas-powered appliances. 

The first units are going to undeveloped areas with a dispersed rural population living far outside an urban electricity grid, as the growth of those villages is forcing them to burn their neighboring forests for firewood.

In Haiti, the 2010 earthquake destroyed large swaths of urban infrastructure, leaving more than a million people homeless, and sending many looking for wood to burn. They cut down giant sections of Haiti's once dense forests, and then began doing the same across the border, in neighboring Dominican Republic.

That country's energy minister learned about HomeBioGas on an official visit to Israel; a week later, the Dominican Republic ordered 50 units for a trial run in two villages. If the machines work as hoped, the machines would be distributed widely across the island nation's interior provinces.

HomeBioGas unit photoMan adds manure to a HomeBioGas unit to be converted into usable gas and fertilizer. (Photo: HomeBioGas)

In Israel, the machines were developed to bring a new source of fuel to the Negev desert and the wild grazing land between the Israeli cities, where trees are needed desperately for shade and to prevent soil erosion.   

In the village of Umm Batin, deep in the Negev, Ecogas Israel, which manufactures HomeBioGas, set up the machines and taught the Bedouin shepherds how to use them to create fuel.

While a seemingly miraculous process, the base ingredient in the Negev is camel dung. "Unfortunately – we are dealing with manure," quipped Ami Amir, a venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur who has taken on the role of helping Ecogas Israel market the first HomeBioGas machines.

Once water and manure are combined, the mixture flows into a chamber where anaerobic digestion, the process of breaking down microorganisms in the absence of oxygen, occurs. Anaerobic digestion produces pure biogas, primarily methane, which is piped out of the chamber and burned to power gas ranges, water heaters or lighting fixtures designed specifically for the unit.

Bedouin Umm Batin schoolKids at the Bedouin Umm Batin elementary school. HomeBioGas has set up a home demo installation as part of the educational sustainability courseware at the school. (Photo: HomeBioGas)

Part of the process of spreading the word about HomeBioGas focuses on explaining how it works to the children of the community as "part of the educational sustainability courseware" at the village school, Amir told From the Grapevine.

The byproduct of the process is inert, so the machines are also solving a public health problem by turning actual waste that would need to be disposed of into both fuel and fertilizing compost for the farmer's crops.

As a solution to so many problems at once, HomeBioGas is already attracting the attention of the leaders of international organizations who could bring the machines to the farthest corners of the world.

ban ki moon photoBan Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, and Ruvi Rivlin, president of Israel, inspect a family-size biodigester unit from HomeBioGas.

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