Providing Clean Fuel for the Developing World (2021-2022)


Indoor air pollution from burning solid fuels causes approximately four million premature deaths annually, making it the leading cause of death after high blood pressure and smoking. Cleaner fuel sources can improve health while preserving forests, improving local air quality and mitigating impacts on climate change.

Unfortunately, the adoption of electric and natural gas stoves has proven challenging due to issues related to stove and fuel cost, the lack of a robust supply chain, existing cultural practices and barriers to developing a geographically and culturally appropriate marketing and promotion plan, as well as gaining the trust and credibility of local leaders and institutions.

The increased penetration of solar power into the developing world is providing people with carbon-free electricity to use pollution-free electric stoves, the most preferred alternative stove technology. However, without a reliable electricity source or an expensive battery to store solar power, households must still rely on traditional solid fuel stoves for cooking and heating at night. In addition, many simple solar-powered home systems do not provide enough power to run an electric stove.

Project Description

This project team will take on the challenges involved in developing, translating and promoting new technologies to address global problems. Whereas burning solid fuel results in harmful pollution, burning hydrogen produces water vapor. Replacing biomass with hydrogen will therefore eliminate the excess deaths caused by indoor air pollution. 

Team members will develop an alkaline water electrolyzer and hydrogen storage system that can provide fuel for cooking and heating at a lower cost than using electricity from an electrochemical battery (e.g., lithium ion or lead acid), eliminating the need for a supply chain. 

Because technology alone is rarely sufficient to address global problems, team members will conduct a literature review on the various studies and programs that have been undertaken to introduce new cookstove technology. 

The project will result in a system for producing, storing and burning hydrogen in a safe and economical manner.

Anticipated Outputs

Pilot system for producing, storing and burning hydrogen; publications; press release; published literature review

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will be comprised of 2 graduate students and 4 undergraduate students. Those working on the electrolyzer will likely have backgrounds in chemistry, mechanical engineering and materials science and/or electrical and computer engineering. However, background in these disciplines is not required and other disciplines are welcome. Students with a background in public policy and/or global health will be welcomed to help complete the review paper.

The most relevant skills are experience in building and testing hardware projects of any type, and a background that demonstrates a motivation to work on projects independently. This project will involve both independent literature research and iterative problem solving, so students with experience in these areas and strong writing ability would be an excellent fit. Students should also have a passion for solving problems related to clean energy, energy access and global health.

This project represents a unique opportunity for students to gain exposure to a wide range of fields with which one must grapple in trying to address any global challenge. For example, all students will be introduced to the discipline of electrochemistry, for which there is currently no course available at Duke. This project will give students the opportunity to apply and integrate skills learned from classes in fluid mechanics, mechanical design, heat transfer, thermodynamics and control systems. In addition, this project will expose STEM students to the various social, institutional, economic and institutional issues one can face when trying to encourage the adoption of a new technology. 

Undergraduate students will learn how to search, read, understand, summarize and apply knowledge from the scientific literature, an experience that will prepare them for projects in graduate school and industry. They will also get the opportunity to contribute to the scientific literature through a publication on the hydrogen production and storage system, as well as a review article. These articles will help them stand out from their peers when competing for their next career opportunity. Both undergraduates and graduate students will also gain valuable experience in working on and managing a project that involves team members from multiple disciplines and communicating the project results to the public. 

Three student team members may have the opportunity to work 40 hours per week over the summer from late May to early August 2021 – this is subject to change depending on university policies for on-campus research in Summer 2021 due to COVID-19.

A student will be selected to serve as project manager. Student travel opportunities are to be determined. 


Summer 2021 – Spring 2022

  • Summer 2021 (optional): Develop subteam project plans and individual objectives; continue work on hydrogen generation system components
  • Fall 2021: Evaluate team progress through one-on-one evaluation meetings; continue prototype development and testing
  • Spring 2022: Finish prototype and publications; complete individual evaluations


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team, Providing Clean Fuel for the Developing World (2020-2021)


Image: Interior of ultra-high pressure vessel with balloon attachment fitting, courtesy of 2019-2020 project team

Interior of ultra-high pressure vessel with balloon attachment fitting.

Team Leaders

  • Nico Hotz, Pratt School of Engineering-Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science
  • Benjamin Wiley, Arts & Sciences-Chemistry

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Jeremy Fertig, Mechanical Engineering (BSE)
  • Andrew Liu, Mechanical Engineering (BSE), Computer Science (BS2)
  • Sarah Macia, Mechanical Engineering (BSE)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Marc Jeuland, Sanford School of Public Policy