27 January 2009

First Pinoy to Win Rolex Awards

Alexis Belonio
Iloilo professor Alexis Belonio is the first Filipino to win the prestigious Rolex Award for inventing a stove that converts rice husks into environmentally friendly cooking gas.

Belonio go the nod from the independent panel of scientists, educators, economists and other experts to win the 2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise by besting nearly 1,500 applicants in 127 countries. He will receive US$ 50,000 and a steel and gold Rolex chronometer at the awarding ceremony.

The 48-year-old associate professor of agricultural engineering made use of the huge piles of inedible rice husks that are often found rotting beside roads or smouldering in fields. Finding any use for these millions of tonnes of potential energy, mostly going to waste became an obsession for Belonio.

Cookers fuelled by rice husks have been used before, but they are sooty and unhealthy; nor can they generate enough heat to cook food quickly. Belonio believed that if he could convert the rice husks to gas, it would provide a much hotter, cleaner flame to cook on. Gasification has been regularly re-invented for many purposes over the past 150 years, including for several types of stoves, but few applications have promised to benefit so many people, so simply and so cheaply.

Drawing the concept from a technical workshop on wood gasification at the Asian Institute of Technology, in Thailand, then working alone and with his own resources, he designed a simple, top-lit stove with a small fan at the base supplying an updraft of air. In Belonio’s design, a stream of oxygen converts the burning rice husk fuel to a combustible blend of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and methane gases, yielding a hot, blue flame similar to that produced by burning natural gas. His invention turns agricultural waste into purified gas in a top-lit, updraft and biomass gas stove. The low-cost stove powered by rice husks–the most abundant of farm wastes–reduces fuel costs and minimizes greenhouse gas.

But there was a setback. Belonio’s early stoves, made in the Philippines, sold at US$ 100, were too expensive for a poor family to afford. However, further research and development conducted in Indonesia significantly reduced the retail price of the stove to only US$ 25. This was achieved by simplifying the design of the stove in terms of operation, materials and fabrication.

Thousands of cookers are now being manufactured by companies cooperating with Belonio in the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia. By exploiting a freely available waste product at a time of soaring energy prices, the stoves can save a family of rice farmers about US$ 150 a year in fuel bills, a huge benefit for families that live on US$ 2 or US$ 3 a day.

With his winnings, Belonio intends to use the funds to set up a demonstration center in Iloilo to disseminate free information and to provide training and technical advice about technologies he has developed. He has already published a handbook on building the rice-husk gas stove, which is available for free on the World Wide Web.

Belonio also plans to set up a demonstration center in Iloilo, in the Philippines, to disseminate free information and to provide training and technical advice. He will also research new inventions, such as a large-scale, rice-husk-fuelled gasifier and a gas-turbine power-generating plant for supplying electrical energy to rice mills and for lighting remote villages. He even envisions storing gas from rice husks to run farm machinery.

Founded in 1976, the Rolex Award is given to 'visionaries' who have undertaken groundbreaking projects.