Final Report: Design of an Engine Generator for the Rural Poor: A Sustainable Systems Approach

EPA Grant Number: SU834327
Title: Design of an Engine Generator for the Rural Poor: A Sustainable Systems Approach
Investigators: Colledge, Thomas H. , Boehmann, Andre , Chen, Lu , Dzwill, Alex , Gathenya, Mwangi , Hayek, Christopher , Hicks, Michael , Johnson, Ryan A. , Kuria, James , Lloyd, Wallis , Myers, Neil , Ndiva, Joseph , Otieno, Bernard , Pantalone, Steve
Institution: Pennsylvania State University
EPA Project Officer: Nolt-Helms, Cynthia
Phase: I
Project Period: August 15, 2009 through August 14, 2010
Project Amount: $9,990
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2009) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Challenge Area - Agriculture , P3 Challenge Area - Energy , P3 Awards , Sustainability


Numerous university initiatives focus on technology-based social ventures to address the needs of the poor and the underserved – those at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP). These endeavors are well-meaning, creatively designed, and enthusiastically deployed. However, for many of them, the sustainable impact does not match the sustainable vision set forth at the outset of the projects. Oftentimes in such projects, an inequity exists – with the balance being tipped in favor of the educational experiences for students, and technology development, rather than on the long-term, sustainable impacts on the communities. For successful BOP ventures, the development and implementation processes are as important as the technological product itself. This project is based on the premise that successful, sustainable projects are largely determined by the people of the communities themselves, and that ‘outsiders’ can only play a limited role. External actors, while well-intended, may fail to identify the most significant barriers to sustainable development. A holistic approach is warranted with intimate collaboration with host partners to achieve economic, social, environmental, and technological sustainability.

Toward that end, extensive customer surveying and interviewing of a wide cross-section of Kenyans was undertaken. The customer needs survey consisted of interviews with more than 150 farmers and others across the western, central and eastern regions of Kenya. The survey results confirmed the dire economic conditions found in many areas of Kenya and that basic living conditions need to be addressed – issues such as adequate housing, water sourcing and treatment, wastewater treatment, and energy access. Concurrent with these efforts, however, is the urgent need for enhanced productivity of the farmer, employment, and business development. The results indicated that a primary objective needed to be the design and fabrication of a low-cost, innovative, sustainable means to provide electrical power to subsistence farmers in Kenya in order to enhance their agricultural productivity, and the creation of businesses based on this technology. Integrating the design of appropriate technologies in a systems approach, incorporating an entrepreneurial and educational mindset at the outset of the program, is what is unique about this project. The model emphasizes the importance of adequate infrastructure, agricultural production, education and training, as well as entrepreneurial engagement for the rural poor – to ensure the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of the innovative technology developed. This report focuses on the design of the technology ‘product’ of this comprehensive model.

Toward that end, a system approach was warranted. Partnerships with Jomo Kenyatta University and the Children and Youth Empowerment Centre to create a demo village to house the effort was undertaken. The village effort is outside the scope of this project, but is integral to the end product. The specific goals of this project included:

  1. development of an appropriate fuel source for the unit
  2. design and fabrication of an efficient, low-cost boiler system
  3. design and fabrication of an innovative, low-cost, easily fabricated, durable engine-generator,
  4. institutionalization of an education and training program for workers to operate and maintain the systems, (next project phase)
  5. institutionalization of a program that oversees entrepreneurial business development to include: (next project phase)
    1. Sale of the biodiesel fuel
    2. Creation of a soap making business utilizing the glycerol by-product of the biodiesel system, and
    3. Sale of the engine-generators themselves to both farmers and would-be entrepreneurs.

The engine-generator ‘system’ will be a primary microenterprise in the demo village and will address research areas as follows:

  1. Agriculture production for feedstock will be explored in rural Kenya.
  2. The use of marginal land rather than land suitable for food production will be sought.
  3. Materials and Chemical research area will be addressed through the appropriate bio-based feedstock effort. Finally, Energy research area will be addressed in the production of energy by the engine-generator.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

The system consists of a fuel source (a biodiesel system), a combustion/boiler system, and a steam engine/generator. The biodiesel system proved to be simplistic in its design and low cost; it successfully made high-quality biodiesel in an efficient manner. The main issues to overcome will be safety training and proper placement of the reactor in an adequate facility. The cost was $980.

The combustion/boiler system consisted of a Kenyan Ceramic Jiko and a pressure tank. Calculations were done to determine what BTU amount was needed to heat two gallons of water to produce 40 PSI of pressure. This amount was found to be approximately 6910 BTUs. Testing was performed on the tank/Jiko system and determined that the unit produced a sufficient number of BTUs using the biodiesel fuel. After initial testing, the steam generation system produced approximately 30 PSI of pressure. Wrapping the tank with insulation the steam generation system was able to produce 60 PSI of pressure. The steam generator was able to produce the correct amount of steam but it took approximately an hour to do so. The cost was $250.

The steam engine system itself was operated at 30 psi and was operating at 126 rpm. The engine was prone to binding and had to be reset. This issue is being addressed. The cost was $550.

Finally, the generator operated successfully. The cost was $200.

The entire system was placed on a pivot to allow for removal of the water tank from the boiler to prevent firing of an empty tank.


The emphasis in this project is not placed merely on the sustainability of the equipment; but rather, a holistic approach to sustainability – incorporating environmental, social, technological, and economical aspects to ensure that sustainability. Toward that end, community assessments were undertaken early in the relationship to determine widespread community needs, goals, hopes, and resources. This assessment process was staggered over multiple semesters in eastern Kenya, central Kenya, and finally western Kenya. Commensurate with these surveys was the design and fabrication of the biodiesel system. This system was constructed and operated at the CYEC site during the summer of 2009 by the Penn State students in anticipation of the steam engine project. Fall 2009 saw the design and fabrication of the steam engine itself – with further refinement made over the spring semester 2010. The combustion system was designed and fabricated during spring 2010, along with the development of the business plan for the steam engine-generator business. The first iteration of the entire system will be fully operational at the end of spring 2010, and evaluated during the summer 2010, when the team travels to Kenya to continue collaborative design of the second iteration and evaluation of the system.

The Phase I results proved that the system consisting of fuel produced by the farmers could provide electrical power for use on the farm. The biodiesel system and the generator operated exceptionally well for their intended use and market. The combustion system required an hour to produce steam – a potential drawback in an entrepreneurial effort. The system does offer adequate performance capabilities. The engine itself is prone to bind and additional iterations are required to reduce vibrations and provide system stability. The overall goal of the effort was to provide a means for subsistence farmers in rural Kenya to obtain low-cost electricity to make themselves more productive – and to do so while creating entrepreneurial opportunities. The system designed has the potential to achieve this goal, but additional design iterations and experimentation are required. A key aspect in moving forward is the reduction in cost for the system. This currently is being addressed.

Proposed Phase II Objectives and Strategies:

Phase II of the project involves additional iterations of the design and prototyping as follows: 

  1. Biodiesel system (and other alternative fuel sources) will be optimized and reduced in cost.
  2. Combustion system for steam generation will be optimized and reduced in cost.
  3. Steam engine-generator will be enhanced through the redesign to eliminate as many moving components where wear may occur as possible.
  4. Educational and training efforts on fabrication, operation, and repair of the system will be undertaken.
  5. Education and training in entrepreneurship will be implemented.

    Phase II of this effort is to include:

    1. A second iteration of the design of this technology, but at Penn State and at JKUAT, while concurrently collaborating on a second iteration of the business plan. This will necessitate materials and supplies for fabrication of the three primary components.
    2. This model then will be field tested in Kenya, including the educational and training components consisting of technical training on the equipment, as well as entrepreneurial training for the would-be entrepreneurs. This will necessitate travel to Kenya by the team of education, business, and engineering students and faculty.
    3. Thus, as illustrated in the proposed schedule for Phase II, fall semester 2010 and spring semester 2011 will see the re-design and optimization of the three key components of the system. During spring semester 2011, the new business plan and education/training materials and pedagogy will be fully developed. Summer of 2011 will see implementation of each of these components in Kenya: a second community assessment, education/training and overall project evaluation. This second assessment will require transport funding and data gathering equipment.
    4. The final year of the project will refine the combustion and engine systems following input from the community and users as well as final system fabrication issues. Again, a re-iteration of the design effort.
    5. Final testing, implementation, and training will be undertaken spring 2012.
    6. The development of the capability to fabricate the system at CYEC is dependent upon receipt of proper equipment for the work to proceed. Equipment for fabrication at CYEC includes items such as: lathes, drill presses, power saws, tools, fasteners, welding equipment, etc.

Supplemental Keywords:

Steam engine, electrical power generation, agricultural power

Progress and Final Reports:

Original Abstract