One ger at a time, BYU engineers help clear Mongolia’s toxic air (extended version)On September 7, 2019 by Raul Dinwiddie
When we began this project we didn’t expect to go see the Mongolian countryside. To be on national television. To be taking Mongolian lessons from 10- year-olds. To meet the prime minister. To be so cold. We didn’t expect that we would be making friends halfway across the world. Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital in the whole world. Temperatures can get to minus 40 degrees Celsius. One of the biggest problems in Ulaanbaatar is the air pollution. Most of the pollution in the winter comes from the ger districts. Ger is a Mongolian word for yurt, which is their traditional tent that they’ve been using for thousands of years. Coal stoves are some of the only sources of heat that these people have in the winter, which creates huge problems with pollution there. Everyone’s breathing this smoke-filled air and it causes significant health problems, particularly infant mortality. As we started to look at that problem, we thought maybe we can do something about it. So we approached BYU Capstone team and said, “Here’s the problem. Can you solve it?” There are two teams here in Capstone that were trying to solve the same problem. We worked on lots of different prototypes and different designs. Here on campus we’ve set up a Mongolian ger. We’ve been doing some testing and trying to make some improvements on the insulation. The solution that we landed on was a electric heater that would replace the coal burning stove in their home and then to improve the insulation such that that electric heater would be sufficient to to heat their homes. With the current insulation they have, the felt, it would take about six electric heaters to produce enough heat to keep that warm constantly. As we improve the insulation, they’ll be able to use electricity more for their heating, less coal and less pollution. It wasn’t until we landed in Mongolia, in Ulaanbaatar that we actually understood the scope of our project. One of the gers that we were retrofitting, they had four girls. Because the coal stove is in the center of the home, a lot of those pollutants don’t go up the chimney, they stay within the home. The World Health Organization standard for PM 2.5 or particulate matter is 25 micrograms per cubic meter. This is going to read temperature, humidity, PM 2.5. The concentration that we measured was over 400 inside the homes of these families. It’s even higher than outside during the winter nights. One team’s approach was to insulate the current ger so that we could replace the coal stove with an electric heater. The floor was insulated under the wood slats. And then we covered the outside of the ger in a radiant barrier. And what that does is it reflects back the radiative heat that would otherwise be lost. It only works if there is a gap of air in between, and so we also use this foam to put here to make that gap and that allows it to reflect back in. We are trying to get the second layer of radiant barrier on top. We heard before we traveled that this was an unseasonably warm winter. We got there and multiple days it was in the negative 30s Celsius while we were working outside. But people there kept saying, “Oh, it’s so good that you came when the weather was warm.” We just need more hands taping it and it’s too cold to have your gloves off. So we’re rotating between people. The students realize that this is real. Working with people that are going to benefit, and seeing how the design decisions you made thousands of miles away are actually being implemented in the field. That’s a fantastic experience. We traveled all the way to the other side of the world and we were hoping to find good results. One team’s approach was to replace the ger structure entirely with a more permanent structure because now they don’t really move the ger very often. We designed a nonagon structure. It’s not just a box, it has nine sides. It was based off of the original ger that would be more energy efficient and relatively affordable. We’re going to be putting in some insulation into these walls to create a structure that’s thermally efficient, but it’s still relatively cheap. I worked with a carpenter named Baatra, it means “hero.” I worked multiple days with this guy using maybe three English words and we worked seamlessly together. We finally got the roof on and now the main thing we’re working on is getting all the foam inserted into the panels. We’re planning to be done by Monday night and right now it’s Saturday afternoon, so we’ll see. One night we worked till like 1:30 in the morning in order to just meet our deadline. It was cold, it got really cold. After we finished our first retrofit, we were really anxious to see the results. We came back the next morning to test the results and he came out wearing a tee shirt. Walking in we immediately felt a wave of heat hit us. We were able to read the data and check the temperature logs throughout the night. We saw that while it dipped outside below seven degrees Fahrenheit, inside it stayed a constant 82 degrees Fahrenheit. So, you’ll save more money every year from now on. It worked! And I kind of teared up a little bit. It was really a miracle. Since they installed the heating cover and heater, we haven’t had a fire but it’s still warm. It was so warm in there that we had to teach them how to turn the thermostat down on the heater. With this thing, we can adjust the heating. We can turn it up and down whenever we want. Then everyone started cheering and they were so excited that this thing we’ve been working on so hard actually worked the way that we thought it would. We started last Wednesday with 14 people from the university, from BYU, and we finished building one structure and retrofitting three gers in about five days. We have a real solution. We’ve proven that we can modify a ger and heat it for about four hundred dollars. They gifted the projects that we had built to the families. They had this big ceremony. And we were thrilled to see the government officials pledging to collaborate with us. All of us BYU students got invited to visit the prime minister. You could sense his love for his people and his sincerity. It was so neat. We felt so welcomed and appreciated by him. We’re just really excited now because the government is involved because that means that the solution can move beyond what the students started and eventually be a solution that can be expanded to many thousands of people. So the next step now is to fully test that solution, and we’ll do that with 100, 120 modified gers this summer in preparation for winter testing. Every family we convince, we immediately impact their lives for good. We immediately influence their health and improve their quality of life. And so it’s enough if one family adopts this. To expand to tens of thousands of homes retrofitted is the dream.