March 12-25, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 5
Back Issues
Barcelona: A laboratory for learning
Lindners create endowment for art history program
Kaleidoscope opens with community celebration
Headlines @ U.Va.
Free clinic grows beyond founders’ vision
Simulators to replace use of dogs
Cooking up a winner
Robert Marquez: Engineering environmental solutions with low-tech designs
Engineers Without Borders — U.Va. engineering students share their expertise
U.Va. maps out
Ten-year milestone gives book festival celebratory theme
Storyteller, healer Martin Prechtel to visit U.Va.
Environmental writers Lopez, Philippon to speak
Book art meets ‘Literary Art’
A pillar of Carr’s Hill, housekeeper Barbara Jett retires
Robert Marquez
Engineering environmental solutions with low-tech designs
Robert Marquez
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Robert Marquez’s innovative kiln design makes bricks cheaper, faster, stronger, more easily — and reduces toxic emmisions.

By Elizabeth Kiem

It doesn’t take a degree in mechanical engineering to recognize deficiencies in the traditional brick-making industry of the developing world. You can see it in the clouds of toxic smoke that hover above the kilns of Cuidad Juárez, Mexico, or in the slurry that remains of a week’s work after a typical South Asian monsoon.

The challenge is finding appropriate solutions, says Robert Marquez, a former Hewlett-Packard engineer who is currently a visiting faculty member in the Engineering School’s civil engineering department, working with the Center for Global Health and the International Health Care Worker Safety Center.

“ I come from a high-tech company,” Marquez said. “I can design mechanical components, and if I need to increase the gain, I can just pull something off the shelf. That’s not hard; it’s just high-tech. It’s much more challenging when all you have is the dirt, the sun and manpower.”

Marquez first put his chemistry and engineering background to work for the environment in the mid-1990s, when he was tapped by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to work on the brick-kiln emission project. The lab had targeted Cuidad Juárez, where kiln pollutants take an estimated $100 million toll on the economy every year in the form of health problems and lost work hours. Marquez, working with traditional brick makers seeking to use natural gas and increase their yields, found them willing to try new methods, but too impoverished to make these unsustainable changes. Realizing that the local population would continue to burn what was locally available, due to economic conditions, he resolved to design a kiln that could handle it.
The result of his effort is the MK Kiln, which has several advantages over its predecessors. “Once they’re working, they save at least 50 percent of the fuel, they take less firing time and they take less labor,” Marquez said of his unique design. “So there are all these savings that help pay for it.”

In addition, the double kiln makes stronger bricks, provides much-needed storage space for fired and unfired inventory and filters the toxins from the exhaust. Most importantly, the kilns are made entirely of the same materials used for brick making, and they can more effectively burn many types of fuels.

Marquez worked with a number of Cuidad Juárez brick makers, plus various organizations and corporations that have been directly involved in the construction of about 30 MK Kilns. The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Border Technology Partnership Program took the lead role in deploying the MK Kiln design along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last summer, Marquez introduced a U.Va. fourth-year student to faculty at Universidad Autonoma de Cuidad Juárez and NBTPP, who were refining the design and running additional emissions tests. (See accompanying story).

The positive impact of just two dozen environmentally responsible kilns in Cuidad Juárez has already paid for the investment made by a major company north of the border El Paso Electric Company in Texas paid for emissions testing and is funding the construction of many of these kilns — a development that Marquez says is an excellent defense of the controversial emissions trading policy that allows U.S. companies to meet emissions quotas through efforts outside their own company. Even Exxon Mobil has shown an interest in the project, intrigued by the kiln’s potential ability to burn used motor oil as a fuel.

“ Exxon Mobil doesn’t have very good recycling programs in places like Africa, and [this lack] is giving them a bad name, because used motor oil is showing up everywhere in the environment,” Marquez said.

The MK Kiln also can provide an innovative solution to a problem that Janine Jagger of U.Va.’s International Health Care Worker Safety Center has long been working on: disposal of used syringes and other medical waste. Using simple cardboard canister or container design to encapsulate needles and other “sharps,” Marquez proposes that the MK kiln may offer a safe way for health care workers to incinerate used syringes and hypodermic needles.

Marquez is involved in formulating many other low-tech solutions to fundamental health concerns in the developing world. Inspired by the effectiveness of unfired clay as a filter in the kilns, he is now studying the effect of the use of clays as water filtration media. He is also working with U.Va. students on water-filtration devices that use cloth in novel ways, noting that Indian women who pour drinking water through fine mesh saris have reduced cholera rates by half. Using a shoebox and toilet paper rolls, he has devised a simple test for carcinogens in the water supply that can be used by anyone capable of recognizing the greenish hue of fluorescents.

“ That’s the kind of technology I’m working on. Really simple, inexpensive, that anyone in the world can do,” he said.

Dr. Richard Guerrant, director of U.Va.’s Center for Global Health, applauds Marquez as a model of the center’s emphasis on interdisciplinary research.

“ He’s a wonderful example of someone in the Engineering School but working on major medical projects,” Guerrant said, noting that the First World can learn invaluable lessons from Third World solutions. All it takes, he said, is a shift in focus and a commitment to devote research where it is most needed.

Guerrant said he expects Marquez will return to his community as both a researcher and a teacher. Marquez, a Native American who taught at Diné College (formerly Navajo Community College) in Shiprock, N.M., plans to return to teaching and agrees that education is an even stronger environmental investment than specific project grants.
“ You can spend millions and not change very much, but if you can change [people’s] thinking, you can change lives,” he said.


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