Engineering environmental solutions with low-tech designs
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Marquez’s innovative kiln design makes bricks
cheaper, faster, stronger, more easily — and reduces
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
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
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
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
of unfired clay as a filter in the kilns, he is now studying
the effect of the
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
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
greenish hue of
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,
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
You can spend millions and not change very much, but if you can change [people’s]
thinking, you can change lives,” he said.