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Humanitarian of the Year: Christina Galitsky, 33

Simple technologies save energy and lives

Back in graduate school, Christina Galitsky could boil her life’s work down into something like the title of a journal article: “The reversibility of proteins absorbing onto a surface,” she says. But since she dropped off the PhD track and, later, took a job up the hill at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the question “What do you do?” has turned into a stumper. “I guess now I say, I try and work on … sort of innovative solutions to … wait, what do I say?” she says with a laugh.

Christina Galitsky (Credit: Nathan Perkel)

Officially, Galitsky spends about two-thirds of her time developing tools to help companies diagnose energy inefficiencies and find new technologies that conserve power without sabotaging profits. But a glance around her office suggests that a host of other problems occupy her mind. On the floor lies an aluminum contraption, an efficient cookstove designed to fight deforestation in the poor world; she and her colleagues believe it might also keep refugee women in Darfur, Sudan, closer to their camps and out of the path of sexual assault (see “Christina Galitsky on her work with refugees). Later, she’ll don a rust-stained lab coat and check on her students, who are testing a low-cost scheme to filter arsenic from the drinking water in Bangladesh.

“I’m involved in a crazy range of things,” she admits. “But it would be hard to work on one thing all day long, five days a week.”

When Galitsky left the chemical-engineering program at the University of California, Berkeley, with a master’s in 1999, she found work testing the quality of California’s surface waters. Quickly, she recognized that much of the contamination she encountered came from energy-related sources, such as the power industry. Eager to fight pollution rather than just measure it, she joined Berkeley Lab in 2001. There, she began diagnosing energy waste in nearly a dozen industries, from concrete to beer.

A couple of years later, when the California Energy Commission put up seed money for research into energy efficiency, she got more ambitious. Technologies such as occupant-sensing ventilation systems can help businesses conserve energy, and they often pay for themselves in just two or three years. But traditionally, business owners have had to discover those technologies and determine the costs and benefits by themselves–a huge barrier to adoption. Galitsky and her colleagues decided to test a new approach with California’s wineries, offering them a system that would make it painless to spot their energy waste and find cost-effective ways to do better. (The wine industry requires huge amounts of power: 400 gigawatt-hours–enough to power nearly 60,000 homes each year in California alone, and most of that during the summer and fall, when conservation matters most.)

Galitsky and her colleagues partnered with Fetzer, a large California winery, and started collecting data. It was tricky. In some industries, managers put power meters all over their plants, so they know how much energy each step of the manufacturing process demands. Wineries, however, tend to install just one meter for the whole operation. So Galitsky tallied everything from the number of grapes crushed to the sizes of Fetzer’s refrigeration tanks and pieced the data into rough estimates of the power used at each stage of the winemaking process. Then she and her team surveyed wineries around the globe to identify the most energy-efficient technologies employed at each stage. The result is a tool called BEST-Winery, based on Microsoft Excel. It poses a series of questions, then spits out a score that compares the winery under review with a hypothetical winery of the same size and scale that uses the industry’s best conservation technologies.

Other systems for measuring energy efficiency stop there. But BEST-Winery suggests more than 100 conservation technologies and runs a cost-benefit analysis for each one–a significant innovation for this kind of tool. Winery owners can mix and match different technologies and find comprehensive approaches that fit their budgets.

The state of California presented an award for energy innovation to Fetzer and to Galitsky’s team, which is readying a European version of the software. But wineries are only the beginning. Galitsky thinks a similar tool could work for a wide range of businesses. Soon the Berkeley team will test that theory at the national level, working with the six countries of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. These countries want to measure the environmental footprints of their cement, aluminum, iron, and steel industries; instead of evaluating a single plant, the software would grade entire countries.

All that energy research is good for the planet, but after a while Galitsky wanted to find more immediate ways to help the worlds poor. So she started hanging out with do-gooder research groups. At a Berkeley meeting of Engineers for a Sustainable World, she met Ashok Gadgil, a senior scientist at Berkeley Lab who had interests similar to hers. Together, they began to look at crises in Darfur and in Bangladesh.

The problem they identified in Darfur is simple, and gruesome. More than 1.6 million citizens of this Sudanese region have been displaced by civil war, with hundreds of thousands crammed into refugee camps. They have to eat, and to eat they have to cook, and to cook they need firewood, but they have already stripped the areas around their camps bare. Local women must wander for hours outside the relative safety of the camps to gather wood. This leaves them vulnerable, and international observers have documented an epidemic of rape by roving gangs.

Nongovernmental organizations have suggested that, along with other measures to protect women, better cooking tools could reduce the need for firewood. While there have been a ton of competing ideas–everything from clay ovens to solar cookers–and a ton of opinions about which ones work best, none of them had been tested in Darfur with any rigor. So Galitsky and Gadgil went to Darfur, partnering with aid group CHF International.

Traditionally, Sudanese women balance their cooking pots on three stones over a wood fire. But lots of heat escapes, and much of the wood simply chars and smokes. As a better option, Galitsky and Gadgil looked to a simple metal stove designed in the 1980s by the Indian nonprofit organization Development Alternatives. Galitsky held a demonstration in Darfur–kind of a cross between a lab experiment and a Ron Popeil infomercial. Before a large crowd, she set up the traditional three stones, the metal stove, and a mud stove popular with many aid groups. A handful of community leaders chopped wood and stacked it into 250-gram piles. Then Galitsky cooked three separate meals, so the women could see how much wood each stove used. “The stone fire used ten piles, the mud stove used nine, and the metal one used only four or five,” she recalls.

Despite the metal stoves performance, the researchers knew it would need modifications to fit life in Darfur. So Galitsky interviewed dozens of women about their lives and their cooking duties. She determined that the stove would need a windshield, to control the gusts that whip through the camps, and stakes for stability when the women stir their assida, a sticky dough that makes up most meals. She and Gadgil also need to make sure the stove can be manufactured quickly and cheaply. But the technology shows promise. “We are very excited,” says Maha Muna of the United Nations Population Fund in Sudan. “The U.N. and [aid groups] have funded so many projects on fuel-efficient stoves as pilots, but CHF and Berkeley Lab are actually carrying out the analysis we need to be able to determine what should be replicated.” The Berkeley researchers plan to begin delivering test stoves to refugee families this fall; they hope to produce 300,000 by next year.

In Bangladesh the problem isn’t food; its drinking water. In the 1970s, Unicef dug wells all across the country so that Bangladeshis could stop drinking contaminated surface water. The aid groups motives were pure, but the wells were not. Most were in areas with high concentrations of arsenic–in some cases, more than 100 times the level the World Health Organization has deemed safe. “It has been called potentially the largest mass poisoning in the history of the world,” Galitsky says.

Recently, the United States lowered its own limit on arsenic in drinking water by 80 percent, and states are interested in new technologies to meet the tougher standard–interested, and putting up money. Gadgil and Galitsky saw an opportunity. With a $250,000 grant from the California Energy Commission and $100,000 from the American Waterworks Association Research Foundation, they are developing a filtration system that could work both here and abroad.

Arsenic is easy to filter at a big water-treatment facility, but engineers can’t scale existing technologies down enough to serve individual families, or make them cheap enough for the poor world. Gadgil had an idea. Iron particles act like arsenic magnets, bonding tightly to the arsenic for easy disposal; but a filter made of pure iron powder would be prohibitively expensive. Layering a thin coat of iron onto waste ash from coal-fired power plants, however, would offer similar arsenic–attracting surface area at a fraction of the cost.

Getting the ash and the iron to stick together turned out to be a challenge. But after a dozen failed attempts, Galitsky and Gadgil came upon the solution: washing the iron-coated ash particles with lye and letting them get good and rusty.

The result, which looks something like dark curry powder, will capture nearly all the arsenic in a beaker of contaminated water. The researchers still need to figure out how water should pass through their hybrid ash-and-iron substrate, and what real-world conditions might interfere with its performance. But they believe filters made with their new medium could be effective enough to meet stringent safety standards yet still affordable enough to sell to Bangladeshi households.

With Galitsky and Gadgil’s method, a family could filter a years worth of water for less than about $2; it would cost at least $58 with today’s cheapest comparable technology. Galitsky talks about all her research with a real sense of urgency, and not just because people and the environment are suffering. For the problems she is addressing, big gains are tantalizingly close, and the rewards will be great–for the poor communities this kind of science can help, and for Galitsky as well.

“I felt so helpless,” she says. “And I still feel helpless. But at least now I’m doing something.”

–Douglas McGray

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