Jewish Journal

Technion professor engineering a social conscience in developing countries

by Tom Tugend

June 14, 2011 | 6:06 pm

Mark Talesnick

Mark Talesnick

After he tired of prospecting for gold in his native Canada, Mark Talesnick moved to Israel, where he did exploratory drilling for the proposed Mediterranean-Dead Sea (Med-Dead) Canal project and founded the national ice hockey team.

Obviously, the Technion engineering professor is a man of pioneering spirit and imagination, and he is now applying his talents to provide cheap energy in remote Nepal villages, using natural raw materials that profligate Westerners tend to flush down.

At the same time, Talesnick is teaching a new generation of engineers that a social conscience, linked to innovative change, is as vital to their profession as designing the world’s tallest building or longest bridge.

Before we get to the technical stuff, back to ice hockey, as unlikely a sport in the Middle East as camel racing in North Dakota.

After Talesnick, born 51 years ago in Toronto but raised in Kingston, Ontario (which claims to be the birthplace of the game), decided to make aliyah in 1982, he started recruiting for his dream team.

A few expatriate Canadians and Americans showed up, as well as some sabras who had never been on ice, but were good on roller skates.

In its first game, Israel faced Spain and was trounced 23-4.

But in the next two games, drawing on the spirit that infused the ancient Maccabees, the Israelis beat the Turks and then the Greeks.

“After we defeated Turkey, the local band played ‘Hatikvah.’ That was an emotional high,” Talesnick recalled during a recent visit to Los Angeles.

Following this triumph, Talesnick went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees at the Technion and then joined the faculty of the civil and environmental engineering department.

In 2008, he established a chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

The organization was started in France in the 1980s, and in the United States in 2001 by professor Bernard Amadei of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Its mission is to improve the quality of life in impoverished communities and in developing countries through small-scale, low-technology projects.

EWB now has 300 chapters worldwide, including a professional chapter in Los Angeles and student chapters at UCLA, USC, Loyola Marymount and California State University, Los Angeles.

The Technion EWB team of some 25 Israeli and American students, of both genders, first looked to the Bedouin village of Kochle in the Negev, whose single generator provided a limited, erratic supply of energy.

One day, Talesnick heard from a villager whose brother was sick in a hospital and could not be released home unless his medications were refrigerated round the clock.

Talesnick passed the problem on to his students, who came up with a small cooler connected to a battery charged through solar panels.

A more complex challenge faced the team at Namsaling, a village of about 1,000 families near the border with India. Like other rural villages in land-locked Nepal, Namsaling had no gas or kerosene for cooking and heating, and so relied on wood from nearby old-growth forests.

The consequences were long-range deforestation and a high rate of respiratory diseases, especially among women, in the poorly ventilated kitchens and homes.

After considerable preparatory work in the lab and on the ground, the Technion team came up with a bio reactor, or biogas digester, constructed in an earth pit about 4.5 feet deep and 8 feet across, and topped by a concrete dome.

When a reactor is finished, animal and human waste and food compost is fed through an inlet into the digester compartment, where bacteria transform the waste into clean methane gas.

Bio reactors were already widespread in Nepal and India, but were built mostly by child labor and in a laborious and often dangerous two-month process.

The team designed an igloo-like aluminum framework, covered with 12 surfboard-shaped slices, which can be easily assembled, dismantled and reused. Initially, the slices were made of Styrofoam, which has now been replaced by locally grown bamboo, with the finished product resembling sushi mats. This method cut construction time to two weeks, while eliminating injuries.

Each reactor supplies a family with five hours of odor-free cooking gas a day; so far, 60 have been built.

Not counting travel expenses for the team members, the cost of building one reactor comes to $440. Private foundations and organizations contribute two-thirds of the amount and the villagers one-third, mainly through their labor and by housing and feeding the Technion team.

“It’s a win-win situation all around,” Talesnick said. “The villagers get gas for cooking and heating, and the residue is used as concentrated fertilizer for organic farming. Fewer trees will be cut down for fuel, and waste no longer pollutes the rivers, drastically cutting down on widespread diarrhea.”

Based on their hands-on experience, Talesnick and Amadei last summer conducted a program at the Technion on “Engineering for Developing Communities,” combining field and classroom work. A similar program is scheduled for this summer, from mid-July to mid-August.

“A major purpose of the program is to teach professional and future engineers that beyond technology they must understand the social, economic and health problems of non-Western societies,” Talesnick said.

He put special emphasis on grasping cultural differences, citing a project in the African country of Mauritania, where a well-intentioned engineering team installed pipes to carry water to individual homes.

Within a week, someone sabotaged the system by cutting the pipes. The culprits turned out to be the local women, who were used to gathering at the village’s water pump and missed their central social gathering place.

Talesnick noted that university engineering courses, even in developing countries, are designed to meet the needs of 10 percent of the world’s population living in technologically advanced countries.

“We need to turn our attention to the other 90 percent of the world,” he said. “At the Technion, I hope that in five years, 2 percent of all students, around 160, will be involved in our projects — not just engineers but educators, social scientists, health professionals and so on. That in itself would represent a paradigm shift in the education we give our students.”

For additional background information, go to www.ewbtechnion.wordpress.com. To watch a video of the reactor construction process, visit youtube.com/watch?v=FcczRnowRSc.

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