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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Jan. 13, 2006

To build a (safe) fire

by Mike Krapfl

The suffering is obvious: scalded skin pulling and deforming a child's hand, scars and atrophied muscles where a skirt caught on fire, black smoke from a cooking stove staining home and health.

Mark Bryden shows the pictures to make a point. There are billions of people in this world who rely on primitive wood stoves for their energy. Those stoves aren't necessarily engineered to be safe and efficient.

So, he and some of his students are doing what they can to help.

Mark Bryden

Associate professor of mechanical engineering Mark Bryden with several stove models his research team is testing for safety and efficiency. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Bryden, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, has plenty of other projects to keep him busy. He's associate chair of his department. He's working with about $1 million annually in research funding. He manages a team of about 20 graduate and undergraduate researchers. He's developing engineering decision-making tools that use virtual reality and virtual engineering technology. He's trying to figure out how harvesting equipment could not only collect grain but also the portion of the chaff that's most useful for biomass energy. He's always clipping newspapers so he can provide some context for his students. And -- no matter the time of day or night -- it's never a surprise to find him around Howe Hall and the Virtual Reality Applications Center.

But he finds time to work on simple wood stoves.


He'd like to think he's making a difference to some people who need help. And he'd like engineers to accept the idea of doing pro bono work.

Pro bono

Bryden's work with stoves has created a small lab in Black Engineering. It has taken him to villages in Nicaragua and Honduras, where he offers ideas for better and safer burning. It has led him to be founding and current president of a group called ETHOS (Engineers in Technical and Humanitarian Opportunities of Service). It has led to plans for an undergraduate course that could take students to Honduras this summer.

And it helped Nathan G. Johnson -- who's working on Iowa State doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering, economics and sociology -- find a project for his just-completed Iowa State master's degree in mechanical engineering.

With Bryden as his major professor, Johnson studied the safety of cooking stoves. He learned how they burn, scald and destroy property. He proposed safety standards that would help protect people and property. And he learned a few things about Bryden.

"Wherever Mark has been throughout his life, he's always helped other people," Johnson said. "Part of his work, no matter how busy he gets, is to find time to help other people."

Then Johnson repeated what Bryden likes to tell his students about finding time to get things done: "There are 24 hours a day and then there are evenings."

But a long day on campus isn't a burden for Bryden, Johnson said.

"Mark doesn't look at being a professor as work," Johnson said. "He looks at it like an enjoyable pastime."

After all, Johnson said, Bryden gets to work with a lot of students. He gets to design classes. And he gets to work with technology.

Practical research

A university "is an excellent place for him," said Kris Bryden, Bryden's wife and an Iowa State adjunct assistant professor of music.

She said he enjoys the freedom to direct his own work. He enjoys the teaching. And he enjoys the research.

Bryden's path to higher education started when he was in junior high in Idaho Falls, Idaho. As a teen, he talked about being a professor because professors travel and do cool stuff. His high school yearbook noted he was still thinking about a professor's job.

So it was off to Idaho State to study engineering. Kris was still in school when he graduated in 1977, so Bryden went to work as an engineer in a nuclear power plant. He was promoted to supervisory and management positions. The family grew to include sons Aaron and Ben. And so it was 14 years between his undergraduate studies and his graduate work in mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

At Wisconsin, Bryden studied the computational modeling of wood combustion. A faculty adviser happened to observe how little wood is needed to boil water and how much wood is burned in developing countries. That started Bryden thinking about using his engineering skills to help people who depend on wood stoves.

So when Bryden arrived at Iowa State in 1998, he started making contacts with groups that worked in developing countries. Those contacts turned into annual visits and those annual visits turned into ETHOS conferences to discuss research ideas and results.

Now Bryden knows whether it's better to cook over a wood stove with a lid on the pot or a lid off the pot. Conventional wisdom said cooking would be much more efficient with the lid on. But some cultures resisted efforts to put lids on their pots. Bryden's research team did the studies and came up with the numbers: In many cases in developing countries, putting a lid on a pot over a wood fire improves efficiency by less than 1 percent.

So the lids can stay off.

And Bryden and his research team can unpack another stove from Latin America and run it through their lab tests.


In his "extra" time, Mark Bryden tests wood-burning stoves to make them safer for the people in developing countries who rely on them for cooking and heating.