When a situation is messy, unclear, and seems less than promising, you have two choices: one is to work harder and hope things will improve later with time, two is to stop what you are doing and start something different. Surprisingly, in our case, it seems that the first choice worked out perfectly. I learned this from my awesome trip to Sao Paulo as part of the grease car conversion project. Also, this trip was especially important to me because it was my first time to Brazil and it occurred during the fasting month of Ramadan. That means hard work, mostly in sunny dry weather, with no water or food until sunset. This added another challenging dimension to the experience that made things more interesting and encouraging for myself.
We arrived on Monday with the plan to convert at least one of the catadores trucks to run on waste vegetable oil (WVO), and to transfer this simple technology to the catadores so they could do it on their own later. First, we were preparing for the conversion process by collecting the necessary hardware parts such as as fittings, filters, used tanks, hoses, t-sections and other such materials. Based on the parts we found, we changed the circuit design to be much simpler than before.
Next, we started the truck conversion process. However, we faced many problems. We couldn’t find cheap filters, we couldn’t find well-priced three-way solenoid valves, we couldn’t find a good place to sell used tanks, we couldn’t find the correct sizes of some of the fittings, barbs and T-sections . Nevertheless, we moved forward with the hope that all of these things would be solved in time. And, it happened; our problems did get solved!
Eventually, we were able to find a junk yard with the help of Cola, the head of the catadores. Also, we found some cheap filters and a local mechanic helped us to find the fittings, hoses and, connections. Some of the fittings did not matching the hoses and copper lines cross section, so we had to use hose-in-hose with clamps to close the connections.
Once we got the right parts, everything seemed to be fine with the arrival of the fittings, hoses, and missing parts. We began the conversion slowly to accommodate the learning curve of the catadores. The conversion of the first truck lasted until the end of the next day. We then started testing the oil system to remove any air bubbles that might be in the hoses. We kept trying to drain oil from the tank through the hoses, but nothing came out for nearly one or two hours! After a lot of investigation, we figured out that the shredded plastic parts produced during the tank cutting process to fit the heat exchanger clogged the oil tank. To fix the system we had to empty the tank, flush it again carefully, and then refill it with oil.
The next day, we started by flushing the oil tank after draining all the oil inside it. After rechecking everything, the truck was successfully running on waste vegetable oil. We all felt outstanding joy for our accomplishment and the Catadores’ success. Another truck was also converted in the same day, and this time, the catadores started the conversion process and worked alongside all of us.
This was a very successful week, but the story doesn’t end yet. Libby, our project organizer and advisor has got us all thinking about how we will start Phase II to disseminate the technology and keep it sustainable.
Photos by Hossam El-Asrag.
Hossam El-Asrag is a postdoctoral associate in the Aerospace Department at MIT. His work focuses on introducing novel approaches for modeling and simulation of energy systems.