A multi-phase capstone project from Brigham Young University’s school of engineering could be part of a solution to serious air pollution problems in Mongolia.
In Mongolia’s capitol city of Ulaanbaatar, particulate levels in the air often spike to extremely unhealthy levels. Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution has only gotten worse as the city has tripled in size since 1990 to 1.5 million people, according to the World Health Organization. The rural to urban migration of people has resulted in an increase of informal settlements in “gers,” yurt-like structures made of wood, canvas and insulated with felt.
More than 60% of Ulaanbaatar’s population lives in gers, and up to 80% of the city’s air pollution is attributed to the coal burned to heat those gers, according to WHO.
An estimated 1,800 people died from diseases attributable to household air pollution in 2016, according to WHO, and another 1,500 people died from diseases attributable to outdoor air pollution.
The Mongolian government is now focusing on solutions for the pollution issue. Elder Peter Meurs with the Asia Area Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints looked into partnering with BYU’s Engineering Capstone students to work toward possible solutions.
A capstone project is the culminating project for engineering students, and the projects are often sponsored by external organizations. Deseret Industries, a nonprofit business enterprise owned by the LDS Church, sponsored this capstone project.
Arriving in Ulaanbaatar earlier this year, one could actually taste the air, the pollution was so thick, said Brian Mazzeo, co-director of the capstone project and an electrical and computer engineering professor at BYU.
The team had spent two semesters brainstorming and building prototypes before heading to Mongolia to try out the project.
While in Ulaanbaatar, the students built three modified gers with better insulation including a radiant barrier and an air gap that more effectively trapped heat. The increased insulation allowed for an electric heater to keep the ger at a steady, comfortable temperature, even throughout the night.
The team was also testing air quality both inside and outside the modified gers, said Allyson Gibson, external relations manager for the capstone.
“The air quality improved significantly both inside and outside that ger,” Gibson said.
While there was still measurable air pollution inside the ger because the air outside was so polluted, the modified ger was not emitting pollution.
“You can imagine, and this is where the project is going, if you can take whole districts over and they are no longer emitting any, the air quality in that district is going to be much better for everyone,” Mazzeo said.
The potential solution is unique to Ulaanbaatar and couldn’t be transferred to other cities.
One thing that makes the project particularly feasible is the fact that transitioning to the modified ger is actually cheaper than buying coal.
“So they are incentivized,” Mazzeo said. “They want to do this because they’ll save money and their quality of life is better, and the secondary result is that the air quality in the surrounding area will also be better.”
The Mongolian government even organized a press conference about the work the students had done, and it appeared on national television in the country. The team also met with the Mongolian prime minister at the end of the trip.
Mazzeo described all the attention as “surreal,” and something that rarely happens with capstone projects.
“When the project started, no one was expecting that this kind of thing would be happening,” Mazzeo said.
The trip was only the beginning of the project, Mazzeo said. Kits are being formed so that the modified ger can be easily built by people in Ulaanbaatar. Over the next summer and into the winter, about 125 of those will be in place to study on a larger scale how much improvement can be brought to air quality by using the modified ger.
“If everything goes well with those, then the idea is we have a team this year optimizing the do it yourself kit so it swill be easier and cheaper for them to use,” Gibson said. The long-term goal is to have thousands of the modified gers in the city.
That means they’ll need to move over to having the kits mass-produced so it will reduce cost and shipping, Mazzeo said.
“The actual potential is there for it to be a real solution to a difficult problem,” Mazzeo said.