Letter of Intent
Project Size: 
Large, >$1,000
Letter of Intent: 

UW Campus Sustainability Fund Letter of Intent

Project title: Biogas Cookout/ Cooking Class/ Food Cart

SafeFlame is a local startup, co-founded by Kevin Cussen - a Foster School of Business evening MBA student. SafeFlame empowers families in the developing world to have clean-burning cooking fuel by providing an affordable service that converts organic waste into fuel. SafeFlame’s digesters utilize biologic process that break-down organic waste in a closed environment. The byproduct of this digestion is methane, which can be used as a fuel source to power a cookstove. The SafeFlame team has developed three potential projects, all involving cooking with biogas.

One potential project involves constructing a cart that has a cookstove installed that runs on biogas. This stove could cook hot dogs or popcorn, which could be sold at events or at high foot traffic areas of campus. We expect the research, design, construction, and operation of this project to be less than $20,000 and to provide high visibility and “teachable moments” into alternative fuel sources such as biogas.

Another potential project is a cooking class utilizing biogas. Different cooks could come in to showcase international dishes or dishes made with local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients. The SafeFlame team is in early discussions with the UW co-op as well as several local food co-ops and farmers on the execution of this plan. The cost for this project would likely be under $10,000.

The last potential project is a biogas barbeque or cook-off event. This would be an excellent chance to showcase the utility of biogas, while testing the efficiency in a real, event-style cooking situation. For this project, the SafeFlame team would heavily engage with different groups on campus to promote the cook-off. We would work with the CSF to scope an appropriate sized “cook-off” to achieve the goals of the CSF.

1. Environmental Impact

Burning biogas has the potential for reducing environmental impact. Human activities, especially the the developed world, cause organic waste to accumulate and rot. When this waste decomposes in anaerobic environments, such as in landfills, it produces methane and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is 25 times more effective at trapping solar radiation than carbon. Furthermore, in many developing countries where wood or charcoal are primary cooking fuels, the use of these fuel sources is a primary driver of deforestation and serious health issues. If more organic waste was utilized in technologies such as biodigesters, we could reduce environmental impacts from both of these sources while also providing a valuable service. Furthermore, current cooking fuels, both in the global south and global north, can have hazardous effects on the environment. Specifically, in the United States, cooking with natural gas has dubious implications for environmental sustainability, as hydraulic fracturing is associated with numerous negative effects including methane leakage and ground water contamination. Based on the active environmental community at the UW, we believe the CSF is the perfect vehicle to raise awareness of the benefits of cooking with biogas and our goal at this point is to spread awareness and build community support. 
 

2. Student Leadership & Involvement
The CEO of SafeFlame is an evening MBA student at the Foster School of Business. Furthermore, a large team of interdisciplinary students ranging from engineers to geographers have committed significant efforts to the SafeFlame mission over the last 18 months. Dr. Mari Winkler from the college of civil and environmental engineering is the firm’s principal investigator and the organization has close ties to several schools and organizations at the UW.

3. Education, Outreach, & Behavior Change

All of our project proposals have a heavy focus on education and outreach. Though many students at the UW may have heard of biogas, they may not know the practical uses or limitations of the technology. With our project(s) we intend introduce or inform students on additional options in the cleantech space and encourage them to lead more sustainable lives. We expect this introduction may lead to a greater interest in biogas in future years and proposals focusing on sustained use of biogas at the UW.

Furthermore, the educational component of having students working with companies in the space cannot be understated.

1.     4. Feasibility, Accountability, & Sustainability:

SafeFlame is an on-going concern concentrating on the introduction of biogas as a viable business. These activities dovetail perfectly with supporting each of the above outlined projects. Business lead Kevin Cussen has years of management experience coordinating complex projects successfully and research advisor Dr. Mari Winkler has coordinated multiple research efforts in anaerobic and aerobic digestion.

Contact Information
Primary Contact First & Last Name: 
Caelan
E-mail: 
cwisont@gmail.com
Full Proposal

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Executive Summary: 

We propose the UW Campus Sustainability Fund sponsor the design and construction of a biogas powered food cart for use at campus events and high foot traffic areas on the University of Washington campus. The cart will cook hot dogs, popcorn, and other food items which can be given away or sold at these events. The food cart will also act as an educational aid by displaying signage on biogas as an alternative energy to inform students while they wait for their food. Furthermore, student volunteers will proactively work to promote food cart appearances and sustainability events via social media and food cart student workers will share their perspectives and knowledge on alternative energies while preparing food. We believe this high visibility use of alternative energies will provide countless high impact “teachable moments” on the uses of alternative fuel sources such as biogas and further the University’s reputation as a leader in sustainable development.

 

The problem this project seeks to solve is poor knowledge of many of the alternatives to fossil fuels that exist. Many students at the UW have heard of biogas but may not know how it’s generated or what practical uses and limitations the technology possesses. We intend to introduce and inform students on this alternative energy option in order to better inform and encourage students to lead more sustainable lives. We expect this introduction may lead to a greater interest in biogas in future years and proposals focusing on sustained use of biogas at the UW.

 

In addition to the broad educational net the food cart casts for customers during its operations, we believe the 10 – 20 students directly involved in the design, construction, promotion, and operations of the food cart will benefit immensely from the experience. They will have the opportunity to commit significant personal time to a design and build process as well as the pride of successfully completing a complex task that benefits the UW Community and the environment. It is our hope that this project may provide the impetus for some students to pursue a career in environmental sustainability.

The project will be managed by SafeFlame (a local start-up founded by current MBA student Kevin Cussen, with experience building biodigesters and managing complex projects) and the food truck will be built by student volunteers from ENVIR 480 (Sustainability Studio), the UW chapter of Engineers without Borders, and other interested students. The project is being sponsored by UW Sustainability, with material and educational support from the College of Engineering, HSF, UW Dining, as well as numerous local institutions - including SafeFlame, King County Co. Conservation District, Central Co-op, Herrera Environmental and others.

Total amount requested from the CSF: 
$21 176
This funding request is a: 
Grant
Budget: 
ItemCost per ItemQuantityTotal Cost
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Non-CSF Sources: 
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Project Completion Total: 
$21 176
Sustainability Impact: 
Energy Use
Food
Waste
Sustainability Challenge: 

Human activities, especially in developed countries such as the United States cause organic waste to accumulate in landfills and rot. When this decomposition takes place in an anaerobic environment, common in landfills, it produces methane and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is 25 times more effective at trapping solar radiation than carbon. By capturing methane and burning it in our food cart, the methane is broken down into water vapor and carbon dioxide. This reduces the amount of methane released into the atmosphere, the volume of waste entering our landfills, and provides a useful output for the energy.

Explain how the impacts will be measured: 

Since our desired impacts fall into two primary categories, education and sustainability, we will measure key performance indicators in each of these segments.

 

Education

Person hours contributed

Number of students engaged

Events attended

Views on Facebook

 

Sustainability

Number of pounds of organic waste repurposed

Pounds of fertilizer created

Meals prepared

Education & Outreach: 

Many students at the UW have heard of biogas but may not know how it’s generated or what practical uses and limitations the technology possesses. We intend to introduce and inform students on this alternative energy option in order to better inform and encourage students to lead more sustainable lives. We expect this introduction may lead to a greater interest in biogas in future years and proposals focusing on sustained use of biogas at the UW.

We propose a multi-pronged approach to education. First, the 10 – 20 students directly involved in the design, construction, and operations of the food cart will benefit immensely from the experience. They will have the opportunity to commit significant personal time and energy to learning the in’s and out’s of this alternative energy - a skill they can bring to future projects. Additionally, they will learn and practice all stages of the design cycle, which is undoubtedly applicable across many sectors. At the end of the day, each student will have the pride of building something with their hands that benefits the UW Community and the environment as a whole. For members of Engineers Without Borders, the experience will build directly upon their coursework. For others, this may develop a new lifelong passion.

Provided the final proposal is approved and a budget agreed upon by the end of February, the team can begin construction of the food cart immediately (SafeFlame will front initial costs while payment structures are put in place). Our hope is to have the food cart operational by April 22nd (Earth Day), though this is admittedly an ambitious goal. We would then plan to showcase the food cart at campus and local events throughout the Spring and Summer quarter as advised by Ms. Elste.

In addition to the obvious use of biogas as a cooking fuel source, we would cover the trailer with informative signage describing other uses of biogas and resources for additional information. Students will have the opportunity to read about the digestion process while they wait for their meal and while eating. Signage will also outline other groundbreaking efforts the UW is performing in the areas of research and conservation to prime student’s interests in sustainability. Part-time student workers will proactively work with UW Sustainability, specifically, Communications Coordinator Daimon Eklund to keep abreast of these efforts.

Throughout the grant period, students will advertise upcoming food cart appearances and other mission aligned material via word of mouth and social media outlets.

Student Involvement: 

Students are involved at every step of this project; from design & construction of the food cart, to promoting and maintaining steady biogas production within the digesters, to widespread public outreach. Our project, with the support of the Campus Sustainability Fund, will not only enrich student experiences and the culture that permeates the University, but will also act as a bridge for big ideas starting at the University to impact the wider world. Furthermore, the widespread engagement this project creates between students & student organizations with organizations in the local & global sustainability communities reinforces the commitment to sustainability that the University of Washington represents.

 

Project sponsorship will be provided by Ms. Toren Elste, Events and Outreach Specialist with UW Sustainability. Ms. Elste will be the primary point of contact for organizing participation of the food cart at events and keeping the operations team up-to-date on upcoming events that are a good fit for the sustainability theme of the project. Ms. Elste will donate her time as project sponsor.

 

Project vision and management will be provided by Kevin Cussen, an MBA student at the Foster School of Business. Kevin has experience leading complex projects through his career in the global health and environmental sectors and has a particular passion for alternative energy. Kevin Cussen is the co-founder and CEO of the biogas start-up SafeFlame, and will leverage his knowledge, network, and expertise in this area to drive the project towards success. Both he and SafeFlame co-founder David Crawford, a practicing civil engineer, will make in-kind donations of their time as advisors to the design, construction, and operations teams. In addition, Mr. Cussen will be responsible for keeping grant deliverables on track, following UW policies and procedures, interfacing with grant administrators, performing project update memos, buying / reimbursing purchases, scheduling volunteers, scheduling input gathering, coordinating transportation, and other project related tasks. Once the food cart is operational, Mr. Cussen & student volunteers will proactively work with Ms. Elste and other community stakeholders to look for opportunities to showcase the technology at various UW events.

 

Scientific and administrative support will be provided by Dr. Mari Winkler, an Assistant Professor specializing in biodigestion and waste water treatment with the UW College of Civil & Environmental Engineering. Dr. Winkler and graduate research assistant Aparna Garg will ensure students have a good understanding of the digestion process and will support students in the design, construction, and operation of the food cart. Additionally, Dr. Winkler has provided access to safety coursework to ensure student workers are prepared and informed on how to work in a workshop and lab safely. Dr. Winkler and Ms. Garg will be donating their time to the project.

 

The design and construction team will consist of a group of 9 students from Winter quarter of ENVIR 480 (Sustainability Studio), a group of interested students from the UW chapter of Engineers without Borders - including projects team lead Maeve Harris, as well as other interested students from the UW community. The design and construction team will be responsible for drafting and iterating on designs for the food cart, building the cart, testing the efficacy of the digesters, and troubleshooting any problems. In coordination with Mr. Cussen, UW Sustainability, UW Housing and Food Services, and UW Dining, the team will also be responsible for operating the food cart at events. Throughout the winter quarter, students from ENVIR 480 will donate their time in exchange for class credit. However, we ask for appropriate budget to pay two part-time students workers throughout the spring and summer quarters in order to keep the food truck operating and to vend food and knowledge at UW events.

Lastly, several UW departments have given approval for this project and shown a commitment to ensuring it’s success. These include UW Housing and Food Services and UW Dining who have agreed to provide scheduling and permitting assistance to ensure this project obeys all rules and regulations dictation the operations of such vehicles. This assistance will be rendered voluntarily.

Timeline: 
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Year Tag: 
Amount Awarded: 
$21,176
Potential Funding Reductions: 
Reduction #1 - Approximately $2,100 over the course of the grant could be saved on workshop and operating space rent if the University could provide these facilities. SafeFlame has been working with the University for over a year now to try to find such a property without success. As such, we have secured an operating site at $100 / mo. and have estimated workshop space costs at approximately $250 / mo. Reduction #2 - We’ve put into the budget line items for a garbage disposal ($350) as well as a development costs for 2 custom-designed, hand-powered grinders ($1,000). We feel that hand-powered grinders are instrumental to the narrative of alternative energies (and allow us to operate without electricity), however either (but not both) could be removed from the budget without drastically impairing operations. Reduction #3 - Quoted prices are retail. Based on the quick design / construction / operations turnaround needed in order to demonstrate the food cart at Earth Day, we’ve quoted Home Depot prices. If we were to spend some time searching for second hand parts, we could likely reduce the overall parts budget by 20 - 40% (an overall reduction of $1,100 - $2,200). However, this would likely close the window of opportunity to showcase the technology at Earth Day - the largest sustainability event of the year. Reduction #4 - If a practicing engineer from the Seattle or UW community could be found to provide pro bono technical assistance several times a week during the design and construction process, the 50% donated time from SafeFlame engineers could be reduced or eliminated resulting in a savings of up to $1,680 over the course of the grant.
Project Longevity: 

The UW chapter of Engineers Without Borders, has agreed to work with the project team to transition ownership of the food cart at the end of the grant period. Kevin Cussen and Maeve Harris have brainstormed 3 primary approaches to sustaining the impact achieved through this project beyond the grant period and are happy to work with the CSF Committee towards their preferred sustainment approach. 1. Converting the digesters from plug-flow to batch reactor type digesters to minimize labor needs. Plug flow reactors have the benefit of creating gas at a steadier production level but require upkeep on a weekly/bi-weekly basis to do so. Batch reactors on the other hand require much less maintenance (i.e. filling the reactor once every few months). Transitioning from plug-flow to batch would reduce the amount of refilling and maintenance needed from 10+ hours a month to 3 - 4 hours every 2 months and allow EWB to continue operations of the digester beyond the grant period. 2. Depending on Engineers Without Borders situation at the end of the grant period, EWB may be willing to take on ownership (without need for a conversion) for the food cart and continue operating it using the existing sourcing strategy. This approach would provide an active project for chapter members to work on and continued outreach into the UW and local community. 3. Lastly, EWB has offered to take ownership of the food cart in order to disassemble the cart for parts. These parts would then be used in the ongoing operations of the chapter.

Project status: 
In progress, accepting volunteers