Her creation — a fuel, usage and emissions logger known by its acronym, FUEL — is a sensor that measures the temperature of a biomass-burning rocket stove and the weight of fuel wood it consumes. This sensor will provide verifiable data of the emissions reductions impact of stoves designed for developing countries where many people still use open fires to prepare meals for their families — a method that causes an estimated 4.3 million premature deaths each year according to the World Health Organization.

In addition, rocket stoves are more efficient — and they produce no visible smoke — making them eligible for carbon credits. To produce cookstoves and other devices that can benefit from Ventrella’s technology, Oregon State is partnering with InStove — a manufacturer in Cottage Grove.

Jen Ventrella shares data obtained from a fuel use emissions logger with a household in Honduras.

The importance of measuring fuel use

Ventrella, a graduate student in Oregon State’s humanitarian engineering program, says the main objective of FUEL is to measure the impacts and adoption rates of new cookstoves to replace open-fire cooking. When the temperature of the stove increases, it means the stove is in use. The log of weight indicates how much wood the user has added to fuel the stove over time. This information helps engineers like Ventrella determine how often people are using the new stoves, how well the appliance fits in with their daily tasks and how much fuel they are saving.

Currently, measurements of cookstove use are determined only by in-person surveys and temperature monitoring. Survey information tends to be inaccurate, as many people don’t have precise recollections about how often or for how long they use their stoves. In addition, temperature monitoring alone can only indicate whether or not the stove is in use.

From invention to business venture

Ventrella collaborated with Nordica MacCarty, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, on developing the FUEL sensor. They also worked closely with David Dickson, a licensing manager in Oregon State’s Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development (OCCD), to file a provisional patent. While applying for research funding, Ventrella and MacCarty decided to establish a business and joined Accelerate, the second step in Oregon State’s Advantage Accelerator/RAIN Corvallis program for startup companies.

MacCarty says Accelerate helped them find out who their customers are and what they need. As a result of the program, they were able to identify their immediate audience as carbon credit trading companies, nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations and national governments.

“Accelerate really helps you move to the next step in the business development process,” MacCarty says. “It’s forced us to reach out to networks in Corvallis and beyond, so we’ve gotten in touch with many more people than we would have on our own.”

Both MacCarty and Ventrella agree that the mentoring aspect of Accelerate was instrumental in building their business. Mary Phillips, former director of research development in the OSU Research Office, assisted them with getting their ideas organized and broadening their business plan. Phillips continues to serve as their mentor.

Currently, MacCarty and Ventrella are participating in Launch — the third and final step in the program — which will help them take their product to market.

Fueling the future

Ventrella is now testing FUEL sensors in Honduras and other developing countries. She and MacCarty will present their findings to Oregon BEST, which supports clean-technology startups, for additional project funding. They are also applying to the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program. If accepted, Ventrella and MacCarty will be able to interview hundreds of potential customers to gain feedback and perfect their product.

Down the road, Ventrella and MacCarty would like to start a monitoring business that uses the same weighing technology for other purposes like measuring crop outputs, fertilizer use and the effects of deforestation. Powered in part by the drive to improve lives around the world, their invention is ready to make its contribution out there.

Impact Invention Award

Cookstoves aren’t just for cooking. They can also help meet the need for clean water in developing countries. Oregon State graduate students Nick Moses and Grace Burleson are researching a water pasteurizer designed for InStove cookstoves that is much faster, more efficient and creates less pollution than conventional methods of boiling contaminated water.

Thanks to their invention, Oregon State’s humanitarian engineering program won an Impact Invention Award in February at the annual Elevating Impact Summit at Portland State University. The award is presented by the Lemelson Foundation, which supports inventors and startups focused on social and economic progress in developing countries.