Every day at dawn, Angel Raqueno gets on his motorised tricycle with its shaky side-car and criss-crosses the narrow paved streets of Vigan, a small, picturesque tourist city 400 kilometres north of Manila, capital of the Philippines. Long ago, he had begun studying electronics, but he gave it up to take up taxi-driving to support his family. For the past 18 years, he has driven passengers through the city’s 39 barangays (districts) 10 hours a day, six days a week. But, for Raqueno, worse than the long hours on the road is the blueish smoke emitted by the 3,000 other tricycles providing transport for tourists and locals around this 16th-century architectural gem: if you are stuck in traffic behind one of these vehicles, the air is almost unbreathable.
The Impact of Pollution
According to the 2006 Philippine Environment Monitor published by the World Bank, atmospheric pollution causes 15,000 deaths in the country every year. Related health costs represent US$19 million a year, and loss of earnings amount to $134 million. The World Health Organization reports that atmospheric pollution across Asia is responsible for 537,000 deaths a year. The transport sector contributes significantly to this: most of the 100 million tricycles, tuk-tuks, auto-rickshaws and trishaws — symbols of tourism and urban mobility — that clog up Asian cities from New Delhi to Manila are equipped with two-stroke engines — each of them causing as much pollution as 50 cars.
Tim Bauer decided that the solution could be found at the heart of the problem. Since 2006, this 31-year-old American mechanical engineer has been distributing a kit that makes it easy to transform the engines on these vehicles into direct fuel-injection mechanisms, thereby reducing the pollution they produce. Carrying out tests in a laboratory and in Filipino garages for many months, it took him and his team every ounce of ingenuity they could muster to disentangle all the technical, economic and socio-cultural intricacies. The result has earned Tim Bauer a Rolex Award.
A Little Engine that Could
In the Philippines, about 1.8 million tricycle drivers have to face appalling traffic conditions for long hours every day in order to transport their passengers on congested thoroughfares, roads flooded by torrential rain or riddled with deep potholes. When neither cars nor buses can get through, a tricycle will always find a way. These all-purpose vehicles provide cheap transport for tourists, but, on a far larger scale, to thousands of people who use them to earn a living, get to work, school, the market or church. “They play an essential role in the social and economic fabric,” Bauer says. “But their impact on public health is disastrous.”
In Europe and the United States, two-stroke engines are relegated to powered grass trimmers and chainsaws. But in the Philippines they are used on 94 per cent of motorcycles; in India, Pakistan and Thailand, the figure is between 50 and 90 per cent. For Tim Bauer, it is easy to see why: “A two-stroke engine is a beautiful thing. It's reliable, robust, powerful and so simple that drivers can repair it themselves, which is very important for people who earn only about $5 daily. But there's a problem: up to 40 per cent of the fuel and oil exit the engine unburned.” This leads to substantial emissions of oxides of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur, hydrocarbons and fine dust, making them one of the main sources of air pollution in the Philippines archipelago.
Working With the Problem
In 2003, the Filipino government tried to phase out these vehicles and replace them with motorcycles with four-stroke engines, which are less polluting, but cost about $1,500, the equivalent of a tricycle driver’s annual income. The authorities were forced to back down when faced with a general outcry from drivers and the vast network of mechanics and sellers of spare parts depending on them. “The challenge was to find a solution that would allow the drivers to keep their means of subsistence,” says Bauer. “The constraint was thus to keep the two-stroke and start from it.”
A Solution is Born
The direct injection kit began to take shape in 2000, in the Engines and Energy Conservation Lab — a spin-off of Colorado State University (USA) directed by Professor Bryan Willson — which Tim Bauer joined in 1997 during his mechanical engineering studies. Bauer, then aged 24, and his colleague Nathan Lorenz were leading a team of students in a research project on the application of direct injection to the snowmobiles of Yellowstone National Park. Bauer immediately saw the potential of this technology for reducing polluting emissions and, at the end of his studies in 2004, instead of applying for a more lucrative job in the aerospace industry, he and Lorenz decided to do their utmost to develop a commercially viable product and make it widely available in Asia.
But getting from North American snowmobiles to Filipino tricycles required inventiveness and global awareness. “I became aware of air pollution at an early age,” Bauer remembers. “I lived for some time in Saudi Arabia as a kid, and from there I visited Bangkok and Hong Kong with my parents. This is where I saw and felt two-stroke pollution for the first time. It made a lasting impression on me.”
A Simple Fix
The ”retrofit” consists of a simple but effective mechanical change. “In a two-stroke, when the piston goes down it uncovers both the exhaust port, where the combustion products are forced, and the fuel and oil intake port. This means that a lot of the oil and fuel mixture is directly washed out in the exhaust stream,” explains Tim Bauer. “In a direct-injection system, fuel is injected into the cylinder later in the cycle, when the exhaust port is closed by the piston, thus greatly reducing the amount of unburned fuel that is allowed to escape.”
The kit can be installed in two to four hours and reduces particulate emissions by roughly 70 per cent and emissions of carbon monoxide (CO) by 76 per cent, hydrocarbons by 89 per cent and carbon dioxide (CO2) by 35 per cent. The kit also eliminates the blueish smoke in the exhaust, and oil consumption is reduced by 50 per cent and petrol consumption by 35 per cent — the equivalent of around 450 litres of petrol a year per kit. This makes the engine cleaner than a simple carburetted four-stroke, and for the driver it means a saving of around $3 a day or over $1,000 a year, almost doubling his salary. This extra income is put to use straight away. “Drivers often give the money to their wife for her to invest – many families have a small convenience store. Or they use it to pay for their children's schooling or studies,” says Tim Bauer.
To keep down the cost of manufacturing the kit — currently $350 — Tim Bauer and Nathan Lorenz used off-the-shelf components: “We have simply adapted as many components as possible from an existing direct-injection system and developed other components (i.e. custom cylinder head, wiring harness, bracketry, etc) that could be used on the most popular motorcycle models in Asia. One-third of the 30 parts of the kit are produced in the Philippines.”
Getting off the Ground
In October 2003, in order to further develop, commercialize and distribute the kit, Bauer and three of his colleagues founded a non-profit organization, Envirofit, which now has over 20 employees, half of them based in the Philippines. In December 2005, Envirofit signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Vigan City Council, thereby gaining its official support. The following year, it published a troubleshooting manual, translated into Tagalog, one of the main languages of the Philippines, and Ilocano, the language spoken in Vigan. Bauer, who travels to the Philippines five times a year, has also organized about 15 training workshops and seminars in Vigan and Puerto Princesa, two seaside tourist cities with no major industry, where tricycles contribute significantly to atmospheric pollution. Twenty or more drivers and mechanics have attended each workshop so far. “We have developed the kit so it is easy to install, even by non-certified mechanics,” Bauer explains. “But we had to convince them that the common idea, according to which the more visible smoke you have, the more powerful your engine is, is wrong. As there is no smoke with the kit, they thought that we were hiding it with some kind of chemicals!”
However, purchasing the kit represents a major investment for a tricycle driver. So Bauer and his team launched a microcredit programme, in collaboration with the Nueva Segovia cooperative bank, which collects repayments on the loans. “Microcredit is essential to ensure a sustainable impact to our action. Drivers earn money daily, so it's easy for them to pay back their loan and 90 per cent of them do it in less than a year.”
By August 2008, more than 260 drivers in Vigan and Puerto Princesa have fitted their taxis with a kit and have driven a total of 5.2 million kilometres. With the funds from his Rolex Award, Bauer now wants to further develop the market in these cities and surrounding regions as a stepping stone to distributing the kit more widely in the Philippines and beyond, particularly Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka where millions of autorickshaws could easily be retrofitted.
Besides the kit, Vigan City Council is exploring other forms of technology to solve its pollution problem, such as tricycles powered by electricity or natural gas. For the moment, however, their price is prohibitive and, according to Bauer, if implemented incorrectly, can potentially shift the problem elsewhere: “Two-strokes can have a lifetime of up to 20 or 30 years. If they’re banished from the cities, they’ll continue to be driven in more disadvantaged, outlying areas. Our retrofit kit makes it possible to reduce the environmental impact of the millions of two-strokes currently in use, and that will still be used for many years.”
Amory Lovins, a world expert on energy resources, agrees: “Envirofit has devised a practical and affordable way…to fix two-stroke vehicles in Asia. This is the here-and-now solution to go with.”
“These drivers are at the base of the economic pyramid, and these tricycles are a testament to their ingenuity and work ethic,” says Tim Bauer. “At the end of the day, we can improve their lives with a cylinder head, a few brackets, and, of course, hard work. This is our best reward.”
Published in 2008