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How are solar cookers saving lives in Chad and Darfur?

Solar Cooking for Survival
Solar cookers like this one in the Iridimi camp are simple yet effective.
Solar cookers like this one in the Iridimi camp are simple yet effective.

­­Solar cooking is exactly what it sounds like: using the sun's rays to heat food to high temperatures. A solar cooker, depending on the type, can reach anywhere from 180 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 400 degrees F (82-204 degrees Celsius), which is more than hot enough to k­ill microbes and make food and water safe to consume. It's actually hot enough to fry.

There are several different methods used to convert sunlight into heat for cooking (see How Solar Cooking Works for complete information). The box cooker uses a topless cardboard or wood box with either glass or plastic stretched across the top, and sometimes reflective panels (often cardboard coated with aluminum foil) positioned outside the plastic to direct more sunlight inside. There's a cooking pot in the box. When placed in the sun, light pours in through the transparent top and heats up the cardboard, which is black on the inside to absorb as much heat as possible. The cardboard heats up, and the heat is trapped inside by the plastic. This type of cooker can reach about 180 degrees F (82 degrees C).

A parabolic cooker uses curved, reflective panels to catch and concentrate sunlight on a small area where the panels come to a point at the bottom of the cooker. Suspended slightly above that point is a cooking pot. The concentrated sunlight generates tremendous heat beneath the pot -- up to 400 degrees F (204 degrees C).

The solar cookers in the Iridimi camp are a combination of these two types, called panel cookers. Curved reflectors direct sunlight to a flat, reflective cardboard bottom. The cooking pot is covered with plastic to trap heat inside. It only costs about $10, and thousands have been given to the women of Iridimi.

The benefits are tremendous for the Darfur refugees. First, since solar cooking came to Iridimi, firewood needs have decreased by about 75 percent [source: Rawlinson]. Women and girls have to make far fewer trips outside the camp, exposing them to fewer attacks.

­Greater bodily safety may be the most crucial benefit provided by solar cooking, but it's not the only one. Overall, cooking with sunlight is just making life better.