How to make a silk purse from pig excrement

Do-it-yourself biodigesters, and more, from the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group.

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 16, 2007 8:48PM (EST)

The Internet facilitates many kinds of behavior, but shines at one thing above all else: If you need to find a manual to figure out how to reprogram a remote control, or set a function on your bike computer, or put together a Lego set, the Internet is so helpful it makes Prometheus look like a miser. Manuals, how-to instructions, spare part catalogs -- no matter how obscure, no matter how out of date (or how cutting edge), they all live forever on the Net.

I was thinking this, yet again, this morning, as I scrolled through a 30-page PDF file containing exquisitely specific instructions on how to build a biodigester septic tank that transforms pig shit into organic fertilizer and cooking gas. Not that I'm planning to install one myself in my backyard anytime soon, but I just feel happy knowing that should I ever need to, the information is handily available. Just as I am delighted to learn that using a laser printer, the right paper, a sheet of copper and a clothes iron, I can make my own printed circuit boards.

The biodigester how-to is one of many technical files archived at a site maintained by the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, a volunteer-run nonprofit that specializes in low-cost public domain technologies applicable to poor communities. AIDG evaluates such technologies, perfects them and, best of all, teaches other people how to do the same. AIDG's first project is a "micro-manufacturing facility" in Guatemala, where 10 Guatemalan workers produce "biodigesters, windmills, high efficiency stoves, pumps, water filters, solar LED lighting systems and micro-hydro products." And where, astonishingly, the laser printer circuit board manufacturing technique was employed to help manage a technical issue with a micro-hydroelectric project operated by a Fair Trade Organic Macadamia & Coffee Plantation. Similar "workshops," intended ultimately to be economically self-sustaining, are planned for Haiti and Thailand.

(I learned about AIDG two weeks ago, after noticing, via a feed from Technorati that monitors whoever is linking to How the World Works, that the AIDG blog was pointing readers to my Kiva and Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown posts. A few days after the linkage, Catherine Laine, AIDG's communications director, dropped me a note, inviting me to take a look at their operation. Note to public relations specialists: Such tactics work a lot better than cold-calling by phone.)

You might think that a nonprofit dedicated to teaching other people how to manufacture their own renewable-energy technological devices would be populated by a particular kind of Renaissance geek. You would be correct in this assumption. Here is the bio, in full, for Peter Haas, AIDG's "Lead Technician/Executive Director."

Peter Haas received a B.A. in 1998 from Yale University in philosophy and psychology. Before founding AIDG he worked both in the information technology field as a consultant in network provisioning, telecom wiring, RF and wireless consulting, and programming, and on an organic farm/horse ranch doing infrastructure improvement work. He has experience in water systems, electrical systems, electronic systems, masonry, plumbing, drainage, erosion control, irrigation, welding, metal casting, carpentry and sustainable building.

How better to achieve "progress" than with low-cost public domain technological solutions that enhance living standards? If How the World Works had a magic wand, we'd wave it and the Gates Foundation would drop a billion dollars into AIDG's lap and tell them to go forth and multiply. A biodigester connected to every cooking pot! But while we wait for Bill and Melinda to notice, we'll just point you to AIDG's donation page.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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