While traveling to help a friend in the Peace Corps a couple years ago, television and movie engineer Jock Brandis had an idea that would take him way beyond his day job: a cheap, open-source, hand-crank peanut sheller to save hours and oil for the cash crop's production in developing nations. Seniorhelpline gave Brandis a Breakthrough Award in 2006 for the Universal Nut Sheller, and his has been expanding ever since. We caught up with this leader in the world of appropriate technology to see which countries are going nuts about nuts, and how you can make a DIY gadget for those who need it most. —Logan Ward
Your sheller has been hugely successful. Where is it currently in use?
We're working on four continents and in 15 countries. We're getting feedback from some really smart people in the field who are making improvements. Some guy in the Philippines figured out that, if you take a piece of inner tube from a truck tire and stretch it tightly over the rotor, you now have a hard, rough concrete surface on one side and a soft rubber surface on the other side—and if you throw coffee it comes out 100 percent shelled.
Aren't you also using it to shell jatropha nuts?
Most of the shellers in the Philippines are used for jatropha. That's their biofuel, and they like the peanut sheller for dehusking because jatropha has a poisonous nut. If you handle it too much you start absorbing the poison in your skin. The beauty of the sheller is they can basically shovel the stuff in top without touching it.
What other nuts does it shell?
We found out it's good for shea nuts. We work with a women's group in southern Sudan. These are older women left behind after refugee camps shut down. They have nowhere to go, no way to support themselves. It turns out every third or fourth tree in that region is a shea tree. Given the price shea products are now fetching, especially in Europe, these women now produce shea butter, shea soap and raw shea oil to market to the cosmetics industry. When I showed up, they were literally sitting on the ground in front of a flat rock with a stick, hitting each individual shea nut until it broke. We did a little on-the-spot modification to the peanut sheller—lowered the rotor way down to widen the gap, messed around with the metering plate—and within 15 minutes they were shelling shea at 200 pounds per hour standing upright just by turning a handle. There was major celebrating going on.
What's next for you?
I'm trying to come up with a peanut shell briquetting system. There's an awful lot of energy in peanut shells because they're so waxy. Pound for pound, there's two-thirds the energy in peanut shells that you have in coal—more energy than in hardwood. Even if you didn't want to use briquettes for roasting peanuts, you could set up some local entrepreneurs to make briquettes so people could burn them in their home cooking stoves. And much to our surprise, we discovered that you can pulverize peanut shells by putting them back through same sheller set at different level. You get something that looks like bran flakes.
I'm also trying to do something revolutionary in biofuel oil-pressing to get the oil-pressing stage away from the big factories and back into the hands of the farmer. The idea is to support the farmer at the very primary level and help him get as much value as possible for the crops that he is busting his ass to grow. My theory is that the most common machine in Africa is the bicycle pump. I'm trying to figure out how you can get 50 psi of air to press oil out of a veggie product. I think I can do it.
At this fall's Breakthrough Conference, you mentioned the challenge of communicating instructions. Are you any closer to meeting that challenge?
There are a few subtle instructions that are not easily shown with pictures but have to be said with words. Communicating those means the difference between a mediocre machine and a good one. I remember once using a rebuild instruction manual for a Deutsch diesel engine. The entire manual had not a single word. It was all drawings and diagrams. If we could have a picture-only set of instructions, it would be great. It wouldn't matter if someone spoke Urdu or Haitian Creole. We're working on that.
Seniorhelpline has a lot of very talented readers. If they wanted to invent and build for the benefit of people in developing countries, what advice would you give them?
It may sound kind of silly, but my advice is not to think about it too much. Just plunge in. My background in the movie business never allowed me a lot of time to plan. I'd have to make something unique or create some gizmo, and I always had a very short deadline. Design teams seem to spend forever on a problem.
I was recently at MIT, and there was a design team trying to solve a problem. In poor countries, where people buy drinking water in these little plastic bags, there's this plague of plastic. It's a huge environmental problem. So this team was wondering what would happen if you melted down the bags. They were talking about this and that, aspects of the plastic, different sorting ideas. I said, "Hang on guys, I've got a propane torch here and some plastic bags we brought from Haiti. Has anyone tried to screw around with these things?" No one had tried, but they kept thinking and talking about molecular structures and stuff. So I went outside, lit the torch and within probably five minutes answered what would have been three days of discussion questions about what you end up with.
I find that the academics are trained to think everything out to the point where either they discourage themselves or they create problems that otherwise would not have existed. I'm just a guy who says, "Let's make a wooden box and throw some concrete in it and see what the hell happens." My advice is to roll up your sleeves and try something, because your first three mistakes will tell you more than all the design conferences in the world.