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Los Alamos Technology at Work to Reduce Pollution at Border : Environment: Emissions from Mexican brick-making ovens are major contributor to dirty skies in El Paso. Two engineers seek solution.


LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, plumes of black smoke gush from brick-making kilns each night. The smoke drifts over the border before dawn and, by 7 a.m., schoolchildren in neighboring El Paso are being told to stay indoors.

Three hundred miles to the north in New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory materials engineer Karl Staudhammer sits at a computer, drawing pictures of how to convert kilns to burn cleaner. He models different shapes, airflows and temperatures, and dreams of clear, blue skies.

"I believe that with the right funding," he says, "we could clean the border in five years."

Smoke from brick making may not seem like a tremendous problem, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists it as the third-largest polluter along the U.S.-Mexico border, after automobiles and dust from dirt roads. Bricks are molded of clay, set out in the sun to dry--then baked for about 24 hours in kilns that burn old tires and other trash.

The Mexican government has been trying to get brick makers to change their kilns for about 10 years. But that nation's 130,000 brick makers rebuffed loan offers from bureaucrats, businesses and banks to fund conversions to natural gas.

After the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mexican government made it illegal for brick makers to burn tires in their kilns. That restriction works during the day--when inspectors are around.

But at night, many brick makers--who earn less than $2,000 a year per family--revert to low-budget fuels such as tires, used motor oil and plastics. Others bury themselves in eight-foot-deep pits filled with chemical-laden sawdust from furniture factories and spend fiery hours shoveling sawdust into kilns.

"It's dark, ugly, black smoke," says Mary Kelly, director of the Texas Center for Policy Studies. "The kilns are a significant source of contamination."

Environmentalists on both sides of the border fervently hope that Staudhammer's estimate of a cleanup in five years is right.

"We have come to realize that we cannot solve El Paso's problem without helping Juarez," says Jesus Reynoso, an air quality manager for El Paso. "The kiln conversions are very significant in that effort. We hope they will reduce our visibility problems and toxic emissions."

A few years ago, Juarez political leaders tried a new approach to promote gas conversions: They asked a nonprofit organization, the Federacion Mexicana de Associanes Prividas de Salud y De Sarrollo Commitario, or FMAP, to take over the project.

Since then, the group has established a brick-making school on land donated by the Mexican government.

The purpose of the school--partially funded through a U.S. company, El Paso Natural Gas--was to teach Mexico's brick makers how to use gas instead of non-environmental fuel.

"This was not a revenue-bearing project for us. We aim to improve the quality for traditional brick makers and reduce the amount of pollution of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso," says Jesus Soto, a project engineer at the gas company.

Even with their own school, brick makers hesitated to convert. It was simply too expensive. A sample converted kiln at the school cost about $8,000 to build and used huge amounts of gas.

FMAP President Guadalupe De La Vega knew that the project needed help and spoke to a friend at the U.S. Embassy, who offered to contact Sandia and Los Alamos national labs in New Mexico.

The rest, says Staudhammer, is history.

"I figured I could take a stab at it," he says.

De La Vega says Staudhammer's assistance marked a change.

"I feel very proud that people from Los Alamos, who used to work only for the richest countries and companies, are now tackling problems of the poor around the world," she says.

For the last two years, Staudhammer and partner Charles Grisby basically have been volunteers, working on the project in addition to handling their regular jobs at the lab and making weekend trips to Mexico.

The project received an initial $30,000 through the U.S. Department of Energy, and Staudhammer and Grisby are hoping to receive $150,000 through the World Bank.

So far, funding has barely covered project expenses.

But using technology from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the engineers have developed a kiln that recirculates hot air using only one $800 gas burner. It turns out stronger bricks and costs less to operate.

"It's a better mousetrap," says Staudhammer.

Staudhammer stressed that the new kiln is only in a test phase. But his hopes are high. Eventually, he says, such kilns could be used worldwide.

De La Vega says the work is tremendously important.

"We are attacking two very big problems," she says. "We are attacking pollution, which affects us all. And we are attacking poverty. Brick makers are the poorest of the poor."

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