Generating energy from waste is possible thanks to Politecnico di Milano

5 ideas for the planet to put on the ground now: 'CHAR.ME' project helps decrease pollution in developing countries

Each year, the Politecnico di Milano selects 5 research projects with high social impact and, with the economic contribution of donors who choose to donate their 5 per mille Irpef to the University supports them in a phase of grounding “pilot experiences” with concrete impact.

In 2022, for instance, we dealt with 'Local Development and Ecological Transition'. The five selected research groups have until the end of 2024 to concretise their ideas, which are usually short-term realisable projects , though aiming to be replicable and have a long-term effect.

Five projects: one to be developed in Milan, three in Africa and one in Brazil. Their common goal is to green our planet starting with very specific contexts: turning waste into fuel without cutting down trees; tackling climate change in cities; a project for a super-efficient farm that makes the best use of the land’s assets; techniques to breathe new life into a valley in Algeria by combining ancient knowledge and state-of-the-art technology; and cutting-edge orthopaedic solutions to improve health in Lombardy while saving money and respecting the environment.

They are:



In developing countries, the use of wood and charcoal as fuel is one of the main causes of deforestation. Politecnico’s researchers, with the CHAR:ME project, aim to reduce it through the development and spreading of sustainable technologies for the recovery of solid fuel from organic waste. The case study examines a pilot experience on the island of Nosy Be, in the province of Antsiranana, north-western Madagascar, which is affected by intense exploitation of primary forests for the production of wood and charcoal used as fuel for domestic cooking. This practice is still causing considerable environmental and social damage: according to estimates, over the past 50 years Madagascar's forest cover reduced by 40%, with the consequent loss of biodiversity in one of the most valuable ecosystems globally, and anthropogenic emissions (a share of which is from domestic cooking) are estimated at 1-2.4 Gt CO2-eq per year, that is, 2-7% of the total. In addition, women and children spend an average of 2.2 hours per day on procuring fuel. The health risk is also very high due to the release of indoor pollutants (e.g., carbon monoxide, particulate matter), with 16,500 cases of premature death each year.

It is clear that streamlining the use of fuels would benefit the ecosystem and free up resources by allowing different activities for the population (including schooling).

The solution proposed by CHAR:ME is to transform organic waste (which is currently pure waste and therefore has to be managed) into solid alternative fuels to wood and charcoal. These solid fuels will be produced in two ways: (1) biomass briquettes, obtained from the collection of waste subjected to mechanical and biodrying treatments, (2) coal briquettes, prepared by adding a biochar pyrolysis treatment into the same production chain (waste collected and treated centrally + pyrolysis treatment specifically designed and able to determine the simultaneous generation of heat for accessory uses). The fuels produced are intended for distribution to the local community for domestic use in the cooking systems currently in use, with the aim of promoting a virtuous circuit of waste recovery and processing, and preventing environmental and social impacts, including health impacts, in the context of the intervention.

Activities are conducted in close continuity with the application context and local stakeholders, taking due account of non-technical aspects. The next mission, scheduled for June 2024, will take a team of scientists and technicians from Politecnico to Madagascar.