LOA: Boston to Seattle to Vietnam

Some Oliners have the opportunity to take time off from Olin to work or travel, but senior Ben Chapman had the chance to do both. I caught up with Ben earlier this week to learn more about his incredible Leave of Absence (LOA) experience.

Ben's Car.jpegVeggie Car traveling through the Bighorn Mountains

In mid-May of 2013, Ben embarked on a journey that took him from Olin to Seattle and lasted until mid-December.  In typical Olin fashion, he chose to undertake this trip in a not-so-traditional way. You see, Ben converted his diesel Volkswagen Jetta to run on used vegetable oil (the stuff they throw away at restaurants!). So, along with the camping gear, 2 bikes and other necessities that he would need once he arrived at his destination, Ben also packed 40 gallons of vegetable oil and even found room for a friend, Ben Smith, who would travel with him to Western Pennsylvania.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, I can do this! But as you can imagine, it's a bit more complicated than pouring used French Fry oil into your car's gas tank. Vegetable oil is kind of thick, like molasses, and can really gum up your engine, especially when it's cold outside. Ben solved this problem by adding another fuel tank to his car, one for diesel and one for vegetable oil.  Starting the engine with the diesel fuel would warm up the car, including the tank of vegetable oil, lowering its viscosity.  After about 15 minutes of running on diesel, Ben flips a switch and the car then runs on the free vegetable oil, saving lots of money on his fuel costs. The only problem along the journey was finding places to give him the used oil, but with a little help from friends and a sympathetic diner in Wyoming, Ben made it to Seattle using only one tank of diesel fuel and approximately 100 gallons of vegetable oil!

used oil.jpegJugs of veggie oil at Donna's Diner in Morcroft, WY

During his coast to coast journey, Ben stayed with friends and camped in some pretty amazing places including: the Badlands, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and his favorite part of the trip, Glacier National Park in Montana. His journey also offered him the chance to vastly improve his car mechanic skills. He even troubleshot and repaired his own power steering!

Ben Hiking.jpegBackpacking in Glacier National Park

For most people, arriving in Seattle would have marked the end of a pretty decent trip but for Ben it was just the beginning. His next adventure was an internship at Burn Design Lab in Vashon, WA.  Burn designs and manufactures clean cook stoves for consumers in third world countries. While we have had other Oliners do design work at Burn, Ben worked on the manufacturing side of the operation. His job was to get everything ready to begin stove production in Burn's first factory in Nairobi, Kenya where the company hoped to produce 200 stoves per day. He also worked on the design of the factory layout and built some of the tools that would be used on the assembly line.

Kenyan Department Store.jpeg

Setting up our first stove display in a Kenyan department store

Another of Ben's responsibilities while at Burn was finding ways to make the stoves for less money without affecting their durability. Ben substituted different metals for the stainless steel that had been used during the original production and made prototypes to test. In the end he found that aluminized steel (steel coated in aluminum) was just as durable and cost less to make. Ben's findings will likely be put in place as part of the manufacturing process this June.

testing stove materials.jpegComparing six combustion chamber materials in an outdoor durability test at Burn

While living in Vashon, Ben stayed with a local couple, rode his bike to work and shopped at the food bank, giving him the ability to save much of his monthly stipend for travel. And, travel he did, for the next part of his journey was to move to Kenya for a month to install the tools he had designed in Seattle, work with the engineers and factory workers to create a streamlined and consistent manufacturing process and help search for a new larger factory.

Vashon Island.jpeg

Calm day on Vashon Island, on Ben's bike ride home from work

As his time drew to a close in Kenya, Ben started planning the final leg of his travel, a tour of Southeast Asia. Ben's first stop was in Bali, Indonesia where he met up with his friend, Carly Gayle, who recently graduated from Wellesley College.  While exploring Bali, Ben cooked a traditional American Thanksgiving Dinner using only a stove top, and went SCUBA diving for the first time in the tropics. After that he was off to Vietnam for two weeks. Since Vietnam has become quite touristy, he and his travel companion tried to stay off the beaten path, enjoying homestays and remote treks in the mountains, kayaking in Ha Long Bay and eating delicious street food with the locals. Without knowing any of the local language, Ben was able to communicate with some English and a lot of charades!

Planting Rice Bali.jpegLearning to plant rice at an organic farm in Bali

In December, Ben returned to the United States and celebrated Christmas with his family in upstate New York. He also plans to return to Burn Design Lab this summer to continue his efforts in making the stove more affordable for his Kenyan consumers.

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