Fossil Hunter Leakey Searches for Fuels of the Future

Richard Leakey founded the Turkana Basin Institute with Stony Brook University to better research the surrounding area for archeological finds. TBI has also provided great outreach efforts in the area. (Photo by Frank Posillico)

Richard Leakey founded the Turkana Basin Institute with     Stony Brook University in 2008 to support the study of early human evolution. (Frank Posillico)

By Dipti Kumar and Ansa Varughese

TURKANA, Kenya – The kitchen workers scurried. Nervous whispering mixed with the clatter of dishes. Was everything in place? Richard Leakey was entering the mess hall at the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) he founded four years ago, and he liked dinner to be just so.

The famed paleoanthropologist took his seat. At his flank were some of the scientists who keep TBI humming with archeological activities. Trading flimsy tents and the dusty outdoors for the institute’s modern infrastructure has enhanced the researchers’ ability to study human beings’ oldest fossils and earliest stone tools.

These days, Leakey – whose family business has for generations been the study of early human evolution – is looking as much to the future as to the past. It’s a change born of necessity. Running TBI doesn’t come cheap, and lowering energy costs is a common discussion topic at Leakey’s dinner table.

In addition to the solar panels atop TBI’s main laboratory building, the institute has an experimental “gasifier” that turns pits and weeds into energy. It runs a simple biogas plant at a nearby health clinic that turns goat dung into methane to power a generator.

Christopher Brown, a research engineer with the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s energy conversion group, said that using waste products for fuel in remote regions such as Turkana may be easier than in an industrialized country. In the developed world, established infrastructure and fuel-quality standards have been designed for fossil fuels.

“It’s worthwhile to develop their own power,” Brown said about areas that lack an energy infrastructure. “It would be a bonus to not be dependent” on costly petroleum imports, he said.

The International Energy Association, an organization with 28 member countries, estimates that renewable fuels could account for 14 percent of the world’s consumption of electricity by 2035, up from 10 percent now.

Leakey’s interest in renewable energy is part of that evolving future. He has long experimented with alternatives.

“People said, ‘You can’t tell us you’re really cooking on a biogas — it smells,’” Leakey said recollecting the time, almost 43 years ago, when he installed a biogas plant at his Nairobi home. He shrugged off the issue. Burning organic waste for energy shouldn’t cause problems, he said: “If it’s working, it’s not smelling. And if it’s smelling, it’s not working.”

Beyond allowing the institute to function at lower cost and become self-sufficient in energy, another goal of the projects is to help the surrounding Turkana community, Leakey said.

But progress doesn’t come without challenges. Finding investors for his projects requires Leakey’s personal attention, and working with the Turkana community has proved challenging.

Leakey regularly flies potential investors from Nairobi to Turkana to tour TBI’s two facilities, the first with about a dozen buildings situated on a bluff overlooking the Turkwel River, and a second, now under construction, near the village of Ileret on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. At both sites the research focuses on early human evolution.

“We bring them up here not necessarily to look for an investment opportunity but to meet some of their ancestors,” Leakey said, “and then, in the afternoon, show them some investment opportunities.”

Leakey’s persona and vision inspired philanthropist James Simons to propose a $5 million challenge grant. Paul Simon, the composer and singer, raised $2 million with concerts in Vancouver and New York, where high rollers such as David Rockefeller Jr. and IMAX chief Richard Gelfond, a Stony Brook alumnus, were guests.

Leakey’s track record of convincing others to support his work dates to the 1960s when, despite being a high school dropout, he convinced the National Geographic Society to fund a fossil dig at Lake Turkana. In the 1970s, as director of the Kenya National Museum, he won over opponents and dramatically expanded the museum’s scope. In 1989, as director of the Kenya Wildlife Conservation Department, he persuaded Kenya’s then-President, Daniel arap Moi, to burn 12 tons of elephant tusks, which the government had confiscated, to dramatically illustrate the country’s opposition to poaching and the ivory trade.

“He has an amazing ability with people,” Shirley Kenny, a former president of Stony Brook University who gave Leakey a faculty appointment in 2002, said. “He can bring people in and engage them in projects in a way that inspires them to do it.”

Leakey’s persuasive powers may face their greatest challenge in convincing traditional Turkana tribespeople to adopt whichever of his energy experiments prove successful.

As Narasimhan Santhanam, director and co-founder of Energy Alternative India, who has dedicated his life to exploring renewable energy options in India, said, it takes more than just investment to change traditions. Moving traditional desert-dwellers beyond charcoal fires depends on the people of the land, on whether mechanical energy systems can be replicated effectively and efficiently and on the availability of trained staff.

Some local Turkana have embraced the opportunity to learn. TBI’s staff of 60 includes Turkana men who operate machines that could catapult their age-old practices into modern ones. For instance, one group runs a diesel-powered water pump that supplies water to nearly 200 people in a nearby village. The water, which comes from an underground aquifer, has reduced the incidence of cholera, Leakey said.

Leakey admitted the drive for energy self-sufficiency, both at the institute and in the community, may be a selfish endeavor. “It’s just letting me sleep better,” he said.

But Leakey is a man used to getting his way, and his latest dream may result in more than a good night’s sleep. “Until we teach people to help themselves,” he said, “they cannot be helped.”