Study leader Tami Bond, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, said biomass-burning cookstoves are used throughout the developing world -- using wood, agricultural waste and other organic matter as fuel -- but they are a major cause of poor air quality.
Similar to automobiles undergoing emission testing before sold, cookstoves are tested in the laboratory for emissions.
"The understanding of how people really use combustion devices is important if we're going to optimize that device," Bond said in a statement. "In the laboratory, where tests are conducted by trained people, there's a lot more attention to operating the stove carefully. At home, people are not as concerned with its operation; they're more concerned with making a meal. So they operate in ways that are non-optimal."
However, these variations in use are masked by the current methods of testing, which use only average values to determine emissions -- sort of like a snapshot of the stove in operation, not accounting for variation in use.
Bond's research team developed a real-time analysis technique that allows researchers to compare emissions under different operating conditions and to measure how often a stove operates under certain conditions in the field.
The findings were published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.