Lightbulb moment for 'clean' stove design

Mon, Aug 27, 2012, 01:00

AS SOON AS I set eyes on the BioLite camp stove, I fell in love. It was February, hardly peak time for camping, and the stove was not yet in production, but the photos online showed a sleek portable stove burning pine cones and twigs rather than gas.

I’m a fair-weather camper, but a huge fan of cooking outdoors, even if it’s just frying sausages at the end of a hike. Everything about this stove appealed. The romantic in me prefers the crackle of flames to the roar of gas; my latent Girl Guide enjoys the notion of gathering sticks as I walk; I’d prefer not to throw empty gas canisters into land-fill; and my inner miser was drawn to all that free fuel. This last is something of a false economy, as the BioLite camp stove is not cheap ($129 plus eye-watering PP charges), but my boyfriend’s birthday was coming up, turning profligacy into generosity in one fell swoop.

When the stove arrived in June, we sat on the balcony, merrily burning disposable chopsticks, and marvelling at how quickly a saucepan of water came to the boil (less than four minutes). What neither of us anticipated was that our stove would catapult us straight to the top of the hipster Olympics, when a group of us headed out to a lake next weekend.

As the sun went down, everyone was fascinated not by the flames but by the USB outlet neatly stowed in the base of the stove. By converting excess heat from the fire into electricity, the BioLite can charge iPhones and the like while you cook. A friend posted a photo on Facebook. Half on hour later, he reported over 100 Likes, and several urgent requests: “What is that thing?” “Amazing!” “Want!”

The brains behind BioLite are Jonathan Cedar (31) and Alex Drummond (53), two American designers who started working on a prototype wood-burning camp stove as a side project five years ago. The gizmo they came up with is a thermo-electric generator, which converts heat from the flames directly into electricity. This in turn powers a small fan, which makes for a much more efficient fire (the wood gassifies, promoting clean combustion). Any excess electricity can be used to power phones or run lights. Only when Cedar and Drummond entered their design into a competition to find a “clean” stove, and won, did they realised their technology had potential way beyond charging iPods in the Rockies.

Three billion people worldwide cook on open fires, often in enclosed spaces. The World Health Organisation estimates smoke inhalation (which causes, or exacerbates pneumonia, bronchitis, cancers and low birth weight) kills nearly two million people a year, many of them children under five.

Then there’s the environmental impact of three billion open fires, each producing as much carbon dioxide each year as a car. Since the 1990s, the race has been on to create a cook stove for use in developing countries, but so far, stoves that are cheap and easy to use, such as the so-called “rocket stoves”, reduce emissions by only 20 per cent, while stoves using a fan greatly improve burning but need an external power source.

This technology could be the missing link. The larger BioLite home stove reduces smoke by 95 per cent, and nearly eliminates the black carbon so harmful to the atmosphere. Initial user trials on four continents returned good results, and this year the home stove is being rolled out in large-scale pilot programmes in India, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.

BioLite falls into the category of social entrepreneurship rather than charity (they have already secured more than $1.8 million in investment) but every hipster who buys a camp stove – and there’s been a waiting list since June – supports RD on the home stove. And the big breakthrough of the BioLite – that USB outlet which so impressed our friends – is proving a draw with all of BioLite’s customers, from Brooklyn to Bengal, which has positive implications for the stove’s ability to effect change.

One of the biggest challenges when tackling the problem of smoke inhalation has always been convincing people to swap their traditional cooking fires for a stove. One is free, and known to work; the other may require an initial investment, and burn your injera. Yet in rural areas where electricity is either patchy or nonexistent, a stove that can power a light or charge a phone (the African continent is the fastest growing market for mobile phones, closely followed by Asia) is life-changing.

“Someone in the market for a stove may not necessarily care all that much about how the stove performs in terms of emissions and consumption,” says Drummond. “But if there’s this little added feature that can charge a little light, or a radio, or cell phone, then it becomes a more attractive stove.”


biolitestove.com

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