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Light My Fire

Thu, 06/21/2012 - 1:09pm
Meaghan Ziemba, Associate Editor, Product Design & Development

BioLite stove products are making camping and cooking with wood more environmentally friendly, as well as providing an off-the-grid outlet for consumers to charge their phones, lights, and other electronics.

In 2006, design engineers Alec Drummond and Jonathan Cedar met at New York City-based design consultancy, Smart Design. It was there that they shared a philosophy of applying efficient design to real-world problems.

Drummond, co-founder of BioLite, wanted to create a wood-burning stove that utilized its own thermal energy to burn wood as cleanly as gas. Together, Cedar and Drummond developed a system to convert waste heat into electricity, powering not only a combustion-improving fan, but also electricity to charge phones, lights, and other electronics off the grid.

Weekend Project

After years spent as a night and weekend project, the idea turned into a full-time business in 2009 with the development of the BioLite Camp Stove, which is a portable stove that eliminates the need for petroleum gas, and reduces the amount of smoke emissions. “In the very beginning, we only looked at camping products,” recalls Jonathan Cedar, CEO of BioLite. “In 2008, we took our early prototypes of the Camp Stove to a conference that focused on issues in developing countries. We won the top prize for the cleanest stove, which was the only stove that achieved that level of emissions reductions without being plugged into a wall outlet.”

That particular conference helped inspire Drummond and Cedar to see if they could design adaptable technology for people in developing countries – who do most of their cooking on open fires. From 2008 onward, BioLite created a hybrid model, where they would incubate core technologies that could be commercialized across both developed and developing markets. The near-term revenue from selling CampStoves in outdoor recreation markets helped to incubate the introduction of the HomeStove in developing areas, which is a bigger model than the CampStove.

During the design process of the HomeStove, Cedar notes how one of the biggest challenges was really understanding the needs of the users in the developing countries. “Their needs were less familiar to us than the camping users,” says Cedar. “We spent a lot of time in the field in India, Ghana, and Uganda, so we could get a sense of how our products were being used. We looked at ways to refine our products, and made sure they met the local cooking habits.”

Converting Waste Heat into Electricity

Both the BioLite HomeStove and CampStove use the same sophisticated technology that, according to Cedar, required substantial prototyping and testing to arrive at the final design. BioLite used CAD software programs, such as SolidWorks and ProEngineer to figure out the geometries of the design, and Computational Fluid Design to simulate the heat exchange that occurs in each of the stoves.

To convert the waste heat from the wood fire into electricity, the stoves use solid-state devices called thermoelectric generators. Electricity from the system is used first to power a fan, which pumps extra oxygen into the fire, causing the smoke to essentially re-burn, making the stoves super clean. The excess electricity is then made available to users for charging small electronic devices, such as mobile phones, LED lights, GPS, and many others.

“One thing that is really interesting about our energy system is that it’s on demand,” says Cedar. “When you light a fire, there’s immediately electricity for you to charge things, which is very different from solar power. Solar power creates small amounts of energy over longer periods of time and only when it’s in the sun. We create twice as much power as a typical, small-scale solar charger, and we are not dependent on time of day, weather, or direct sunlight.”

Endless Fuel Supply

Aside from decreasing the amount of emissions, BioLite’s CampStove and HomeStove offer other advantages. For the camping market, campers do not have to carry fuel with them, which can take up space and be strenuous to carry (depending on the container size). They also do not need to worry about running out of fuel, because they can just use the wood in the surrounding environment.

“Another big advantage is right now, there are no stoves available that will also charge your electronics,” states Cedar. “More and more people are carrying their cell phones, GPS, and LED lamps out into the woods with them, and they have no way to keep them charged.”

Supplier for Off-Grid Clients

BioLite considers itself a consumer-facing company that services a broad range of energy needs for off-grid clients. “Whether that’s in developing countries, recreational markets, or emergency situations, we want to be the leading developer and manufacturer of off-grid energy services,” says Cedar. “Right now we are starting specifically in the cooking-end, but we will be moving broadly into the energy market, with a range of technologies that consumers haven’t really seen before.”

For more information visit http://biolitestove.com.

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