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A Great Stove with A Killer App


A note from the editor:

We were thrilled to learn this morning that BioLite, the company behind the stove featured in today’s post, won the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open held last night (10 June, 2010) in Monterey, California. The annual event is an “early stage business competition focused on connecting the existing global brands and socially responsible investor communities to the most innovative new product and service solutions being brought to market by today’s social and eco-entrepreneurs.” We hope the recognition bestowed upon BioLite will draw investor interest for this innovative product. Way to go, BioLite!

Read an online article by FastCompany about the SB Innovation Open and BioLite.

The BioLite cookstove

 

 

 

 

Will the BioLite stove become the iPod of cookstoves?

From a marketing perspective, improved cookstoves could benefit from Apple’s amazing ability to turn a utilitarian device, like a mobile phone, into a aspirational lifestyle must-have, like the iPhone.

Unlike China and India, Africa probably does not make the cut for Apple’s priority markets, but that’s not to say Africans are immune to aspirational marketing strategies. In fact, now that a third of the sub-Saharan population owns a cell phone, companies like Nokia, Motorola, Siemens, and Ericsson are probably quite pleased with their performance across the continent.

Now, if only we could figure out a way to combine the allure of sexy technology with the utilitarian nature of energy-efficient cookstoves.

Well, guess what, folks, this may have finally happened!

 

 

 

Hello, world.

 

 

 

 

The US-based BioLite company has produced a stove that integrates the killer app: a tiny, built-in electric generator that can charge cell phones and other small electronic devices. Which means this feature has the potential to turn the BioLite cookstove into the must-have appliance for every urban households burning biomass anywhere in the world.

The BioLite cookstove is actually a hybrid of two technologies. On one side is the thermo-electric co-generator developed by the company founders. On the other is the improved rockestove built by the StoveTec company, a branch of non-profit Aprovecho Research Center, which has been building and testing stoves for decades. (Read our feature on Aprovecho.) The Biolite stove was tested and perfect at the Aprovecho labs in the fall of 2009.

The idea is as simple as it is revolutionary. Take a basic rocket stove, attach a cigarette-pack-size thermoelectric generator to the side, and, voila, you now have a handsome, very-well performing improved cookstove that charges your cell phone while significantly reducing fuel consumption, carbon monoxide, and smoke emissions! For the many urban households in Africa that own cell phones but don’t have access to electricity, the BioLite stove would appear to fulfill a critical need.

 

 

 

See a video of the cookstove in action.

 

 

 

The nuts and bolts are easier to crack than Apple’s latest iPhone.

The stove’s chasis is a modified rocket stove that burns regular wood sticks through its side-feed port. The fired-up stove powers a side-mounted fan that forces air into the combustion chamber while also generating 1 – 2 watts, enough juice to charge a cell phone, mp3 player, or LED rechargeable lamp during a normal day’s cooking.

 

 

 

Stove charging cell phone

 

 

 

 

To Gassify or not gassify? For Alec Drummond, Founder and Chief Technology Officer of BioLite, the answer is clear. “It’s come to everyone’s realization that the future of cookstoves must be forced air gassification because you just can’t get the emissions down enough with out it.”

The stove can also be modified to generate between 5 – 10 watts, which means a cook can listen to the radio while preparing the stew. How cool is that?

Making the stove affordable will obviously play a major role in its large-scale adoption. The target price per unit is about $20 says Jonathan Ceder, BioLite’s CEO and Founder. What the final price turns out to be to consumers will largely depend on transportation and duties. And, yes, BioLite is looking for investors.

Here’s the skinny from BioLite’s company literature, which has chosen to downplay the stove’s electricity-generating capability and focus on its high efficiency and low emissions, instead.

Previous Efforts: A number of companies, including, Philips, BP, Envirofi t and StoveTec, have attempted to address this need (reduced emissions, increase fuel efficiency) with improved cook stoves. The resulting products can be grouped into two main categories, “rocket stoves” and “gassifier stoves”. Both groups of stoves reduce fuel use by 25-50%. Rocket stoves have shown strong field acceptance due to their low cost and simple side-loading operation but only achieve a 50% smoke reduction. By contrast, gassifier stoves are able to provide greater than 90% smoke reductions by adding fans to promote complete combustion. However these stoves require external electricity supply, necessitate additional fuel preparation, tedious top loading, and are substantially more expensive due to complex construction.

The BioLite Solution: The BioLite stove resolves nearly all shortcomings of the current generation of cook stoves, offering unparalleled smoke reductions in an affordable, user friendly design. Leveraging our patent-pending thermoelectric fan technology, the BioLite stove achieves a 95% smoke reduction without reliance on external power sources. Unlike previous gassifier stoves,
our design uses unprepared, side-fed sticks offering users a simple, well-adapted interaction similar to the rocket stove. Perhaps most importantly, the BioLite stove is affordable. Simplifications in the design allow the stove to be manufactured at nearly half the cost competitive ultra-clean stoves.

Co-Benefits: Our thermoelectric technology also provides an opportunity to deliver a small amount of electricity to off-grid consumers for LED lighting, cell phone charging or other electronic devices. This unique capability provides immediate value to both female users and male purchasers, augmenting long term returns from fuel savings and improved health.

 

As implementers of stove project know, getting households to overcome cultural barriers to adopt new improved cookstoves hasn’t always been easy. Telling people that a stove burns cleaner and uses less fuel is not always enough to get them to change habits.

“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. 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,” says Drummond.

Working with a Indian partner, BioLite plans to make the stove available to expecting mothers as part of a pre-natal care program.

The stove has also been deployed at Project Surya in the Sultanpur District in India’s Uttar Pradesh state.  This village has close to 300 households and most of the inhabitants live below the poverty line. Project Surya aims to mitigate the regional impacts of global warming by immediately and demonstrably reducing atmospheric concentrations of black carbon, methane, and ozone. Project Surya will replace the highly polluting cookstoves traditionally employed in rural areas with clean-cooking technologies.

In the end, however, the thermoelectric generator may just be the right incentive to get cooks to want to use a better stove. Nice job BioLite!



5 Comments

  1. admin says:

    We thought Crispin’s comment was enlightening and so have reposted here:

    Dear Kim

    I think the strong desire, often expressed on this list, to have some means for doing exactly that is going to be widely welcomed!

    The solid state ingredients are developing year on year and BioLite has been an early leader in applying it to small stoves. I think the first time ‘we’ saw a stove from them that used the present combination was at ETHOS 2009 connected to a small fan-assisted gasifier. It was of course very clean burning but the interesting bit was that it produced the electricity to run
    the fan. The method is to put a copper bar into the flame and conduct the heat to the hot side of a TEG (thermoelectric generator) which powers a fan
    that cools the cold side. The fan of course produces a blast of air that can be used to make more fire. It is preheated too.

    There is a market, immediately, for a bolt-on device that can tolerate the temperatures found around a stove. It has been a bit frustrating that the great majority of really interesting, let’s say novel, stove work has been done by individuals. The cost of the TEG’s when bought in small numbers is 10 times the price offered to bulk buyers (50,000 at a time). The fragility and cost means that each test runs the risk of losing the device so it is really hard to get ‘back yard’ innovation from volunteers.

    Everything about the present developments is really encouraging. Prices are falling, there is more understanding of small combustors available, the
    products are more tolerant of heat and the output is rising. A recent breakthrough in LED technology is set to greatly increase the light output per watt. We are probably already at a stage of being able to cook for and light a home using less fuel that has been consumed to date.

    Some feel that charging cell phones is perhaps not a high priority with the extremely poor, however families often have a wage earner in an urban area
    (or commercial farm). Communication is probably the No 2 priority after food. Investigating the cost of keeping batteries charged (as a % of income) shows where the ranking is. Cecil Cook investigated the cost of electricity from batteries in the late 70’s (in Southern Africa) and told me it was about $50 per kWh. I think it remains at about that level. Thus charging something from cooking heat is a really attractive proposition.

    I like the fact that the best of science and technology has been applied, one way or the other, to solving the communication and power needs of the poorest on the planet.

    Regards
    Crispin Pemberton-Pigott

  2. John Gold says:

     
    John Gold
    August 13, 2010 @ 16:13
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I think the original “Biolite” product a small portable camping stove with retractable legs and the built in TEG was by far a much better idea than this big clunky rocket bucket.

    In reality both do the same job/thing to a degree however the more portability and power capacity in terms of a compact unit the more desirable the actual product becomes as opposed to something a bit too big although i do suppose that different sizes will fill different niche’s.

    I tried submitting a letter to “Biolite” and recieved no reply which is never a good P.R. move so i guess time will tell what happens although if i were to cast a vote or go with a product i’d stay away from big and clunky prefering a compact and portable smaller unit.

    Imagine “Biolites” portable camping cooker with double the power being aptly contained while feeding a pair of specially made stove jet nozzle’s and capable perhaps of powering a 40watt light bulb or better and all while making small work of boiling or cooking any meal.

    Thats where its really at, small, truly portable while powerful rather than large or rather clunky so i think their original idea was right on the mark and the first to produce the highest expression of a truly portable device will emerge as a clear winner.

    John G.

  3. Pingback:NYT: Energy poverty on the agenda for 2011 « The Charcoal Project

  4. Allen Sides says:

    We are working on a project in Africa and are very interested in your stove. How can we move forward and possible put some of these units in Africa? My phone is 813-433-7324.

    Thanks

  5. S Blevins says:

    Good for Africa- not so good for campers or expeditions. Doubt this will see much success in western world markets. Needs some mods to meet hiker, outfitter or expedition use. Not much wattage output compared to available 30-50 mm thermogenerators. Solar chargers work better in warm weather, if this is a cold weather alternative it needs to have a differen design agenda to be a good fit. Great technology- just definitely geared for the third world. Though- if so, they need to get that price down even further – that $20 will end up as a $100+ at the African market…out of reach.

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