Can a High-Tech Wood Stove Save the World?
Monday, July 20, 2015
So, this is cool. It’s a stove, powered by wood or cow dung or whatever other combustible material you happen to have lying around, that generates an almost smokeless, gas-like flame — and also enough electricity to light a room or charge your phone.
I saw this particular stove in action recently at the headquarters of BioLite, a Brooklyn, New York, startup with grand ambitions. The company began as a side project of two guys at the design-consulting firm Smart Design who wanted to build camping stoves that didn’t require bringing fuel along. They came up with a design that uses a fan powered by the heat of burning wood to blow air onto that wood and get it to burn much more efficiently.
In 2012, Alec Drummond and Jonathan Cedar started selling their BioLite camping stoves online. Since 2013 they’ve been available at REI and other outdoor retailers. Along the way, though, Drummond and Cedar learned that there’s a global campaign under way to get cleaner-burning cookstoves into people’s homes in developing countries. About 3 billion people worldwide depend on open fires or traditional stoves for cooking and heating; exposure to their smoke and fumes is responsible for an estimated 4.3 million premature deaths a year. BioLite’s stove technology seemed like it might be able to help with that.
And so BioLite is going global. It distributed its first 10,000 home stoves last year in Ghana, India and Uganda. In Ghana this was part of a public health trial, funded by the National Institutes of Health, to compare the effects on pregnant women of using BioLite versus gas stoves. In India and Uganda it was a commercial test to find out how much people were willing to pay (current thinking is between $50 and $60) and get feedback from customers on how well the stove works. Next spring the company plans to start selling home stoves at scale.
That’s all pretty exciting. But there have been earlier efforts to displace sooty open fires with cleaner cookstoves, and most have flopped. India’s National Programme on Improved Chulhas in 1985 started distributing 35 million stoves with chimneys that were supposed to vent smoke outdoors but (a) often didn’t do that very well and (b) never really caught on with consumers even though the stoves were given away by the government. Not long after that effort wound down in the early 2000s, several multinational companies targeting what the late management scholar C.K. Prahalad dubbed the “bottom of the pyramid” moved into the Indian cookstove market.