Cooking Up Innovation

BioLite's wood-fired cook stoves are bringing clean, reliable power to people in developing countries.
By Tim Portz | July 01, 2013

Jonathan Cedar and BioLite co-founder Alexander Drummond met in a product design shop in New York in 2006. Quickly realizing they shared a passion for sustainable design, the two went to work developing a camping stove that operated on a fuel other than petroleum products. A last minute entry—and subsequent win—at a clean stove competition at a conference focused on biomass use in developing nations led to the development of the company’s HomeStove product. With the product's design now finalized, BioLite is working to grow distribution so more people can benefit from the powerful tool Cedar and his team have created.

Talk a little about your background.

My background is in engineering and environmental science. I did my undergraduate work at Dartmouth’s school of engineering. After that, for a few years, I did a combination of undergraduate teaching and energy research with an oceanographic research group. BioLite started as a nights and weekends project back in 2006, with my co-founding partner, Alec Drummond, during which our initial objective was to create a camping stove that didn’t require petroleum. The insight was that by using a fan to force air into the combustion mixture in particular ways, you could promote certain types of gasification or secondary combustion that made wood extremely clean and easy to use as a fuel, which was surprising to us at the time.

What were some of your earliest efforts in product design?

I’ve always been a tinkerer type. Going back to when I was a little kid, I probably broke every possession my parents owned trying to take it apart and figure out how it worked. In high school, I spent half of my afternoons scrounging around junkyards for old motor parts to build go-karts. In college, my engineering program, while no one was talking about product design, was very much design and build. Half of every course was a rote knowledge component, and the other half was taking the theory and the calculations and applying it to a real world system. For example, if it was a thermodynamics course, you would do the math behind a sterling engine, but you would also go down to the machine shop and fabricate an innovation on the sterling engine that would improve the temperature differential. You would have to actually build one and make it work.

Can you explain the prototyping of BioLite’s first effort, the CampStove?

We had the luxury and burden of having to go through five to seven full-scale generations of the product over a five-year period. I think for a normal company that would be a heck of a lot of time, especially for an early stage company. But we started with very simple, quick and dirty proof of concept prototypes: folded sheet metal; cutting the inside out of a stainless steel thermos and punching a bunch of holes in it. We tried to break it out and design each of the systems separately, so we built ways to adjust primary and secondary airflows independently. We did a lot of refinement of the systems at the individual scale, and then in each generation we would refine the individual systems, build them back up into an integrated prototype and kept that.
What triggered the development of the HomeStove? It seems the market for this product is completely different than the market for the CampStove, yet the technology is virtually the same.

In 2008, when we were on our third iteration of the CampStove and the prototype was becoming a recognizable product, we went to a clean wood combustion conference—with a camping user still in mind—with the thought that we were going there to learn more about advanced biomass combustion. It turned out to be very different. First of all, the conference was almost exclusively about the use of biomass as a primary fuel in developing countries. Every day, 3 billion people cook on wood, and the emissions from those fires kills 4 million people every year, more than malaria and HIV combined. So our eyes were opened to the need. At the same time, we had our funny little prototype and we entered it into the clean cook stove competition that year—really impromptu—and we ended up winning the cleanest stove of the year award. We were the only stove that wasn’t plugged into a wall outlet to achieve those low levels of emissions.

Can you elaborate on how the CampStove and HomeStove work?

The stoves are both what we call closely coupled gasifiers. The HomeStove is built around the combustion architecture commonly known as a rocket stove. This is a rocket stove with limited primary air and forced secondary combustion. It’s mixing methodologies of a closely coupled gasifier and a side-fed stove, allowing the use of much larger pieces of wood, essentially logs that may be used in a potbelly stove. The product and the combustion technologies are somewhat different between the two, but what is the same is the thermoelectric system that drives the forced air for mixing, also creating extra electricity that can be used to charge mobile phones, LED lights, or anything that is USB chargeable.

We first saw the application in these potbelly stovetop fans that use the heat from the top surface of the stove as a power source to circulate heat around the room. We thought, “We’ve got 5 kW of heat in this fire, and we only need a couple of watts of electricity to do some pretty useful stuff.” 

You are deploying large-scale pilot programs in India, Ghana and Uganda. What do you hope to learn and iron out as a result?

We’ve been through two and a half years of prototype refinement, and qualitative product testing and market analysis of the home stoves. Now, we’re trying to answer three questions in what we call “at-scale commercial pilots.” The first question regards the willingness to pay. The second question is how we work effectively with our distribution partners there. In a place where there is no Walmart, Target or REI, what does it take for us to be effective partners? Of the partners we were working with initially, most of them looked like Avon models of sale where local village-level representatives essentially do door-to-door sales. There would be a public demonstration and an opportunity to interact with the product, so how do we work effectively with those partners? So that’s the second piece—how we market it. I think the third question is, how do we support it? What kinds of ongoing maintenance will be required for the product? So far we have found very little, but we know that there will be a place where you can’t FedEx a warranty claim back to the factory, so how do we train these agents to support the product effectively?

What most excites you about bringing a more reliable energy solution to people in developing nations?

If you look at the magnitude of the effect of open fire cooking in developing countries, you are talking about a problem that is something on the order of the world’s No.1  killer. The idea that a device like this could have impact on the scale of penicillin is a pretty humbling opportunity. It’s hard to wrap your mind around that on a daily basis. I think what gives us a lot of pleasure is going into markets where companies haven’t spent as much time thinking about what consumers want, and what will make their lives easier and more pleasurable on a day-to-day basis. Being able to say, “Hey we’ve thought a lot about this and I think you are really going to enjoy using it.” Not even talking about the health benefits, just talking about the same product attributes that make you and me want to buy an iPhone, and seeing the pleasure on people’s faces when experiencing a product like that.

Finally, I would say the piece that I’m most excited about, personally, is the team that we’ve built here as a company, the wide breadth of capabilities in combustion, electrical, mechanical, mass manufacture and marketing. It really feels like we’ve built a team as a company that is ready to tackle huge problems.