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BioLite Is The Stove That Could Save Millions a Year

Weekend campers and weekday engineers Alec Drummond and Jonathan Cedar were annoyed by the inefficiencies of portable stoves. They required batteries, a charge, or fuel, all of which had to be rationed and could run out in the middle of an excursion. Between 2006 and 2008, they designed a prototype for a replacement: a stove that generates electricity from its own flame. They call it BioLite, and it has since inspired something a lot more significant than better camping.

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The Global Realization

A burning flame is hard to control, making it even harder to use for generating energy. But Drummond and Cedar came up with a fascinating process that relied on the fact that focusing air on a particular place in a fire can improve combustion and actually reduce the amount of smoke that results. They equipped their wood-burning stove with a thermoelectric generator, which converted a portion of the heat from the fire—something on the level of one watt from the fire's 3,000 watts of thermal energy—into electricity. That electricity powered an internal battery and a fan, which provided that focused air to create a clean, efficient, and nearly smokeless fire. The fact that the battery also worked to charge electronic devices was just an extra bonus.

When Drummond and Cedar brought their invention to an advanced wood-combustion conference in Seattle, they had one of those "didn't get the memo" moments: while they were excited about what their stove could do for campers like themselves, everyone else there seemed to care more about issues in developing countries stemming from unsafe cooking and unequal energy accessibility. They learned that 43 percent of the worldwide population still cooks their food on open flames, and often inside homes with poor ventilation. This is a toxic combination that causes 4.3 million deaths every year. According to the World Health Organization, that's more deaths than are caused by HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

75-year-old widow Mayanja Evelyn uses her HomeStove to help her neighbors charge their devices in Kabusi, Uganda.

The Worldwide Action

Drummond and Cedar realized that BioLite was the solution—but good luck getting venture capitalists to fund a goal as risky as getting clean-burning stoves to the developing world. Instead, they approached investors with the plan to sell the BioLite to campers in the industrialized world. Then they used the sales to fund stoves in the developing world.

There, the stoves go for $50 a pop, which local partners help offset with microfinancing and other methods. It's worth the hefty price tag, since it saves people in those areas more than $200 a year on fuel and power—not to mention the fact that it eliminates 94 percent of smoke and 91 percent of carbon dioxide produced by an open fire.

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