The BioLite Stove was founded by Jonathan Ceder and Alexander Drummond. Most recently, BioLite won the 2011 St. Andrews Prize for the Environment in May. We had a chance to speak with Clay Burns, who is the product development lead for the company.
Core77: First off, could you please describe a bit about your background and how you got involved with the BioLite Stove.
Clay Burns: I've always liked making things and trying to solve creative problems. I studied engineering and art at Dartmouth College and what was then called "human factors" in graduate school. For about ten years I was a partner at Smart Design. The co-founders of the BioLite technology, Jonathan Cedar and Alec Drummond, also worked there. In addition to typical big client projects, one of my adopted roles was to foster internal, pro-bono, and sustainable design projects. Jonathan and Alec's biomass stove idea was one of those internal projects and over time the two inventors left Smart to take a shot at being entrepreneurs. We all kept in touch and I went to work on my own a few years ago. In early 2011, when two product markets were clearly defined and funding was secured to really make a go of it, I joined BioLite as a product development lead.
What is the BioLite stove?
The main benefit of BioLite is to reduce emissions from people cooking on wood stoves (which is 1/3rd of the world). All the incomplete combustion contributes CO, CO2, and black carbon. This is inhaled by a family's lungs. Smoke inhalation is the second biggest killer in the world after malnutrition.
The technology uses the heat of a biomass (e.g. wood) fire to generate its own electricity and run a small fan that adds air in a specific manner to improve combustion, saving fuel and dramatically reducing emissions in the process. And because the energy generated by the fire is more than is needed to power the fan, we are exploring other features, such as charging a cell phone or powering a small LED lamp.
What need is it serving?
There are two products, the HomeStove for developing world, where roughly 2 billion people still cook with wood or other biomass, and the CampStove for the outdoor markets of primarily developed countries. The HomeStove serves the needs of reducing fuel use, which saves scarce money and time collecting wood, and improves indoor air quality, reducing one of the leading causes of diseases associated with indoor smoke inhalation. The world has been working on this problem for years, and has recently consolidated initiatives through the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
The CampStove serves the needs of hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who prefer a lightweight, efficient, biomass cooking alternative to petrol fuels. Many people like the idea that they can always use the stove as long as there is biomass around—no worrying whether you packed enough propane canisters.
The biggest push ever is happening right now [to solve smoke inhalation death], in India, China, Africa, and the US. We would love to make the BioLite Stove last for generations, but cost is prohibitive. We could make it durable, but no one would be able to afford it. It will most likely have a 3-5 year lifetime, which we could extend with refurbishing. A local seller could clean it out and replace some electronics.
How exactly does it work?
We use a Thermo-electric Generator (TEG) to convert heat to electricity. This is a known, available, solid-state component. We're applying it in slightly improved ways to maximize energy generated. At the same time, we are controlling the air added to the fire in a way that burns up more smoke and particulates.
Design for third-world problems is a current hot trend; why is the BioLite Stove THE problem-solving product?
Lab testing has shown that the BioLite stove can reduce harmful emissions better than current clean cookstoves. At the same time, turning the cookstove into a small energy hub by using waste heat to provide some lighting or charging is a potential game-changer for rural, unelectrified areas.
Who is the team behind BioLite? What experience do they bring to the table in terms of actual contact with the end users?
Most of us come from the product design world (Smart Design) and bring a consumer-driven design approach to our work. We've been to India, Africa, and Central America to test our prototypes with rural villagers and will continue to do so as we refine the final products. We are also connected with several research and academic organizations, both on the health side and economic empowerment side. These programs help bring new stoves to users.
How will the products be released?
The CampStove will come out first. This is our way of subsidizing our developing world products—customers with more money will subsidize customers with less money. That will give us a boost to continue with development of the HomeStove. We'll then roll out the HomeStove through pilot programs with research institutions.
Dave Seliger is a Postgrad Fellow in Logistics and Ext Affairs at the NYC Office of Emergency Management. He has extensive experience helping firefighters, police officers, and disaster responders improve their services through design.