At this point, any observant tech ethnographer knows that no one leaves their home without at least three things: wallet, key and cell phone. But lately, with the kind of short term battery life that smart phones have, I've noticed that more people are now adding another essential: some way to charge the phone. That might be a solar generator, an extra battery, a USB battery or even just a USB cord that you can plug into a power source when necessary.
But anyone who's done fieldwork knows that finding a charge can be difficult. Sure, solar panels can help, but only if it's sunny. Finding a way to keep your phone charged can mean the difference between having accurate GPS and connectivity in the field and returning to the days of paper notes and navigating by a compass. Which is why I was excited to learn about the FlameStower, which made the rounds a few weeks ago.
It's an incredibly simple and portable design, no more complicated than a simple camping stove. And when you place the blade extension over a flame or other source of heat, it transfers the heat to a small container of water. The water keeps one side cool, thus creating a temperature differential that is then transferred into electric energy. That energy can be used to send a charge through a USB port and into your device or even a set of rechargeable batteries. According to their FAQ, the power generated in this way is equivalent to that of a USB cord plugged into your laptop. So it's not a full electric charge but it's not too shabby either.
The FlameStower is reminiscent of the BioLite HomeStove, which won a Core77 Design Award this year. But while the BioLite is designed for long term use in a home context, the FlameStower is clearly meant for the traveler off the beaten path. It's also easy to imagine a device like this being an essential part of an emergency kit. The sun is not always available, and electric outlets definitely aren't ubiquitous. But most campers do have to cook and create a flame at some point, and they're definitely carrying water. Having a device like this handy can make a ton of sense.
An Xiao Mina is an American designer strategist and researcher who recently worked on the Gwangju Design Biennale's Un-Named Design exhibition. She focuses on the role of social media and communications technologies in building communities and empowering individuals. Find her on Twitter here.