Inventions: The BioLite Stove
Co-Inventor: Jonathan Cedar ’03
By Jonathan Mingle
At first Jonathan Cedar ’03 and Alec Drummond just wanted to make a camping stove that didn’t burn gas or use batteries. The two colleagues at Smart Design in New York City, both engineers and outdoors enthusiasts, figured there had to be a way to better harness one of the world’s most ubiquitous resources.
“We basically said, ‘How do you use wood as a modern fuel?’ The whole idea is to jettison the fuel supply chain,” Cedar says. Several prototypes later, they realized that their solution—a biomass-powered cook stove that uses its own waste heat to improve combustion efficiency—had resonance beyond camping. Almost 3 billion people around the world still cook with wood and dung on open fires or in inefficient stoves. The resulting pollution leads to more than 2 million premature deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization.
So Cedar and Drummond quit their jobs and teamed with Thayer alum Jonathan den Hartog ’03 Th’05 to found BioLite, a Brooklyn-based company that aims to transform the way millions cook.
BioLite’s core innovation is an ingenious deployment of a Peltier junction—a device that uses the temperature difference between two metals to create electric current. BioLite installs the junction in a wood-burning chamber. As the wood burns, the junction sends current to a blower, which pulls in air for improved combustion.
There’s an innovative bonus, too. The excess power generated can charge small electronic devices of up to four watts through a USB port. The prospect of a wood-powered iPhone has gear and gadget blogs abuzz here in the United States and could appeal equally in the developing world. India, for example, has more than 900 million cell phone subscribers and chronic electricity shortages.
BioLite claims that its stoves produce 90 percent fewer particulate and carbon monoxide emissions and use 50 percent less wood than cooking over an open fire. If its HomeStove sells well in India and sub-Saharan Africa, it could make a serious dent in the health crisis caused by chronic exposure to these pollutants.
Cedar, who majored in engineering modified with environmental science, sees another potential benefit of the technology: cutting soot’s black carbon emissions, a major contributor to global warming. “But the biggest story here is that two million people die,” he says. “That’s ultimately, in my view, the reason to be doing this.”
—Jonathan Mingle is a freelance writer.