News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Off the Grid: Charging Your Smart Phone With Fire?

BioLite Camp Stove | Photo: BioLite

In the run-up to Hurricane Sandy's landfall last week, an intriguing gadget started making the social media rounds on Facebook and Twitter -- a portable wood-fueled stove that allows the user to charge small appliances via a USB port. About the size of a liter bottle, the BioLite converts heat from a small wood fire into electric power. A number of commenters online speculated that a stove like this might come in handy in a post-disaster situation in which both electric power and gas service are cut off to many thousands of people -- as is still the case across the Northeast. But is the BioLite really practical other than of emergency situations?

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The technology underpinning the BioLite is rather elegant. The user builds a small fire of twigs and other small pieces of wood fuel in a fire chamber, and a thermoelectric generator -- think of it as a solar panel for heat instead of light -- turns some of the fire's heat into electric power. The BioLite uses the power to charge a lithium ion battery, which runs a small fan in the base of the fire chamber. The fan blows to keep the fire stoked, maintaining its temperature. Excess electrical power can be drawn from the battery via a USB port, allowing you to charge mobile phones, pagers, cameras, flashlights, or whatever small USB-docked rechargable appliances you may have on hand. The company says that 20 minutes of charging with a hot fire can provide enough juice to power an hour of talk time on an iPhone 4S.

In an act somewhere between proof of concept and community aid action, BioLite staff set up free charging stations outside their Brooklyn headquarters after the worst of Sandy had passed over New York, and treated passersby to a little warmth and a place to recharge their phones:

Huddling around a Hurricane Sandy charging station | Photo: BioLite

ReWire lacks access to a BioLite stove for review purposes, so we're unable to affirm that the device works as promised -- or that it doesn't, for that matter. Outside Magazine did get ahold of one when the stoves were first released this summer, and their reviewer liked it just fine.

A few of the BioLite's features mean it may not gain as wide acceptance in California as it might elsewhere in the country. Our relatively temperate weather allows a lot more ultralight backpacking, and at two pounds the BioLight isn't ultralight. A very large number of backpacking destinations in the state forbid wood fires either during fire season or at all, and woodburning stoves are usually included in these bans. Gathering fuel, even of the small twigs and sticks gauge, is likewise forbidden in a lot of California's backcountry.

What's more, people unused to maintaining wood fires may find efficient use of any wood backpacking stove daunting, as compared to turning a knob and lighting a match for liquid fueled stoves. Building a wood fire inefficiently, with either too much or not enough fuel, with wet wood or the wrong species of tree, can lead to frustratingly long charging times -- not to mention camp cookery covered with soot.

Those caveats aside, the BioLite looks like a nifty toy for gearheads, and might well be a useful source of urban disaster survival gear for people with a bit of disposable income and a safe place to cook outdoors. And purchases of the BioLite Camp Stove help the company develop and distribute its main product, the BioLite Home Stove, designed to provide families in developing countries with a safer, healthier, more efficient way of cooking over small wood fires -- and providing them with a free source of electrical power on demand.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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