sticks burning in rocket stove
https://www.jet-flame.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Bricks.jpg
The Jet-Flame pushes jets of primary air into the fire to aid combustion.
  1. When a wooden stick is burned a lot of smoke is produced but the made charcoal at the tip of the wooden stick does not make much smoke.
    Rocket Stove: Push the sticks in slowly so the charcoal at the tip is burning.
    TLUD: Charcoal covers the slowly burning fresh wood.
  2. If the stove begins smoking, the solid wood is being turned into gas too quickly, too much wood gas is being produced and un-combusted fuel is escaping.
    Rocket Stove: Pull the sticks back until just the tips are burning.
    TLUD: Reduce the primary air.
  3. Mixing the smoke, gases, flame, and air reduces emissions.
    Rocket Stove and TLUD: Cut up the laminar flames with static mixing devices or jets of primary or secondary air. Aim the jets of secondary air into the flame and adjust the velocity of the jets to completely cover the burning fuel. Primary air jets can also achieve close to complete combustion. Excess velocity in primary or secondary jets is detrimental when it reduces the combustion temperature.
  4. For close to complete combustion the temperature in the combustion zone needs to be 850C or above. The woodgas and air and flame have to be thoroughly mixed. The residence time needs to be 0.2 seconds or more. Reduce the amount of woodgas entering the combustion zone until close to complete combustion is achieved. Biomass fuels with 15% or lower moisture content are easier to burn.
  5. It is necessary to tune the stove under an emissions hood to achieve close to complete combustion. Change one variable at a time and test until significance is achieved.

The ARC lab is located in the Oregon woods where “hippies” and “rednecks” live on small farms in approximately equal numbers and share numerous points of view. I learned about these overlapping values when I accompanied my Dad, a Christian community organizer, to pot-luck meetings at nearby Granges, members of a farmers’ association organized in 1867. The one hundred and sixty two Granges in Oregon sponsor social activities, community services, and political lobbying.

My Dad was taught community organizing by Saul Alinsky in Chicago. He reminded his students to “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/102748.Rules_for_Radicals  The people who have a problem have to be the ones to generate the solution. Mahatma Gandhi and E.F. Schumacher agreed. I watched my Dad as he listened and I admired his ability to help folks become aware that their constituency was a rainbow coalition.

Americans are a rich people but we often feel that life in the USA is getting worse and that this trend is out of control. Both “hippies” and “rednecks” can feel that nature is not being respected, that God has been forgotten, and that fighting for more money – being selfish – is largely responsible for the downward spiral. When many sorts of rural Oregonians visit our lab, they are happy that we are working to make renewably harvested biomass burn without making smoke.

Improving technologies can become a middle path that wins a rainbow coalition of friends.

Chart comparing energy output of 1 acre of grain vs 1 acre woodlot

The direct burning of biomass seems to be dramatically more efficient compared to ethanol for applications such as home heating, cooking, heating water, or drying clothes. It makes sense that not having to create alcohol from biomass would save energy. When the use of natural gas is decreased (due to climate change), burning biomass for heating seems like a fuel-efficient option that could reduce the extra burdens on electricity. 

One of my favorite reference books is “The Energy Primer” published in 1974. It has comprehensive review articles on solar, wind, water, and biomass energy. The following chart comes from a great article on biomass written by Richard Merrill. It shows that when renewable biomass is combusted, the efficiencies are much higher compared to making alcohol from biomass and then burning it.

The very clean burning of biomass allows efficient heating applications.

Chart comparing energy output of 1 acre of grain vs 1 acre woodlot
Smokestacks belch out smoke, spelling out CO2 in a blue sky. A Euro symbol floats to the right.
Smokestacks belch out smoke, spelling out CO2 in a blue sky. A Euro symbol floats to the right.
Image by Petra Wessman via Flickr

How can smoke, extremely dangerous for health and climate change, be ignored in carbon credit equations? Carbon dioxide and methane are counted but not smoke. Carbon dioxide is reduced when heat transfer is improved resulting in less wood being burned. Wood doesn’t make appreciable amounts of methane. 

Because smoke is not counted to earn carbon credits, smoky stoves with good heat transfer efficiency make as much money as clean burning stoves even though the Black Carbon in smoke is something like 680 times worse than CO2 by weight for warming. Because smoke is not included in climate credit math, adding clean burning to biomass cook stoves usually has to be as inexpensive as possible.

We know that adding high pressure mixing to Rocket stoves dramatically reduces smoke. As of 2022, forced draft is required to achieve adequate amounts of mixing. Mixing requires high pressures that (so far) cannot be made with natural draft. We know how to improve the Rocket but are in the process of completing the transformation to clean burning.

Nice to know the solution!

In 2021, ASAT (the for profit arm of ARC) won the Small Business Administration’s Tibbetts Award for work funded by their Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, awarded through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). ASAT Inc. staff pose with their Tibbetts Award: Sam Bentson, David Evitt, Jill Allen, Dean Still, Kim Still, and Dr. Nordica MacCarty.

The investigation of how to reduce emissions and fuel use in biomass stoves continued with support from an EPA SBIR award. Two products were manufactured by our Chinese partner SSM, a heating/cooking stove and the Jet-Flame, a $12 insert that has made stoves 67% cleaner burning in field tests. https://www.jet-flame.com/

The Gates funded Global Health Labs (Dr. Daniel Lieberman) also worked with ARC/ASAT and BURN (Peter Scott) to improve the Rocket stove. BURN and ARC/ASAT added fan driven mixing to the Rocket stove.

Learning how to optimize the use of high pressure jets of air at high, medium, and low power required hundreds of experiments. Different pressures are needed as firepower is adjusted. The size of the fuel also affects emission rates. Experiments under the LEMS hood determine the location of jets, pressure, and volume of air for varying applications.

Dr. Samuel Baldwin

In 2011, Dr. Samuel Baldwin at the Department of Energy (who wrote the Bible on cook stoves in 1987) organized a two-day 100 person conference to identify how cook stoves could be improved and manufactured. Key recommendations were:

  •  At least 90% emissions reduction and 50% fuel savings are appropriate initial targets for biomass cook stoves. 
  • Multiple stove designs will be needed to accommodate a variety of cooking practices, fuels, and levels of affordability.
  • Technical R&D should guide and be guided by field research, health, social science, and implementation programs. At every stage, laboratory and fieldwork should be integrated into an iterative cycle of feedback and improvement.
  •  The cost and performance tradeoffs associated with the use of processed versus unprocessed fuels should be explored. While processed fuels can improve stove emissions and efficiency, the processing adds additional costs and these fuels may require a fuel distribution system.

From 2013-2015, ARC received a grant from DOE and spent three years establishing a baseline of stoves in use and then improved five types of stove prototypes with the iterative development process using the LEMS emission hood. The lab testing showed how combustion and heat transfer could be improved in those five types of stoves with the hope that field testing would evolve useful products that use less fuel and make less smoke. A book was written: Clean Burning Biomass Cookstoves, (2015) available on the publications page. The book was updated in 2021.

In 2009, The New Yorker published an article about the Rocket stove entitled Hearth Surgery: The quest for a stove that can save the world. One year later, USAID funded field tests in Africa showed that the insulated Rocket stove was not cleaner burning than the open fire. The Rocket with skirt saved 40% of the fuel to cook and emissions were only reduced by that amount.

Not a Planet Saver, yet!

The insulated Rocket combustion chamber raised temperatures but as Dr. Winiarski realized at the time, flame, air, and gases were not adequately mixed to achieve sufficient combustion efficiency. Larry knew that the Rocket was smoky but it was simple to make and with a pot skirt saved fuel. He wanted to provide folks with a stove that was helpful and he realized that it wasn’t perfect.

Larry’s idea went viral worldwide and continues to be a favorite on the internet and in many low- and middle-income countries. Millions of Rocket stoves are manufactured and sold yearly by factories large and small.

Going viral is great but can have a downside especially when the initial products are not technically mature. It’s normal for first generation products to be improved as time goes by. The process of development continues in 2022.

The Field Informs the Lab

In Part 1, we gave examples of how field studies can provide unpleasantly surprising results. Rocket stoves were designed to make a little less smoke and use substantially less fuel. So when the rocket stove was field tested by USAID the inventor, Dr. Larry Winiarski, was not surprised that the stove still made smoke. But the ARC team was surprised that it was not a real improvement over the open fire.

In 2011 the goals for cookstoves published by the Department of Energy asked that a stove use 50% less fuel and make 90% less PM2.5 to protect health when used indoors. Now in 2022 stoves are also supposed to address climate change, which means emitting less PM2.5 and hopefully making less than 8% black carbon. Field tests show that we need to make more improvements to meet these specific goals.

How are these reductions achieved in the lab?

  1. Use a chimney to reduce in-home concentrations of CO and PM2.5.
  2. In lab tests, approximately 850°C gases need to flow in tight channel gaps around the pot(s) to reduce the fuel used to cook by about 50%.
  3. Molecular mixing at 850°C (0.2 second residence time) can achieve something like a 90% reduction of PM2.5 (requires forced draft in a Rocket stove).
  4. This mixing reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about the same amount.

Natural-draft and forced-draft TLUD stoves burning pellets and forced draft Jet-Flame stoves burning dry sticks without bark get close to these reductions in the lab. Unfortunately, they frequently do not yet meet these goals in the field.

The lab has to move into the field to learn if current technology can accomplish modern goals. Let’s go!

Next week in Part 3: sometimes field tests show success.

Cooking over an open fire in Ghana. (Photo: Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves)

The air in a kitchen has to be very clean to protect women and children from multiple diseases. Unfortunately, moderate amounts of smoke seem to damage health almost as much as higher concentrations. 

As exposure rises from zero, the chance that a child will get pneumonia increases sharply and then levels off so that indoor air with 200μg/m3 PM2.5 is almost as dangerous as air at 400μg/m3 (Burnett et al., 2014). The World Health Organization Intermediate Guideline for PM2.5 is 35μg/m3.

In order of effectiveness, when cooking in a kitchen, health interventions seem to be:

  1. Venting smoke up a functional chimney.
  2. Increasing the fresh air entering the kitchen to dilute smoke and gases. (When the outdoor air is clean and the air exchange rate is doubled, the indoor air pollution is reduced by half.)
  3.  Burning up almost all of the smoke in the stove.

 Unvented Rocket stoves, and other ‘moderately clean burning’ stoves (such as a carefully tended open fire with pot skirt), emit much too much smoke and gas to protect health in houses. 

Cooking outside, especially upwind of the fire in a bit of breeze, is highly effective in lowering harmful concentrations of PM2.5.

Cooking outside seems to be a first choice intervention, when applicable. Even ‘moderately clean burning biomass stoves’ can be used when the cook is upwind of the fire in a bit of a breeze, meeting the WHO Intermediate Guideline for PM2.5. 

Of course, cooking with a low emission stove is preferable, when possible!

When Dean Still came to Aprovecho in 1989, Dr. Larry Winiarski asked him to compare the thermal efficiency of the Lorena stove and the Three Stone Fire. The testing revealed a problem for the ARC staff when our Lorena used three times more fuel than a carefully operated open fire! 

It’s surprising to learn how efficient a three stone fire can be!

Half of the staff, who had written books about the Lorena and taught thousands of people about their invention, were never convinced that a problem existed. The other half were embarrassed and became fervent believers in Dr. Kirk Smith’s famous saying that “You get what you inspect, not what you expect.”

Making a public mistake pushed a reconstituted ARC to proceed more slowly, to challenge speculation, and to try to generate reliable data. We learned that a lot of local knowledge is required to take successful products to market. Evidence can help to overcome inventors’ pride, cognitive dissonance, and the financial cost of changing directions. At the same time, inventor’s pride, cognitive dissonance, and the cost of changing direction also influence decision making.