Chart showing turn down ratios and firepower of 18 stoves
Firepower and turn-down ratio of 18 stoves, from “Test Results of Cook Stove Performance”

The ARC/EPA 2011 book “Test Results of Cook Stove Performance” compares performance and emissions, including turn down ratio and firepower, from survey of 18 stoves. Firepower is a measure of how much energy is released per unit of time. More energy is required to quickly boil water. Less energy is needed to simmer food.

The most effective cooking stove should be fuel efficient at both high and low power. The ratio between high and low firepower is called the turn-down ratio (TDR). It is a measure of how well the stove can be “turned down” from high to low power. 

A TDR of 2 means that half as much fuel was consumed while maintaining a simmer, compared to bringing water to boiling. Cooks usually appreciate a stove that is capable of both high-and low-power operation. Many foods will burn if the heat can’t be reduced enough.

It is interesting that the liquid-fueled stoves were generally low powered, at less than 2kW. Most of the wood burning stoves ranged from 8kW to around 6kW. In Mexico, gas stoves can have a hard time cooking tortillas.

The Mud/ Sawdust (TDR 3.9) and VITA (TDR 3.8) stoves had the highest Turn Down Ratio. The average for the other wood-burning stoves without chimneys was 2.4. The average for stoves with chimneys was 2.2. The Gyapa charcoal stove (TDR 2.8) scored slightly higher. 

The chart shows the average high firepower and the low firepower for each stove. It should be noted that in these tests the pot was uncovered, which increases the energy input needed to maintain the water at simmering temperatures.

Read more about the Chitetezo Mbaula project at Photo by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima

The Chitetezo Mbaula cookstove is distributed by United Purpose in Malawi with the goal of combating deforestation by replacing the traditional charcoal/firewood cooking stoves. In an effort to assist, ARC worked with stakeholders to see how small changes in the stove might translate into fuel and emissions reductions in lab tests. Of course, this information is only useful to researchers in the field as possible iterations. They determine if the changes might translate into practical conservation. The collaboration continues as possibilities are examined.

In its stock form, the stove achieved an average thermal efficiency of 22.5% during three modified laboratory based IWA 4.2.3 tests at high power. As the stove body got hotter, the thermal efficiency increased from 17.6% to 26.6%. The thermal efficiency Tier rating was 1, and PM2.5 emissions, at 1093.3 mg/MJd, gave a Tier rating of 0.

Simple Adjustments Make Some Performance Improvements

Three one inch in diameter holes were drilled through the back of the clay stove body with the intention of allowing more air into the charcoal bed. The pot gap on top of the stove was also reduced to 6mm. These two changes resulted in an average increase of thermal efficiency with char from 22.5% to 29.6%. 

The CO emissions factor per energy delivered to the cooking pot decreased from 10.45 g/MJd to 5.63 g/MJd, although at the same time the firepower decreased from 8.9 kW to 5.9 kW. Natural draft stoves with lower firepower tend to make less emissions. Since the time to boil (normalized to 75°C temperature rise) also increased from 22.4 minutes to 25.2 minutes, further study is needed to determine if the reduction in CO emissions also occurs at 22.4 min to boil. 

Jet-Flame and Pot Skirt Increase Efficiency, Reduce PM2.5

The Shengzhou Stove Manufacturer Jet-Flame was then inserted into the stove body with a metal Rocket combustion chamber. A 6mm channel gap metal skirt was also used around the 5 liter flat bottomed pot. With these changes, the stove achieved an average thermal efficiency of 47.7% during three laboratory tests at high power. As the stove body got hotter, the thermal efficiency increased from 44.9% to 52.3%. The IWA thermal efficiency Tier rating was 4. Since all of the tests scored within Tier 4, which is the maximum score under the ISO IWA, the 90% confidence interval of the Tier rating was 4 to 4. The PM2.5 emissions of the stove were 69.0 mg/MJd and the Tier rating was 3.

When tested in the field, ARC roughly estimates that emissions will be something like three times higher. This is a “rule of thumb” that is not meant to be an accurate guess but a reminder that many researchers have found that emissions in the field are much higher compared to lab test results! The lab test can point out theoretical “improvements” but only field testing can determine actual performance and practicality. On the other hand, if cooking takes place outdoors, as in the photo above, exposure to harmful smoke can be estimated to be dramatically reduced by the increased air exchange rates.

Smoggy NYC, photo by urbanfeel on flickr
Smoggy NYC, photo by urbanfeel on flickr
photo by urbanfeel on flickr

Several articles have pointed out that using biomass-heating stoves can result in health problems in densely populated areas. We are working with friends at the EPA to think about how we might define PM2.5 emission rates for residential biomass heating stoves that would protect health in densely populated cities. 

When the population density goes up (more people are generating pollution), the emission rate has to go down (the stoves have to be cleaner).

What emission rate for PM2.5 would protect personal health if 1/3 of the folks in New York City replaced the natural gas used for residential heating with biomass?

Very roughly, using an EPA outdoor air pollution model, a biomass-generated PM2.5 emission rate of around 0.3g/h looks like it might work in NYC. That’s the emission rate of a good pellet stove.

To accurately make predictions, a model of the air circulation in a city can be generated. Great for planning. For a description of the EPA model, see Chapter 5 “Protecting Health” in Clean Burning Biomass Cookstoves, 2021.

What happens if a bunch of sticks are bundled together, lit at the tips, and inserted into a well-insulated horizontal enclosure that enters a Rocket stove providing draft?

Well, it’s hard to get everything to work well. As Dr. Winiarsky pointed out “Gasifiers are finicky.”

But, when all of the tips of the bundle of sticks are lit at the same time, and there is the right amount of primary and secondary air, then the fire moves horizontally in the well insulated enclosure away from the Rocket stove and emissions can be decreased.

Working with the Gates funded Global Health Labs in 2017, ARC experimented with various horizontal gasifier prototypes and sometimes the results (Tier 4 for PM2.5) were encouraging.

ARC decided to explore the development of primary air jets up into the fire as a more promising technique and left the horizontal gasifiers on the shelf. But who knows, someone may find the concept interesting and continue the investigation of the horizontal gasifier and make it less finicky?

Balthazar Schulte, Lyttleton Harbor, New Zealand

I recently read a Time article that pointed out that shipping accounts for 2.2% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. To put it in perspective the writer, Aryn Baker, suggests that if shipping was a country, it would be the sixth largest CO2 emitter in the world, on par with Germany.

In her reporting from last year’s COP26 (UN Climate Change Conference), she writes:

 “It doesn’t matter if we want iPhones that come from China, steaks from Brazil or to tow an iceberg to Glasgow; we all depend fundamentally on international shipping for everything that we do,” says Johannah Christensen, head of the Global Maritime Forum.

“This just underscores the importance of decarbonizing shipping.”

Some ferryboats have transitioned to battery power. For the 60,000 ocean going cargo ships transporting global goods, the most promising technology, says Christensen, is either hydrogen or synthetic fuels.

Making these fuels available sustains the globalization the world depends on for just about everything. In The Age of Aquarius, renewable fuels keep ships rolling on the high seas as we transition from grey to green. Check it out!

I didn’t realize that natural gas is mostly methane which is about 84 times worse for climate change compared to CO2.

As reported in the recently published study “Methane and NOx Emissions from Natural Gas Stoves, Cooktops, and Ovens in Residential Homes,” methane leaks are bad news for both environmental and personal health. (Lebel, et al, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022, 56, 4, 2529–2539)

Methane risks

The abstract in the Lebel article states:

  • Natural gas stoves in >40 million U.S. residences release methane (CH4) ─a potent greenhouse gas, through post-meter leaks and incomplete combustion.
  • Using a 20-year timeframe for methane, annual methane emissions from all gas stoves in U.S. homes have a climate impact comparable to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 500,000 cars.
  • In addition to methane emissions, co-emitted health-damaging air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) are released into home air and can trigger respiratory diseases.
  • Our data suggest that families who don’t use their range hoods or who have poor ventilation can surpass the one hour national standard of NO2 (100 ppb) within a few minutes of stove usage, particularly in smaller kitchens.

Could biomass energy reduce the increased demand on electricity for home heating?

Could the clean burning of biomass make a greater percentage of electricity partially replacing coal and natural gas, powerful climate forcers?

As seen above, renewable energy now makes 20% of the electricity generated in the USA.

Residential and commercial energy use makes up 13% of USA greenhouse emissions. Making electricity generates another 25%. (Total: 38%)

Could carbon neutral biomass energy help to heat more homes and generate more electricity?

Using the emission hoods in our lab, we are investigating how to design (and manufacture) very clean burning pellet and log-burning heating stoves.

We’ll update progress here.

Last week we wrote about using the LEMS to tune up a stove, so it makes sense to share the actual results of a recent test series with you this week.

When ARC makes an Open Fire, we often use three bricks on end to hold up the pot. The bricks are 16cm high. It has been fascinating to experiment with the SSM Jet-Flame in the open fire to try and determine how fuel-efficient and clean burning the combination can be. Last month, we spent a couple of weeks changing one thing at a time and then completed nine 30-minute ISO high power tests on the close-to-optimized design.

Here are the test results:

test results chart

Description of the changes

  • We kept the pot height at 16cm above the top of the Jet-Flame.
  • Three rebar supports held up the pot replacing the heavier and bulkier bricks.
  • A short 6cm high by 18cm long FeCrAl fence kept the sticks on top of the combustion zone in the Jet-Flame.
  • A lightweight Winiarski 304 stainless steel “0.7 constant cross sectional area” stovetop increased the heat transfer efficiency from the hot flue gases into the pot.
  • Thermal efficiency was also improved with an 11cm high pot skirt creating a 6mm channel gap on the sides of the 26cm in diameter pot.
  • We learned that the sides of the open fire should be partially enclosed for best performance. A 5cm high opening at the lower portion of the sides of the open fire allowed fresh air to enter the combustion zone. 11cm of the upper portion of the sides of the Open Fire were enclosed with aluminum foil.
  • To make sure that there was no backdraft, a 7cm tall, 14cm wide and 7cm deep metal fuel tunnel was added on the outside of the sides of the partially enclosed Open Fire.

Photo of the experiment


It looks like a Rocket combustion chamber may not be needed to achieve Tier 4/5 results from an “Open Fire” when tested in a lab. A short fence that holds a single layer of sticks on top of the primary air jets seems to be as good.

PM2.5, CO2, CO and other metrics measured by the LEMS are displayed in a real-time graph during testing.

When enough data is available in real time, it is not hard to make progress improving a stove. The LEMS emission hood provides real time, holistic feedback as the experimenter makes changes. Watching all of the measures simultaneously makes it possible to tune a stove like a car. The goal is to burn biomass at high, medium, and low power with Tier 4/5 levels for thermal efficiency and emissions of CO and PM2.5.

It is easier in a forced draft stove.

Watching the real time PM2.5 data on a screen while turning two knobs that control the velocity/volume of primary and secondary air jets going into a combustion chamber quickly establishes a close to optimal compromise resulting in the lowest emissions. The stove “tune-up” process includes making sure that the temperature of the gases touching the pot stay as hot as possible, keeping the thermal efficiency high. Maintaining high temperatures in the combustion chamber is important as well. At the same time, the CO2 (a proxy for firepower) needs to stay around 5kW (high power), 4kW (medium power) and 3kW (low power). Since burning wood does not make much CO, the CO should stay low. The Oxygen (O) sensors (air/fuel ratio) warn us if the available Oxygen is too low.

Establishing a close to optimal balance of PM2.5, temperatures, CO, CO2, O is easier when working on a stove with metered fuel like a TLUD or a pellet burning heating stove. Consistent metering reduces disturbances in the rate of reactions (how fast the solid wood turns into woodgas). A standardized test, such as ISO 19867, provides data on fuel use, time to boil, thermal efficiency, firepower, emissions rates, etc.

After the real time balances look good, we use the more accurate pump and filter PM2.5 system with enough repetitions to establish statistical confidence. It usually takes two to four weeks to tune up a stove. After tuning up several similar stoves, the data can coalesce into time saving design principles. Data derived design principles are more likely to be predictive.

Dr. Kirk Smith, a hero

ARC worked closely with Dr. Kirk Smith (1947-2020) when we helped to include emissions in the Water Boiling Test, used to evaluate biomass cookstove performance, for the Shell Foundation. We included the first “Tiers of Performance” with a simple approach that divided stoves into two categories: improved and unimproved. It was great to know Kirk and I admired him tremendously.

Kirk was a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and was, in my opinion, the most effective advocate for the billions of people afflicted by breathing smoke. Kirk and ARC continued to work together during the Breathing Space project in India. Here is a video that ARC helped to produce in 2009, which describes the project. 

The goal of Breathing Space was to introduce the Rocket stove into India. We hoped that the Rocket stove, after being re-designed by women in 18 villages, would “go viral” and protect health. Eventually, Envirofit become the distributor and project manager. Envirofit and the Shell Foundation worked together to bring Rocket stoves into markets worldwide.

In 2011, Kirk Smith announced that switching to LPG seemed more likely to protect health. By 2017, Envirofit was including LPG and gas stoves in their catalog of options. Trying to create and disseminate truly clean burning biomass stoves had proven to be difficult and a more successful, wide scale intervention was needed. Although people liked it, the combustion efficiency of the Rocket stove just was not good enough. The Justa stove with chimney (with Rocket combustion chamber) that Kirk tested in Guatemala leaked, and when many stoves were in use the outside air became smoky. Maybe gas stoves, even though the fuel is not renewable, had a better chance to succeed?  

What would Kirk Smith recommend in 2022?

Can market driven biomass stoves (with hay boxes, solar stoves, pot skirts, SuperPots, Jet-Flames, etc?) successfully address health and climate change? Maybe we should keep working and find out?

I think that Kirk would not object.