A Short History of Cookstove Durability

Tin can stove by Katska on Flickr

The Problem with Metal

It’s great to start making stoves and testing ideas with tincanium (cut up tin cans). Making new prototypes from tin cans is a quick, inexpensive way to start the design process but tin cans only last for a limited amount of time, depending on the temperature of the combustion chamber. At 1000C in fire, a tin can burns out in an hour or so!

One of the most challenging components in a cookstove is the combustion chamber, which can operate at high temperatures (often ≥600 °C) in wet and salty conditions. Wood can be salty and water vapor is produced when wood is burned.

In 2017, M.P. Brady and T.J. Theiss shocked the stove world by showing that in their tests even expensive metals could not be estimated to be long lasting. (Energy for Sustainable Development 37 (2017) 20–32, Alloy Corrosion Considerations in Low-Cost, Clean Biomass Cookstoves for the Developing World Michael P. Brady, et al.).

“Corrosion evaluation under cookstove-relevant conditions was studied by two methods: 1) lab furnace testing and 2) in-situ exposure in an operating cookstove. The lab furnace testing was conducted in air with 10 volume percent of H2O to simulate water vapor release from burning biomass, and direct deposition of salt onto the test samples to simulate the burning of highly corrosive biomass feedstocks. In particular, relatively high levels of salt species are encountered in many types of biomass and can lead to significantly accelerated alloy corrosion rates (Antunes and de Oliveira, 2013; Baxter et al., 1998; Saidur et al., 2011; Okoro et al., 2015). The in-situ cookstove testing was conducted using wood fuel that was pre-soaked in a salt water solution to yield accelerated, highly corrosive conditions.”

“Each day of testing, cookstoves were burned continuously for an average of ~6 h. The average fuel consumption rate was 570 g/h. To determine the range of temperatures that the alloy test samples would experience, a thermocouple was placed inside the chimney of each stove at the same height as the coupon fixture. Typical combustion chamber temperature profiles for the cookstoves, where test coupons were placed, are shown in Fig. 2. The average gas temperature range during steady state in-situ testing was 663 °C ± 85 °C”

“Much faster corrosion rates were observed in the 800 °C lab furnace testing where evaluation of most alloys stopped after 500 h of exposure due to excessive corrosion. Of the alloys tested to 1000 h, only the FeCrSi and pure Ni samples exhibited good corrosion resistance. The FeCrAlY and 310S alloy samples were consumed through-thickness in some crosssection locations.”

“Type 201 stainless steel, type 316 L stainless steel, and the 12 and 20Ni AFA alloys all exhibited relatively poor corrosion resistance in the in-situ cookstove testing, with metal losses in excess of −200 μm after only 500 h of exposure, consistent with the lab furnace trends. The types 310S and 446 stainless steels exhibited moderately worse corrosion resistance, with metal loss values of −190 μm and -230 μm after 1000 h. Despite exhibiting the best corrosion resistance in the lab furnace testing, the pure Ni suffered from −300 μm metal loss after only 500 h in the in-situ cookstove testing.”

What could stove companies do? Attempts were made to reduce temperatures in combustion chambers. Insulation was removed and external air was directed to cool the external surfaces of the metal.

Refractory Ceramic, A Viable Alternative

When Dr. Winiarski insulated the combustion chamber in his Rocket stoves, it became all too obvious that available metals were short lived. Unfortunately the alternative – heavy ceramic materials that were free and available – absorbed heat which lowers temperatures, resulting in reduced thermal efficiency and higher emissions. 

More than 20 years ago, the quest began for an inexpensive, refractory metal and/or a durable, low mass, abrasion resistant refractory ceramic material. In Central America, Don O’Neal and Dr. Winiarski found a locally manufactured, inexpensive, thin walled refractory tile called a baldosa that can last for about seven years in a plancha stove and is now in use in hundreds of thousands of stoves.

The wisdom of using refractory ceramic was confirmed in 2011. Metallurgy experts at a DOE Biomass Cookstoves Technical Meeting pointed out that only refractory ceramic seemed to meet the requirements of being affordable with a prolonged longevity. Unfortunately, making lightweight, abrasion resistant refractory ceramic has proven to be difficult.

Shengzhou Stove Manufacturer has for years manufactured low mass, abrasion resistant refractory ceramic combustion materials in China. Since 1407AD, potters in eastern China have used rare local clays to make and sell these combustion chambers to East Africa. In 2023, SSM sells ceramic combustion chambers in Rocket stoves globally.

Though not necessarily refractory, simple earthen ceramic stoves continue to to be the most popular models in many countries. These stoves are locally produced, inexpensive and are replaced relatively frequently as needed. These heavy bucket shaped stoves can save fuel when used with a pot skirt.

The Importance of Durability

Durability has became more important as carbon credits, which currently support most large-scale stove projects, are generated only when the stove is in use. Carbon credits are based on improvements in fuel use while emissions of CO and PM2.5 are not counted. The ‘perfect’ carbon credit stove is least cost, long lived, and as fuel efficient as possible. When ARC is asked to develop a cookstove for a carbon project we usually aim for cost under $20, over 40% thermal efficiency, with a minimum 5 year durability.

The ARC carbon credit stove is dependent on a tight fitting pot skirt (close to optimal heat transfer efficiency) coupled with as cool as possible temperatures in metal parts, resulting in improved lifespan. Shengzhou Stove Manufacturer sells millions of carbon credit stoves with their light weight, abrasion resistant combustion chambers. 

ARC tries to add mixing in the combustion chamber and a chimney whenever possible. Cooking outside/increasing the air exchange rate in houses is also effective in reducing exposure. The Jet-Flame is moving into greater use and has been field tested in Africa. Carbon revenue is moving better stoves into homes as humanitarian oriented partners like C-Quest Capital replace older stoves with better stoves. Progress has picked up in the last five years.

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