Study cooks up ideas for stove efficiency

The simple task of boiling water can take a Haitian almost 40 minutes using traditional charcoal stoves, during which they are exposed to levels of air pollution that can effectively shorten the average life by 6.6 years.

However, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are working to improve the efficiency of the cookstoves. The lab ran a series of tests beginning in April 2010 comparing the traditional Haitian cookstove with a variety of low-cost, commercially available alternative stoves.

This data is now being distributed to non-governmental agencies and stove designers, according to Jennifer Jones, a UC Berkeley graduate student and researcher in the project.

Cookstoves produced by nongovernmental agencies and local manufacturers have been found to improve air quality efficiency over traditional cookstoves. The time it took to boil water, however, increased to almost an hour, according to the research. The Berkeley Lab’s research will allow humanitarian organizations to have more information when deciding which cookstoves to subsidize and sell.

“It’s about having the available knowledge,” Lask said. “There is always going to be a give and take. We’re not going to recommend any stoves, but now they can have the data to decide.”

The lab’s research was influenced by the already established Darfur cookstove project — which aimed to create more efficiency in the use of wood cookstoves — which was also sponsored by the Berkeley Lab.

Berkeley Lab researchers brought a Darfur cookstove with them to Haiti, but it did not work well there because the Haitian people had a history of using charcoal as their fuel, said Kathleen Lask, a UC Berkeley graduate student and a researcher on the project.

The Berkeley Lab examined five different cookstoves in a scientific kitchen, examining the stoves by boiling water and conducting a controlled cooking test.

“We’re essentially trying to find the positive aspects of each stove and give guidelines to stove manufacturing,” Jones said.

Though the water boiling test allowed the researchers to see how long it takes for water to boil in the stoves, it does not account for how cultures actually use the stoves, Lask said. Overall, the newer stoves outperformed the traditional stoves in “thermal efficiency,” reducing the amount of charcoal used, which could have significant environmental and health impacts for people using the stoves.

However, for the simplest and most important test — boiling water — the traditional stove was more efficient, boiling the water an average of twenty minutes more quickly.

There has been recent momentum in examining cookstoves in undeveloped areas. One third of the world uses cookstoves or some form of biomass fuel for cooking and heating, according to Jones.

“Cookstoves are commonly used,” Lask said. “You need to be able to boil water, and there are large areas for improvement.”

The lab is still continuing to work with Haitian cookstoves to provide more accurate data on the functionality of the cookstoves in real world conditions. Their next results detailing the controlled cooking test — where researchers analyze which stove is best at cooking a typical meal of rice and beans — will be released in October.