Hurricane Sandy bulldozed my home coastline with a ferocity rarely seen outside the big screen. It ploughed through lives of friends and family, shredding homes, floating cars, and drowning pets. We can debate the causes of climate change, but the increasingly damaging effect of extreme weather upon basic civil services is indisputable.
In a crisis, communication is paramount. Instant info exchange minimizes fallout and saves lives. So how long does an unjuiced laptop or cell phone last? Are you prepared to power them up if you lose access to the grid? Hurricane Sandy stranded my son for three days in his Hoboken apartment without water or electricity. His lifeline through the world storming outside was only as strong as his remaining phone charge. That’s a lot to hang on a simple battery.
Here in Jordan, I’d been looking for ways to get involved with Syrian refugee camps: so it was surreal to see news footage of a product I’d identified for refugee aid put into action in New York City. In Sandy’s wake, with Manhattan de-powered and personal communication gadgets running out of steam, engineers from the BioLite company took to the streets to set up impromptu charging stations fueled by their tiny cookstoves. They loaded the units onto portable tables and offered people a chance to recharge their cell phones, served up with free cups of tea. It restored lifelines for a handful of lucky Manhattanites in a simple, accessible and environmentally positive way.
Green Prophet’s reported that nearly half the world’s population cooks on open fires, which kill nearly two million people every year, with disastrous impact to local environments. That shocking statistic got me looking into portable cookstoves.
Most cater primarily to outdoor recreation, but the traits that make them attractive to campers also make them perfect for emergency relief: lightweight, portable, and affordable. Among many on the market, the best are multifunctional. The BioLite HomeStove will brew your coffee and charge your smartphone when there’s no access to a power grid.
Designed by Jonathan Cedar and Alec Drummond, the small wood-burning stoves are as clean and safe as gas or electrical units. Use hardwood fuel like maple, oak, or hickory for a longer burn; softer woods like fir or pine require more feeding. During full burn, it can boil a liter of water in as little as 4.5 minutes.
The design reduces over 95% of the smoke typically generated by wood fires and produces sufficient electricity to charge any device that uses a USB port (e.g., mobile phones, LED flashlights, rechargeable battery packs). Charging times will vary by device, by the fire’s strength and other variables like outside temperature. For an Apple iPhone 4S (2G), 20 minutes of charging with a strong fire can provide you with 60 minutes of talk time.
A small internal fan creates airflow, which, combined with a unique fuel chamber, creates a high efficiency fire. A power module converts the fire’s heat into electricity and automatically recharges the lithium ion battery powering the fan. Surplus electricity powers a USB outlet which, in turn, can charge small electronics.
After field trials on four continents, BioLite is currently working with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health on a study to determine how advanced cookstoves can improve the health of pregnant women and children in developing nations. Pilot programs are planned for Ghana, India and Kenya.
Stoves ship internationally and start at $129: check with your local customs office for details on import fees. Knock wood you’ll never need it, but burn wood if you do. This could be the smartest addition to your emergency bag of tricks.