DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City, and the center of Brooklyn’s Tech Triangle. That makes it an unlikely home for a company that produces camping gear — let alone one based around burning sticks and cooking mac and cheese. But it’s here that BioLite has staked its claim.
“It might be an unexpected place for an outdoor company,” said co-founder Jonathan Cedar, “but for us it’s the perfect home base and a great city to recruit and foster a top-notch team.” It helps that Cedar is a fifth-generation Brooklynite.
BioLite is known in the outdoor community for producing wood-burning camp stoves, solar panels, camp lighting products and an array of other camping accessories. It’s less known that 50 percent of the revenue is reinvested in accomplishing the company’s core mission: to improve the lives of those living in developing regions, where cooking over an open flame indoors and breathing in toxic matter is part of the daily routine. The same designs and technologies that created the smokeless CampStove are scaled up in the HomeStove, a larger wood burner that replaces those dangerous indoor cooking fires while powering lights, charging phones and feeding 20,000 families currently living in areas of Uganda, Kenya and India.
The brand’s new CampStove 2 refocuses those innovations, and offers a compelling shakeup within the backpacking community. At just over two pounds, it sits somewhere between ultralight pocket rockets and heavy two-burners, which may be too hefty for ultralighters. But removing the need to carry fuel and adding a renewable energy source is a trade-off sure to appeal to those taking more of a lifestyle approach to the outdoors. There’s also something to be said for staring into what’s essentially a campfire in a canister.
Refining the design of that canister required hours of burning in BioLite’s Brooklyn laboratory, a room complete with hoods that measure smoke particulate matter, a custom wind tunnel and a wood splitter that could easily lop off a foot. It was in that room that we caught up with Ben Zelnick, the lead product engineer for the CampStove 2.
Q: If you think of design as problem-solving, what is the problem solved by the CampStove 2?
A: The problem is twofold. It’s fuel sustainability; the CampStove allows you to burn wood that’s just around you, so you don’t have to bring any fuel and you aren’t burning any hydrocarbons. It’s also lighter because you don’t have to bring that extra fuel.
Q: What was the biggest obstacle in designing the CampStove 2?
A: Definitely increasing that power output to produce 50 percent more power than the previous model. Basically we were stuck with the form factor — we didn’t want to make it any heavier, so getting a lot more out of it without growing it was a big challenge. That’s where 75 percent of the engineering went. The solution lies in the
You can always find a way to get more power, but when you add the constraints of weight and cost, it makes it challenging.
thermoelectric system, which is essentially just a hot side and a cold side. You make one side as cold as possible and the other as hot as possible, and it sucks the heat through and creates electricity. So we focused on just those two things: getting more heat out of the fire, and getting rid of that heat faster with the heat sink. We spent a lot of time focusing on this small part of the assembly, and it’s a small but important part. You can always find a way to get more power, but when you add the constraints of weight and cost, it makes it challenging.
Q: How do you create a smokeless flame?
A: It’s chemistry. This design is called a semi-gasifier, which we didn’t invent. The basics of it is that fuel won’t burn without the fan running, and what that means is that we supply all of the air to the fire. So you can see at the very bottom there’s one row of jets. That’s called the primary injection and it supplies only enough air to release the fuel gasses from the wood — but it’s not enough oxygen to then burn those gasses. Based on the amount of oxygen put in here we know how much fuel is going to be released from the wood and so by tuning the ratio of those primary jets to the secondary jets at the top of the canister, we can introduce exactly as much oxygen as needed to completely burn that gas. Basically, we’re just completing that chemistry equation — all smoke really is is unburnt fuel.
Q: Day to day, where do you spend most of your time at work?
A: Early on in the design it’s in the burn lab. I’ve spent hours and hours testing fans with the wind tunnel and welding prototype stove bodies. I’m split between the burn lab and doing CAD on my computer, and it progresses as the project progresses. Less lab time, more computer time. To get the design right, we tested upwards of a dozen discreetly different units, burning multiple stoves eight hours a day for months to simulate over five years of use before we let any out into the world.
Q: What’s your favorite backcountry meal?
A: My go-to is Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese. But I like to bring some summer sausage and dice it up and throw that in. I was just in Wyoming with a buddy last weekend and we went snow camping in Yellowstone. I brought the CampStove 2 and we made mac and cheese with elk salami. Not super gourmet, but delicious.