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Dumbo’s BioLite has a vision to radically decentralize infrastructure in the developing world

If energy were more distributed, more plentiful and cleaner, what could the world look like?

BioLite's clean cookstoves reduce emissions by more than 90 percent. (GIF via YouTube)

When Prometheus pulled the ol’ switcheroo on the Greek gods and brought fire down to Earth, he did humanity a great service.
Cooking food breaks down enzymes, helping our guts better digest food and pull the nutrients and energy out. It provides warmth and kept predators away at night. Academics credit the use of fire as a major reason why homo erectus beat out other homo species and allowed our domes to fill up with brains. But what Prometheus maybe didn’t know at the time was just how carcinogenic his gift to humanity was.
According to the United Nations Foundation, 1.9 million people die each year on this planet from ailments deriving from smoke inhalation. That’s more people than die from AIDS.
But there’s one Dumbo-based company which is perfecting fire, building stoves that produce little or no smoke. Prometheus, eat your liver out.
We caught up with BioLite’s cofounder and CEO Jonathan Cedar at the company’s Jay Street headquarters recently.
“If you saw a car driving down the street and there was smoke coming out of the back you’d say that was a badly designed car,” Cedar said. “With any combustion, with the right fuel/air mixture and compression you can convert combustion to CO2 and water. We’re taking similar combustion technology and applying it to a much more rudimentary technology.”

BioLite cofounder and CEO Jonathan Cedar stands in front of the company's stoves through the years.

BioLite cofounder and CEO Jonathan Cedar stands in front of the company’s stoves through the years. (Photo by Tyler Woods)

What their stoves do, simply, is add a fan to an otherwise normal looking metal stove. The fan circulates oxygen through the fire, tuning it to exactly the right temperature for burning the wood or whatever material you’re using. In this setting, the fire burns so cleanly, almost no smoke is released.
Not only is that way healthier to be around, it means the fire lasts a lot longer. In addition, the engineering of the stoves take advantage of some nifty thermodynamics, using a semiconductor for the metal stove, which actually generates electricity from the burning of the fuel. So not only will you get fire, but you can charge your phone or flashlight, too. For their new camping stoves, BioLite says one charge of the stove’s fan is equivalent to 20 cans of Sterno or whatever other camping cooking fuel a camper might bring.
BioLite has two branches: one is consumer-facing and sells camping equipment at places like REI, L.L. Bean and Eastern Mountain Sports. The products are the right combination of useful, innovative and rugged enough to make them about the best Dad-gift you can think of. Its other branch is in the developing world, where it sells stripped-down versions of its stoves at the most affordable possible price. It’s gotten a good deal of funding and grant money toward this less profitable end.
“We hope to take that model [and implement it] across all technologies,” Cedar said. “Lighting, power storage, charging, clean water. How do we reinvent these things?”
In a large portion of the world, government is a distant entity and the infrastructure it provides is nonexistent. As forward-thinking as it is, Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to launch a satellite to beam internet to the continent of Africa only goes so far.
By generating clean fire and electricity, BioLite attempts to radically decentralize infrastructure. If each individual home can heat itself and generate its own power, that can open up a lot of room for development.
“With all the things your municipality does for you with electricity and water, what would it look like to reinvent that infrastructure on a personal level where people can own it?” Cedar asked. 

The cost of energy is a limiting factor in pretty much any commercial activity. If energy were more distributed, more plentiful and cleaner, what could the world look like?

Companies: BioLite
Series: Brooklyn

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