The Biolite Stove caused quite a stir when it was first prototyped back in 2010 and so it should. How many devices can tie together a wood-burning stove with a fan and a USB port? Well the good news is, Biolite have gone into production and are now shipping the stoves. Mine arrived last week and so I’ve been camping out on my deck putting the stove through its paces. Click through for a detailed hands-on video showing it in action after the jump.
Out of the box
It’s a robust looking unit, made from
aluminium stainless steel and a few trusty pop-rivets, while the power and fan unit is housed in a tough orange plastic. The stove weighs almost a kilogram (990g) and is the size of a Nalgene water bottle. The firebox is surrounded by mesh to keep elbows and stray USB cables from getting burnt. After seeing numerous sparks and embers land on the orange plastic and not leave any holes, I’m fairly confident it’s heat resistant. The three fold-out legs do a great job keeping the stove stable especially with a pot on top and they keep the heat away from whatever surface the stove is on.
Ironically for a USB charging stove, it needs to be charged (via USB) before use. This powers up the internal battery which runs the fan and assists with lighting the stove. Biolite suggest it should only need recharging if the stove isn’t used for 6 months as the thermoelectric unit will recharge the battery during normal use. A double ended USB cable, some wax-based fire-starters and a bag are all included with the stove, so you’re pretty much all set to go after a quick firewood hunt. There’s a power switch for the fan which also toggles between the low and high setting, there’s a USB port behind a rubber cover and a couple of operation lights indicating when there’s enough power to charge. All very simple to use.
I’ve been trying my stove for a week, using small twigs and wood I’ve gathered from the local bush, mainly eucalyptus. It’s winter here in Sydney and we had just had a week of rain three days before so the first lot of wood I collected wasn’t as dry as it could have been. Initial results weren’t great and the stove regularly went out, accompanied by plumes of fan-forced smoke. I dried the wood in an oven for 20 minutes and got much, much better results. This is the only flaw of the Biolite Stove, it really needs dry wood to work at its best. Wood that was still a little damp could be used but they had to be pretty thin pieces and the fire needed an eye kept on it. A week later, when the ground and wood had dried out I went out foraging again and had much more success. The fire burnt for much longer and was a lot hotter, and I could burn sticks up to 25mm (1″) in diameter. Small sticks do work well but they burn very quickly and you may want to use larger pieces of wood especially while you’re cooking/boiling water.
The Biolite, like all camping stoves makes a little bit of noise. Namely a high-pitched, but not very loud whine from the fan. The best comparison I can make is that it sounds like a hair dryer or vacuum cleaner in a distant room. It’s not loud but it’s ever-present and you don’t notice it after a while. You can’t turn the fan off while the stove is running as it will switch back on automatically to keep the electronics cool.
The whole point of the Biolite Stove is its ability to turn heat from the fire into power for USB charging, so I probably should mention it. I managed to charge the battery on my iPhone 4 from 72% to 84% in 1 hour (your mileage may vary) with a couple of minor interruptions due to insufficient heat. Not fantastic but will definitely get you out of a tight/lonely spot. You have to keep the fire running hot in order to charge with the stove otherwise there isn’t enough power.