BY NATHAN WERTZ - THISANDTHATTECH.COM
The CampStove Bundle from BioLite is designed to simultaneously grill, boil, illuminate, and even charge your devices using thermoelectrics (turning fire into electricity) while out in the wild, all without producing heavy amounts of smoke. The company's mission is to bring energy everywhere and you can read more about that in my interview with the co-founder, Jonathan Cedar, here.
BioLite was kind enough to send me one for review, so let's see how this portable off-the-grid technology works in the wild.
BUILD QUALITY/INITIAL IMPRESSIONS
CampStoveThe CampStove itself is the central hub to which all other accessories attach to in some capacity. It is essentially a fuel chamber with an orange power module attached. This power module or "power pack" has a copper probe at the top that captures wasted heat and converts it into electricity via the thermoelectric generator within the power pack. That then powers the USB port (with enough heat) as well as the internal fan, which blows air back into the flames, creating something akin to a perpetual motion machine (if you're not familiar with perpetual motion, it's the holy grail of engineering, the idea that one could create a machine that could do work indefinitely without an energy source. This is currently not possible due to friction and energy dissipating over time).
(How the CampStove works: Light up a fire > wasted heat is captured by the copper probe at the top > heat is converted into electricity via the thermoelectric generator > electricity powers fan as well as the USB port for charging your gear > internal fan blows air into the flames).
As you open the packaging for the CampStove, it quickly becomes apparent how the parts assemble, which to me is a tip of the hat to the engineering involved. The power pack neatly attaches to the foldable legs at the bottom, clicking into place, and you're good to go. The top of the pot stand also has a neatly curved opening which perfectly houses the KettlePot as well as the Portable Grill. Feels like a premium product that is very sturdy yet portable for the rugged outdoors.
KettlePotThe KettlePot features a stainless steel body, a silicone sealing gasket on the high temperature kettle lid, a serving bowl (fits inside the KettlePot), and vertical cool touch handles.
Again, it feels like there was a lot of attention to detail during the KettlePot's design. The cool touch handles are collapsible and retract flush to the KettlePot body when not in use, again, making it easy for transport. The bottom of the KettlePot also has six holes etched out at the bottom, which provides another place for the fire to breathe. Even the CampStove itself can fit into the Kettlepot, which doubles as a carrying case. And most importantly, the KettlePot sits evenly right on top of the CampStove, which doesn't cause me any concern that it could fall over.
Portable GrillThe first thing you'll notice with the grill is that it only has two retractable legs. That's because it's designed to fit seamlessly on top of the CampStove. The cooking grate (cooking surface) is removable, as is the honeycomb grill mesh underneath that. The grill also comes with a sealable lid that resembles what you've seen with heavy-duty tupperware to avoid messes.
The grill itself is a bit bulkier than the other accessories, but you give up some of that luxury in order to have a decent-sized cooking surface.
USB FlexLightThe FlexLight is USB powered and has a sturdy, bendable gooseneck. One only needs to tap the light in order to turn it on. You can also press and hold in order to dim the light to your needs. It doesn't feel cheap or flimsy, so I expect it to hold up outdoors.
USENow, before we get into how it all performs, let me set the review stage for you: It was quite literally 5 degrees outside with falling snow and winds, so clearly not an ideal usage scenario. However, I'm metal and here for you, reader, so I weathered the winter squalls for your amusement.
I'm going to break the usage scenarios down for you in five different ways: CampStove itself, Charging Devices, CampStove/FlexLight, CampStove/KettlePot, and CampStove/Portable Grill.
CampStoveThe CampStove is the most important piece to the puzzle, because if it doesn't work efficiently, then all other accessories are rendered useless.
One of the first things BioLite recommends is charging the battery in the power pack with an external source (USB charging cable is included) to condition the battery prior to lighting your first fire. This isn't absolutely necessary, but it does seem to make the fire starting experience run more smoothly, having a fan propel the flames from underneath. Therefore that's highly recommended, especially if you are fighting off hypothermia, like I was…
This is a biomass stove, so your fuel will be things like wood, pine cones, et cetera. Because of that, my first concern was how much the falling snow and wind would impact my initial fire. My fuel of choice was small, dried pine tree branches coupled with "firestarter sticks" that BioLite includes with the bundle. The gameplan was then to channel my inner lumberjack and cut down branches I stumbled across outside that didn't appear to be too wet.
I'm pleased and maybe even surprised to say that my first fire ignited with hardly any trouble at all. The fire was relatively smokeless and periodically adding my dry fuel seemed to keep the momentum going in the right direction. When I turned the fan on high, there was what I would call a whirlwind or tornado of fire steadily creeping out the top of the CampStove.
Charging DevicesI'm admittedly very excited by the prospects of charging an electronic device while being completely off the grid, so naturally that was the next thing to check out. There was one problem, though. The USB light on the bottom (not the green fan light in the picture above) needs to be green in order to charge a device. This light only changes to green when the fire is hot enough, so I knew there possibly was an issue with my fuel or the temperatures were too cold outside. Regardless, I hung my head in shame and went back inside to contact BioLite and see whether or not this was user error.
After talking to BioLite, they suggested that I check my fuel quality and that maybe I was losing too much heat near the copper probe at the top (remember this part is partially exposed to the harsh cold) and that I should try placing the KettlePot on top in order to prevent that loss of heat.
Furthermore, as I examined my freshly cut wood inside, I noticed that it was becoming wetter and did in fact have moisture in it (so frozen that it felt dry to the touch). So keep that in mind if you decide to camp in 5 degree weather…anyways, I did what any self-proclaimed genius would do, I decided to bake the wood on the "warm" setting in the oven to ensure maximum efficiency (my entire home smelled "woodsy" for quite some time). NOTE: If you ever decide to bake wood, please realize that wood has an ignition point of 356 degrees Fahrenheit. I am not responsible for your wood baking kitchen mishaps…
I point all this out because my second attempt at charging my devices was much more successful. Coupled with the KettlePot and the dry fuel, I was able to get that magical, green USB light to come on and charge my portable speaker with hardly any trouble.
The power output is a max continuous of 2 Watts @ 5 Volts and has a peak of 4 Watts @ 5 Volts, all of which changes depending on the strength of your fire. In other words, your device charging time can drastically change if your fire is starting to go out.
There is actually an internal battery inside the power pack, but it's really just to jumpstart the fire by giving a small assist to the fan. Here's how the internal battery example was explained to me by the co-founder:
"So it generates about, depending on the strength of your fire, somewhere around 3 watts of electricity and then that goes first to powering the fan, that improves the combustion, and then extra electricity comes out through the USB port. And so usually that’s about 1 watt for the fan and 2 watts for the USB port."
He also gave an iPad example:
"What the internal battery does allow you to do is certain devices want a fixed amount of power in order to charge. Let's say you're generating 2 Watts and your iPad wants 4 Watts. It'll turn on for five minutes at 4 Watts and borrow some power from the battery and then turn off for two minutes, store those 2 Watts back into the battery, and then turn back on and give you 4 Watts again. So it'll allow you to store power for a period and then dump it out at higher rates for devices that demand that, but the thermal electric generator is constantly generating that full time. It's just a question of if you need power at a rate that is greater than the thermal electric, then you end up buffering it through the battery."
CampStove/FlexLightThe FlexLight works as advertised. It simply plugs into that same USB port that I used for charging my electronic devices and with a simple tap it provides an impressive amount of lighting. Holding the back of the light also slowly dims it, so you can customize it to your liking.
CampStove/KettlePotCall it foolishness, idiocy, or the simple urge for a man to prove his mettle by making himself hot cocoa in 5 degree Indiana weather. Regardless, the KettlePot worked flawlessly for my crowning achievement. The water came to a boil in a matter of minutes, it's simple to manage with all the parts being ergonomic, and it even looks aesthetically pleasing to the eye when flames are bursting out of the bottom.
As mentioned earlier, it also came in quite handy when needing something to shield the copper probe from the cold, so an additional usage scenario for you there.
CampStove/Portable GrillOnce again, it's probably a fool's errand to try to cook chicken on an open grill this time of year. That didn't stop me, though. The Portable Grill is easily placed on top of the CampStove and warms up surprisingly quickly, give the distance from the fuel chamber itself.
The flipback lid is also a nice touch to add fuel when needed without disassembling the grill. Surprisingly, I was able to cook a thick piece of chicken despite the cold temperatures. Not bad. I'd love to see how well it performs in better weather, though.
ConclusionThe BioLite CampStove Bundle features some really compelling off-grid technology that gives me a lot of hope for cleaner and more efficient energy. I see this as a first generation proof of concept with huge merits in the future. The ingenuity involved in the product design alone makes me excited to see what the next iterations will bring.
If I had any potential changes to make, it would probably be to lower the location of the copper probe (assuming that wouldn't be detrimental to efficiency) and add the ability to store backup power for use at a later time. I fully expect to see large leaps forward by BioLite in the near future.
Regardless, if you're an avid outdoorsman, this is a great weapon to add to your arsenal. The campers and survivalists in your life will find this incredibly useful for their adventures. And if you're wanting to live off the grid for a little while with the occasional access to an electronic device, look no further than the BioLite CampStove Bundle.