Heat Exchange – Kovea’s latest innovation set to change outdoor cooking
by: Martin Vilaboy
What if your backpacking stove could instantly turn on, not burn any fossil fuels and work the same at any altitude or temperature? It sounds like magic, but this next-generation backpacking and camping stove is just over the horizon.
There have been no advancements in stove technology similar to this since MSR’s founder Larry Penberthy figured out how to miniaturize and partially control a blowtorch to create the Model 9. This basic, two modes (off or full-blast) white gas fire breather torched the anemic European competition right out of the market. Well, this latest development in stove technology is poised to do the same.
For those that follow innovation in outdoor recreation, it comes as no surprise the driving force behind this advancement is the Korean outdoor company Kovea. The Spring 2016 issue of Inside Outdoor showcased four innovations (Game Changers) in the outdoor industry; one was by Kovea. That accolade was for Kovea’s proof-of-concept, refillable, gas canister stove, the EZ-ECO. John Park, Americas sales manager, explained then how Kovea’s vice chairman Yoo Keun Kang envisions the company “getting away from conventional fuel sources, something that will really limit your footprint when the products are being used.“
Three months later, Park once again was showing another proof-of-concept at the 2016 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market show in Salt Lake City. Regarding this ground-breaking technology, Park remarks, “Kovea is putting a lot of effort in trying to make the outdoor experience enjoyable by integrating both the technology aspect of what Korea is known for, with the outdoors. Korea is probably the most wired country in the world, so it’s always good to keep those comforts within reach. This gives the customer the choice to stay on or off the grid.” Clearly, this technology is on the vanguard of just that.
To really appreciate the why behind this new technology, a look at the function of any canister gas or liquid fuel stove will remind us of where we have settled with these specific technologies. For the eco-conscious, outdoor recreation sector, it has been a necessary evil and the list of evils, or inconveniences anyway, are many. The compromises principally lie in safety, transportation and operating environments.
For instance, burning petroleum-based fuels with an open flame have the following drawbacks, of which we largely have grown complacent. To start, stove operation is not an instant on process. Depending on design and fuels used, stove burners require a period of time before reaching the best possible operational conditions. Some designs require priming, which can result in accidental flare-ups due to igniting excess fuel. Priming alone has been the death knell of many melted tents and singed eyebrows. As the fuel is consumed, canister or liquid fuel stoves require constant re-pressurization to keep a consistent flame. That means adjusting the gas supply valve or manually pumping the liquid fuel reservoir every so often. Liquid fuels often leave a layer of soot on the bottom of cookware, an un-welcomed byproduct of incomplete combustion during start-up – which is another reason why using a stove inside a tent is ill advised. At higher altitudes, the flame begins to compete with the tent’s occupants for valuable oxygen. When the O2 is not sufficient to run it efficiently, it produces partially burnt hydrocarbons such as carbon monoxide and others, similar to a car’s emissions. Similar to your car, those fumes, when inhaled, are deadly.
Operationally, when the stove is running, there is no exact way to dial in the temperature, making it difficult for those who actually cook and not just boil water. Mechanically, the metal parts exposed to the flame are built to take repeated heating and cooling and are mostly robust in design. Because of that, it takes more time for those parts to safely cool-to-the-touch. Finally, the stove’s flame has to be protected from gusts of wind or spritzes of rain to keep it from blowing out. Wind screens solve this issue, but it means one more item that adds weight and cost to the gear list, and screens typically are a bit fragile.
On the fuel side, additional considerations need to be made for safety and transportation. Most liquid fuels vary in their volatility or ability to turn into vapor. For that reason, care needs to be taken so fuel or fuel vapors do not escape at any time, causing potential fire, explosion hazards or air pollution. It comes as no surprise that the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) makes no exceptions for travel with fuel either as carry-on or checked baggage: “Cooking fuels and any flammable liquid fuel is prohibited.” This makes sourcing fuel in remote areas of the world problematic.
Temperature and altitude also affect fuels in different ways. The most widely used canister gas products do best when the ambient temperature is above 11 degrees to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-12C to 1C). If the outside temperature falls below these numbers, the canisters need to be warmed to at least these temperatures or the flame will be erratic. In winter camping or high altitude expeditions, it is commonplace to keep canisters from freezing by keeping them inside occupied sleeping bags. Another torturous option includes putting the frozen metal canister in the unlucky armpit of the camper(s) drawing the short straw. Canisters also get colder in use since the escaping vapor feeding the flame causes the liquid gas in the canister to draw heat from the canister’s walls. The heat, in turn, is used to maintain the vapor to stoke the flame. This effect is exacerbated in cold temperatures, manifested by frost or ice forming on the canister. To offset this, reflecting heat to and/or insulating the canister will help keep the vapor flowing but can be dangerous if the canister is overheated.
Liquid fuel is not without its own problems. Many liquid fuels are not stable over time and will eventually breakdown, causing obstructions within the fuel delivery system. Periodically refreshing the fuel will keep that from happening. Cold temperatures can affect fuels such as diesel by gelling, a condition where it starts to solidify. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, high heat breaks fuel down into simpler compounds. These compounds are either totally consumed, pass through the stove during combustion or get deposited inside the various components of the stove. Those residing in the stove will eventually obstruct the burner’s orifice, forcing a good cleaning to return the stove to peak operating efficiency.
At altitude, all fuels suffer from lower heat output due to oxygen starvation. Still, canisters get the performance nod since the fuel generally burns cleaner and starts up faster. Also, unlike liquid fuels, canister gas stoves do not need to be pumped to build up pressure to force out fuel. Already under pressure, as the altitude increases, the atmospheric pressure decreases making canister stoves work even better.
There is a downside however. The pack it in, pack it out ethos includes end-of-life stewardship of all refuse. Here, discarding the depleted or partially depleted canisters in the appropriate recycle stream includes ensuring the canisters are completely safe for the workers who handle them. This is not always a safe or simple process (Kovea’s EZ-ECO stove resolves the partially filled gas canister question).
Obviously, there are a lot of strikes against non-renewable, open-flame, fuel-burning cookers. So what could possibly get around all that? If you guessed induction technology, you are right. Induction cooking technology has been around for more than 100 years and is the current rage in most high-end, energy-efficient kitchens. Its simplicity, energy savings and safety make it a perfect fit in most smart homes, and eventually induction will become the kitchen standard. Kovea has taken all the advantages of induction and built it into a small backcountry package called KIS (Kovea Induction Stove).
The superiorities of cooking with induction are many. Knowing how it works makes it easy to see why. Induction is simply a voltage created when an electrical conductor is moving through a magnetic field. The electrical conductor in this case is any cookware that attracts a magnet, the only stipulation for induction in its current form. Except the user does not have to move the cookware back and forth over the cooktop since the magnetic field does the moving instead. The back and forth movement of the magnetic field over the pot magnetizes it repeatedly. That induces currents in the metal, which heats it due to the metal’s resistance to the current flow (think friction). An example of electrical resistance to current flow is easily seen in the heating elements used in a toaster. The element’s resistance to current flow is so high, it turns red hot. That is one of the reasons induction cooking is so efficient. Induction heats the cooking implements directly, not indirectly as gas does, first heating the surrounding air between the burner and the cooking kit. According to the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), “up to 90 percent of the energy consumed (for induction) is transferred to the food, compared to about … 40 percent for gas.” That gives induction technology a two-times-plus efficiency advantage over gas.
Yet KIS has a host of other advantages. When the power switch is turned on, you get whatever level of power you select, instantly. There is no warm up, flare ups or other fuel-related boot-up issues. KIS never gets hot except for where it directly contacts the cookware, yet cools off faster than a typical stove. The induction phenomenon cannot be doused by rain or blown out by wind. Altitude does not affect its function and temperature only influences the lithium-ion power supply’s performance when the thermostat dips below -20F (-29C), maybe even to -40F (-40C), depending on the battery chemistry. Only in those extreme temperatures will the battery have to be warmed to operate the stove. With no burning fuels to pollute the environment, indoor cooking’s only drawback is water condensation on the walls, as well as food spills by hapless cooks. Cooking power is user selected, and that power level is consistent, eliminating the guessing work of whether that cup of noodles is going to inflict second degree burns or not.
Since the KIS is going to be, to large extent, a battery, it also can be used as a charging station for campsite electronics. Kovea’s goal with the final product is to duplicate the performance of its typical gas canister stoves in duration and heat capacity.
The cost of this technology, which is about as complicated as a rock (not the interface, which is microprocessor controlled), is in the range of affordability, especially in the context of a consumer good that could last a lifetime. Park says the target price point for the stove is going to be around $200, and the hard launch is scheduled for Outdoor Retailer Summer 2017. When that time comes, all forms of outdoor cooking, whether at an advanced base camp in the Himal or the tailgates of Jane and Joe Sixpack, could change forever.
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