Friday, June 24, 2022

Electric Camping Stove, Is That Possible?

Have you ever wondered why there are no electric camp stoves on the market? Ok, maybe I’m alone here. But hear me out. Electric stoves are the norm in houses. How come there are no options sold for camping or backpacking? It seems to make sense on the surface. With the rising frequency of forest fires and approximately 85% of them being cause by humans, shouldn’t flame stoves be banned wherever campfires are banned? Also, wouldn’t they be cheaper to run? Electric cars are much cheaper than fossil fuel cars and camp fuel is often more expensive than gasoline. At least it is if bought in small quantities like Coleman 16 oz. propane bottles.

I decided to try an experiment. I did a search for electric camp stove and found absolutely nothing. This tells me two things. One, yep, I’m definitely the weirdo here. Two, maybe there is something preventing this coming to market. In my search I found a USB mug warmer. This seemed like a good solution to improvise a backpacking electric stove!

USB (A) Mug Warmer

My theory was that I could run the warmer off my Aukey PB-Y7 battery pack which holds 30000 mAh. I initially tried it with a standard ceramic coffee mug. I tried to heat up one cup starting at room temperature or about 70 degrees. I let it warm for 45 minutes and there was no perceptible temperature change with a finger dip test. This was my baseline test that I didn’t expect to work. You see, because they run on such low power, you need the maximum surface area of a cup possible to touch the warmer. So, a completely flat bottom cup is recommended by the instructions. A metal one will also be best as it will conduct the most heat.

On my next test I left the metal cup warming for about 1.5 hours and it only heated to 89 degrees. Why were the results so dismal if this thing is supposed to be a mug warmer? Well, it helps if you know a bit more about electronics. The surface of my mug warmer only heated to about 97 degrees. So, It will never be able to boil any amount of water, which makes it useless as a camp stove replacement.

In case you don’t know, these warmers are poorly named. They are not intended to warm your drink from room temp or at all. Rather, they are intended only to slow a hot liquid’s cooling. Most of the ones on the market plug into a standard wall outlet and so can run at up to 1800 watts, theoretically. Although I don’t think most of these mug warmers draw that much. So, you can begin to see the issue of heating water off USB(A) which only delivers 10 watts.

What if one could run off USB C? This newer generation of USB can deliver up to 100 watts of power. While this is an incredible improvement for charging a phone, how would it do at heating water? The formula for energy required to heat water looks like this.

KWH = (4.2 × L × T ) ÷ 3600.

I'll skip the math details and say that 100 watts is a big improvement over 10. USB C could theoretically heat 1 cup of water from 70 degrees F to 100 degrees F in about 3 minutes. But again, what campers want is to boil water. To boil 1 cup with 100 watts would require about 15 minutes. That still seems reasonable. I know backpackers who don’t need to boil more than 1-2 cups per meal. Obviously, most do need more. To boil 1 liter (~1 quart) would require about 1 hour.

And now you see why there are no electric backpacking stoves. One more possible solution that crossed my mind is that an electric stove could use two USB C wires. My Aukey battery bank can charge multiple devices at the same time. Therefore, it could easily provide two cords. This would mean we could heat 1 liter in about 30 minutes, theoretically. That is still unreasonable to most as even the slowest fuel stoves (think alcohol) can heat a liter in 10 minutes under ideal conditions. On top of that, my Aukey battery bank only holds 111 Wh of energy meaning it could only heat two liters max before it would be dead. At 1.3 pounds that is extremely non weight-friendly.

So, will we ever see electric camping stoves? Well, I think we have the technology available now to go all electric while car camping. You can buy portable single-eye coil stoves and single-eye induction stoves (see photos below) that work off 120-volt standard outlet. If you pair that with a Goal Zero or other camp battery bank capable of delivering 120 volts, than voila, an all-electric stove set up.

Single-eye coil stove

Single-eye induction stove

Again, these electric stoves can deliver up to 1800 watts of heating power! So, will we ever see an electric backpacking stove? I think so. With the rise of electric cars, battery technology is progressing rapidly. There are many companies now researching very promising technologies that will be capable of storing 100-500 times that of lithium-ion in the same size package. Perhaps USB E or F will be capable of delivering 1000 watts. With that much power in a heater the size of my mug warmer, you could boil 1 liter of water in 6 minutes. That would rival many of the gas stoves on the market today.

My guess is we won’t see this kind battery tech in handheld gadgets or battery banks for 10+ years. Even when these new batteries come to market, they will be very expensive. But I predict we will see the rise of electric backpacking stoves in the next couple decades. If forest fire rates continue increasing, bans on all flame stoves may force the industry to introduce such technology.