Thursday, April 27, 2017

Quest for camp stove fuel

For those of you who aren't keeping up with my occasional Twitter/Facebook posts on the subject, I volunteer with a local search and rescue unit. This means that a few times a month I have to grab my gear and run out into the woods on zero notice to find an injured hiker, locate an elderly person with Alzheimer's, or whatever the emergency du jour is.

Since I don't have time to grab fresh food on my way out the door when duty calls, I keep my pack and load-bearing vest stocked with shelf-stable foods like energy bars and surplus military rations. Many missions are short and intense, leaving me no time to eat anything but finger-food items (Clif bars and First Strike Ration sandwiches are my favorites) kept in a vest pocket.

My SAR vest. Weighs about 17 pounds / 7.7 kg once the Camelbak bladder is added.
On the other hand, during longer missions there may be opportunities to make hot food while waiting for a medevac helicopter, ground team with stretcher, etc - and of course there's plenty of time to cook a hot dinner during training weekends. Besides being a convenience, hot food and drink helps us (and the subject) avoid hypothermia so it can be a literal life-saver.

I've been using MRE chemical heaters for this, because they're small, lightweight (20 g / 0.7 oz each), and not too pricey (about $1 each from surplus dealers). Their major flaw is that they don't get all that hot, so during cold weather it's hard to get your food more than lukewarm.

I've used many kinds of camp stoves (propane and white gas primarily) over the course of my camping, but didn't own one small enough to use for SAR. My full 48-hour gear loadout (including water) weighs around 45 pounds / 20 kg, and I really didn't want to add much more to this. The MSR Whisperlite, for example, weighs in at 430 g / 15.2 oz for the stove, fuel pump, and wind shield. Add to this 150 g / 5.25 oz for the fuel bottle, a pot to cook in, and the fuel itself and you're looking at close to 1 kg / 2 pounds all told.

I have an aluminum camp frying pan that, including lid, weighs 121 g / 4.3 oz. It seemed hard to get much lighter for something large enough that you could squeeze an MRE entree into, so I kept it.

After a bit of browsing in the local Wal-Mart, I found a tiny sheet metal folding stove that weighed 112 g / 3.98 oz empty. It's designed to burn pellets of hexamine fuel.

The stove. Ignore the aluminum foil, it was there from a previous experiment.
In my testing it worked pretty well. One pellet brought 250 ml of water from 10C to boiling in six minutes, and held it at a boil for a minute before burning out. The fuel burned fairly cleanly and didn't leave that much soot on the pot either, which was nice.

What's not so nice, however, was the fuel. According to the MSDS, hexamine decomposes upon heating or contact with skin into formaldehyde, which is toxic and carcinogenic. Combustion products include such tasty substances as hydrogen cyanide and ammonia. This really didn't seem like something that I wanted to handle, or burn, in close proximity to food! Thus began my quest for a safer alternative.

My first thought was to use tea light candles, since I already had a case of a hundred for use as fire starters. In my testing, one tea light was able to heat a pot of water from 10C to 30C in a whopping 21 minutes before starting to reach an equilibrium where the pot lost heat as fast as it gained it. I continued the test out to 34 minutes, at which point it was a toasty 36C.

The stove was big enough to fit more than one tea light, so the obvious next step was to put six of them in a 3x2 grid. This heated significantly more, at the 36-minute mark my water measured a respectable 78C.

I figured I was on the right track, but needed to burn more wax per unit time. Some rough calculations suggested that a brick of paraffin wax the size of the stove and about as thick as a tea light contained 1.5 kWh of energy, and would output about 35 W of heat per wick. Assuming 25% energy transfer efficiency, which seemed reasonable based on the temperature data I had measured earlier, I needed to put out around 675 W to bring my pot to a boil in ten minutes. This came out to approximately 20 candle wicks.

I started out by folding a tray out of heavy duty aluminum foil, and reinforcing it on the outside with aluminum foil duct tape. I then bought a pack of tea light wicks on Amazon and attached them to the tray with double-sided tape.
Giant 20-wicked candle before adding wax
I made a water bath on my hot plate and melted a bunch of tea lights in a beaker. I wasn't in the mood to get spattered with hot wax so I wore long-sleeved clothes and a face shield. I was pretty sure that the water bath wouldn't get anywhere near the ignition point of the wax but did the work outside on a concrete patio and had a CO2 fire extinguisher on standby just in case.

Melting wax. Safety first, everyone!
The resulting behemoth of a candle actually looked pretty nice!
20-wick, 700W thermal output candle with tea lights for scale
After I was done and the wax had solidified I put the candle in my stove and lit it off. It took a while to get started (a light breeze kept blowing out one wick or another and I used quite a few matches to get them all lit), but after a while I had a solid flame going. At the six-minute mark my water had reached 37C.

A few minutes later, disaster struck! The pool of molten wax reached the flash point and ignited across the whole surface. At this point I had a massive flame - my pot went from 48 to 82C in two minutes! This translates to 2.6 kW assuming 100% energy transfer efficiency, so actual power output was probably upwards of 5 kW.

I removed the pot (using welding gloves since the flames were licking up the handle) and grabbed a photo of the fireball before thinking about how to extinguish the fire.

Pretty sure this isn't what a stove is supposed to look like
Since I was outside on a non-flammable surface the fire wasn't an immediate safety hazard, but I wanted to put it out non-destructively to preserve evidence for failure analysis. I opted to smother it with a giant candle snuffer that I rapidly folded out of heavy-duty aluminum foil.

The carnage after the fire was extinguished. Note the discolored wax!
It took me a while to clean up the mess - the giant candle had turned tan from incomplete combustion. It had also sprung a leak at some point, spilling a bit of wax out onto my patio.

On top of that, my pot was coal-black from all of the soot the super-rich flame was putting out. My wife wouldn't let it anywhere near the sink so I scrubbed it as best I could in the bathtub, then spent probably 20 minutes scrubbing all of the gray stains off the tub itself.

In order to avoid the time-consuming casting of wax, my next test used a slug of wax from a tea light that I drilled holes in, then inserted four wicks. I covered the top of the candle with aluminum foil tape to reflect heat back up at the pot, in a bid to increase efficiency and keep the melt puddle below the flash point.

Quad-wick tea light
This performed pretty well in my test. It got my pot up to 35C at the 12-minute mark, which was right about where I expected based on the x1 and x6 candle tests, and didn't flash over.

The obvious next step was to make five of them and see if this would work any better. It ignited more easily than the "brick" candle, and reached 83C at the 6-minute mark. Before T+ 7 minutes, however, the glue on the tape had failed from the heat, and the wax flashed. By the time I got the pot out of harm's way the water was boiling and it was covered in soot (again).

This time, it was a little bit breezier and my snuffer failed to exclude enough air to extinguish the flames. I ended up having to blast it with the CO2 extinguisher I had ready for just this situation. It wasn't hard to put out and I only used about two of the ten pounds of gas. (Ironically, I had planned to take the extinguisher in to get serviced the next morning because it was almost due for annual preventive maintenance. I ended up needing a recharge too...)

After cleaning off my pot and stove, and scraping some of the spilled wax off my driveway, it was back to the drawing board. I thought about other potential fuels I had lying around, and several obvious options came to mind.

Testing booze for flammability
I'm not a big drinker but houseguests have resulted in me having a few bottles of liquor around so I tested it out. Jack didn't burn at all, Captain Morgan white rum burned fitfully and left a sugary residue without putting out much heat. 100-proof vodka left a bit of starchy residue and was tricky to light.

A tea light cup full of 99% isopropyl alcohol brought my pot to 75C in five minutes before burning out, but was filthy and left soot everywhere. Hand sanitizer (about 60% ethanol) burned cleanly, but slower and cooler due to the water content - peak temperature of 54C and 12 minute burn time.

Ethanol seemed like a viable fuel if I could get it up to a higher concentration. I wanted to avoid liquid fuels due to difficulty of handling and the risk of spills, but a thick gel that didn't spill easily looked like a good option.

After a bit of research I discovered that calcium acetate (a salt of acetic acid) was very soluble in water, but not in alcohols. When a saturated solution of it in water is added to an alcohol it forms a stiff gel, commonly referred to as a "California snowball" because it burns and has a consistency like wet snow. I don't have any photos of my test handy, but here's a video from somebody else that shows it off nicely.

Two tea light cups full of the stuff brought my pot of water to a boil in 8 minutes, and held it there until burning out just before the 13-minute mark. I also tried boiling a FSR sandwich packet in a half-inch or so of water, and it was deliciously warm by the end. This seemed like a pretty good fuel!

Testing the calcium acetate fuel. I put a lid on the pot after taking this pic.

I filled two film-canister type containers with the calcium acetate + ethanol gel fuel and left it in my SAR pack. As luck would have it, I spent the next day looking for a missing hiker so it spent quite a while bouncing around driving on dirt roads and hiking.

When I got home I was disappointed to see clear liquid inside the bag that my stove and fuel were stored in. I opened the canisters only to find a thin whitish liquid instead of a stiff gel.

It seemed that the calcium acetate gel was not very stable, and over time the calcium acetate particles would precipitate out and the solution would revert to a liquid state. This clearly would not do.

Hand sanitizer seemed like a pretty good fuel other than being underpowered and perfumed, so I went to the grocery store and started looking at ingredient lists. They all seemed pretty similar - ethanol, water, aloe and other moisturizers, perfumes, maybe colorants, and a thickener. The thickener was typically either hydroxyethyl cellulose or a carbomer.

A few minutes on Amazon turned up a bag of Carbomer 940, a polyvinyl carboxy polymer cross-linked with esters of pentaerythritol. It's supposed to produce a viscosity of 45,000 to 70,000 CPS when added to water at 0.5% by weight. I also ordered a second bottle of Reagent Alcohol (90% ethanol / 5% methanol / 5% isopropanol with no bittering agents, ketones, or non-volatile ingredients) since my other one was pretty low after the calcium acetate failure.

Carbomer 940 is fairly acidic (pH 2.7 - 3.3 at 0.5% concentration) in its pure form and gel when neutral or alkaline, so it needs to be neutralized. The recommended base for alcohol-based gels was triethanolamine, so I picked up a bottle of that too.

Preparing to make carbomer-alcohol fuel gel

I made a 50% alcohol-water solution and added an 0.5% mass of carbomer. It didn't seem to fully dissolve, leaving a bunch of goopy chunks in the beaker.

Incompletely dissolved Carbomer 940 in 50/50 water/alcohol
I left it overnight to dissolve, blended it more, and then filtered off any big clumps with a coffee filter. I then added a few drops of triethanolamine, at which point the solution immediately turned cloudy. Upon blending, a rubbery white substance preciptated out of solution and stuck to my stick blender and the sidewalls of the beaker. This was not supposed to happen!

Rubbery goop on the blender head
Precipitate at the bottom of the beaker

I tried everything I could think of - diluting the triethanolamine and adding it slowly to reduce sudden pH changes, lowering the alcohol concentration, and even letting the carbomer sit in solution for a few days before adding the triethanolamine. Nothing worked.

I went back to square one and started reading more papers and watching process demonstration videos from the manufacturer. Eventually I noticed one source that suggested increasing the pH of the water to about 8 *before* adding the carbomer. This worked and gave a beautiful clear gel!

After a bit of tinkering I found a good process: Starting with 100 ml of water, titrate to pH 8 with triethanolamine. Add 1 g of carbomer powder and blend until fully gelled. Add 300 ml of reagent alcohol a bit at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition. About halfway through adding the alcohol the gel started to get pretty runny so I mixed in a few more drops of triethanolamine and another 500 mg of carbomer powder before mixing in the rest of the alcohol. I had only a little more alcohol left in the bottle (maybe 50 ml) so I stirred that in without bothering to measure.

The resulting gel was quite stiff and held its shape for a little while after pouring, but could still be transferred between containers without muich difficulty.

Tea light can full of my final fuel
I left the beaker of fuel in my garage for several days and shook it around a bit, but saw no evidence of degradation. Since it's basically just turbo-strength hand sanitizer (~78% instead of the usual 30-60%) without all of the perfumes and moisturizers, it should be pretty stable. I had no trouble igniting it down to 10C ambient temperatures, but may find it necessary to mix in some acetone or other low-flash-point fuel to light it reliably in the winter.

The final batch of fuel filled two polypropylene specimen jars perfectly with just a little bit left over for a cooking test.

One of my two fuel jars
One tea light canister held 10.7 g / 0.38 oz of fuel, and I typically use two at a time, so 21.4 / 0.76 oz. One jar thus holds enough fuel for about five cook sessions, which is more than I'd ever need for a SAR mission or weekend camping trip. The final weight of my entire cooking system (stove, one fuel jar, tea light cans, and pot) comes out to 408 g / 14.41 oz, or a bit less than an empty Whisperlite stove (not counting the pot, fuel tank, or fuel)!

The only thing left was to try cooking on it. I squeezed a bacon-cheddar FSR sandwich into my pot, added a bit of water, and put it on top of the stove with two candle cups of fuel.

Nice clean blue flame, barely visible
By the six-minute mark the water was boiling away merrily and a cloud of steam was coming up around the edge of the lid. I took the pot off around 8 minutes and removed my snack.

Munching on my sandwich. You can't tell in this lighting, but the stove is still burning.
For those of you who haven't eaten First Strike Rations, the sandwiches in them are kind of like Hot Pockets or Toaster Strudels, except with a very thick and dense bread rather than a fluffy, flaky one. The fats in the bread are solid at room temperature and liquefy once it gets warm. This significantly softens the texture of the bread and makes it taste a lot better, so reaching this point is generally the primary goal when cooking one.

My sandwich was firmly over that line and tasted very good (for Army food baked two years ago). The bacon could have been a bit warmer, but the stove kept on burning until a bit after the ten-minute mark so I could easily have left it in the boiling water for another two minutes and made it even hotter.

Once I was done eating it was time to clean up. The stove had no visible dirt (beyond what was there from my previous experiments), and the tea light canisters were clean and fairly free of soot except in one or two spots around the edges. Almost no goopy residue was left behind.

Stove after the cook test
The pot was quite clean as well, with no black soot and only a very thin film of discoloration that was thin enough to leave colored interference fringes. Some of this was left over from previous testing, so if this test had been run on a virgin pot there'd be even less residue.

Bottom of the pot after the cook test

Overall, it was a long journey with many false steps, but I now have the ability to cook for myself over a weekend trip in less than a pound of weight, so I'm pretty happy. 

EDIT: A few people have asked to see the raw data from my temperature-vs-time cook tests, so here it is.

Raw data (graph 1)
Raw data (graph 2)


  1. No wonder you're not getting much embedded development done ;-)

  2. Maybe something like this would also give some new idea.

  3. Note that if you rub a bar of (almost dry) soap on the bottom of a clean pan, then let it dry, it forms a water soluble barrier between the pan and soot layer, so it mostly just rinses away

  4. Yeah but if I cook more than once I have to either tote around a bar of soap or get soot all over my pack. And when I get home and rinse it off, I still get soot all over my tub.

    A low-residue fuel is better in terms of efficiency anyway. Any carbon that didn't turn into CO2 is energy that was wasted due to inadequate oxygen to the flame.