The blockade of Nepal by India shows no sign of winding down. It is really scary that as winter looms many people will really suffer, no petrol, no cooking gas, raised prices, closed factories, closed schools, closed businesses. Hungry cold people. Hospitals without medication. And that’s just here in Kathmandu. As in so many situations, it’s the poor and isolated folks who will feel it worse, and get help last.
We have some gas left, but we are saving it for emergencies.
So I decided to try making an alternative fuel stove in my kitchen.
I didn’t want to buy an electric cook top or electric wok or rice cooker. Many people are doing well with these, but honestly, I own more than my fair share of the world’s appliances. And I really don’t like shopping. And I’m a wannabe minimalist. And I don’t get to wear the ‘live simply so others may simply live’ t-shirt if I don’t live simply so others may simply live.
At home in Australia, we are in the process of converting our funky 1969 Bedford Bus from Diesel to Waste Veggie Oil, for environmental and economic reasons. So we’ve done a bunch of reading on re-using waste oil, and have played around a bit with it for heating our bus in winter. I’m starting with clean new sunflower oil and if it works I’ll find out how to say “can I buy your dirty used oil please’ in Nepali to my favourite samosa man, and work out how to filter it.
I wanted to make something that is low cost, safe, low emission, and replicable by anyone regardless of income, with the gear found in a typical kitchen.
I’m now a ‘trailing spouse’, an awful title which just means I have more time on my hands than I’ve had in 15 years…I’m totally bored at home…..
Here is my first attempt:
It’s just a tin lid bent up to hold a cotton cloth wick, sitting inside a tuna tin and and soaked in veggie oil. Actually this burned nicely, it took 45 minutes to boil 100mls water, but the cotton didn’t need adjusting and a thin layer of oil on the bottom lasted well.
Ok, so I’m not the sort of person who can wait 45 minutes in the morning for a cup of tea, so I needed more heat, quicker.
I tried plaiting a thick wick out of cotton cloth and threading it up the hole in another tuna can. Then I made little doors in the tuna can for oil to soak in, and coiled the rest of the wick inside, and sat it in a shallow dish of oil.
This put out a lot more heat, but strangely the oil didn’t really soak UP the wick, and so the wick burned up and went out. I was planning to make a can with three wicks, but clearly these wicks were not going to work. They would need a winder thingy, like on an old fashion kerosene lamp and some kind of mechanism which…ummm……there endeth my technical vocab……
I saw a funky idea online somewhere.
A horizontal wick! More surface area to burn! Cool.
So I totally hacked up a three litre oil tin to make a base along which there would be three horizontal wicks. This really didn’t work, I would have needed a drill, and a better soaking wick, or nicked my boys’ meccano for the holey effect. Plus tins are really hard to bend in straight lines with bare hands…
I should mention at this point that when ‘one’ starts cutting up oil tins with tin-snips and scissors, there’s a dicey combination of slippery oily surfaces, and very sharp edges.
So I tried to make more horizontal wicks and have them freestanding in a pot. I sat my redundant stove’s gas ring rack thingy on top to allow air in, and a safe spot for the pot. This boiled 100ml water much faster than model one.
But its a messy business to set up, I had to wait for it all to cool, and then use my fingers to open oily charred bits of sharp metal to replace and reuse for next time. It also takes a while to get going.
Ok, forget the dodgy sharp metal bits! Lets just burn up a coil of wick!
Now we’re talking!! A coiled plait of cotton, soaking in oil, and look!
I managed to produce dinner in maybe 20 minutes.
Look, the onions and spices are actually sizzling
Result day one
- edible sabzi masala
- bemused husband
- too long spent on weird american blogs about armageddon and basements full of emergency supplies like…oil stoves
- gorgeous hands!
More heat! More heat!! I made yet another tuna can into a cardboard coil stove, more often used with wax. It’s simply cardboard coiled around, fitted snuggle in a tin, and soaked in veggie oil.
This produced the requisite cup of tea in just a few minutes, once it got going, which took a few other minutes….
I still wanted more heat, less black smoke (wasn’t veggie oil meant to be clean burning?) and a slightly safer way of having a pot above a flame. What’s with all the tuna tins anyway? (Here’s a story about the last time a tuna tin didn’t work for us) What makes them such a good place to balance a family size pot that normally sits on top of a very secure gas stove? Why don’t I use…the very secure gas stove itself?
So our stove has a convenient sunken ring around it. Why not make a ring of fire! Like Nemo! I used string as the wick this time, hoping for less smoke in the air and less soot on my pot.
Ok, so this worked ok and looks a bit more like a pot on a stove than a playschool rocket.
It’s very slow to get going, but can be lit in several places around the ring, which helps. I eventually changed the wicks from string to tightly round loo paper soaked in oil, and then it worked much better. Forget the string idea. Note to self: don’t forget to turn off the actual gas at the bottle.
Result day two
Ginger chicken stirfry which had “a nice smoky taste’ says Chris
I’m taking that as a win.
Tomorrow I’m going to combine the massive heat output of the coiled cardboard model, with the safely of cooking on a circle bigger than a tuna can, and the improvement of using a lighter weight material for a wick. I’m also going to try to create a way of having two heat settings. And I smell of campfire which reminds me of home….
I relented and spent 80 Rupees on cotton wool, a la Pinterest. Here is a tight coil of it in a tuna tin, soaked in oil. It may have burned a little cleaner, but took forever to really fire up.
So, I repurposed our burnt popcorn pot. I half filled it with more cotton wool, this time placed much more loosely. I think put in at least 300mls veggie oil and let it soak in. Lighting it just takes a little prodding and poking, pulling bits of the cotton with a fork into little peaks to help them ignite from a candle (can’t do this with the cardboard coil)
Ok, so this got so hot it boiled a whole kettle of water in no time.
To be honest, it kind of got really big and scary and I had to put it out by removing the rack thingy, and putting the kettle back on to shut off all the air getting in.
Then I had to calm myself down and get a grip. I’m playing with fire after all.
Using water to extinguish would be really dangerous. Also having grippers or pliers at the ready to lift hot things is also essential. Um, and making sure the floor is not slippery.
I’m getting somewhere!! I have good heat, a wider base, a secure place for my pot, and easier quicker way of getting it lit.
All I need now is heat settings and the ability to not engulf the kitchen in flame.
So that was easy, I simply dropped foil into the pot and covered part of the fire to deny it oxygen.
Day four results
- almost passable aloo gobi and rice
- not to mention our first popcorn in 6 weeks!!
- Happy Mummy- the indescribable feeling of actually doing something that works
Ok, now that’s just being silly.
So, I have a big pot solution, I just need to ruffle the cotton wool a bit and it will relight.
And a coffee solution, the tuna tin one is a perfect size for our caffeteria.
- I’m probably doing it all wrong; I’m reinventing the (not very good) wheel and there are already perfectly good oil stoves that can be made from household gear, and everyone is already doing it and just not telling me.
- I’m still not letting my children join in while I experiment.
- But, nevertheless, I made dinner twice, used no gas and burnt no trees (or plastic). I spent 80 rupees on cotton wool and 120 rupees on 1L of oil; both will last for days and days. And as we say in Australia, that’s better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick.
And of course, it’s not really about me and my silly attempts to be the ‘mother of invention’ at all. We could buy black market gas, or any electrical appliance we want. We could eat out every night. We could get on a plane and get out of here. We’re not the ones who’ll become unemployed, hungry or sick. We are the ones who could so easily forget there are injustices, because we are not the ones suffering. We are therefore the ones who must be determined not to forget, determined to speak up, determined to live differently. Even then, it’s still not really about us.
It’s really about the millions of Nepalis who have never had gas, even before the embargo, and who still cook on bio-mass stoves, It’s about the women who still spend dangerous hours collecting wood and cow-poo amongst wild animals, and whose children inhale toxic smoke in their houses. And its of course about climate change, and how our actions hit the poorest, hardest, soonest.
And it’s about reusing and recycling. And I bet there are groups doing fantastic alternative stuff with fuel and stoves, I’d love to learn more about them. I’d also like to hear from anyone who knows how I can create less smoke. Comments welcome!
Ok, it really was smokier than I thought. We coughed a lot as we tried to go to sleep last night. Maybe a pot full of cotton wool doused in oil would be ok for our lungs if used outdoors, but it’s still not great for the atmosphere.
My boys said I could use their Meccano, so I built three wicks, cotton wool, loo paper and cotton cloth. ( I realise not everyone has a convenient chest of vintage Meccanno, actually any bits of metal would do, and with a hammer and nail, holes could be added. )
All three together were hot enough to fry eggs for lunch!
The cotton cloth one produced the least amount of smoke. However, after cooking awhile, the oil in the base was black and there was more smoke.
Maybe I’m using way too much oil. Maybe at a certain heat, the oil in the base of the pot starts to burn too and it gets all emotional and smoky. Maybe I should stop trying to get it so hot and just cook things other ways than frying. Maybe I should stop offending my science teacher husband by flagrantly disregarding the scientific principal of only changing one variable at a time.
So tonight I went back to the tuna tins, a little one with the little stove ring, and two together inside my bigger pot with the larger stove ring. Using both cardboard and cotton wool. There was way less smoke with the smaller tins, but more heat because there were two of them.
For dinner I reheated leftovers in 10 minutes.
I’m happy with that.
Now excuse me please, I have to go and clean up…..