Methanol cook stoves

Alcohol burning stoves based on methanol can be used to supply a cooking service, water heating and heating of buildings. The technology can be applied in households, institutions (e.g. schools) and industries where it is used for boiler heating. Methanol is derived from natural gas and therefore still results in emissions of CO2, whereas the biomass gasification stoves convert biomass into a mixture of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and methane, which can be burnt for cooking. An important advantage of the technologies is that ethanol and methanol burning and biomass gasification do not have the air pollution problems of simple biomass burning for cooking purposes. Ethanol and methanol provide a higher heat flux with no soot or smoke that means that cooking and hot water production can take place faster and pollution free.

According to Practical Action (2007), 2.4 billion people use traditional biomass for cooking, either wood, crop residues, charcoal, or animal waste. IEA (2006) states that an extra 200 million people worldwide will rely on biomass for their cooking and heating needs by 2030. Switching to cleaner fuels and having access to those fuels is one strategy for dealing with the problems of the health effects caused by the smoke and other pollutants released in enclosed cooking areas. The UN millennium project aims to half the number of households using traditional biomass.
Improved biomass cookstoves can aim for 30% efficiency and reduces the amount of wood fuel used and thus decreases pollutant emissions. Methanol is derived from natural gas and therefore still results in emissions of CO2, whereas the biomass gasification stoves convert biomass into a mixture of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and methane, which can be burnt for cooking.
Methanol as a fuel is cheaper than ethanol. It can be produced from natural gas in a simple process at about half the cost of ethanol. Its potential is therefore particularly large in countries with natural gas supplies. Methanol can also be used by most ethanol stoves, such as the ‘dometic cleancook’ stove shown below, since the methanol stoves work on the same principle as ethanol. Although some of the stoves have been developed and designed in the EU, they are generally used for remote areas and leisure activities.

Feasibility of technology and operational necessities
The equipment required for methanol burning stoves is similar to existing kerosene stoves. The NARI stove is made of stainless steel to minimise corrosion. It has been field tested on a pilot scale and is undergoing large scale testing. In addition, supply chains for the ethanol and methanol stoves need to be put in place.

Methanol either from biomass sources or from natural gas supplies. This has been done in Nigeria where gas was being flared off. It means that local communities can benefit (e.g., Shell foundation project; Shell Foundation, 2006). The costs of production are low in both cases. 

Also, in urban areas income levels are on average higher so that more expensive technologies are more easily available. Another factor playing a role in the decision on whether to switch to a different fuel or stick to the traditional biomass-based cooking technique is the sometimes complex social behaviour in terms of the status of women and their role in decision making and cultural practices related to the fuel used for food preparation. Finally, for rural areas the distance to major ethanol supply centres is generally longer than for urban areas, with corresponding cost differences. In many developing countries, as Elias and Victor (2005) point out, multiple fuels are used, indicating that traditional biomass sources are only partly replaced by cleaner forms. According to Messiri (2006), it takes about 8 years for permitting and construction of a large world scale methanol plant. A small scale methanol plant can be up and running in about 2 years.

In some countries the implementation of methanol stoves may be hampered by regulatory or institutional structures. For example, the Gaia project in Ethiopia had a problem with contradictory government regulations which caused problems in implementing a household pilot study (Stokes and Ebbeson, 2005).

However, it was found that institutional investors like UNHCR actually provided a more reliable and less risky basis for starting up a market than creating a domestic market alone.

Barriers and drivers for establishing markets are similar to other technologies with quality control service back up, spare parts and maintenance being important for establishing a customer base. The RERED project in Sri Lanka is a good example of requiring good standards when setting up a market.

Status of the technology and its future market potential
The technology of alcohol burning stoves is developing all the time and there is a variety of stoves available on the market. In the EU the technology is mainly used for marine and mobile leisure applications while for developing countries it represents a chance to replace traditional firewood cook stoves. However, the lack of awareness of their benefits and the limited availability of microcredit could be a problem in adopting the technology. In rural areas where the firewood is still collected and 'free of charge', the economic incentive for changing cooking stoves might be smaller. In these areas, a stronger incentive could be the possible health improvements from cleaner cook stoves. For example, informational health effect campaigns could be helpful here. Consequently, the uptake of ethanol stoves may be larger in urban and semi-urban areas where people need to buy their fuels anyway and where income levels are higher.

As indicated by the range of stoves which are commercially available now or which are being developed, there are many successful stoves already available on the market. However, lack of awareness of their benefits and limited availability of microcredit may still be a problem in adopting the technology. In developing countries the ethanol/methanol and biogasification stoves can be used to replace traditional wood burning stoves or kerosene stoves and can be used with ethanol from existing sources or as in the case of the NARI stove from new plant sources and at a 50% concentration. Methanol is a good and cheap alternative though currently not carbon free as it is mainly produced from natural gas. The stoves therefore have to be marketed in conjunction with their fuel supply chain.

In general, markets exist in developing countries, but an important aspect of their applicability is that they must be coupled to the supply chain for the fuel. These stoves are competing with the improved cookstoves which use 30% of the biomass for the same cooking service provided by an open fire. In Kenya, for instance, ethanol stoves have not been widely used. Instead, the Upesi improved cook stove is popular and interventions include hoods and windows in the kitchen (ENTTRANS, 2008). Improved cookstoves are very cheap but do not last as long as the ethanol stoves.

Grimm et al. (2002) describe an EU-China joint venture on the development of a biomass heating and cooking stove project under the EU-China Local Authority linking programme. The available stoves are low efficiency (15-25%) and by producing air pollution these stove contribute to air pollution. Grimm et al. (2002) quote the annual market capacity in Beijing for stoves at 10 million according to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture. In 2002 only, 3 million units were being produced commercially so that a large market for efficient low emission stoves in China remains to be explored.

Project Gaia supported by the Shell Foundation is a good example as are all the stoves mentioned above (Stokes and Ebbeson, 2005). The project involved technology transfer of alcohol burning stoves already developed in Europe and North America to the developing world. The company involved in making the stoves is Domestic which supplies a range of equipment for the recreational market including stoves for marine and RV applications. The project particularly emphasised the use of methanol as a fuel available from natural gas in large quantities and available at lower costs than kerosene (Stokes and Ebbeson, 2005). It is envisaged that eventually the methanol would be produced from the lignin and cellulose in biomass crops and thus be carbon neutral. The project therefore involved not only the stove technology but also the supply chain for the fuel.  To stimulate demand for this locally-produced methanol, Project Gaia is working to introduce the CleanCook stoves to families in the Niger Delta.

In general, methanol and biomass gasification cook stoves are of most interest to the poor in developing countries. Technology transfer has been successful in some projects such as the Gaia project but also south-south transfers could be encouraged, such as Malawi/Africa ethanol/methanol to China and Chinese biomass gasifiers to Africa.

How the technology could contribute to socio-economic development and environmental protection : 
As explained above, switching to cleaner fuels and having access to those fuels is one strategy for dealing with the problems of the health effects caused by the smoke and other pollutants released in enclosed cooking areas. Some alternatives are not necessarily affordable for the poor, such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or biogas, but ethanol, as well as methanol and biogasification are good alternatives. Introduction of chimneys and smoke hoods are also viable options.
With respect to emissions of non-greenhouse gas pollutants, Warwick and Doig (2004) show that the smoke and other pollutants from cooking on open fires is a major cause of disease and death in developing countries and especially for those in poverty. The level of particulates and products of incomplete combustion to which mainly women and children are exposed, leads to respiratory and eye disorders with a high incidence of death (1.6 million/year).

Contribution of the technology to economic development (including energy market support)
Methanol is derived from fossil fuel (i.e. natural gas). This gives an abundant supply of methanol and allows gas supplies to be distributed and used in an easy form. Methanol production costs are less than half those of ethanol (Stokes and Ebbeson, 2005). Methanol makes the gas as by-product from oil available for local communities.

The greenhouse gas emission reduction effect from using biomass for energy production is subject to some controversy as it is important to consider the full life cycle of the fuel and the materials used in the technology and the products of incomplete combustion. Important aspects to consider are:
  • the feedstock used (by-product of sugar production, biomass distillation or from sorghum, or raw materials which could have been used for food production). If methanol is produced from a raw material that would otherwise have been used for food production, then the greenhouse gas emissions related to producing this food in an alternative manner need to be incorporated as well.
  • the supply chain: the distance to transport feedstock to methanol production site (or whether produced domestically or imported) and the transport mode used,
  • the production process itself, and
  • what is replaced by the methanol: e.g. unsustainably harvested wood stove or fossil fuelled kerosene stove.
For calculation of these GHG emission reductions, it is recommended to apply the approved methodology for thermal energy production with or without electricity project (small scale activities) which has been developed under the Clean Development Mechanism of the UNFCCC Kyoto Protocol (CDM). This methodology helps to determine a baseline for GHG emissions in the absence of the project (i.e. business-as-usual circumstances), how emission reductions below this baseline can be calculated, and how these reductions can be monitored. General information about how to apply CDM methodologies for GHG accounting can be found at:

Financial requirements and costs
As explained above, costs and availability of the stoves will also depend on in-country conditions, such as differences between rural and urban areas, 'competition' from 'free-of-charge' firewood, decision making responsibility of women, and availability of materials. Based on Messiri (2006), the DTSG/OPTS Initiative in Nigeria estimates some costs for methanol from modular plants (see Figure below).

Figure 1: Projected cost for methanol from modular plan (Source: Messiri 2006)

The European Commission finances the Intelligent Energy Europe (IEE) programme, the EC Buildings directive, the Sustainable Energy Europe programme and Concerto (sustainable energy for communities initiative), with the objective to promote the development of sustainable energy technologies and systems. However, methanol stoves are not currently featured as these are commercially available within the EU and regarded as suitable for remote areas or leisure activities. The biomass gasification model, especially that for China, where local gas supply systems are used, could be applied to the EU and especially in rural areas and perhaps could be considered under the sustainable energy and community programmes.

The activities to develop and implement ethanol/methanol and biomass gasification stoves in developing countries have been financed either by national governments in developing countries (e.g. the ethanol stoves in Malawi and South Africa), or have resulted from an EU technology transfer partnership (Grimm et al., 2002), or been funded by charitable organisations such as the Shell Foundation. REEEP is another possible partner for promoting these technologies in a developing country. NGOs concerned about the health effects of 3-stone fires could also engage in the use of these stoves.

ENTTRANS. 2008. Promoting Sustainable Energy Technology Transfers through the CDM: Converting from a Theoretical Concept to Practical Action, EU 6th Framework Programme, contract number: 022673.
Grimm, H.P., Helm, P., Grassi, G., Lutter, E., Fjaellstroem, T., Dong, W. 2002. Fostering EU-China cooperation in the development of the biomass fuelled heating and cooking stove market in China, 12th European Conference on Biomass Energy, Industry and Climate Protection.
IEA, 2006. World Energy Outlook 2006, OECD/IEA, Paris, France.
Messiri, T. 2006. Mini-methanol plant. DTSG/OPTS Initiative. Available at:
Practical Action, 2007. Avalaible at:
Stokes, H., Ebbeson, B. 2005. Project Gaia: Commercialising a new stove and new fuel in Africa, Boiling Point, No. 50, pp. 31-33.
Warwick, H. Doig, A. 2004. Smoke: the Killer in the Kitchen, Indoor Air Pollution in Developing Countries, ITDG Publishing, London, United Kingdom.

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