Next time you zap your dinner in the microwave or fire up the gas
in your stove, spare a thought for the two billion or so people
(almost a third of the world's population) who don't enjoy the same
luxury. Many people in developing countries still have to burn piles
of wood fuel to cook their food, which might cost a quarter or more
of their income or take several hours to collect for free (with the
burden typically falling on women and young children). Burning wood
is bad for people's health and can be bad for the environment
too if it destroys forested areas that aren't replaced. Solar cookers
are a promising alternative with huge advantages and relatively few
drawbacks. Using mirrors to build up heat and glass or plastic to trap it,
they cook a meal with nothing more than the power of the Sun. Let's
take a closer look at how they work!
Photo: Cooking eggs for free—with a solar reflector. The dish
focuses the Sun's rays on the frying pan! Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy of US DOE/NREL (US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory).
What is a solar cooker?
Have you ever tried that old camping trick with a magnifying glass
to burn a hole in paper? What you're doing is using a lens to
concentrate rays of sunlight into a tiny area so you raise the
temperature of the paper beyond its ignition point—in other words,
so it catches fire. Sunlight is a bit of a misnomer: the energy that
comes from the Sun is a wide spectrum of electromagnetic radiation
that contains heat as well as light, in the shape of infrared
light (just too red for our eyes to see) and ultraviolet
radiation (just beyond the blue-violet end of the spectrum we can see).
Solar cookers work in a similar way to camp-fire magnifying
glasses, but instead of lenses (which are relatively heavy and
expensive) they use cheap mirrors to concentrate heat on a
dark-colored cooking pot (dull black materials absorb the Sun's heat
best). Other simple materials such as
glass help to trap
and retain the heat the mirrors have collected.
Types of solar cookers
There are three main types of solar cookers, though since many are
self-built or modified using locally available materials, there are
literally hundreds of variations.
These are the most common kind of solar cooker. They're sturdy
wooden boxes lined with heat-reflective aluminum foil and they have a hinged
lid made from glass. Simpler box cookers can be made from single
thicknesses of sturdy cardboard with foil on the inside, but a more
effective design has double wooden walls with insulation in between to
trap heat more effectively. How does it work? You put your
dark-colored cooking pot inside the cooker and close the lid. The
Sun's rays enter through the glass and the foil concentrates them on
the pot. Like the glass in a greenhouse, the lid allows
sunlight in but stops heat from escaping (it also prevents any wind
from cooling the pot). In an alternative design of box cooker, the
lid is lined with foil and you prop it open so it concentrates extra
sunlight down onto the pot. In this case, you also need to put the
cooking pot inside a heat-resistant plastic bag to stop the heat from
escaping. Box cookers are particularly good for slow-cooking a family
meal over a period of several hours.
Photo: Chinese people boil water using a kettle placed at
the focus of a parabolic reflector. Photo by Simon Tsuo
courtesy of US DOE/NREL (US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory).
These are sometimes called solar kettles because they're often
used for boiling water. Instead of a closed box, you have a
mirror shaped like a
parabola (a cone-shaped curve) so it concentrates
sunlight at its focus, maybe 30cm–1m (1–3ft) in front of
its midpoint. That's where you suspend your kettle or cooking pot.
Parabolic reflectors are the most effective at concentrating heat so
they generally achieve the highest temperatures and cook fastest
(without the need for a heat-retaining plastic bag). However, they're
quite large and cumbersome and (unlike slow, steady box cookers) need
constant attention (especially if there are young children nearby).
Photo: This panel cooker mixes elements of box cooker and reflector:
the panels collect heat that builds up inside the box.
Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy of US DOE/NREL (US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory).
These are like a cross-between box cookers and parabolic
reflectors. Using a number of flat reflectors hinged together, you
enclose an area and stand your cooking pot (covered with a sealed
plastic bag) in the middle of it. Panel reflectors can be made simply
and cheaply (for just a few dollars) from cardboard and aluminum
foil, and since they're quick and easy to assemble they're often
supplied by humanitarian organizations to people in developing countries. Unlike parabolic reflectors,
they can be folded up, stored in very little space, and easily
What are the advantages and disadvantages of solar cookers?
Solar cookers can save the world's poorest people the expense of
buying wood fuel or the time-consuming chore of collecting it. (It's
often women who gather firewood in difficult or
dangerous conditions, while children who have to walk for hours to collect wood
or water have less time for school or helping their families in other
ways.) Solar cookers also bring health benefits. Cooking on blazing
fires can be dangerous and unpleasant and often causes respiratory
problems, while solar cookers are safer (they use no fire) and are entirely
smoke-free. Solar cookers can be better for people's health in other ways.
Food cooked more slowly is more nutritious, and solar cookers can
be used to pasteurize food or water
(so it's safer to keep it for longer) and kill germs.
There are environmental benefits too. Reducing the
need to gather wood-fuel can help to protect forests and the
biodiversity they contain.
There are a few drawbacks, however. Solar cookers obviously rely on sunlight so they can be used only
at certain times of day in good weather, and not necessarily when
people want or need to cook. The food also has to be cut up small so it will fit in a pot, and since solar cookers don't
provide the warmth, heat, and community focal point that a fire may
give, using them can involve a certain amount of cultural adjustment.
These may or may not be minor details for people who've always
cooked on open fires and whose home lives revolve around them.
Then again, using a solar cooker isn't
obligatory; the most important point is that it provides an alternative that
wasn't there before.
Who invented solar cookers?
Artwork: Harry Cherrier's "fan-assisted" solar cooker from 1915. Like a conventional solar oven,
it cooks using sunlight, but the cooking process is speeded up by air drawn into the cooker, heated by the outer
casing, passed through the central cooking chamber, then back out again through a flue. From US Patent 1,158,175: Solar cooker by Harry Cherrier, artwork courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
Solar cooking is one of those things that no-one can really claim to have invented; doubtless
people in tropical countries have been cooking with sunlight for as long as they've been cooking!
Having said that, European scientist and alpine explorer Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740–1799) is
generally credited as the inventor of the modern, box-type of solar cooker.
In more recent times, the earliest US patent I've found for a solar cooker was filed by Harry Cherrier
of Redlands, California in February 1915 and granted in October the same year. Cherrier explains how
his invention "will utilize the sun's rays for cooking purposes" in preparing dried fruits, vegetables, "jellies, jams, etc."
in such a way that they are "much superior" to those cooked the usual way. Unlike many modern solar cookers,
Cherrier's invention speeds up the cooking process by sucking in a steady draft of air, heating it up, and passing it
through—so it's a little bit like a modern, fan-assisted oven: "To properly prepare such material it is necessary that the air supply be continuous, abundant, and hot so that the moisture in the material to be cooked is absorbed by the air and rapidly taken away."
You can explore many more designs for solar cookers with a quick search for "solar oven patents" at the US Patent and Trademark
Office (or on Google Patents).
Find out more
- Cooking with Sunshine: The Complete Guide to Solar Cuisine by Lorraine Anderson and Rick Palkovic. Da Capo Press, 2006. Introduces the basic concept of solar cooking and its benefits, explains how to build a solar cooker from cardboard and foil (with what seem to be very clear, illustrated instructions), and then lists 150 recipes. Also lists places where you can buy cookers and how you can support the solar-cooking movement.
- Solar Cooking for Home and Camp by Linda Frederick Yaffe. Stackpole Books, 2007. Describes how to make a box or panel cooker and goes on to list some of the recipes you can enjoy with it.
- Can solar cookstoves help reduce greenhouse emissions in developing countries? by Erik Hoffner. The Guardian. October 30, 2015. Explores GoSun's mission to displace polluting wood and charcoal stoves with solar alternatives.
- Solar Cookers Get Hot by Glenn Zorpette. IEEE Spectrum. September 12, 2014. A new solar cooker uses salt to store energy on sunny days so you can also use it on cloudy days.
- A Path to Cleaner Cooking in Africa by Andrew C. Revkin. The New York Times. September 23, 2010. A blog post arguing that different types of solar cookers are needed so people can cook the food they depend on without having to make unacceptably radical changes to their diet.
- Prize for 'Sun in the box' cooker by Richard Black. BBC News, 9 April 2009. Explains the Kyoto Box, a solar cooker developed by Jon Bohmer.
- Kitchen Voyeur: Sunny Side Up by Jonathan Reynolds. The New York Times, August 21, 2005. Solar cooking enthusiast Mary Frank introduces the writer to the delights of "cooking by sunlight."
On other sites
Organizations making a difference
- Solar Cookers International: US-based group that provides solar cookers (and education in how to use them) to people in developing countries.
- Practical Action: UK-based group that provides simple and effective technologies to help people in developing countries.
Life in other countries
These accounts of life in developing countries explain the risks of cooking with firewood, especially for women and children:
- Smoke—the Killer in the Kitchen: A report by development charity Practical Action reveals that over 1.5 million people in developing countries die each year from smoke pollution caused by poor stoves.
- Dying for firewood: The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children explains some of the
dangers of collecting firewood. [Archived via the Wayback Machine.]
- The Life of a Maasai Woman: Describes how women in Kenya have to collect firewood bundles weighing up to 45kg (100lb), sometimes in great danger. [Archived via the Wayback Machine.]
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