There was a time when keeping your cell phone charged without a working electricity grid seemed like a third-world problem. Not anymore. According to the Department of Energy, aging electrical infrastructure, increased population, and more extreme weather due to climate change have increased the number of American grid outages six-fold in the last 15 years, from 44 in 2000 to over 200 in 2013.
Given the increased likelihoods of power outages around the world, Andy Byrnes, co-founder of the alternative energy and Stanford design school startup Stower, thinks he has come up with a product everyone should have in their homes. It’s called the Candle Charger, and it’s a collapsible mini-stove that can charge a modern smartphone twice over six hours, just by heating up a can of Sterno.
The Candle Charger is not Stower’s first product aimed at charging gadgets with fire. In 2014, Byrnes and his partners launched a successful Kickstarter for the Flamestower, a rugged stove you could put over an open campfire to charge your USB gadgets. It worked by using a blade extended into an open fire, then using the temperature differential between that blade and the relative coolness of a reservoir of water, a principal known as a thermodynamic effect. The Flamestower worked great, and since then, Stower has helped build that technology into a few third-party camping stoves. Yet the Flamestower was more of an outdoor product, and not super portable.
“We found a huge percentage of our customers were buying the Flamestower for home preparedness, but it’s not really designed to work indoors,” Byrnes tells me in a phone interview. “We wanted to design something that was safe, more personal, and could be used indoors, which is where the idea of building it around a candle came from.”
The Candle Charger uses the same thermodynamic principles as the Flamestower, but instead of an open flame, it works by burning off a can of jellied alcohol, which is suitable for indoors. The design is built to be rugged and collapsible, meaning it can easily fit into most home preparedness kits. Despite its small and humble form factor, though, it generates a lot of juice, especially compared to other off-the-grid power sources. Byrnes says that while a hand-cranked generator might take ten hours of cranking to charge a smartphone to 100%, the Candle Charger can charge two smartphones to 100% in just six hours, saving your arms if not your Sterno supply.
With weather likely to get more extreme in the coming years, and our power grid only getting older, Byrnes says that the day could be coming when grid failures are just as much a part of the average American’s life as they are in India, Africa, or Guatemala. Reason enough, Byrnes hopes, that customers will consider backing his Kickstarter, where a Candle Charger can currently be ordered for $65.