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Issues

Wood Stove Design Challenges

In 2013, AGH launched the first design challenge, modeled after the Solar Decathlon. Since then, AGH has been a leader in organizing design challenges with the key goal of making wood stove automation an affordable reality. Brookhaven National Laboratory has been the trusted testing partner for the challenges. 

 

User error is one of the leading causes of air pollution from wood heating. By working towards a wood stove that can cut down on user error with the technology, automated wood stoves could be a game changer in residential wood heating.

Wood Heater Design 2023

The Department of Energy's Bioenergy Technology Office led the 2023 Wood Stove Design Challenge. A total of $120,000 was available in prize funds. Davidon Energy was named as the first place winner, taking home $40,000 for their combustion-air control technology. Aprovecho Research Center took second place, winning $25,000, for their burn pot, air flow configuration, and pellet stove sensor package. Kleiss Engineering won third place for $10,000 with their advanced control valves and manufacturing design.

Twelve teams competed in the 2018 Wood Stove Design Challenge that happened on the National Mall in D.C. The 2018 competition was funded by the Department of Energy's Bioenergy Technology Office, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the Osprey Foundation, and Olympia Chimney. There were two separate events: one for automation of wood stoves and another for thermoelectric generators. Wittus won first prize for both categories with their living room unit that also heated water. Stove Builders International won second place in the automation category with their affordable stove that allowed the operator to select high or low heat output. Vulcan Energy won second prize in the thermoelectric generator category with their gravity fed pellet stove.  

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Funding for the 2016 Wood Stove Design Challenge was provided by the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority, the Osprey Foundation, and the U.S. Forest Service. 2016's competition focused on pellet stove innovation. Seven finalists competed, with Wittus Fire by Design taking first and second place with their Wittus Pellwood Stove that could burn both pellets and firewood and their Seraph’s Phoenix F25i stove.

Funding for the 2014 Wood Stove Design challenge came from New York State Energy and Research Development Authority, the Osprey Foundation, and the U.S. Forest Service. Five stoves were apart of the competition and it was the first year that stoves were tested in a lab for more rigorous testing. MF Fire won first place with their stove, the Mulciber, that displayed adapted emission control techniques. Second place went to the Wittus team, whose stove had one of the lowest emission rates on a test run. 

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In the inaugural year of the design challenge, the competition was called the "Wood Stove Decathlon." Sponsors included New York State Energy and Research Development Authority, the Osprey Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, and other foundations and wood stove industry members. Fourteen stoves made it to the final assessment. First prize, winning $25,000 and a cover feature in Popular Mechanics' magazine, was Woodstock Soapstone with their naturally drafting catalytic wood stove. The second and third place winners, Travis and Wittus, each won $5,00 and a feature in Popular Mechanics. 

The Future of
Wood Stove Design Challenges

As of May 2024, there is not another Challenge planned. BETO's industry grants are the main vehicle of innovation at the moment. In February of 2024, BETO announced that they had chosen six projects from the wood stove industry and air quality management field to advance wood heat innovation and create more efficient (and cleaner) wood heating technology. Up to $2 million is being made available in this first phase for the six projects. This is a huge investment in wood heating innovation, with each project getting $300,000 to carry out their research. 

Why a Wood Stove Technology Challenge?

Technology competitions, also known as inducement prizes, have been used as a tool to stimulate innovation since at least the 16th century, when the King of Spain offered a prize of $6,000 gold ducats - plus $2,000 more a year for life - to the person who could devise a way of finding longitude at sea. At the time, no Spaniard was able to do it, but a similar contest offered by the British Parliament in 1714 produced John Harrison's famous marine chronometer.

There is a healthy debate about when and which technology competitions produce genuine innovation and when they just serve to increase public interest in an issue or help to build communities around finding solutions. Historically, many competitions have been shown to result in greater technological innovation. Liam Brunt and his team at the Norwegian School of Economics found a link between the number of prizes offered and the number of patents awarded for agricultural innovation in 19th century Britain. And Priscilla Brewster speculated that a 1796 United States wood stove competition, despite receiving only four entries, sparked enough interest in wood combustion technology to launch a surge of new patents.

Community Building

According to a 2010 article in the Economist, "prizes also help form new alliances." Prizes can bring together people from different institutions and disciplines who normally would not interact with each other and produce lasting alliances. The 2009 contest sponsored by Netflix was won by a team of seven people who collaborated online and only met each other when they collected their winnings.

Attract Publicity 

Prizes generate public enthusiasm and raise the profile of the technology featured. Prizes also can influence consumer attitudes and behavior. Even the announcement of a prize, like building a car that can get 100 mpg, can influence perceptions and expectations. Consumers are more likely to find a product that has proven its worth in a competition worthy of their purchase. And since the tests are objective and impartial, they add another layer of legitimacy to the claims made by manufacturers and inventors.

Train and Educate Future Innovators

Contests help provide technical skills and training for students and others interested in that field of innovation. The education and skill-building of young, clean energy engineers are among the Solar Decathlon's main goals. The Decathlon organizers believes that the future of clean energy, whether it is solar or wood heat, depends on the enthusiastic participation of the younger generation.

Bring Attention to a Neglected Issue

Another benefit to contests is that they help raise the profile of an issue to the public or policy makers. This is the rationale behind several prizes, such as the ongoing Breant Prize to cure cholera launched in 1854 and the Advanced Market Commitment for a pneumococcal vaccine announced in 2007. Many technology competitions serve humanitarian purpose as well.

Other Stove Competitions

1783 - During a period of extreme cold in Europe known as the "Little Ice Age," Frederick the Great of Prussia holds a contest for the masonry oven that could provide the most heat for the least amount of wood. Johann Paul Baumer wins in 1784 with a design that used outside air for combustion and "featured controllable air intake and a flue gas flap, and well-matched grating size, fire capacity and external surfaces".

1796 - A fuel crisis prompts the American Philosophical Society to offer a $60 prize for the "best construction or improvement of stoves." The contest received four entries.

1826 - The Franklin Institute offers a contest for the best cookstove design of the year. Mine owners chip in an additional $20 to the Institute's $100 prize.

1970s - Three friends from New England hold a competition among themselves to build the best wood stove. The winner, Dick Travers, would later become head of the Elm Stove Company. Fellow contestant Duncan Syme would form Vermont Castings.

1991 - The Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture sponsored a competition for small sized automatically fed chip burners of a maximum power output of 15 kW. 16 furnaces were tested with a standardized method including thermal properties, emissions, comfort and security. The winning boiler, made by Fröling, had a thermal efficiency of 85%.

2010 - The X PRIZE Foundation teams up with the Indian's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi to announce a major prize for clean-burning, efficient cookstoves.

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