On a cool, gray Saturday, the tent hosting the first wood-stove decathlon on the National Mall looked something like a Native American longhouse, but covered in vinyl and with a dozen metal chimneys poking out. From the outside, those metal stacks emitted no smoke, which made it a surprise to encounter a wall of heat upon walking into the tent.
All of the 14 stoves inside — equipped with the latest in oxygen sensing technology, catalytic converters, and remote controls — were burning there in the face of this fact: Some 400,000 years after the discovery of fire and the first human stoves, we're still trying to perfect the technology.
"It is seen as a hillbilly energy; it's not seen as a future energy," says John Ackerly, the founder and president of the Alliance for Green Heat, the event's main sponsor. With this event, on the heavily trafficked National Mall, he'd like to change that.
Over the course of the five-day decathlon, the 14 units will be tested for emissions output and fuel efficiency. The $25,000 prize — and, conceivably, the title of "most advanced home stove in human history" — will go to the team that has the best combination of scores.
The Promise of Wood Heat
"Wood can be very dirty," Tom Butcher, a contest judge and combustion researcher with Brookhaven National Lab, tells me. It's far more polluting than gas or oil if burnt in an open pit (as half the world's population does). And it's not just emitting the usual problem pollutants — such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide — but also acrid chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde. In the developing world, the World Health Organization estimates, 2 million people die prematurely due to indoor use of wood fire.