Many of us will be firing up our grills this weekend for some well-deserved barbecue time. After all, barbecuing is one of America’s greatest past times, but it certainly isn’t one of our most environmentally friendly. Whether you prefer charcoal, wood chips or propane, grilling releases emissions and contributes to poor air quality. Up until now, solar powered grilling has required, as you might expect, the sun, which means traditional fuel-fired grills are required after sunset. But new solar technology developed by MIT professor David Wilson could bring a nighttime solar-powered grill to the market very soon; an invention also of great benefit to those in developing nations who rely on wood to cook all their food.
Wilson’s technology harnesses the sun and stores latent heat to allow cooking times for up to an amazing twenty five hours at temperatures above 450 degrees Fahrenheit. The technology uses a Fresnel lens to harness the sun’s energy to melt down a container of Lithium Nitrate. The Lithium Nitrate acts as a battery storing thermal energy for 25 hours at a time. The heat is then released as convection for outdoor cooking.
"There are a lot of solar cookers out there, but surprisingly not many using latent-heat storage as an attribute to cook the food.”
This study is very timely because although the students are creating a new grill for American backyards, the business plan is designed to allow the grills to be deployed in developing countries as an alternative source for cooking.
Wilson originally came up for the idea during his time spent in Nigeria. While there he noticed a large set of problems linked to practice of cooking with firewood. These problems include reports of women being raped during their daily search for firewood, constant increase in deforestation, and respiratory health issues due to the daily inhalation of smoke in closed proximities. According to the United Nations Statistics Division, 55 percent of households in sub-Saharan Africa depend on firewood. In developing countries this Solar Grill would become a solution to a growing need.
A group of MIT students are working with the technology to develop a prototype solar grill. Derek Ham, Eric Uva, and Theodora Vardouli are conducting a study through their multi-disciplinary course “iTeams,” short for “Innovation Teams”, to determine the interest in such a concept and then hopefully launch a business to manufacture and distribute these grills. The goal is to develop a business model for distributing solar grills to developing nations as well as a grill for the American market. The American version is expected to be a hybrid propane/solar model that will allow for flame cooking as well as through thermal convection. If all goes well, in a couple years we just be giving solar grills as presents on Father’s Day and enjoying sun-kissed instead of char-broiled even after the sun goes down.
In the US market, according to the Barbecue Industry Association, about 75 percent of all U.S. households owned a barbecue grill in 1999, and 40 percent owned more than one. To respond to the demands of the American public, the proposed US model would be a hybrid system of both propane and solar cooking capabilities. This would allow you to have your flame kissed meat as well as the ability to slow roast corn from the thermal convection. Currently the technology is in its prototype stage, but if all goes well in a few years you might be able to have Solar-Cooked food at your next barbecue.
COMMENTARY: I love the idea of a solar-powered BBQ grill, but the flavor and aroma of hickory smoke would be lost using the Wilson solar grill. I suppose you could use liquid smoke to make up for the loss of smoke. In case you were wondering, the Wilson solar grill is still not ready for prime time, and is not available commercially, so I could not find a price