A solar cooker, or solar oven, is a device which uses the energy of direct sun rays (which is the heat from the sun) to heat, cook or pasteurize food or drink. The vast majority of solar cookers presently in use are relatively cheap, low-tech devices. Because they use no fuel and cost nothing to operate, many nonprofit organizations are promoting their use worldwide in order to help reduce fuel costs (for low-income people) and air pollution, and to slow down the deforestation and desertification caused by gathering firewood for cooking. Solar cooking is a form of outdoor cooking and is often used in situations where minimal fuel consumption is important, or the danger of accidental fires is high.
Many types of solar cookers exist.
Simple solar cookers use the following basic principles:
- Concentrating sunlight: A reflective mirror of polished glass, metal or metallised film concentrates light and heat from the sun on a small cooking area, making the energy more concentrated and increasing its heating power.
- Converting light to heat: A black or low reflectivity surface on a food container or the inside of a solar cooker improves the effectiveness of turning light into heat. Light absorption converts the sun's visible light into heat, substantially improving the effectiveness of the cooker.
- Trapping heat: It is important to reduce convection by isolating the air inside the cooker from the air outside the cooker. A plastic bag or tightly sealed glass cover traps the hot air inside. This makes it possible to reach temperatures on cold and windy days similar to those possible on hot days.
- Greenhouse effect: Glass transmits visible light but blocks infrared thermal radiation from escaping. This amplifies the heat trapping effect.
Different kinds of solar cookers use somewhat different methods of cooking, but most follow the same basic principles.
Food is prepared as if for an oven or stove top. However, because food cooks faster when it is in smaller pieces, food placed inside a solar cooker is usually cut into smaller pieces than it might otherwise be. For example, potatoes are usually cut into bite-sized pieces rather than roasted whole. For very simple cooking, such as melting butter or cheese, a lid may not be needed and the food may be placed on an uncovered tray or in a bowl. If several foods are to be cooked separately, then they are placed in different containers.
The container of food is placed inside the solar cooker, which may be elevated on a brick, rock, metal trivet, or other heat sink, and the solar cooker is placed in direct sunlight. If the solar cooker is entirely in direct sunlight, then the shadow of the solar cooker will not overlap with the shadow of any nearby object. Foods that cook quickly may be added to the solar cooker later. Rice for a mid-day meal might be started early in the morning, with vegetables, cheese, or soup added to the solar cooker in the middle of the morning. Depending on the size of the solar cooker and the number and quantity of cooked foods, a family may use one or more solar cookers.
The solar cooker is turned towards the sun and left until the food is cooked. Unlike cooking on a stove or over a fire, which may require more than an hour of constant supervision, food in a solar cooker is generally not stirred or turned over, both because it is unnecessary and because opening the solar cooker allows the trapped heat to escape and thereby slows the cooking process. If wanted, the solar cooker may be checked every one to two hours, to turn the cooker to face the sun more precisely and to ensure that shadows from nearby buildings or plants have not blocked the sunlight. If the food is to be left untended for many hours during the day, then the solar cooker is often turned to face the point where the sun will be when it is highest in the sky, instead of towards its current position.
The cooking time depends primarily on the equipment being used, the amount of sunlight at the time, and the quantity of food that needs to be cooked. Air temperature, wind, and latitude also affect performance. Food cooks faster in the two hours before and after the local solar noon than it does in either the early morning or the late afternoon. Large quantities of food, and food in large pieces, take longer to cook. As a result, only general figures can be given for cooking time. With a small solar panel cooker, it might be possible to melt butter in 15 minutes, to bake cookies in 2 hours, and to cook rice for four people in 4 hours. However, depending on local conditions and the solar cooker type, these projects could take half as long, or twice as long.
It is difficult to burn food in a solar cooker. Food that has been cooked even an hour longer than necessary is usually indistinguishable from minimally cooked food. The exception to this rule is some green vegetables, which quickly change from a perfectly cooked bright green to olive drab, while still retaining the desirable texture.
For most foods, such as rice, the typical person would be unable to tell how it was cooked from looking at the final product. There are some differences, however: Bread and cakes brown on their tops instead of on the bottom. Compared to cooking over a fire, the food does not have a smoky flavor.
A box cooker has a transparent glass or plastic top, and it may have additional reflectors to concentrate sunlight into the box. The top can usually be removed to allow dark pots containing food to be placed inside. One or more reflectors of shiny metal or foil-lined material may be positioned to bounce extra light into the interior of the oven chamber. Cooking containers and the inside bottom of the cooker should be dark-colored or black. Inside walls should be reflective to reduce radiative heat loss and bounce the light towards the pots and the dark bottom, which is in contact with the pots. The box should have insulated sides. Thermal insulation for the solar box cooker must be able to withstand temperatures up to 150 °C (300 °F) without melting or out-gassing. Crumpled newspaper, wool, rags, dry grass, sheets of cardboard, etc. can be used to insulate the walls of the cooker. Metal pots and/or bottom trays can be darkened either with flat-black spray paint (one that is non-toxic when warmed), black tempera paint, or soot from a fire. The solar box cooker typically reaches a temperature of 150 °C (300 °F). This is not as hot as a standard oven, but still hot enough to cook food over a somewhat longer period of time.
Panel solar cookers are inexpensive solar cookers that use reflective panels to direct sunlight to a cooking pot that is enclosed in a clear plastic bag.
If a reflector is axially symmetrical and shaped so its cross-section is a parabola, it has the property of bringing light that has come from a very distant source such as the sun, with rays of light are effectively parallel, to a point focus. If the axis of symmetry is aimed at the sun, any object that is located at the focus receives highly concentrated sunlight, and therefore becomes very hot. This is the basis for the use of this kind of reflector for solar cooking.
Paraboloids are compound curves, which are more difficult to make with simple equipment than single curves. Although paraboloidal solar cookers can cook as well as a conventional oven, they are difficult to construct. Frequently, these reflectors are made using many small segments that are all single curves which together approximate compound curves.
Although paraboloids are difficult to make from flat sheets of solid material, they can be made quite simply by rotating open-topped containers which hold liquids. The top surface of a liquid which is being rotated at constant speed around a vertical axis naturally takes the form of a paraboloid. Centrifugal force causes material to move outward from the axis of rotation until a deep enough depression is formed in the surface for the force to be balanced by the levelling effect of gravity. It turns out that the depression is an exact paraboloid. If the material solidifies while it is rotating, the paraboloidal shape is maintained after the rotation stops, and can be used to make a reflector. This rotation technique is sometimes used to make paraboloidal mirrors for astronomical telescopes, and has also been used for solar cookers. Devices for constructing such paraboloids are known as rotating furnaces.
Paraboloidal reflectors generate high temperatures and cook quickly, but require frequent adjustment and supervision for safe operation. Several hundred thousand exist, mainly in China. They are especially useful for large-scale institutional cooking.
A Scheffler cooker (named after its inventor, Wolfgang Scheffler) uses a large ideally paraboloidal reflector which is rotated around an axis that is parallel with the earth's using a mechanical mechanism, turning at 15 degrees per hour to compensate for the earth's rotation. The axis passes through the reflector's centre of mass, allowing the reflector to be turned easily. The cooking vessel is located at the focus which is on the axis of rotation, so the mirror concentrates sunlight onto it all day. The mirror has to be occasionally tilted about a perpendicular axis to compensate for the seasonal variation in the sun's declination. This perpendicular axis does not pass through the cooking vessel. Therefore, if the reflector were a rigid paraboloid, its focus would not remain stationary at the cooking vessel as the reflector tilts. To keep the focus stationary, the reflector's shape has to vary. It remains paraboloidal, but its focal length and other parameters change as it tilts. The Scheffler reflector is therefore flexible, and can be bent to adjust its shape. It is often made up of a large number of small plane sections, such as glass mirrors, joined together by flexible plastic. A framework that supports the reflector includes a mechanism that can be used to tilt it and also bend it appropriately. The mirror is never exactly paraboloidal, but it is always close enough for cooking purposes.
Sometimes the rotating reflector is located outdoors and the reflected sunlight passes through an opening in a wall into an indoor kitchen, often a large communal one, where the cooking is done.
Paraboloidal reflectors that have their centres of mass coincident with their focal points are useful. They can be easily turned to follow the sun's motions in the sky, rotating about any axis that passes through the focus. Two perpendicular axes can be used, intersecting at the focus, to allow the paraboloid to follow both the sun's daily motion and its seasonal one. The cooking pot stays stationary at the focus. If the paraboloidal reflector is axially symmetrical and is made of material of uniform thickness, its centre of mass coincides with its focus if the depth of the reflector, measured along its axis of symmetry from the vertex to the plane of the rim, is 1.8478 times its focal length. The radius of the rim of the reflector is 2.7187 times the focal length. The angular radius of the rim, as seen from the focal point, is 72.68 degrees.
Parabolic troughs are used to concentrate sunlight for solar-energy purposes. Some solar cookers have been built that use them in the same way. Generally, the trough is aligned with its focal line horizontal and east-west. The food to be cooked is arranged along this line. The trough is pointed so its axis of symmetry aims at the sun at noon. This requires the trough to be tilted up and down as the seasons progress. At the equinoxes, no movement of the trough is needed during the day to track the sun. At other times of year, there is a period of several hours around noon each day when no tracking is needed. Usually, the cooker is used only during this period, so no automatic sun tracking is incorporated into it. This simplicity makes the design attractive, compared with using a paraboloid. Also, being a single curve, the trough reflector is simpler to construct. However, it suffers from lower efficiency.
It is possible to use two parabolic troughs, curved in perpendicular directions, to bring sunlight to a point focus as does a paraboloidal reflector.The incoming light strikes one of the troughs, which sends it toward a line focus. The second trough intercepts the converging light and focuses it to a point.
Compared with a single paraboloid, using two partial troughs has important advantages. Each trough is a single curve, which can be made simply by bending a flat sheet of metal. Also, the light that reaches the targeted cooking pot is directed approximately downward, which reduces the danger of damage to the eyes of anyone nearby. On the other hand, there are disadvantages. More mirror material is needed, increasing the cost, and the light is reflected by two surfaces instead of one, which inevitably increases the amount that is lost.
The two troughs are held in a fixed orientation relative to each other by being both fixed to a frame. The whole assembly of frame and troughs has to be moved to track the sun as it moves in the sky. Commercially made cookers that use this method are available.
Advantages and Disadvantages
||This article contains a pro and con list. (November 2012)|
Solar cookers use no fuel, which means that their users do not need to fetch or pay for firewood, gas, electricity, or other fuels. Therefore, over time a solar cooker can pay for itself in reduced fuel costs. Since it reduces firewood use, the solar cooker reduces deforestation and habitat loss. Since there are about 2 billion people who are still cooking on open fires, widespread use of solar cookers could have large economic and environmental benefits.
Solar box cookers attain temperatures of up to about 165 °C (325 °F), so they can be used to sterilize water or prepare most foods that can be made in a conventional oven or stove, from baked bread to steamed vegetables to roasted meat. When solar ovens are placed outside, they do not contribute unwanted heat inside houses.
However, any type of cooking, including solar cooking, can evaporate grease, oil, etc., from the food into the air.
Solar cookers are less useful in cloudy weather and near the poles (where the sun is low in the sky or below the horizon), so a fuel-based backup heat source is still required in these conditions. Also, solar cooking provides hot food during or shortly after the hottest part of the day, rather than the evening when most people like to eat. The "integrated solar cooking" concept recognizes these limitations and includes a fuel-efficient stove and an insulated heat storage container so the food can be served later, providing a complete solution to this problem.
It has been recognized that solar cookers are limited to cooking on clear days. Moreover, most people want to eat hot food late in the day, when the sun is low or has already set. For these reasons, solar cooking advocates are recognizing the need for combining three devices for a total cooking solution: a) some type of solar cooker; b) a fuel-efficient cookstove; c) an insulated storage container such as a basket filled with straw to store heated food. Hot food will continue to cook for hours if it is stored in a well-insulated container. With this three-part solution, fuel use is minimized while still providing hot meals reliably.
Many solar cookers take longer to cook food than would a fuel-based oven. Using solar cookers therefore requires that food preparation be started several hours before the meal. However, it requires less hands-on time during the cooking, so this is often considered a reasonable trade-off.
Cooks may need to learn special cooking techniques to fry common foods, such as fried eggs or flatbreads like chapatis and tortillas. It may not be possible to safely or completely cook some thick foods, such as large roasts, loaves of bread, or pots of soup, particularly in small panel cookers; the cook may need to divide these into smaller portions before cooking.
Some solar cooker designs are affected by strong winds, which can slow the cooking process, cool the food, and disturb the reflector. In these cases it is necessary to anchor the reflector with string and weights.
Cardboard, aluminium foil, and plastic bags for well over 10,000 solar cookers have been donated to the Iridimi refugee camp and Touloum refugee camps in Chad by the combined efforts of the Jewish World Watch, the Dutch foundation KoZon, and Solar Cookers International. The refugees construct the cookers themselves, using the donated supplies and locally purchased Arabic gum. It has also significantly reduced the amount of time women spend tending open fires each day, with the results that they are healthier and they have more time to grow vegetables for their families and make handicrafts for export. By 2007, the Jewish World Watch had trained 4,500 women and had provided 10,000 solar cookers to refugees. The project has also reduced the number of foraging trips by as much as 70 percent, thus reducing the number of attacks.
Some Gazans have started to make solar cookers made from cement bricks, mud mixed with straw and two sheets of glass. About 40 to 45 Palestinian households reportedly have started using these solar cookers.
Bysanivaripalle, a silk-producing village that is 125 km (78 mi) northwest of Tirupati in the Indian state of in Andhra Pradesh, is the first of its kind: an entire village that uses only solar cooking.
- Kyoto box
- Liquid mirror telescope
- Paraboloid#Dimensions of a paraboloidal dish
- Solar Cookers International
- Solar still
- Solar updraft tower
- Solar water disinfection
- Linda Frederick Yaffe (2007). Solar Cooking for Home and Camp. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. pp. 16–20. ISBN 0-8117-3402-1.
- Halacy, D. S.; Halacy, Beth (1992). Cooking with the sun. La Fayette, CA: Morning Sun Press. pp. 46–47. ISBN 0-9629069-2-1.
- Halacy, D. S.; Halacy, Beth (1992). Cooking with the sun. La Fayette, CA: Morning Sun Press. p. 89. ISBN 0-9629069-2-1.
- Solar cooker pictures Solar Cooking Atlas official website
- "Solar lifeline saves Darfur women". CNN. 2007-09-17. Retrieved 2008-03-06.