Don Johnston's High Performance Alcohol Stove
(AKA Photon Stove)
Last updated 11-19-2001
Do not use any fuel other than Alcohol. Denatured Alcohol is the recommended fuel. Denatured Alcohol is available almost anywhere paint is sold. This includes Hardware stores, Sears, WalMart, and building supply outfits like Home Depot. If you are doing a long hike and you want to resupply with fuel along the way there are two other options if you can't find Denatured Alcohol. I have tested with Everclear brand grain alcohol which is 95% Alcohol (190 proof) and the HEET brand of gas-line antifreeze that comes in a yellow container. Both work fine. Everclear is available in many Liquor stores and possibly bars. HEET and other brands of gas-line antifreeze can be found at some gas stations and many types of stores BUT read the label to be certain it contains Methyl Alcohol as its main ingredient. Gas-line antifreeze type products are frequently NOT Methyl alcohol and some are Isopropyl alcohol. Avoid Isopropyl alcohol. Read the label and don't buy it if in doubt. I strongly recommend against use of any form of Isopropyl alcohol including Rubbing alcohol. Rubbing alcohol that is 91 % will work if you are desperate but is really sooty so I very strongly recommend you avoid it. Rubbing alcohol that is 70 % or less is just not worth the mess or operational troubles if you can get it to work at all.
Unpack the stove and shape the windscreen into an even circle but do not place the windscreen around the stove yet. For now don't fully assemble the stove. Place the stove base down with the pot support on the ground behind it and the burner on the ground in front of it.
1) Before you go any further fill your pot with what you want to heat so it will be ready to place on the stove immediately after you light it..
2) Carefully fill the salt shaker bottom or 1-ounce container with fuel from your fuel bottle. Fill it virtually to the brim being careful not to spill. If using the 1-ounce container replace the cap. See performance notes to determine how much alcohol to use.
3) Remove the screw from the burner and fill the burner with the desired amount of alcohol then replace the screw. Avoid pouring the fuel in so fast that it over flows the center depression. Doing so may cause the fuel not to drain into the stove because all of the ports which vent air are covered with fuel. See performance notes to determine how much alcohol to use.
The screw should NOT be tightened. Just screw it all most all the way down by hand so it doesn't stick up more than 1/4 inch. Make a habit of placing the screw on the stove base while you fill the stove so you won't have to search for it. From here on out the alcohol can evaporate so for the sake of efficiency proceed immediately to dripping in the preheat fuel and lighting the stove.
4) Now tip the burner and drip some alcohol onto the stove base around where the burner sits (not on the disk under the burner).
There are two ring depressions between where the burner sits and the outside ring where the pot support sits. Drip the preheat fuel into these two rings so there is enough to flow around when you tip the stove base to evenly distribute the fuel (You should tip the stove base to flow the fuel all the way around). You only need to drip just enough to wet both rings all the way around where the burner sits. This is the preheat fuel. Practice to use the bare minimum that successfully lights the burner consistently. Too little and the burner doesn't light. Too much wastes fuel and may cause the burner flames to lift off the burner until all preheat fuel is exhausted. If you use too much fuel the stove will sound like a rocket motor until the preheat fuel burns out. To ensure safety DO NOT use more than a few drops of preheat. 1/4 teaspoon would be more than enough. Practice at home until you are comfortable that you have learned this simple skill. If you have difficulty with learning this just drip the preheat from the burner into a 1/4 teaspoon then distribute onto the stove base. If you get the rocket motor sound don't use so much next time.
5) Place the pot support and burner in position on the stove base.
6) Light the preheat alcohol in the stove base then immediately place the windscreen around the stove and set your pot on the stove. This makes use of the heat generated during preheat and helps light the burner as well.
7) Watch and listen for a few moments to verify the burner successfully lights. When the burner is lit you will hear the quiet crackle sound of the alcohol boiling inside the burner. In daylight the flame is not visible but you can tell if it is lit by passing your hand over the area between pot and wind screen
Best methods of ignition. Normally most people will choose to use a lighter to light their stove. In addition I strongly recommend you carry a supply of Waterproof matches and Windproof matches in your emergency kit. A half box of each combined into one box will weigh less than 1/2 oz and be enough to complete your trip or get you to your resupply point. I have used my matches on occasions when my lighter ran out or failed. It is easiest to light alcohol stoves with a lighter that uses electric ignition instead of a flint that requires you to use your thumb to light the lighter. It is hard to direct a flame down when your thumb is required to both light the lighter and hold down the gas valve. Electric ignition lighters can be ignited using your index finger by simply pushing the button. Hold the lighter with your thumb on the bottom and your index finger on the ignition button. Squeeze and direct the flame onto the preheat fuel in the stove base. Scripto makes lighters of this type and I have seen a Bic model as well. The Scripto has a nice long and adjustable flame. The Bic didn't have any flame adjustment and it has a shorter flame which makes it less desirable in my opinion.. I have seen one electric ignition lighter that was defective. It simply didn't light consistently right out of the box so test it before you depend on it. Another very good and more reliable choice is waterproof matches. These work well in all conditions but high wind and will burn long enough to light even very cold alcohol.
Igniting in difficult conditions.
Cold winter conditions: You may need to use slightly more preheat fuel as well as more in the burner if the water temperature is below about 40 degrees. If you use a butane lighter with electric ignition you can easily keep a flame on very cold alcohol long enough to heat the alcohol to reach its ignition temperature. For most butane lighters to work in the cold you need to keep it in a warm place like an inside pocket near your body so it will be warm enough to function when you need it. If using matches, hover the lit match over the preheat alcohol so the flame is just above the alcohol not in the alcohol. Another method is to fill the one ounce bottle with alcohol when you arrive at your campsite and place it in an inside pocket near your body to warm the fuel while you setup camp. Placing the stove base in a pocket will also help. When ready to cook fill the stove and it should light easily.
High Wind conditions: For high winds Windproof matches are ideal. They burn like a flare for a while making it easy to light just about anything. The alcohol you light will still have to be protected from the wind so make sure you block the wind with the wind screen or other object like perhaps your sleeping pad.
The stove base, pot support, burner and measuring container store inside the cook pot. To protect the pot from debris or scratches and the stove from left over moisture in the pot, I think placing these components in a small silnylon stuff sack would be a good idea. You won't lose anything if it is all in a bag. GoLite and Equinox make extra small stuff sacks which are ideal for storing the stove. The windscreen wraps around the fuel bottle and is secured with a hair scunci or rubber band. Hand tightening the burner filler screw will help ensure it doesn't work it's way out while you travel. No need to worry about losing it because it will still be in the stuff sack and inside your pot should it come out.
You can fill the burner with more alcohol than you will need for the current meal and easily blow the stove out when you are done cooking. BUT until the fuel in the stove cools enough to stop vaporizing you are still using fuel. You will want to burn the stove completely out of alcohol before packing the stove or your pack will fill with alcohol fumes. Because of the double wall construction it is not possible to completely empty the stove of fuel by tilting and pouring it out. You could fill the burner with the fuel you need for both dinner and breakfast then blow the burner out when done cooking dinner and cover the burner to reduce evaporation of fuel over night. In the morning burn the stove until it burns out before packing. I recommend you place a fireproof surface like a sheet of aluminum foil or the bottom from a pie plate under the entire stove and windscreen as additional protection for the ground, forest or shelter floor.
This stove typically out performs the Esbit in boil time and is equal in weight of fuel required to boil 16 oz of water. Virtually no soot and no odor other than alcohol fumes while you are filling the stove. If you include the preheat time this stove is about as fast as a MSR Wisperlight at boiling 16 oz of water.
I did some tests with various pots. Pots with large diameter bottoms and thin materials boil fastest on the least fuel. The Evernew .9 liter titanium pots both regular and non stick versions performed the best of those I tested. All of my boil time examples were obtained with .9 liter Evernew pots at an elevation of 360 feet. Starting water temperature in the 50s. When boiling 16 oz of water, faster boil times are obtained with 1 oz than with 0.6 oz of fuel in the stove at the start. Larger diameter pots with thin bottoms like the Evernew 1.3 pot should perform the same or better.
1/2 oz in weight of fuel will preheat the stove and boil 16 oz of typical cold water. This is 1/2 of the one-oz plastic bottle contents. To boil this amount of water start with the 1 oz squeeze bottle full nearly to the brim and fill the stove until the bottle is 1/2 empty when the bottle is right side up. Boil time is typically 3 min 45 seconds to 4 min 15 seconds depending on conditions. For various amounts of water you can scribe marks on the plastic bottle to use as a reference to achieve consistently the right amount of fuel. If you always do 16 oz of water or a full qt of water an alternative to the one oz bottle is using the bottom from a plastic salt and pepper shaker set from REI which holds 0.6 oz in weight of fuel and weighs 0.1 ounce (REI item number is 601676). This prevents significant over filling of the stove when all you want to boil is 16 oz of cold water. 0.6 oz of fuel will just boil 40 degree water in the .9 Evernew pot in my tests. In my simulation of field conditions, 0.6 oz of fuel will boil 16 oz of 50 degree water and burn another 30 seconds at my elevation of 360 Feet. This is the same speed to boil for this quantity of water as my MSR Wisperlight when timing from light of preheat fuel to boil.
1 oz in weight of fuel will usually preheat the stove and boil 32 oz of cold water. To boil 32 oz of water, fill the one-oz bottle to the brim with fuel then empty the one-oz bottle into the burner. Boil time is typically 6 min 30 seconds to 7 min 30 seconds depending on conditions. If using the plastic salt and pepper shaker bottom to measure fuel, fill it twice.
The burners fuel capacity is 2 oz in weight and volume with the light duty and standard filler hole options and 1.5 oz with the heavy duty filler hole option.
Maximum burn time at full output is 15 min on 2 oz of fuel.
With the optional simmer ring the stove will simmer about 20 min on .6 oz of fuel with a 2 inch side opening in the simmer ring. It will simmer about 30 min with a 1 and 3/4 inch side opening in the simmer ring..
Weights on my digital postal scale which measures to the 1/10 Th. ounce:
Stove Base 0.7
Pot Support 0.7
Wind Screen 1.2 MSR Sized for Evernew .9 liter Titanium pot
Fuel Bottle 0.8 16-oz drinking water bottle with a standard screw cap
.6 oz Container 0.1 Bottom from a plastic salt and pepper shaker REI item number 601676
3.9 Total ounces including the fuel bottle.
Adding the optional simmer ring adds 0.2 ounce. Using Ezfoil baking pan or oven liner material to make the wind screen saves about 0.2 ounce.
I recommend keeping the stove in a Silnylon Stuff sack. 0.3 oz for the GoLite Extra small.