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Among my camping gear is a small gas stove, a kerosene lantern and a set of nested cooking pots. I also now carry a small folding solar array (by Solio) that can provide a trickle charge to my cell phone. But some clever thermoelectric tools developed by Power Practical, a Utah-based start-up, may have me rethinking what I pack next time I hit the woods.

One of Power Practical’s innovations is called the PowerPot, which can apparently do double-duty as both a cooking pot and portable energy source for charging and powering USB devices. The PowerPot devices operate using thermoelectric units that have been built into each pot.

Ceramists, of course, know that thermoelectric materials work by exploiting temperature differentials to create a flow of electrons through special semiconducting materials. In fact, The American Ceramic Society recently published several excellent technical articles about the search for high-efficiency thermoelectric materials in the April issue of the Bulletin. Thus, it is a nice coincidence that the PowerPots made their debut this month, too.

To be clear, Power Practical isn’t claiming to be using the cutting-edge thermoelectrics written about in the Bulletin. Instead, the company is being smart and using commercially available electronics.

As noted in a news release from the company, “all the PowerPot needs to generate power is heat and water.”

Credit: Power Practical.

Two sizes of PowerPots are available. Weighing less than one pound, the PowerPot V can deliver up to 5 watts of electricity. The company says the PowerPot V model comes with folding handles and can “fully charge everyday handheld devices such as cell phones and mp3 players in 60-90 minutes.”

The deluxe PowerPot X is about the size and weight of a regular metal kitchen cooking pot, comes with a typical handle, and, with a 10-watt generating capacity, it can support iPad-like tablets. Each comes with a standard USB port attached to a cable with three feet of flame resistant wire. The cable also has a solid-state voltage regulator. A PowerPot XV, capable of producing 15 watts, is currently in development.

Fire, however, is not a requirement. As noted above and as the video below demonstrates, all thermoelectrics require is a large enough temperature gradient.

Besides using the PowerPots for recreational camping and emergency use, the company sees a great potential for their products in underdeveloped regions of the globe. In the release, Power Practical CFO Caleb Light says, “There are over 200 million people in Africa that use cell phones but lack access to electricity. Some must walk over a mile and spend over 15 percent of their monthly income just to charge their phone. It is difficult to keep in touch with loved ones or do business off-grid. Since most people faced with this problem cook on an open fire, the PowerPot fits perfectly into their routine.”

How the company got PowerPots got off the ground is an interesting story by itself. The business was started by two materials science engineering students, David Toledo and Paul Slusser, who “launched” the products April 4 by posting a proposal on Kickstarter, the crowdsourcing fundraising site. They originally hoped to raise $50,000 in pledged investments/sales in 30 days, but, as documented on their Facebook page, it only took them nine! As of today, the total is over $66,000. Toledo says that supporters through kickstarter can order a PowerPot for themselves for $125, donate one to Africa for $99 or both for $199.

I am not a camping purist, and love the idea of bringing my iPad along next time I head off. Boil a little water in a PowerPot and watch a movie under the stars — sounds perfect to me.

UPDATE: Power Practical Kickstarter fundraising shot up to $80,000 over the last week!