Alternatives to meths aren't new and over the last 10 years lightweight enthusiasts have looked at everything from home made "coke can" stoves to gels containing high levels of alcohol but it was very much a "cottage industry" with minimal mainstream take-up. What Fuel4 has managed to do is not only come up with a reliable, non toxic and flameless fuel that eliminates the biggest combustion issues associated with meths burners but make it safer to carry and most importantly roll it out on a major commercial scale. Developed as a fuel to cut deaths and pollution in Africa the fuel has proved very popular with campers and backpackers. We can't address the non-toxic and environmentally friendly claims although in comparison to meths, kerosene, paraffin and petrol the advantages are immediately obvious. When it comes to the smokeless claim, however, it didn't take long to verify the claim. Quite simply there is no smoke; to the point that on initial combustion it can be near impossible to see if the fuel has ignited without putting a hand above the invisible flame to check for heat output.
One of the questions we had was "if the gel works so well then why have a liquid too, which is obviously less safe to transport than a gel" along with the obvious "how well does it actually work". Well after two months of testing we can say there is a difference between the gel and spirit when it comes to performance and there are certain types of burner which suit one fuel over another. In short the gel works better in a wider stove while the spirit is ideally suited to the traditional Trangia burner. In practical terms you can use the gel in a Trangia style burner and it will only cost you around 30 seconds extra in boiling half a litre of water. Using an MSR Titan and a Trangia burner set on the second level of slots of a Honey Stove the liquid spirit brought the water to a boil in an average of 6:30 while a similar setup using gel took 7 minutes. In terms of capacity a single liquid fill was sufficient to boil two MSR Titan Kettles to around 700ml, a further 300ml fill and reheating a Look What We Found 2 minute meal pouch, giving enough output for a full meal and brew with enough left over for a morning coffee. The gel lasted longer on a single fill, with enough to finish off breakfast with a bacon butty.
You can't cook like this on a gas stove!
Aside from the boil time and capacity differences between liquid and gel there are practical differences when it comes to using them. The gel is easier to put out, with a strong blow sufficient while the spirit takes more positive action of physically dropping a lid/cover over the flame; meaning that when using the burner independently you'll need some form of windshield when using gel. On extinguishing the flame unburnt liquid can be returned to the bottle while any remaining gel needs to be left in place and the burner capped. With both fuels it's vital that you physically check that the flame is extinguished given that the flame is smokeless and usually colourless.
The flame is almost impossible to see unless in direct contact with food (see burger picture above)
There's no doubt that gas will cook quicker than Fuel4, but cooking time is only part of the equation when you're carrying everything on your back. If you're on a multiday trip there's no doubt that a Fuel4 powered stove will save weight and bulk over multiple canisters, and you don't have the issue of disposing of exhausted canisters. The fuel, in both gel and liquid forms, eliminates the traditional problems of taste, smell and ease of use associated with the traditional meths burning stove and in doing so eliminating many of the advantages gas has held for the last 30 years. The fuel also burns cleaner, meaning none of the sooty deposits associated with meths; but remember that if your burner has been extensively used with meths previously this will take a long time to clear and you'll be better off with a replacement burner that's not been used with meths.
It's not as fast as gas but as environmental impact becomes increasingly important in purchasing decisions Fuel4 provides a realistic alternative without any of the main issues previously associated with spirit burning stoves. Although predominantly used by lightweight enthusiasts and backpackers the smokeless and non-toxic nature of the fuel along with an expanding variety of stoves available are likely to see the fuel finding an ever increasing number of mainstream users. While a few years ago spirit burners were seen very much as niche products Fuel4 is already seeing a resurgence in their use, both rejuvinating Trangia users and gaining new followers with its ease of use and clean burning.