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Solar Cooking

Practical activities to investigate how the sun

can be used for food preservation and


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Solar Cooking is one of a series of five publications collated by the

Queensland Sustainable Energy Industry Development Group, a non-
government alliance of organizations whose aim is to enhance the
sustainability of Queensland’s energy supply. Each of the topics in the series
contain a range of practical activity-based workshops for use in Queensland
schools and aims to allow students and teachers to explore and discover the
fundamental principles that underpin sustainable energy.

Other activity sets in this series include

• Global Warming and Climate Change
• Passive Solar Building Design
• Photovoltaics (Solar Electricity)
• Wind Power

The project “Expand community knowledge, understanding and uptake of

renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies” was undertaken with
the assistance and support of the Queensland Government, through the
Sustainable Industries Division of the EPA and the Commonwealth
Government, through the Australian Greenhouse Office.

C/ Built Environment and Engineering, QUT
PO Box 2434 BRISBANE QLD 4001
Ph 07 3964 9126
Fax 07 3864 1516

Special thanks to Peter Williams for assistance in collating these materials.

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Solar Cooking provides a range of activities, suitable for mid-primary

through to senior secondary school, allowing teachers to choose the level of
activity most appropriate to their students’ needs. A little background
information for teachers is also provided, as well as a list of additional
resources that will provide teachers with more in depth background
information, ideas for assignments and/or more practical activities.
Teachers and students are encouraged to utilize these additional resources
(predominantly from the Internet) to enhance their understanding of the
topic and to keep up with the rapid developments in the area of sustainable

These Solar Cooking workshop activities have been provided from the
organisations acknowledged below, and we gratefully acknowledge their
valuable contribution and their willingness to allow these materials to be
more widely disseminated:

Workshops 1 Research Institute for Sustainable Energy,

Murdoch University, South Street, Murdoch WA

Workshop 1 & 2 Energy Action Australia,

c/ ecco2sol Global Energy Solutions,
36 Deniven Street, Corinda QLD 4075

Workshops 4 & 5 ATA (Alternative Technology Association),

PO Box 2919, Fitzroy VIC 3065

Workshop 3 Taken from a Solar Education resource produced by

the Victorian Solar Energy Association, 1992.
Publication now out of print.

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Learning about Energy

Renewable energy should not be studied as an isolated topic, without

consideration of the context in which it operates. Whilst renewable energy
technologies play a very important role in reducing the greenhouse
emissions in our society, a holistic approach to energy demand and supply,
one that first addresses energy services and energy efficiency, is needed if
our society is to become sustainable.

The following information about energy resources and energy services is

taken from Chapters 1 and 2 of the book Introduction to Renewable Energy
Technologies, published by the Renewable Energy Centre, Brisbane North
Institute of TAFE, ISBN 1 876880384.

Energy sources
The society we live in uses energy - lots of it - to run the systems and
services that we depend on. Where does all this energy come from? All our
energy sources come from the natural world, so where can energy be found,
and in what form?

Often the source of energy is not

considered by the end user because
the source is so remote and the
energy is delivered by the relevant
utility without us needing to know
where it came from. It is important
to be aware of the technology
supplying our energy needs and to
be aware of the impact that
technology has on the environment.

Energy can be generalised into two categories: renewable and non-


Renewable sources of energy are those which are continuously

replenished by natural processes on the earth within relatively short
periods e.g. 24 hours, a week, or a year. Examples include solar, wind and
hydro energy. Geothermal energy is the only one for which the energy
available may decline locally over time because of human use.

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The sun rises daily offering a fresh supply of energy every 24 hours
regardless of how much it gave
us the day before. The wind can
blow day or night regardless of
the season, and even if we empty
our dams, the rain will come
again to renew our hydro
resources. We know that the sun
will continue to rise daily and
that wind and rain will continue
to happen. Since these sources of
energy are renewed within the
course of a human life, they are
classed as renewable.

Non-renewable energy sources are those with finite reserves, and are
not renewed within our lifetimes. They may take millions or billions of
years to form, so in practical terms, once they are used they are gone
forever. These are the fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal; and nuclear fuel -
i.e. uranium.

The major advantage of these fuels, and

the reason why we have been able to
use them so extensively, is that they are
highly concentrated energy sources,
and they can be easily stored.

Energy use
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, human societies were largely dependent
on renewable energy sources such as solar energy. Solar energy was used to
heat, cool and light homes and to dry crops. Wind and water power ground
wheat and pumped water. Wood was used for cooking, crop drying and
space heating. Now in most countries, we use a combination of fossil fuels,
nuclear fuels and renewable energy.

In Australia, it is estimated that 94% of our energy demand is met from

fossil fuels and only about 6% from renewable energy. However, the
contribution of renewable energy to our total energy demand has been
largely underestimated. For example, the contribution renewable energy
makes to crop drying and production, or to space heating, cooling and
lighting of buildings is not currently included in government estimates of
energy consumption. The solar energy used to dry clothes on an outdoor
clothes-line is never accounted for, yet when the same clothes are dried in
an electric clothes dryer, the energy required is part of the official economy
and is therefore counted.

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Energy services
The whole purpose of our use of energy is that it provides us with services.
Whether it is light to read by, refrigeration for food or just getting from place
to place, it is the service that we are after, not the joules. Joules in
themselves are of no use to us! Whenever we design an energy system then,
we need to consider the system from the starting point of energy services.
Your lifestyle determines what energy
services you require, and this is where the
whole story starts.

In a domestic dwelling, these energy

services are usually fairly clearly defined.
They depend most of all on lifestyle. They
also depend to some extent on location. A
list of the major categories of energy
services are as follows:

Heating Space heating, water heating and cooking

Cooling Space cooling, refrigeration

Lighting Visual (task oriented) & mood

Entertainment TVs, DVDs, music systems, Computers, electronic games


Communication Phones, computers, office equipment

Work Cleaning and maintenance appliances and tools (e.g.

washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, power

tools, lawn mowers etc), office equipment
Other Water pumping, waste disposal

Energy could be supplied for these services from different energy sources
and in different combinations. Where energy is supplied by a utility, this will
usually be electricity or gas. Where a dwelling is remotely situated, a
generator and portable gas cylinders are often used to provide the same
Your aim should be to select the source that is most appropriate for each
service. This means taking into account the first and second laws of
thermodynamics (i.e. efficiency and energy quality), other factors such as
environmental impacts, as well as the usual economic constraints. This
often means replacing fossil fuel energy sources with renewable energy
sources, and it always means maximising the efficiency of energy use.

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The following table shows the proportions of energy

use in the home in Queensland. Water heating is
usually the largest consumer of energy, often
accounting for more than one third of the energy use
in the household. The energy required for space
heating, cooling and refrigeration depend very much
on climate. It is interesting to note the dramatic
increase in air-conditioning in many parts of
Australia in recent years. Is it because the climate is
much hotter or because our lifestyle expectations
have changed?

Energy Service Australian average* Brisbane average**

Proportion of Proportion of
Household Energy Household Energy
Use (End- Use) Use (End- Use)
Water heating 27% 38%
Refrigeration 9% 16%
Cooking 4% 10%
Lighting 5% 11%
Space heating & 39% 11%
Standby / ghost power 4% 6%
Other / appliances 12% 8%
*Data from AGO 1999 ** Data RMIT – Green Plumbers (data for 1998)
NOTE 1: For Brisbane between 1994 and 2001 there has been an increase in the daily average energy use
per person of 20.4% (Courier Mail. Oct 2001)
NOTE 2: the typical standby power is now said to be around 11% of the daily energy use.

Composition of household energy use in Australia and a sample for Brisbane.

Of course there is no such thing as an ‘average’ home, and your household

energy use may vary from these figures considerably. Variations are largely
dependent on climate and life style choices.

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Solar Cooking

Background information
Humans have used the sun for centuries to preserve food and in many parts
of the world the sun is still used directly for food preservation, e.g.
• Sultanas and other fruit are dried on racks in the sun in Mildura,
• Rice is often dried in parts of Asia by spreading it on the road
• Fish is dried on house roofs in Zambia
• Salt is collected by pumping sea water into large, shallow lakes.
The sun evaporates the water, leaving behind the salt.

The first recorded purpose built solar cooker

was made in 1767. Whilst not used for
mainstream cooking in industrialized
countries today, there are thousands of solar
cookers being used in India, China and Africa
for meal preparation.

Today solar cookers are made in two broad

categories, with some models being a mixture
of the two types.

Solar ovens are enclosed cookers that

trap the sun’s energy to achieve
moderate oven temperatures. They are
extremely useful for slow cooking of
relatively high large quantities of food,
and can be used for steaming, boiling,
stewing, roasting, simmering and

Concentrator solar cookers use mirrors or concave disks to concentrate the

sun’s energy directly on to the food. They can achieve higher temperatures
than ovens, cooking the foods quicker, but must be frequently refocused on
the sun, and can cause burns and eye injury if not carefully used.

Key principles
There are three main design features of solar ovens: a sealed container, a
window to let the sunlight in, and various methods of keeping the heat in the

The container can be a box (e.g. cardboard, polystyrene, wood, metal) or

other container (e.g. a wheelbarrow, a hole in the ground . . .)

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The ‘window’ to let in the

sunlight may be clear plastic, a
sheet of glass or even an old
window! It needs to be
orientated so that it faces the
sun (it will ‘collect’ the most
sunlight if it is perpendicular to
the sun.) The bigger the
window, the more sunlight
penetrates, hence the greater
potential for heat.

Keeping the heat in is the trick to achieving temperatures required for

cooking. The three essentials are including materials that absorb the heat
(e.g. black coloured), insulation materials (to stop the heat from escaping
and to keep the temperature inside the container hotter than outside) and a
tight air seal.

The main principle of solar

concentrator cookers is to
use a variety of methods and
materials to concentrate or
focus the sun’s energy on
one particular point. Any
shiny, reflective material
may be suitable. (See picture
on front cover).

Additional resources
1. website of the Australian Greenhouse Office: lots of
information about renewable energy in Australia, government programs, policy issues etc.
2. Qld government
website with specific information about Queensland programs and resources.
3. Research Institute for Sustainable Energy, Murdoch University: RE
Files: a series of fact sheets on renewable energy technologies
4. Alternative Technology Association, a not-for-profit environmental
organization; provides information, advice and publications about renewable energy and
other sustainability issues to the community.
5. loads of information, photographs and plans for many different
models of solar cookers.
6. shows solar cookers that you can actual
7. The Do-It-Yourself Solar Energy Project Book, Rick Swindell & Jim Richmond, Griffith
University, 1994. This book suitable for senior secondary school students, contains step-
by-step instructions to building four projects, including a solar concentrator barbeque and
a solar still (which could be adapted to be a solar dryer fro fruit and vegetables.)
8. Solar Cooking Interest Group (Australia); contact Sunny Miller:

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Workshop 1: Pizza Box Oven

You have probably noticed that, even on cold days, the inside of a car which
has been parked in the sun is a lot warmer than it is on the outside of the
car. This is because clear materials, such as glass and plastic can trap the
heat from the sun, just like the greenhouse gases do in our atmosphere. We
can use this principle to cook a variety of foods in solar ovens.

Curriculum Links
Science, Energy and Change, level 2-3

Equipment needed
• Medium Sized Pizza Box
• Black Plastic or Cardboard
• Aluminium Foil
• Clear OHP Plastic
• Masking Tape
• Craft Knife

What to do
Using a craft knife carefully cut a U shape on the lid
of the Pizza box, by drawing a square 5cm in from all
of the edges. Cut along line at the front and sides of
the box.
Cut a square of clear OHP plastic that is about 1cm in
each direction larger than the flap you have just cut in the box. Tape the
clear plastic on the inside of the box so that it is covering the flap you have
just created. It must be air tight!
Cut a square of black plastic about the same
size as the bottom of the box and tape it to the
bottom of the box (opposite the clear plastic).
Tear a sheet of aluminium foil and fold it
around the flap (the face that faces inside the
closed box).

Take the oven out into the sun and place the box
with the window facing the sun. Use the flap to
reflect more sunlight into the window.

As Pizza Box solar ovens do not get very hot, try

melting or heating up foods rather than cooking
raw food. Chocolate covered marshmallow biscuits
are perfect for testing your solar ovens.

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Workshop 2: Parabolic Dish Cooker

By shaping a highly reflective surface into a parabolic dish, you can
concentrate the sun’s energy on to one particular focal point. This activity
shows how to make a very basic solar concentrator dish.

Curriculum Links
Science, Energy and Change / Earth and Beyond: level 2+

Equipment needed
• A cardboard box
• Aluminium cooking foil
• Aluminium pie plate
• Metal spoon
• Kebab skewer (or metal skewer)
• Something to cook (e.g.

What to do
Lay several thicknesses of a soft blanket over a table and put the pie plate on
it. Smooth the edges of the plate by rubbing it with the back of the spoon.
Then, using the back of the spoon, start from the centre and rub in a spiral,
gradually working out to the edge. Repeat until you have bowl shape.

Line the inside of the box

with foil, then place your
reflecting bowl at the
bottom. Turn the box onto
its side.

Poke the skewer through

one front edge of the box,
through your marshmallow,
and out through the
opposite side of the box.

Experiment in the sun to find the best focus position. Turn the
marshmallow every minute so it gets energy on all sides.

Think about other ways you can make other solar dish cookers . . .

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Workshop 3: Parabolic Trough Cooker

The model to be built in this activity is an example of a parabolic trough or
line focus type collector. The sun’s rays are focused along a line at the focal
point of the parabolic curve. If a tube (painted back) carrying water is placed
along the focal line it will heat the water. Alternatively a thin rod can be
positioned along the focal line. If food (e.g., sausages, apples etc.) is placed
on the rod the collector can be used as a cooker.

Curriculum Links
Science, Energy and change: Level 5+

Equipment needed
• Plan for a half parabola
• A cardboard box
• Light weight poster board.
• Adhesive tape and adhesive spray
• 500 mm of strong wire (or a straightened
wire coat hanger).
• Stanley knife or similar
• Aluminium foil used for cooking (300 mm

What to do
Use the pattern provided on the following page. This has a focal length of
75mm. The shape provided is a ‘half parabola’. Use this to make a full size
parabolic template as shown.
Using your template mark
the parabolic shape on the
end of a cardboard box and
cut it out with your knife.
Cut the poster board to suit
the length of the box and lay
it into the curve of the box.
Use spray adhesive to glue
the aluminium foil onto the
poster board. This will
become your reflector.
Cut the ends to suit the box and mark the focal point accurately. Mount the
ends to the box, with holes punched at the focal points

Place a cooking rod (e.g. length of straight strong wire) through the focal
points. Try cooking sausage, apples, bananas etc.

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Workshop 4: Solar sausage sizzler

This activity uses a number of mirrors to focus the sun’s energy.

Curriculum links
Science, Energy and change: level 5+

Equipment needed
• 11 bike spokes 30cm long
• 1 long stainless steel skewer
• 2 pieces of softwood 460 x 70 x
• 1 piece of softwood 460 x 190 x
• 9 pieces of mirror 180 x 45mm
• 6 x 50mm nails
• 2 x 10mm self tapping screws
and washers
• strong packing tape
• Tools: pliers, a drill and small
drill bits, hammer
• a ruler

What to do: Making the base

Using only two nails or some strong sticky tape, join the two pieces of 70cm
wide wood together face-to-face. You will need to be able to separate the two
pieces later, so only use two nails.

Now mark a line, 10mm in from one edge, along the full length of one face of
the wood. Put an ‘X’ on this line 25mm in from one end of the wood, and
continue marking every 50mm. You should end up with nine marks across
your line.

Next drill holes right through both pieces of wood where the ‘X’s are. You
need to make sure that these holes go through at right angles, and that they
are about the same diameter as the bike spokes.

Once you have drilled all nine holes, separate the two pieces of wood and
nail one down each side of the larger piece of wood. The large piece of wood
becomes the base, and the two rows of holes should be at the top.

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Making the mirror holders

Cut off the small bend at each end of the spokes, and bend nine of them to
the shape shown in figure 1. Make sure that the ends are in a straight line
and that the bent spoke lies flat on the bench.

Carefully slide the long end of a spoke through one of the holes, then slide
the short end through the matching hole in the other side. Repeat this with
the other eight spokes.
Now tape one mirror to each of the bent spokes, and bend the long ends that
protrude from the side of your cooker at right angles so that each spoke now
has a handle that you can use to aim the mirror with. Make sure that the
mirrors do not touch each other when rotated.

Making the food holder

Cut the small bent end
off the two remaining
spokes and bend one
end of each one into a
small circle just big
enough for the screws
to go through. At the
other end of the spokes
bend a small ‘U’ shape
to hold the skewer. You can see the shapes in figure 2.
Now screw one spoke onto each side of the cooker, near one end. You might
want to make a small hole for the screw first to make it easier. You can see
how the finished cooker looks in the photo. Your cooker is now ready to test.
Get the food you want to cook, put the skewer through it, and rest the
skewer on the ‘U’ shape at the end of each of the two spokes. We used a
vegie sausage because they are precooked and only need to be heated, and
don’t spit fats all over your nice clean mirrors like a meat one will.
Take the cooker outside and face it so that the food end is pointed towards
the sun. Now rotate each mirror so that the sunlight is reflected onto the
food. As you adjust each mirror in turn, the spot of light on the food should
look brighter and brighter, and the food will start to cook, although it will
take a while. Tilt the cooker up at the back if the mirrors are casting
shadows on the ones behind them.
If you have used meat, make sure that it is properly cooked before eating it,
or you could get food poisoning! If you are not sure, stick with vegies! You
can also make kebabs, where you chop vegetables into pieces 3-4cm square
and put them on the skewer.

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Workshop 5: Solar herb dryer

A solar dryer, for food preservation, allows herbs, fruit and vegetables to be
dried faster than sun drying, as well as protecting the food from
contamination and damage from inclement weather, dust, insects, birds and
animals. Contrary to solar ovens, a solar dryer needs to allow for air
circulation to stop the food from spoiling.

Curriculum links
Science, Energy and Change, level 4+

Equipment needed
• Lengths of 25 x 50 mm plantation pine or similar
• Black wire fly screen
• Sheet of black painted aluminium
• Various nails, screws, glue etc

What to do
Make two wooden frames using the lengths of timber (or use old two picture
frames of the same size!)

Attach the fly screen across the bottom of one of the frames, trimming edges.
Attach 6mm plywood corner reinforcing on top of the fly screen to make it
more sturdy and to provide an air gap between the frame and the ground or
bench on which the frame will be placed. This becomes the base of the

Attach a sheet of black painted aluminium on the top of the second frame.
Drill 16mm holes in each of the four wooden sides. This will be the lid of the

Spread herbs (e.g. parsley, sage, oregano, thyme, mint, lavender) or fruit (e.g.
sliced banana, tomato) on the flywire and put the lid on. Place the dryer in
the sun, directed at the best angle. Drying will take from several hours to
several days, depending on your climate and the food.

How does it work?

The metal lid absorbs heat from the sun which is then radiated onto the food
below. Air is drawn through the gap at the bottom of the dryer, through the
flywire and passes out through the holes in the sides of the lid. The air dried
product is not exposed to direct sunlight, so retains a strong flavour and

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Other design ideas

Use a bale of hay: cut into it to create space for your food container. Add
heat absorbing materials, your cooking container and a glass lid!
Try using polystyrene or cardboard fruit boxes, a wheelbarrow . . . .

Cooking hints and recipes

• Try to keep the moisture content of the food as low as possible
• To cook eggs: simply place a few eggs, still in the carton, in your solar
oven. No need to add water. They may be cooked in about 75 minutes.
• To cook corn on the cob: place the cob of corn in a black sock and place
in your oven!
• Fruit: try sun dried apple or banana chips!
• Make a solar muffin pizza (use an English breakfast muffin, some tomato
sauce, pineapple and cheese)!

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