I'm looking for easily obtained fuels for an open-cup stove, such as a Trangia, in case I need to top up while travelling.

I have a small simple DIY open cup spirit stove, for boiling water when bike touring and I don't want to carry my MSR. I may make a slightly more sophisticated one. I'd normally run it on meths (denatured alcohol), ideally with a little extra isopropanol added so the flame is more visible (isopropanol burns rather dirtily, unlike ethanol or methanol). Surgical spirit (rubbing alcohol) is based on ethanol and/or isopropanol, but the additives and isopropanol mean it doesn't burn cleanly and leaves an oily mess in the burner.

Meths is available (in the UK) from hardware shops and camping stores, but not reliably from supermarkets or petrol stations, which are more common and open longer. So are there alternatives? As an example, acetone and even ethyl acetate (in the form of nail polish removers) are easy to buy in supermarkets, and if I did have the MSR I could top it up with lighter (Zippo) fuel which can be bought anywhere that sells cigarettes.

High-strength drinking/flambe alcohol is very rare in the UK, not sold in supermarkets. It's not banned and imported types do turn up occasionally, but buying it for stove use isn't a reliable option.

For an international glossary of fuel names, see How are camping fuels named in different languages and geographies?

  • There will be a lot of regional variation, in availability and terminology. I've tried to include some international alternative terms and I'll link to more in a minute. I know, for example, that a big supermarket in France is much more likely to have meths than in the UK. – Chris H Feb 28 '20 at 9:47
  • If ease of access is one of your primary criteria, have you considered consumable alcohols? Legal requirements vary by location but IF you can stop at any tavern/pub and get a pint of 200 proof, there is your fuel. – James Jenkins Feb 28 '20 at 11:54
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    @JamesJenkins I don't think it's an option, even ignoring the huge cost. The strongest vodka on the market in the UK is 88% apparently - and only available from specialist retailers online, as are Everclear and Spirytus Rektyfikowany (from Poland). Even 60% cask strength whisky, which is about the minimum for burning without preheating is very hard to find (let alone in less than a 700ml heavy glass bottle). I already looked for flambé alcohol and can't find it. Maybe a specialist whisky bar would sell me 25ml for £20 - but in that case there'd be somewhere to buy a hot meal – Chris H Feb 28 '20 at 12:17
  • I'm somewhat surprised that denatured or isopropyl alcohols are hard to find in supermarkets in the UK. They are pretty much ubiquitous here as fondue fuel. – Gabriel C. Feb 28 '20 at 13:43
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    @GabrielC. The availability of denatured or isopropyl alcohol varies from ubiquitous (Scandinavia, any petrol station) to "if you're lucky you can bribe the guard of the chemical industry plant over there" (literally saw that advice for Russia). I bought a new (gas) burner for my Russia hike. – gerrit Feb 28 '20 at 15:13

It took a while but I finally did the experiment.

Note that my burner is quite a bit smaller and simpler than a Trangia, and I don't suggest applying my results blindly to a stove with any form of jets or a bigger cup. Testing a different under controlled conditions would be a good idea before relying on this.

The flashpoint and autoignition temperature of the various fuels didn't seem to be a good predictor of how useful they'd be.

The stove was built for meths (UK composition denatured alcohol), and this was indeed the best fuel. Various others will work to some extent, though I wouldn't plan for them. If I did, I'd restrict the burner diameter.

A spreadsheet with the results is on Google docs, but they're summarised below.

  • Acetone worked quite well. "Pure" acetone is available with the nail polish removers in some shops (or my regular supermarket stocks 98% as extra strong nail polish remover). This is probably the best fallback but the flames did escape a bit.

  • Isopropanol and methanol are probably harder to get hold of than meths, at least in the UK. Of these, methanol is cleaner-burning.

  • I suspect that an acetone-free remover with fewer ingredients would work quite nicely. The one I used was a fancy brand touting the benefits of vitamins and chamomile extract. These are based on ethyl acetate.

  • The cheap acetone-based nail polish remover I used had too much water to be very useful.

My experiment used a home-made open-cup burner. The burner, made from a mixer-size aluminium can, is about 50 mm across. The top of the burner is around 40 mm below the bottom of the steel mug, but the fuel was about 20 mm lower (I can easily cook noodles or porridge with meths to 10 mm below the top). The ambient temperature was 18°C. The final water temperatures may be a little high as I used an IR thermometer (I don't have a normal thermometer covering that range). I used 10 ml of each fuel, and 200 ml of fresh cold water each time.

For anyone considering replicating this: I had long matches for lighting, was on concrete well away from anything flammable, and had the means to smother any excessive flames. When refilling the burner, I lifted it out of the windshield by hand, which ensured it was cool (so no risk of flash ignition).

|                                     |    Temperatures / °C    |                  |                                                                                                                                                      |                                                                                                                                                                                                             |
| Fuel                                | Start             | End | Burn time (mins) |                                 Burn notes                                                                                                           |                                     Composition notes                                                                                                                                                       |
| Methanol                            | 16                | 75  | 5                | Only about 9.5ml. Invisible flame.  Hissing                                                                                                          | Lab grade                                                                                                                                                                                                   |
| Isopropanol                         | 16                | 73  | 4                | Yellow flames escaping. Smelly (like some BBQ lighter fuels), smoky, and sooty                                                                       | Lab grade                                                                                                                                                                                                   |
| Acetone                             | 15                | 73  | 3                | Yellow flames escaping, smoky. Not as bad as IPA                                                                                                     | Lab grade                                                                                                                                                                                                   |
| Methylated spirits (meths)          | 15                | 81  | 6                | A hint of yellow in the flames. Fully contained.                                                                                                     | >90% Ethanol, <10% Isopropanol, <10% Methyl-ethyl ketone                                                                                                                                                    |
| Nail polish remover (Acetone-based) | 15                | 60  | 3                | Loud hissing. Poorly contained. 1-2ml of almost odourless watery residue when burning stopped                                                        | Acetone, Aqua, Glycerine                                                                                                                                                                                    |
| Nail polish remover (Acetone free)  | 16                | 74  | 8                | Yellow flame but well contained, fairly clean until the end. Very slow at end, left a smouldering residue that smelt a little like burning plastic.  | Ethyl Acetate, Isopropyl Alcohol, Aqua, Dimethyl Succinate, Dimethyl Glutarate, Dimethyl Adipate,  Panthenol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Anthemis Nobilis Flower Extract, Propylene Glycol, Benzophenone-3, Parfum |

Here's a selection of photos. They're presented in the order I did the experiments, and I didn't clean the soot off in between.

Isopropanol (note flames escaping. It's not a good idea to put the handle near the lighting aperture in the windbreak/stand):

enter image description here

Acetone (most of the soot on the mug was from the previous burn, isopropanol):

enter image description here

Meths, or how the flames should look:

enter image description here

Acetone-based nail polish remover (too much water):

enter image description here

Acetone-free nail polish remover (mainly ethyl acetate):

enter image description here

  • I'd still like to try various compositions of hand sanitiser, but I'm not wasting them at the moment. In particular I may add isopropanol to the bottle I'd carry anyway to make it up to 80-90%, in case of running out of fuel – Chris H May 9 '20 at 13:37
  • My take-away from this is: In addition to the 3 types of alcohol, i can also burn acetone in my alcohol stove. – Martin F May 11 '20 at 21:18
  • @MartinF yes, if it's a small simple stove - as I suggest in the 2nd paragraph, these results may not apply so well to a jetted or much bigger stove. – Chris H May 11 '20 at 21:32
  • Why "Only about 9.5ml" for methanol? You stopped the experiment before it finished burning? Or you didn't have quite enough before starting? May i extrapolate ... and guess that it would have raised the water temp to about 78°C ? :-) – Martin F May 11 '20 at 21:52
  • @MartinF not enough: I brought home 10ml in a centrifuge tube shortly after asking the question, but there was only 9.5ml left by the time I went to burn it. Your extrapolation is probably valid to the accuracy of the rest of my observations, but it doesn't change the ranking, and methanol isn't a major contender for alternative fuels as it's not readily available in the UK. Some car parts places have yellow HEET but not the major chain that's open late; otherwise it's expensive mail order. – Chris H May 12 '20 at 8:43

Assuming you have just a basic spirit burner, not a multi-fuel stove, then the only fuels that work efficiently are spirit ones - methanol or ethanol, even things like isopropanol and butanol (the next ones in the series chemically) get hard to burn, and as you noted burn much less cleanly than meths/ethanol.

According to the safety warning at the end of the official Trangia list of international fuel names (yes, it's a Dropbox file - see the link to it from Trangia here you should never use gasoline/petrol or petroleum based fuels (diesel, kerosine) as these run a significant risk of harm - they either have a very low flash-point or a low auto-ignition temperature or both, making them a risk for creating your own personal bomb and/or flame-thrower out of your Trangia.

According to Canadian Outdoor Equipment (eh) in stock Trangia you can burn isopropanol - even a brand of antifreeze known as HEET which contains either methanol or isopropanol, depending on the variety you get. This indicates that you can probably use diluted solutions of ethanol/methanol (I know from experience in the lab that 70% burns very nicely) and isopropanol, so it doesn't need to be very pure. The same site indicates you can also burn hand sanitizer gel forms at a pinch, but it generally needs a wick to extract the liquid ethanol component, and a Trangia doesn't have this.

So - what fuels can you use that are similar to ethanol and methanol in terms of flash-point and auto-ignition temperature? Well, the folks over at engineeringtoolbox.com have lists of these: flash-point and auto-ignition, which from my quick perusal showed nothing promising, and those that were remotely close were typically pretty nasty chemicals that you wouldn't find in many places outside of chemistry labs.

  • There are a few issues with this: While burning petrol/diesel/paraffin in an open burner is clearly a bad idea and I don't plan to do it: (i) very small quantities are used like this for priming some stoves, and (ii) the risk isn't explosion but the wrong flames in the wrong place, a flamethrower not a "bomb". A Trangia doesn't have wick to be clogged by hand sanitiser, but if I can find some alcohol based it might be worth a try. – Chris H Mar 6 '20 at 11:52
  • The autoignition temperatures of the 2 known-good alcohols (ethanol and methanol) and the acceptable isopropanol are quite widely separated while their flash points are fairly close. – Chris H Mar 6 '20 at 11:57
  • Finally your use of the word "spirit" is troubling, especially in an international forum: see for example white spirit/mineral spirits, a petroleum product (and for that matter the less common term "petroleum spirit"). – Chris H Mar 6 '20 at 11:59
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    @MartinF - it burns at the same temperature - it's the vapour phase of the ethanol that matters here. Some of the heat will be used to evaporate the water with which it is mixed, but this seems to be negligible relative to the heat generated by the ethanol burning. – bob1 May 11 '20 at 23:37
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    @MartinF if you're carrying it, the water is essentially dead weight unless it affects efficiency - and flames licking up the sides of the pot are inefficient, while steam condensing on the bottom is a good way of delivering heat – Chris H May 20 '20 at 13:37

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