Richard Looft is certainly not the first person to look at the pollution and fire hazards caused by barbecue lighter fluid and think, “There has to be a better way.” But most people who have that thought don’t set out to design, fabricate and market a practical alternative. And fewer still have met with more than limited success.

With 50,000 units of his Looftlighter sold and sales offices in 15 countries — and with consumers paying more and more attention to environmental impacts — Looft hopes to be the one who finally makes messy, dangerous petroleum-based charcoal fluid obsolete.

The Swedish Chemicals Agency calculates that this small country uses some 4,000 tonnes of lighter fluid — that’s about 4 million one-litre bottles — each year. And then there are paraffin blocks and one-time grills treated with a fire accelerant. And this is all in a country of less than 10 million with a short barbecue season.

Safe and non-polluting

About 90 percent of the lighter fluid sold here and elsewhere is petroleum based, which means it contributes to the carbon dioxide emissions believed to be causing global climate change. The fumes from unburned lighter fluid contain polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which are allergenic and even carcinogenic. And some lighter fluids contain paraffin, which adds to the load of ground-level ozone, a pollutant harmful to plants and animals.

Charcoal lighter fluid is a hazardous substance. Every year, hundreds of children in Sweden — and untold thousands worldwide — suffer burns when barbecue fires get out of control. And anyone who has children knows there’s no such thing as a child-safe package.

Real barbecue connoisseurs avoid lighter fluid for a more pedestrian reason: it can give your perfectly grilled meat an unpleasant taste if you use too much or put the food on the grill too quickly.

With all this in mind, Looft took his entrepreneurial mindset, a willingness to experiment and a modified vacuum cleaner, and set out to change the way backyard chefs get their coals glowing.

His invention, appropriately enough dubbed the Looftlighter, uses an electric heating element and forced air to start a charcoal fire in seconds, without any lighter fluid, paraffin blocks, newspaper or kindling.

Once the basic functionality of the Looftlighter was developed and tested, Looft recruited a professional design firm to create a manufacturing prototype, and a Chinese company with experience in quality mass-production of consumer goods received the contract to deliver the finished goods.

But successfully introducing a new product also calls for effective marketing. Lacking a big budget, Looft decided to take a short-cut around traditional avenues such as trade show exhibits and advertising. He took his invention to the sidewalk in front of R.O.O.M., a trend-setting Stockholm home furnishings outlet, phoned up the owner and invited him out for a 60-second demonstration. R.O.O.M. bought 50 units on the spot and Looft was on his way. The Looftlighter is now available in hundreds of retail outlets throughout Sweden, and export sales are expanding rapidly.

Article published in April 2009