Hikin Jim, I see you refill [your backpacking canisters] with butane. What is the advantage over straight propane if propane works in lower temps? For that matter, why are these cartridges blended at all? I have wondered about this for a while.
An excellent (and important) question. It has to do with vapor pressures. Take a look at the following boiling points table.
As you can see, propane will vaporize (boil) at extremely low temperatures whereas n-butane ("regular" butane) has a vaporization point some seventy five Fahrenheit degrees higher. Quite a difference!
Boiling point n-butane -0.5C 31F isobutane -12C 11F propane -42C -44F
Let's say you have liquid propane in a container and the ambient temperature is a nice, comfortable 75F (24C). 75F is some one hundred nineteen degrees (Fahrenheit) above the boiling point of propane. Propane at that temperature desperately wants to boil and exerts tremendous vapor pressure against the walls of the tank, vapor pressure so strong that you need a fairly heavy steel container to hold it safely, such as those found on the big green 16.4oz (~460g) propane canisters from Coleman. The little lightweight canisters that backpackers carry could literally turn into a hand grenade at those pressures.
On the other hand, n-butane is relatively benign at those temperatures. Take a look at a clear plastic lighter some time. That clear liquid inside is n-butane. Yep, all that's needed to contain n-butane is some flimsy plastic. Contrast that with a 16.2 ounce Coleman canister! Of course the problem with n-butane is that if the fuel temperature falls below about 40F/5C, the vaporization isn't strong enough to run a typical gas stove.
Well, if propane is great but would catastrophically burst a backpacking canister and n-butane is easily contained but useless in cold weather, what to do? Well, you blend the two. The liquid blend takes on properties that lie somewhere between low pressure n-butane and high pressure propane. Better still, you get a chemist to rearrange the internal structure of the n-butane molecules a little and create isobutane. Isobutane is what is known as an isomer of butane. It's the same stuff, but the internal components have been put into a different arrangement, an arrangement that in this case works in our favor in that the boiling point drops by twenty degrees Fahrenheit! Nice, eh? It's like re-packing the trunk of your car. It's the same stuff, but in a different order. In the case of your car's trunk, things fit better. In the case of butane, the properties change a bit, and we've got a better cold weather fuel. The best cold weather blend for upright canister stoves is therefore isobutane mixed with propane. Note that I stressed the word "upright." More on that in a minute (see the second of the two below links).
The problem with this blending arrangement is that the higher pressure propane tends to boil off a bit faster than than the n-butane or isobutane. Toward the end of the life of the canister, all you have left is the "lesser" (in terms of cold weather performance) of your fuels. This is one reason why in cold weather you can get the dreaded "canister fade" where your flame slowly fades out toward the end of the life of your canister, and you can't operate your stove even though, when you shake the canister, you can still hear fuel sloshing around in there.
There are two things you can do to get good performance and avoid canister fade in cold weather. One, you can take action to warm the canister or two you can switch to a liquid feed gas stove.
With respect to liquid feed gas stoves: If gas is kept under sufficient pressure, it liquefies, i.e. the form of the fuel changes from a vapor into a liquid. If you feed the fuel in liquid form to your stove, you no longer have to worry about which fuel in your blend has a tendency to boil off faster into a gas. With liquid feed, the blend you start with is the blend your finish with. Since the blend doesn't change with liquid feed, it's not quite so critical that the non-propane component of your fuel be isobutane. Again, since the blend doesn't change, the cold weather performance of your fuel is just as good at the end of your canister as it was at the beginning, and you don't get such pronounced "canister fade" toward the end of the canister.
There are a lot of advantages to using a stove in liquid feed mode in cold weather, but be aware that not all gas stoves can be used in liquid feed mode. Be sure to read the above linked article to find out what type of stove may be used safely. You also need to buy the right brand of gas in order to get good cold weather performance. Not all brands are equal. For more information, please see my post on What's the Best Brand of Gas for Cold Weather?
As for refilling backpacking canisters, butane is cheap, readily available, and of lower pressure than the original contents (and therefore reasonably safe). Although reasonably safe, the one problem with refilling backpacking canisters with 100% butane is that they're no good if the fuel temperature gets much below about 50°F/10°C. So, I just use my refilled canisters on fair weather trips. I tend to prefer fair weather trips anyway, so refilling backpacking canisters works very well for me. YMMV. :) I wish I had a source of cheap isobutane, but alas I do not. Refilling with 100% isobutane would also be reasonably safe if the canister originally contained a propane-isobutane blend. Refilling a backpacking canister with 100% propane could be a very deadly enterprise and should be avoided. But this post is really about why we blend gas and why we don't use 100% propane in backpacking canisters. At some future point, I'll dedicate an entire post to the subject of refilling canisters.
Hope that clears things up a bit.
Related articles and posts:
- Cold Weather Tips for Gas Stoves
- What's the Best Gas for Cold Weather?
- Gas Stoves: How Cold Can I Go? <==Most comprehensive article on canister gas and cold
- Canisters, Cold, and Altitude: Gas in a Nutshell
- Canister Stoves 101: Thread Care
- Gas Blends and Cold Weather Performance. (Why not just use propane?)
- The "Super Gnat" (Camping Gaz or threaded canisters with one lightweight stove)
- Backpacking Gas Canisters 101
- Gas in Extreme Cold: Yes or No?
- Gas in Cold Weather: The Myth of "Fractioning"
- Stoves For Cold Weather I (Upright canister stoves) – Seattle Backpacker's Magazine
- Stoves for Cold Weather II (Inverted remote canister stoves) – Seattle Backpacker's Magazine