Charcoal is the dark grey residue consisting of carbon, and any remaining ash, obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents from animal and vegetation substances. Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood or other substances in the absence of oxygen (see pyrolysis, char and biochar). It is usually an impure form of carbon as it contains ash; however, sugar charcoal is among the purest forms of carbon readily available, particularly if it is not made by heating but by dehydrating with sulphuric acid to minimise introducing new impurities, as impurities can be removed from the sugar in advance. The resulting soft, brittle, lightweight, black, porous material resembles coal.
Historically, production of wood charcoal in districts where there is an abundance of wood dates back to a very ancient period, and generally consists of piling billets of wood on their ends so as to form a conical pile, openings being left at the bottom to admit air, with a central shaft to serve as a flue. The whole pile is covered with turf or moistened clay. The firing is begun at the bottom of the flue, and gradually spreads outwards and upwards. The success of the operation depends upon the rate of the combustion. Under average conditions, 100 parts of wood yield about 60 parts by volume, or 25 parts by weight, of charcoal; small scale production on the spot often yields only about 50%, large scale was efficient to about 90% even by the seventeenth century. The operation is so delicate that it was generally left to colliers (professional charcoal burners).
The massive production of charcoal (at its height employing hundreds of thousands, mainly in Alpine and neighbouring forests) was a major cause of deforestation, especially in Central Europe. In England, many woods were managed as coppices, which were cut and regrew cyclically, so that a steady supply of charcoal would be available (in principle) forever; complaints (as early as the Stuart period) about shortages may relate to the results of temporary over-exploitation or the impossibility of increasing production to match growing demand. The increasing scarcity of easily harvested wood was a major factor for the switch to the fossil fuel equivalents, mainly coal and brown coal for industrial use.
The use of charcoal as a smelting fuel has been experiencing a resurgence in South America following Brazilian law changes in 2010 to reduce carbon emissions as part of President Lula da Silva's commitment to make a "green steel".
The modern process of carbonizing wood, either in small pieces or as sawdust in cast iron retorts, is extensively practiced where wood is scarce, and also for the recovery of valuable byproducts (wood spirit, pyroligneous acid, wood tar), which the process permits. The question of the temperature of the carbonization is important; according to J. Percy, wood becomes brown at 220 °C (428 °F), a deep brown-black after some time at 280 °C (536 °F), and an easily powdered mass at 310 °C (590 °F). Charcoal made at 300°C (572 °F) is brown, soft and friable, and readily inflames at 380 °C (716 °F); made at higher temperatures it is hard and brittle, and does not fire until heated to about 700 °C (1,292 °F).
In Finland and Scandinavia, the charcoal was considered the by-product of wood tar production. The best tar came from pine, thus pinewoods were cut down for tar pyrolysis. The residual charcoal was widely used as substitute for metallurgical coke in blast furnaces for smelting. Tar production led to rapid deforestation: it has been estimated all Finnish forests are younger than 300 years. The end of tar production in the end of the 19th century meant also rapid re-forestation.
The charcoal briquette was first invented and patented by Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer of Pennsylvania in 1897 and was produced by the Zwoyer Fuel Company. The process was further popularized by Henry Ford, who used wood and sawdust byproducts from automobile fabrication as a feedstock. Ford Charcoal went on to become the Kingsford Company.
Charcoal has been made by various methods. The traditional method in Britain used a clamp. This is essentially a pile of wooden logs (e.g. seasoned oak) leaning against a chimney (logs are placed in a circle). The chimney consists of 4 wooden stakes held up by some rope. The logs are completely covered with soil and straw allowing no air to enter. It has to be lit by introducing some burning fuel into the chimney; the logs burn very slowly (cold fire) and transform into charcoal in a period of 5 days' burning. If the soil covering gets torn (cracked) by the fire, additional soil is placed on the cracks. Once the burn is complete, the chimney is plugged to prevent air from entering.
Modern methods use a sealed metal container, as this does not have to be watched lest fire break through the covering. However on site attendance is required. This is often carried out by the last forestry workers to live in working woodland in the western world. There has been a resurgence of this particularly in the UK. A good example of this is Bulworthy Project where charcoal production supports an experiment in low-impact living and nature conservation.
The last section of the film Le Quattro Volte (2010) gives a good and long, if poetic, documentation of the traditional method of making charcoal.
Commercial charcoal is found in either lump, briquette, or extruded forms:
- Lump charcoal is made directly from hardwood material and usually produces far less ash than briquettes.
- Briquettes are made by compressing charcoal, typically made from sawdust and other wood by-products, with a binder and other additives. The binder is usually starch. Some briquettes may also include brown coal (heat source), mineral carbon (heat source), borax, sodium nitrate (ignition aid), limestone (ash-whitening agent), raw sawdust (ignition aid), and other additives like paraffin or petroleum solvents to aid in ignition.
- Extruded charcoal is made by extruding either raw ground wood or carbonized wood into logs without the use of a binder. The heat and pressure of the extruding process hold the charcoal together. If the extrusion is made from raw wood material, the extruded logs are then subsequently carbonized.
- Japanese charcoal removes pyroligneous acid during the charcoal making. Therefore when burning, there are almost no stimulating smells or smoke. The charcoal of Japan is classified into three kinds.
The characteristics of charcoal products (lump, briquette, or extruded forms) vary widely from product to product. Thus it is a common misconception to stereotype any kind of charcoal, saying which burns hotter, etc.
Charcoal has been used since the earliest times for a range of purposes including art and medicine, but by far its most important use has been as a metallurgical fuel. Charcoal is the traditional fuel of a blacksmith's forge and other applications where an intense heat is wanted. Charcoal was also used historically as a source of carbon black by grinding it up. In this form charcoal was important to early chemists and was a constituent of formulas for mixtures such as gunpowder. Due to its high surface area charcoal can be used as a filter, as a catalyst or as an absorbent.
Charcoal burns at intense temperatures, up to 2700 degrees Celsius. By comparison the melting point of iron is approximately 1200 to 1550 degrees Celsius. Due to its porosity it is sensitive to the flow of air and the heat generated can be moderated by controlling the air flow to the fire. For this reason charcoal is an ideal fuel for a forge and is still widely used by blacksmiths. Charcoal is also an excellent reducing fuel for the production of iron and has been used that way since Roman times. In the 16th century England had to pass laws to prevent the country from becoming completely denuded of trees due to production of iron. In the 19th century charcoal was largely replaced by coke, baked coal, in steel making due to cost. Charcoal is far superior fuel to coke, however, because it burns hotter and has no sulfur. Until World War II charcoal was still being used in Sweden to make ultra high-quality steel.
Prior to the industrial revolution charcoal was occasionally used as a cooking fuel. Modern "charcoal briquettes", widely used for outdoor grilling and barbecues in backyards and on camping trips, imitate this use, but are not actually charcoal. They are usually compacted mixtures of coal or coke and various binders.
Historically, charcoal was used in great quantities for smelting iron in bloomeries and later blast furnaces and finery forges. This use was replaced by coke during the Industrial Revolution. For this purpose, charcoal in England was measured in dozens (or loads) consisting of 12 sacks or shems or seams, each of 8 bushels.
In times of scarce petroleum, automobiles and even buses have been converted to burn wood gas (a gas mixture consisting primarily of diluting atmospheric nitrogen, but also containing combustible gasses, mostly carbon monoxide) released by burning charcoal or wood in a wood gas generator. In 1931 Tang Zhongming developed an automobile powered by charcoal, and these cars were popular in China until the 1950s. In occupied France during World War II, wood and wood charcoal production for such vehicles (called gazogènes) increased from pre-war figures of approximately fifty thousand tons a year to almost half a million tons in 1943.
Purification and filtration
Charcoal may be activated to increase its effectiveness as a filter. Activated charcoal readily adsorbs a wide range of organic compounds dissolved or suspended in gases and liquids. In certain industrial processes, such as the purification of sucrose from cane sugar, impurities cause an undesirable color, which can be removed with activated charcoal. It is also used to absorb odors and toxins in gases, such as air. Charcoal filters are also used in some types of gas masks. The medical use of activated charcoal is mainly the adsorption of poisons, especially in the case of suicide attempts in which the patient has ingested a large amount of a drug. Activated charcoal is available without a prescription, so it is used for a variety of health-related applications. For example, it is often used to reduce discomfort (and embarrassment) due to excessive gas in the digestive tract.
Animal charcoal or bone black is the carbonaceous residue obtained by the dry distillation of bones. It contains only about 10% carbon, the remainder being calcium and magnesium phosphates (80%) and other inorganic material originally present in the bones. It is generally manufactured from the residues obtained in the glue and gelatin industries. Its decolorizing power was applied in 1812 by Derosne to the clarification of the syrups obtained in sugar refining; but its use in this direction has now greatly diminished, owing to the introduction of more active and easily managed reagents. It is still used to some extent in laboratory practice. The decolorizing power is not permanent, becoming lost after using for some time; it may be revived, however, by washing and reheating. Wood charcoal also to some extent removes coloring material from solutions, but animal charcoal is generally more effective.
Charcoal is used in art for drawing, making rough sketches in painting and is one of the possible media for making a parsemage. It must usually be preserved by the application of a fixative. Artists generally utilize charcoal in three forms:
- Vine charcoal is created by burning sticks of wood (usually willow or linden/Tilia) into soft, medium, and hard consistencies.
- Powdered charcoal is often used to "tone" or cover large sections of a drawing surface. Drawing over the toned areas will darken it further, but the artist can also lighten (or completely erase) within the toned area to create lighter tones.
- Compressed charcoal charcoal powder mixed with gum binder compressed into round or square sticks. The amount of binder determines the hardness of the stick. Compressed charcoal is used in charcoal pencils.
One additional use of charcoal was rediscovered recently in horticulture. Although American gardeners have been using charcoal for a short while, research on Terra preta soils in the Amazon has found the widespread use of biochar by pre-Columbian natives to turn otherwise unproductive soil into very rich soil. The technique may find modern application, both to improve soils and as a means of carbon sequestration.
Charcoal was consumed in the past as dietary supplement for gastric problems in the form of charcoal biscuits. Now it can be consumed in tablet, capsule or powder form, for digestive effects. Research regarding its effectiveness is controversial. (Am J Gastroenterology 2005 Feb 100(2)397-400 and 1999 Jan 94(1) 208-12)
Red colobus monkeys in Africa have been observed eating charcoal for the purposes of self-medication. Their leafy diets contain high levels of cyanide, which may lead to indigestion. So they learned to consume charcoal, which absorbs the cyanide and relieves indigestion. This knowledge about supplementing their diet is transmitted from mother to infant.
Also, see Activated charcoal, medicinal applications.
Special charcoals are used in smoking the hookah (Argeeleh in Arabic, Nargile in Turkish or Narghilea in Romanian). Lit coals are placed on top of foil which is placed over the tobacco bowl; through indirect heat the coals "cook" the tobacco to a temperature that does not burn it but produces smoke.
Charcoal production at a sub-industrial level is one of the primary causes of deforestation in the Developing World. Charcoal production is usually illegal and nearly always unregulated. Massive forest destruction has been documented in areas such as Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is considered to be a primary threat to the survival of the mountain gorillas. Similar threats are found in Zambia.
Colour and look
The colours and look of charcoal is widely used in fashion and graphic design, without any relation to the material in itself beyond just referencing the appearance.
- ^ "Using charcoal efficiently". http://www.fao.org/docrep/X5328E/x5328e0b.htm. Retrieved 2010-02-01.
- ^ http://inventors.about.com/od/inventionsalphabet/a/barbecue.htm
- ^ Geoarch
- ^ Bulworthy Project
- ^ 
- ^ How charcoal briquettes are made.
- ^ Chris Pearson "'The age of wood': FUEL AND FIGHTING IN FRENCH FORESTS, 1940–1944"
- ^ PBS: Clever Monkeys: Monkeys and Medicinal Plants
- ^ Virunga National Park
- ^ 
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