Monday, February 28, 2011

Twenty-one Days - Day 3: Fuel

Back when I was a kid (and dinosaurs still roamed the earth), we didn't have gas grills. We had charcoal grills, which were always fun to use, especially if the "cook" didn't really know how to light charcoal and elected to use copious amounts of lighter fluid.

My father grew up in a coal-mining community in southeastern Kentucky, and every vacation, we would go and visit my grandparents there.

I always thought that charcoal was coal.

It's not.

Charcoal is made from wood, and I think the first time I realized this was not so very long ago. I believe I was watching some news story about deforestation somewhere on the Africa continent, and the reason they were having a problem was that large swaths of forest were being cut down and turned into charcoal.

The process is pretty interesting. Basically, it's: build a big fire, and then, cover the fire so that it smolders instead of burns. After some time, what's left is charcoal. This article explains the process in some pretty good detail, but better than the article are the comments that follow.

Charcoal can be used for cooking (outdoors), and if one lives in an area that has a warmer climate, and heat isn't as necessary, charcoal might actually be a better alternative to having a wood fire for cooking (outdoors), as charcoal requires less space for storage, and it produces a hotter fire, faster.

As a heating fuel, I wouldn't use charcoal in the house, but I've spoken, often, about using rocks heated outside as a way to warm a small space indoors, using something like the Japanese Kotatsu. Charcoal could be used to heat those rocks (outside, while one is cooking :).

In addition to being a great fuel for cooking and heating, charcoal has a number of other uses. It is one of the key components of water filters (!). It is used in incense making as the combustible material that allows the incense to keep smoking, which is how it gives off it's scent. It can be used in drawing (charcoal pencils), and some sources I've read indicate it is an ingredient in make-up (like mascara and eyeliner). Best, though, is that there is significant discussion around the Internet about using charcoal as an additive in one's garden to boost the nutrients in the soil.

Charcoal can also be used in making gun powder, but shhh ... I didn't say that.

There are a lot of low-energy fuel sources, and whatever we use will definitely depend on where we live, because things like deforestation would certainly do more harm than any good that might come from using charcoal.

One other comment about the potential of charcoal. There is some discussion that the process of making charcoal produces methane. If captured, it can be used to operate a generator, which can be used to generate electricity. It's important that we think about the most efficient ways of using our fuel. For instance, we make charcoal, the process of which emits heat, and we use that heat, while we have it, for cooking or heating or purifying water, and at the same time, we also capture the methane to make electricity to power our laptop computers so that we can go online and share our success story with the rest of the world. Then, we take the charcoal out when it's ready and grill some steaks ... or whatever. And when we're all done, we take the white ash that's left, filter water through it to make lye, mix with animal fat and make soap.

The point is not to waste, to think beyond the one-use mentality we have adopted as a culture. When it comes to fuel (especially) in a lower energy society, we will need to really heed Benjamin Franklin's advice: take time for all things: great haste makes great waste.

Fuel is only half of what's needed to make fire, and so this week, I would like to offer those who are interested a fire-making tool: a magnesium firestarter.

**Knife not included.

Magnesium firestarters are fun survival tools. I keep one on my keychain ... just in case ;).

As usual, leave a commment if you want to be included in the drawing. The winner will be announced on March 4.


The winner of the book: Green Remodeling is Steve. Congratulations, and please leave a comment with the address to which you would like the book sent. I won't publish your address.


  1. Oooh, yes, please! This is the kind of thing I haven't done anything about yet. I should get one even if I don't win your giveaway and practice using it. Thanks for the chance to win!

  2. Uh, you must have mixed me up with someone else. I never win stuff via contests like this! :)

    Thanks, Wendy! I'm really enjoying this new series of blog posts (even before I won the book! ;)


  3. Kate - They really are a fun "toy." After you play a bit with the fire starter, I also recommend finding someone to help you learn the bow-drill - which is SO much fun!

    Steve - My highly technical (pull-a-name-out-of-a-hat) random drawing apparatus chose you ;). Glad you're enjoying the posts. I'm having fun with them, too :).

  4. We just use wood in our little grill. Over time some charcoal ends up being created so we include this when we start our fire. But we are excited to try some solar cooking. We plan to make a solar cooker and dehydrator this spring.

  5. Sounds like an interesting prize to win - wouldn't mind having something like that on my own keychain ~grins~

    I remember once at a summer camp, they tried to teach us how to start a fire rubbing sticks together. My best friend and I were the only team able to do it! I still remember the warm feeling of being able to start our own fire...but that wouldn't work if I was alone. It took two people to keep up the constant pressure with that method.

  6. Oooh cool, count me in. I've never started a fire with anything less than a BIC lighter. :-P

  7. I am enjoying your blog series..They are informative and eye opening! Thank you....

  8. Wow, Wendy, what a great idea! This is right up on my list of "things I need to learn, but haven't gotten around to it due to "LIFE." " If this isn't life, what is?


  9. Loving this series Wendy and would love to be included in the drawing for the firestarter.

  10. I'm not too sure about the charcoal just seems so expensive to me. Of course, we generate alot of scrap wood from building and have a place to store it. I have always said that Arizona is one place you could do without heat or cooling if you really had to...

  11. Charcoal is the reason Haiti is almost totally deforested. All the topsoil is washing down off the mountains into the ocean. The air is so polluted around Port au Prince one can scarcely breath, and everywhere you look there are open fires from people cooking, making charcoal and burning trash. I am not a fan of charcoal!

  12. Like anything else, charcoal can be made using sustainable practices (i.e. from deadfall or scrap lumber) or not (deforestation). The same thing happened in Britain during the early Industrial Revolution — they cut down all their forests to make charcoal, so they could get their fires hot enough to refine iron into steel.

    Making that choice is going to be danged difficult as we pass through the bottleneck, but those same choices will help to determine the length and breadth of that bottleneck, as well as what we'll be able to do on the other side.

    I've heard it said, often in a wide-eyed new-agey tone that even comes through in the written word, that the forests of North America seemed like a well-maintained park before the Eurotrash came in and screwed it all up. Well, DUH, of course it was all nice and clean — any stick that hit the ground got gathered for firewood!

    I go out for walks around the manor, see all the branches lying around, and think about FAR Future and how Kim, Serena, Rene, and Christina would gather firewood in the story (with a GPS to mark logs too big to drag back). When we can't get fuel to run the chainsaws anymore (and I have no idea if you can run a 2-stroke engine on ethanol & vegetable oil), that's what we'll all be doing… and gathering fuel will be a year-round thing instead of cutting wood in winter/spring.