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.
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.
AND THE WINNER IS ...
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.