Charcoal is the black residue consisting of impure carbon obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents from animal and vegetation substances. Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood, sugar, bone char, or other substances in the absence of oxygen (see pyrolysis, char and biochar). The resulting soft, brittle, lightweight, black, porous material resembles coal and is 85% to 98% carbon with the remainder consisting of volatile chemicals and ash
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 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, a deep brown-black after some time at 280 °C, and an easily powdered mass at 310 °C. Charcoal made at 300° is brown, soft and friable, and readily inflames at 380 °C; made at higher temperatures it is hard and brittle, and does not fire until heated to about 700 °C.
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 by their age. 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.
The direct method uses heat from the incomplete combustion of the organic matter, which is to become charcoal. The rate of combustion is controlled by regulating the amount of oxygen allowed into the burn and is stopped by excluding oxygen before the charcoal itself begins to burn. This is the ages old method used by colliers to make charcoal in a pit, pile (clamp) or, more recently, in metal or masonry chambers (kilns). See the links below for more information.
The indirect method uses an external heat source to "cook" organic matter contained in a closed but vented airless chamber (retort). This is usually carried out in a metal or masonry chamber (furnace). The indirect method results in a higher yield of high quality charcoal with less smoke and pollutants and requires less skill and attention than the direct method.
For my first tests, I decided to try the indirect method. There had been some posts on a pyrotechnics newsgroup describing a procedure for making small quantities of willow or grapevine charcoal in a cookie tin or five gallon bucket. For the furnace, I used a 55 gal oil drum with the top cut out and a 12" wide X 10" high hole cut in the lower side for maintaining the fire. I used two iron rods stuck through the sides about 8" from the bottom to support the retort. I also kept the top which had been cut out. After the fire was well established , the top was placed on the drum and supported by rods to help hold the heat in yet allow a good draft. The retort was a 16 gal. steel drum with lid and I cut about six 3/8" holes in the bottom with an acetylene torch. I burned it out well in the furnace to eliminate petroleum residues. These drums are used for lubricants such as transmission fluid and gear grease and are readily available.
After the retort was loaded with air dried hickory the top was sealed and the drum was placed in the furnace or burn barrel. Wood scraps and bark were placed under the retort and around the sides and lit with newspaper assisted by a little burnt motor oil to get things off to a fast start. There was right much smoke for the first hour, but as things heated up and the moisture was driven off, it burned so clean that all you could see were heat waves. With the vent holes located in the bottom of the retort, the vapors and gasses were discharged into the hottest part of the fire and burned.
I stopped the first test too soon and only had about 1/3 charcoal. The rest was charred chunks of wood. The second test burned for about 3 hours, until the gasses had just stopped burning around the holes in the bottom. Results: 56# of wood yielded 17 1/2# charcoal or 32% by wet weight. Assuming an EMC (equilibrium moisture content) of 12%, The yield exceeds 35% on a dry matter basis. This is very good as most direct burns result in 20 to 25% at the best. I got over 2 1/2 five gallon buckets of good lump and only one large (4"X6") chunk showed signs of incomplete conversion with some brown in the center.
I was going to run a series of trials to compare the indirect method with direct (bottom lit) and direct (top lit). After several burns using the retort, I decided that there were such obvious advantages to the indirect method that I abandoned studies of direct burns. The retort method is easy, reliable, and does not require the skill and attention of direct burns. The equipment and materials which I used are readily available worldwide. As the gasses and volatiles are discharged into a hot bed of coals, I believe that most of the pollutants are burned, adding to the furnace heat. I also suspect that yield and quality are better. From what I have read, 35% by dry weight is excellent; the resulting charcoal burns hot and clean; you can almost light it with a match.
The indirect method also appears to be more compatible with heat recovery and waste wood utilization systems. I live on a farm in Virginia and my wife operates a small sawmill. Disposing of slabs and wood waste is a serious problem. I can burn a lot of the hardwood slabs in my indoor masonry heater/cooker. We have not found an economical use for pine slabs (we can't give them away) and have started burning them in a field. This is obviously a wasteful and polluting practice. My ultimate goal is to build a small masonry furnace that would hold several 55 gallon drum retorts and recover heat for domestic space heating during the winter. Charcoal could be a marketable by-product. I would burn pine slabs and waste wood in the furnace and make charcoal from hardwoods in 55 gallon drums. This approach appears to be very energy efficient as the gasses released by destructive distillation are utilized.