Making Lump and Briquette Charcoal

A piece of lump charcoal

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Charcoal is a formless mass of carbon and can be made from most carbonaceous materials. It is one of the oldest of man-made fuels and has been prepared under the ground for a thousand years. Charcoal in lump form is still a major source of energy throughout the world and unfortunately, is one of the main causes of deforestation in the World.

Historical Charcoal Production

Wood charcoal production dates back to ancient human prehistory when stacks of wood logs on their ends were formed into a pyramidal pile. Openings were created at the bottom of the pile and attached to a central flue for circulating air. The whole woodpile was either constructed in an earth covered pit or covered with clay above ground. A wood fire was started at the flue base and gradually smoldered and spread up and out.

Ancient charcoal pits, under average conditions, yielded about 60 percent of the total wood by volume, but only 25% by weight, of charcoal product. Even by the seventeenth century, advances in technology yielded nearly 90 percent efficiency and was a skill that took years to learn and a major investment in kilns and retorts which had long replaced the pit method.

Current Charcoal Production

Much like the old process, the modern commercial charcoal process is to heat wood with little or no air present which takes special but simple equipment. In the United States, wood is the primary material used for charcoal and is generally procured in the form of residue from sawmills - slabs and edgings. Sawmills love to find users of this material because of environmental problems with burning and disposal of mill wastes. Where there are sawmills, there is an available raw product.

The United States Forest Service has estimated that there are nearly 2,000 charcoal-producing units in the United States, including brick kilns, concrete and masonry block kilns, sheet steel kilns, and retorts (a steel metal building). The state of Missouri produces a significant portion of this national charcoal product (they have until recently had less stringent environmental regulations) and 98 percent of all charcoal is produced in the eastern United States.

While charcoal can be made from any number of natural materials, hardwoods such as hickory, oak, maple, and fruit-woods are favored. They have unique aromas and tend to produce a better grade of charcoal. Better grades of charcoal come from raw materials with low sulfur content.

The uses of charcoal may surprise you. Besides being the fuel that cooks steaks, hot dogs, and hamburgers on a Sunday picnic, charcoal is used in many other processes. It is used in certain metallurgical "purifying" treatments and as a filter to remove organic compounds such as chlorine, gasoline, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals from water and air.

Activated charcoal, which has a super absorptive surface, is growing in use as a purifier. It is used in purifying and refining metals and in the gas masks that were used during the Gulf War. NutraSweet uses activated charcoal to transform their product into a powder. Activated charcoal is used as an antidote for many types of poisons and is touted as an effective anti-flatulent.

Lump Charcoal as a Business

Most charcoal manufacturers sell their product as a briquette. This market has been dominated by several companies to include Kingsford, Royal Oak, and major grocery market brands. These companies may or may not make "lump" charcoal which is an alternate product that has some advantages and has potential as a small start-up business. Some new and exciting grill technologies actually require charcoal in lump form.

An entrepreneur hoping to survive in the charcoal industry will require originality and very good and aggressive marketing. Many small companies have survived but most have not made it "big." They've found that their potential in the niche charcoal market is by making natural hardwood "lump" charcoal.

Innovative ideas like developing a product in a bag that has a fuse, which when lit will ignite the charcoal. This quick light product combined with an easy-to-use paraffin coated container filled with natural charcoal has been a modest success in some local markets.

A major hurdle is creating an appealing package. Technical problems with storage make for unappealing packages and can affect sales. You may find your bag on the bottom shelf in the back of the store because of a plain package. You may also have a problem finding distributors that handle small volumes.

There is also the potential for other products. Wood charcoal has a low sulfur content, unlike coal or petroleum products. This wood charcoal can be used where other forms of carbon cannot. Developing a specialty activated charcoal for filtration of consumables like air and water is possible. This low sulfur charcoal product would be sold to a large manufacturer of activated carbon like Calgon Carbon of Pittsburgh, PA.

Starting a Charcoal Business

In addition to the raw material, you will have to have an area suitable for heating the material while allowing only a minimal amount of air circulation. This may be a brick kiln or you may opt for a type of metal building called a retort. You can expect to pay up to several hundred thousand dollars for one of these.

You also must develop a sorting and crushing operation. The wood that has been cooked is smaller than its original size by about one-third. It must be broken down into marketable pieces. This would have to be done by a customized piece of equipment made by a made-to-order machine shop. There is no reasonable cost estimate here - you've got to do a lot of leg work.

Then you have to bag or package the carbon. Bagging machines are readily available from bagging equipment supply companies. Charcoal presents somewhat of a bagging problem due to a large variance in the sizes of the piece. These problems are not impossible to correct and a bagging line could cost you as much as $100 thousand. You can get less expensive ones.

The best strategy for making a business success in "lump" charcoal is to keep the market local or regional. You might link up with a grill or outdoor oven company and combine your marketing efforts. Advertise the product as superior, natural charcoal that has advantages over briquettes. Many people are not aware that charcoal is available in this all-natural form.

Advantages of Lump Charcoal

  • Lump charcoal is an all-natural, 100 percent hardwood product with no additives.
  • Natural charcoal heats faster than briquettes, so food can be cooked over natural charcoal within 5 to 7 minutes after lighting.
  • Lump charcoal can be lit without lighter fluid and with just a match and some newspaper - this means no off-flavors.
  • One pound of hardwood charcoal produces the equivalent heat of two pounds of briquette charcoal.

Disadvantages of Lump Charcoal

  • Although lump charcoal is growing in popularity, consumer demand still lags behind formed charcoal briquettes.
  • Even though lump charcoal is a more efficient heat producer, its current price is nearly twice that of briquettes.
  • Lump charcoal is bulkier, has odd shapes, and crushes more easily. It tends to become dusty and flakes off.
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Nix, Steve. "Making Lump and Briquette Charcoal." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Nix, Steve. (2021, September 3). Making Lump and Briquette Charcoal. Retrieved from Nix, Steve. "Making Lump and Briquette Charcoal." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).