Historical Charcoal Production:
Wood charcoal production dates back to ancient human prehistory where 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 wood pile was either constructed in a 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:
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, hotdogs, 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 (tm) uses activated charcoal to transform the 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:
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 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 a 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 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:
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. I have 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 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.
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 a 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:
* 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:
*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.