The use of charcoal as a smelting fuel has been experiencing a resurgence in South America resulting in severe environmental, social and medical problems.
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 (428 °F), a deep brown-black after some time at 280 °C (536 °F), and an easily powdered mass at 310 °C (590 °F). Charcoal made at 300 °C (572 °F) is brown, soft and friable, and readily inflames at 380 °C (716 °F); made at higher temperatures it is hard and brittle, and does not fire until heated to about 700 °C (1,292 °F).
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.
Charcoal has been made by various methods. The traditional method in Britain used a clamp. This is essentially a pile of wooden logs (e.g. seasoned oak) leaning against a chimney (logs are placed in a circle). The chimney consists of 4 wooden stakes held up by some rope. The logs are completely covered with soil and straw allowing no air to enter. It must be lit by introducing some burning fuel into the chimney; the logs burn very slowly and transform into charcoal in a period of 5 days' burning. If the soil covering gets torn (cracked) by the fire, additional soil is placed on the cracks. Once the burn is complete, the chimney is plugged to prevent air from entering. The true art of this production method is in managing the sufficient generation of heat (by combusting part of the wood material), and its transfer to wood parts in the process of being carbonised. A strong disadvantage of this production method is the huge amount of emissions that are harmful to human health and the environment (emissions of unburnt methane). As a result of the partial combustion of wood material, the efficiency of the traditional method is low.
Modern methods employ retorting technology, in which process heat is recovered from, and solely provided by, the combustion of gas released during carbonisation. (Illustration:). Yields of retorting are considerably higher than those of kilning, and may reach 35%-40%.
The last section of the film Le Quattro Volte (2010) gives a good and long, if poetic, documentation of the traditional method of making charcoal. The Arthur Ransome children's series Swallows and Amazons (particularly the second book Swallowdale) features carefully drawn vignettes of the lives and the techniques of charcoal burners at the start of the 20th century, in the Lake District of the UK.
The properties of the charcoal produced depend on the material charred. The charring temperature is also important. Charcoal contains varying amounts of hydrogen and oxygen as well as ash and other impurities that, together with the structure, determine the properties. The approximate composition of charcoal for gunpowders is sometimes empirically described as C7H4O. To obtain a coal with high purity, source material should be free of non-volatile compounds.