Why my neighbor was cutting up charcoal
My neighbor owns a variety store–a sari-sari store. Sari is Pilipino for many kinds–many kinds of this and many kinds of that.
This morning I chatted with him as he prepared the charcoal.
A story about charcoal? Yes. But why? Well, do you know what diamonds and charcoal have in common? Carbon. Both things–one expensive and desired and the other a consumable and messy–are made of carbon. Anyway…
He buys charcoal by the sack. A sack costs 100 pesos.
(My camera case is in there for size reference. It’s 10 centimeters long, about four inches long).
He’s left-handed, I just noticed. 😉
Different wood species create different forms of charcoal. They look different and weigh different.
Those two pieces are shown beside each other.
I experienced 25 summers in the Midwest. During summers we grilled and barbecued. I bought charcoal briquettes for a long time.
“Briquette” derives from French: A block of compressed coal dust, charcoal, or sawdust and wood chips, used for fuel and kindling.
This was engineered charcoal, i.e., charcoal made from sawdust, that was mixed with additives, and compressed into little uniform “bricks.”
They came in these:
The two briquettes are a comparison of products from the same manufacturer. It’s a comparison of the 2010 and 2009 versions. Since charcoal briquette is an engineered charcoal, the manufacturer could engineer it to anything it wanted. In this case, the 2010 version has deeper and wider grooves and the grooves are imprinted at an angle. In fact, Kingsford, the manufacturer, has a name for it: Sure Fire Grooves!
The type of charcoal I didn’t use to buy was lump charcoal. It was more expensive and for something that was going to be burned as fuel, it didn’t make sense I thought.
Well, what the Philippines has is lump charcoal. And lump is the darling of grilling and barbecuing purists and snobs.
Why is lump charcoal so great? It is made from real hardwood firewood chunks which have been charred. No chemical binders or igniting agents. No pressed composite bits of wood and organic material. Just big chunks of pure hardwood. This type of charcoal burns intensely and hot and supplies superior flavor for your grilled foods without any of the nasty chemical fumes or aromas which can come from industrial pressed composite charcoal briquets.
Now look at the next one.
It looks like an image that came from a microscope, doesn’t it? But it didn’t. That lump in the center I could comfortably fit in my hand but it would be large for a small person.
The lump weighed next to nothing. All of them did. The charcoal briquette, by comparison, had some heft. The briquettes had a little weight and every single piece in the bag weighed the same and looked the same. Like cookies in a tin.
These lumps are used principally for cooking. I took these photos in Brooke’s Point. These ovens belonged to a meal stand, a bursty high-volume operation.
Well, my neighbor was able to repack the sack of charcoal into 14 sacks. Selling price is 10 pesos each for a total of 140 pesos. The sack’s cost was 100 pesos. How much profit does he stand to make?
The Diamond Connection
Carbon is a mighty important element. The term “carbon-based lifeform” is what life–all life, with no exceptions–on our planet is. That’s a major statement.
Carbon bonds readily with the three of the most common elements–hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. It also bonds well with itself. All this bonding is good because it forms proteins, carbos, and fats. Sounds like life already, doesn’t it?
Carbon in the form of Coal has been man’s fuel since early civilizations. It was a mark of a civilization to know how to effectively use fire. Firewood was too bulky to store and it burned too quickly. Temperatures didn’t always get hot enough. Coal was smaller, more compact, and easier to store and transport. It also burned more slowly and generated higher temperatures. Coal is made up mostly of carbon. In fact, the word carbon came from the Latin word carbo, for coal.
Thanks to its bonding, carbon takes on dazzling forms: diamond, among the hardest things in nature, and graphite, so soft that it’s what pencils use to write.
In these two forms, the physical properties of carbon vary widely. Diamond is highly transparent while graphite is opaque and black. Diamond is among the hardest materials known, while graphite is soft enough to form a streak on paper (hence its name, from the Greek word “to write”). Diamond is a poor conductor of electricity, while graphite is a very good conductor.
Diamonds. By the Sack!
It’s true magic for carbon to be diamond on one hand and charcoal on another.
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