Saturday, September 20, 2014

Making Charcoal in Ethics Lab

First of all, I know what you're thinking. Why are you making charcoal in ethics lab?  Why is there even a lab component in an ethics course?  What happens in ethics lab? Do you sit around and practice not lying, not taking bribes?  Does the administration know how you're spending those tuition dollars?

My favorite class to teach is Ethics for International Service, a class I created for students that aspire to work overseas, especially in poor countries.  One of the things we learn is how to make charcoal from crop residues. Why do we do that?

Much of the world uses wood for cooking. Firewood has to be gathered for this purpose which requires a lot of time. This task usually falls disproportionately on women and children. This labor can take hours every day, hours that can be spent in school or in other productive ways.

Charcoal is another fuel source used throughout the world, but it too is usually made from wood. And regardless of whether you gather your own firewood, or purchase wood-charcoal made by a local vendor, the practice contributes to deforestation in many parts of the world.

So what if we could make charcoal briquettes out of what was otherwise a waste stream, such as crop residues?  Corn stalks, coconut husks, or sunflower plants - any of these are a great source. Not only would this practice allow us to be better stewards of creation, it can increase educational opportunities for women and children, and create new revenues for families.

Now do you see why this is an appropriate activity for an ethics class focused on the international poor?

Here's what we did:

[On a Friday night we went to the World Hunger Relief farm. We gathered last summer's sunflower plants as a fuel source.  Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?]

[Breaking them into smaller bits, we shoved them into a garbage can and compressed them tightly.  The large PVC pipe is to form a path for air; it's not a potato cannon.  There are also breathing holes drilled into the bottom of the can.]

[Pulling out the PVC pipe before lighting, a nice circular air hole is formed. It's a giant doughnut made of sticks.]

[Some old dry paper in the bottom and down the hole makes it light quickly.  After letting it burn about 5-10 minutes, we put the lid on it and covered the air holes at the bottom to clamp off the supply of oxygen. This stops the combustion process but leaves us with a nice char product.  See Amy Smith's video for more information. She is the one that taught me how to do this.]

[We spent the night, many in hammocks, and let the charred material cool. It rained but most of us stayed dry.  We also spent some time watching a documentary called "King Korn" which I obviously recommend.]

[We used a simple press to compress the charcoal into briquettes. The students got to weld the pieces themselves.  There is some educational content to this welding activity, of course, but mostly we do it because I like to play with fire!]

[Mixing the crushed char with boiled yucca (cassava) root makes a pasty mess that we put into the presses. The yucca acts as a binding agent to hold the crushed char into its form. Yucca surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.]

[Tapping the press with a chunk of broken cinder block gives the mixture enough compression to make a briquette.]

[Everyone got to make a few briquettes. They will need a few weeks to thoroughly dry.]

[This semester's mixture was a little too soupy which made our briquettes somewhat odd shaped, like me.  Once they dry it shouldn't be a problem.]

------------------------- Addendum 24 hours after original post ------------------------------------ 

A photographer friend and co-traveler to Haiti (Angela Jordan Chancellor) saw my post and told me I could use some photos she took in Haiti last spring.  These are great!

[This photo shows Haitian women cutting down brush and grass to make charcoal to sell.]

[When the charcoal is made from wood (not crushed) it looks like this. I don't know that I have ever seen this kind of charcoal for sale in the United States. I've only seen briquettes.]