A Cure for the Common Coal

October, 2007

University of Hawaii professor Michael J. Antal Jr. has been in the news lately because a process he developed was licensed by California-based Kingsford Products Co. What his process does, in a matter of minutes, is turn green waste into charcoal, something Kingsford sells a lot of for barbecues. But while Antal is happy to have his work licensed for commercialization, his goals are far loftier than better fuel for barbecues.

Antal’s process, called flash carbonization, can cheaply produce charcoal from various kinds of green waste, such as corncobs and macadamia-nut shells. First, the green waste is placed in a large pressurized chamber where the contents are ignited, creating a blaze with the intensity of a forest fire. That pressurized heat then turns his fuel stock into charcoal. Antal describes his charcoal-producing apparatus as a rocket engine without a vent. Here are some of the applications for the green-waste charcoal:

Of all the fossil fuels, says Antal, coal is by far the biggest polluter. The biggest immediate environmental benefit of his work would come from the mass production of green-waste charcoal for coal power plants. His charcoal would introduce no additional C02 emissions.
To refine metal such as steel and iron, you have to burn a lot of coal. As with coal plants, using charcoalized green waste as an inexpensive alternative would go a long way toward reducing greenhouse emissions.
Planters such as orchid growers say charcoal helps plants grow. Charcoalized green waste also traps the carbon so it doesn’t enter the atmosphere, something that happens naturally during green waste decay. Antal says in a 100 years we could reduce green house gases to pre-Industrial Revolution levels if we started a worldwide program to trap carbon this way.
While hydrogen fuel cells get all the attention, Antal says carbon fuel cells are the most efficient. His unique process of flash carbonization makes pure charcoal, ideal for carbon fuel cells. Antal provides “designer charcoal” for labs all over the globe. “We are the only people in the world who can make it,” he says.

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Scott Radway