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December 23, 2022

Making Charcoal Makes the Future Happy: The Promise of Atami's Future Carbonization Unit

Making Charcoal Makes the Future Happy:  The Promise of Atami's Future Carbonization Unit

From the left, Toshihiro Mitsumura, Junko Edahiro / Copyright 2022 Miraisozobu All Rights Reserved.

With the idea of producing charcoal to create a happy future, a new initiative installed a "Future Carbonization Unit" charcoal-making furnace in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, in July 2022. What is the connection between producing charcoal and a happy future?

The Marine Square Café is a stone's throw from the beaches of Atami City in Shizuoka Prefecture. The café periodically hosts a Charcoal Grilling Night for guests to feast on local seafood. Thanks to the effects of far infrared light, awesome flavors are captured inside foods grilled with charcoal. But there's more to it than delicious taste, according to the event organizer and charcoal advocate, Toshihiro Mitsumura, who happens to be president of Atami Marine Service Co. and vice president of Miraisozobu (dba For Future Company, of which Junko Edahiro is president). "Making charcoal makes the future happy," says Mitsumura. So, what's the connection between charcoal-making and a happy future?

In this our final issue of the ISHES newsletter in 2022, we explore the potential of charcoal by having a look at the "Future Carbonization Unit" charcoal-making furnace introduced in Atami in July 2022 through the joint efforts of both companies.

What is charcoal?

It is well known that plants take in atmospheric carbon dioxide as carbon during photosynthesis. When burned, however, carbon in the wood reacts with oxygen and generates carbon dioxide. In other words, carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere is emitted back into the atmosphere. Even when the trees are cut down and left on the ground, the wood is decomposed by bacteria and other microorganisms, emitting carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

In contrast, when plant-based materials such as wood are "carbonized," the carbon they contain can be "fixed" in charcoal. Materials such as wood and bamboo are "steam-baked" at a high temperature in an oxygen-deficient space to make charcoal. Without oxygen present in the process, carbon remains in charcoal because it is not emitted as carbon dioxide. After being produced, charcoal retains 80% of its carbon even after a century, and this is one feature that has been attracting much attention as a means of mitigating global warming.

Charcoal has even more advantages besides carbon fixation. It has deodorizing, dehumidifying and soil-improving effects, and on top of that, it is a source of energy that doesn't use fossil fuels, and has been used for cooking since ancient times.

Following Japanese traditional ways of charcoal-making in huts, however, it takes more than a week to prepare the kiln, and then about four days to produce the charcoal after lighting the fire. Heavy smoke is also released. Plus, most kilns are just for one single-use, so a new kiln needs to be built every time. Thus, the traditional approach does not make it easy to produce charcoal.

Future Carbonization Unit can operate even in urban settings!

The Future Carbonization Unit in Atami is a modern type of furnace that can be used many times. Depending on the inputs, it can produce about 300 kilograms of charcoal from about 1,000 kilograms of input materials in about 4 to 8 hours. It can be operated day after day. At 2.0 by 2.4 meters by 2.1 meters high, the carbonization furnace can fit on the back of a truck and be transported around to where it's needed. Smoke removal equipment is attached, so it can be operated in town as no smoke is emitted.

Let's look at the actual steps involved. First, material such as wood and bamboo is cut into adequate sizes for the furnace and placed in the carbonization section of the unit. Then, a fire is started in the burner section, which produces heat for the carbonization section above it. (The design is somewhat like a pot and stove for cooking food. The pot is like the carbonization section, and the stove, the burner section.) By using fuel such as wood and charcoal in the burner section, and items like flint and even toilet paper made from recycled paper as ignition materials, carbon dioxide emissions and the use of fossil fuels can be avoided. After the fire starts, the internal temperature needs to be maintained at over 350 degrees Celsius, and the process is monitored by observing the smoke inside the furnace through a window and measuring the exhaust temperature.

Only a few months have passed since they introduced the Future Carbonization Unit, and they are now studying time, temperature, and other parameters required to carbonize materials such as wood and bamboo obtained locally. With logs, how long does it take to produce charcoal? Can they make charcoal in the shape of the original branches? Is there a difference in time required between using bamboo in its original tube shape versus split into strips? Is there any difference in charcoal quality depending on how the material is stacked? There are many things they need to study, and they are just accumulating knowledge step by step.

Other benefits: Local energy production and consumption, lower greenhouse gas emissions

How can charcoal made like this be used? Making charcoal from locally-grown trees and bamboo and using it as fuel, as in the case of Charcoal Grilling Night mentioned above, can lead to local production and consumption of energy. If we switch to locally produced fuels instead of purchasing from outside the community, we can prevent money from leaking out, enriching the local economy as a result.

Another benefit is that if each household always keeps a supply of charcoal at home, it can be used for cooking and heating in case of emergency. Charcoal is also often used to absorb odors and for its moisture-absorption qualities. If the charcoal is produced in a way that maintains the original shape of bamboo and branches, it can be presented as "odor-eliminating and dehumidifying" art. The samples of carbonized art made of pinecones and foxtails are so delicate and beautiful that they do not look like charcoal.

Acknowledging the power of charcoal, the Japanese government has designated biochar (charcoal made of plant materials such as wood, bamboo, and food residue) as a form of soil enrichment material. Charcoal contains countless small pores, which leads to better soil aeration and permeability when it is mixed with soil. Because of its characteristics of fixing carbon, the spreading of biochar onto farmland has been listed since 2019 as a technique in the Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report, an international report on greenhouse gas emissions and absorption, and has been included in the J-Credit Scheme since September 2020. That is a system by the Japanese government to certify the amount of greenhouse gas emissions reduced or removed by sinks as "credits" that can be bought and sold.

Abandoned forests and bamboo groves- abundant resources for charcoal-making

Charcoal has a variety of other positives as mentioned above, but if we destroy tropical rainforests for feedstock to make charcoal, it would be completely missing the point. Japan today has vast areas of forestland and bamboo groves in need of care and maintenance. One problem with bamboo is that it grows an extensive network of roots at a shallow depth of only about 30 centimeters. As a result, if bamboo groves grow out of control there is a risk of landslides in heavy rains. Groves like these could be trimmed to obtain local materials to carbonize. We can make charcoal without destroying distant rainforests and other ecosystems, while tackling local issues instead. In other words, charcoal-making can also create happiness.

Maintenance of forests and bamboo groves also produces plenty of branches, wood debris and bamboo pieces. If companies wish to simply dispose of such materials, they need to pay fees for industrial waste disposal. For forestry companies managing large areas in Japan this can cost tens of millions of yen annually (hundreds of thousands of dollars). The beauty is that if they can produce charcoal from otherwise unutilized resources such as these, they not only reduce costs but also help prevent landslides and other disasters, fix carbon, and make good use of resources.

Another factor is that operating a charcoal-making furnace involves various tasks, such as cutting wood, stacking the material in the carbonization section, and taking the charcoal out. This could be a local job creation scheme.

Mitsumura is obviously a huge fan of charcoal. He says, "If you have the Future Carbonization Unit, you can carbonize any plant-based material. Vegetables damaged by insects or with an imperfect shape may be hard to sell, but if you incinerate them as waste, not only does it cost money, it also releases the carbon dioxide they absorbed back into the atmosphere. But by carbonizing them, the charcoal fixes their carbon dioxide for centuries into the future, and can help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

Indeed, making charcoal is a win-win situation. It promotes a healthy cycle of local plant-based resources, and at the same time, promotes a healthy global carbon cycle.

For the future

In this way, charcoal has almost unlimited potential. What are some examples of how we can realize the potential and promote the benefits of charcoal? As mentioned, the Future Carbonizing Unit in Atami can be loaded on a four-ton truck. Taking advantage of this mobility, they have started a mobile charcoal-making service.

In July, Mitsumura visited Tenri City in Nara Prefecture to join the local festival and made charcoal from pruned branches and other local materials. By visiting various places to demonstrate charcoal making, he can show many people how to make charcoal and raise awareness about the benefits. There are plans to continue the mobile service. For example, it could come in handy for a landowner who plans to cut down a number of trees and wants short-term use of the unit to make charcoal.

At the beginning, we quoted Mitsumura saying, "Making charcoal makes the future happy." When we asked him to expound on his thoughts, he replied, "Instead of treating plant-based materials as waste, if we use them as valuable, unutilized resources and make charcoal with them, we can create jobs, as well as producing and keeping charcoal to be used for heating locally. We can have good times like barbecues using charcoal. It can improve soils, and make vegetables grown in local fields more delicious. Making charcoal involves many people, can give them a place to belong and multiply their smiles. So please join us and have a look at the promise of charcoal!"

How about you? Is there a place for charcoal in your community?

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