It is 21st century and do you know what is the main fuel for several African nations now? It is charcoal.
Maybe, a shocking news for environmentalists and people who are bothered about the global warming issues.
But it is a fact that countries like Mozambique bank on charcoal for its population s 80 per cent fuel needs.
In southern Africa, charcoal is the main money spinning source for lakhs of people.
People in these nations have been chopping trees and making charcoal for as long as they can remember. And that is how impoverished people throughout this developing world stay alive.
Charcoal is more portable than simple wood, and can be made with trees, earth, fire and sweat. In regions where electricity and money are scarce, but physical toil is not, the fuel is everywhere.
Along with South America, Africa loses forests at a faster rate than almost any place on earth, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Many farmers use a slash and burn process, cutting forest and burning the remaining vegetation to plant crops in the temporarily rich soil. Logging illegal and legal clears large amounts of forests. But almost half of Africa s forest loss is a result of people chopping trees for firewood or charcoal, estimates the UN Billion Tree Campaign.
Cash earning work is scarce in rural Mozambique and other African nations. In some parts of Mozambique, as much as 70 per cent of individuals income is from charcoal.
The charcoal will heat stoves in cities from southern Mozambique to northern Malawi, from Zimbabwe to South Africa.
University of Hawaii researcher Michael Antal has developed a working fuel cell that uses charcoal as its fuel and operates at bread baking temperatures.
The Antal system, which he calls an aqueous alkali biocarbon fuel cell, is unlike other fuel cell technology both in that it uses a renewable fuel and that it does not require particularly high temperatures.
Renewable energy is the watchword in the modern energy debate, an effort pushed in large part by high global oil prices and the perception that global political instability threatens the availability of fuel.
Most research today focuses on cells fueled with hydrogen, which must be manufactured in many cases from fossil fuels.
But this is effectively a battery that uses charcoal to make electricity, Antal said.
Antal s cell operates at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, a carbon cell developed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory operates at 1,500 degrees.
The key to his cell s operation is the very chemically reactive property of charcoal, which has a large surface area and burns at relatively low temperatures, he said.The making of charcoal, literally the distillation of wood to its carbon content, was an important process during the first half of the nineteenth century. Because it burned hotter and cleaner, charcoal was considered superior to wood. It provided fuel for both the furnaces which produced the iron and the forges of the blacksmiths who shaped it.
CHARCOAL S PAST
The first person to discover the seemingly magical properties of charcoal has long since been lost to human memory. What is known is that it may have been used in Europe as early as 5,500 years ago and was the smelting fuel of the bronze and iron ages . Across many centuries charcoal was used in the smelting and shaping of metals, the production of glass, as a purifier of food and water, and in gunpowder its by products included a liquid used in the Egyptian embalming process.
The first method for producing charcoal probably involved the pit kiln process in which wood was slowly burned in a shallow pit covered with soil. However, in many areas this eventually gave way to the more efficient and more manageable above ground forest kiln method. The charcoal maker, or collier, became an important figure. The demand for charcoal was such that in areas like Great Britain the woodlands were all but stripped and alternative fuel sources such as coke had to be sought. This was not initially the case in the heavily wooded United States.
The chief customers of the American collier were the ironmaster and the blacksmith. Prior to 1840 the great majority of iron produced in America came from bloomeries and forges fueled by charcoal. Charcoal produced pig iron possessed qualities important to the rural economy of colonial America and the new nation of the United States. It was malleable hot and cold and made an excellent metal for the blacksmith who had to fulfil many needs for his customers.
Charcoal making was usually the most time consuming, and second most expensive, aspect of iron production. Like many ironmaking operations it was to a certain extent governed by nature. Since optimal charcoal making conditions included dry weather and little wind, it was usually attempted from late spring through early fall. At some furnaces, half of the workforce was in some way involved in charcoal production.