Charcoal production: challenges and opportunities

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Charcoal production: challenges and opportunities

by Jehan de Albuquerque

April 24th, 2019

Charcoal production: challenges and opportunities

Brazil is the world’s largest producer of charcoal, reaching a mark of more than 5.2 million tons produced and consumed in 2017, according to the National Energy Balance 2018

Brazil is the world’s largest producer of charcoal, reaching more than 5.2 million tons produced and consumed in 2017, according to the Brazilian Energy Balance 2018. Charcoal represents 8% of the entire energy matrix of the country.

Among the main charcoal consumers in Brazil, the steel industry, which consumes more than 90% of all Brazilian production, stands out. And this is where we identify the major challenges and opportunities in the industry. According to the Center for Strategic Studies and Management (CGEE), although this segment is the major charcoal consumer in Brazil, this consumption accounted for about 35% of its demand in the last decade. The other 65% were supplied by other energy sources, such as coal and coke.

In a quick glance, three main reasons can be mentioned for the steel industry to consume more coal than charcoal: supply, cost-benefit and quality (energy potential). To sum up, there is a need to increase production, reduce operating costs and improve product quality. All this in a sustainable way, respecting all environmental laws and regulations.

The evolution and maturation of the Brazilian market, together with greater oversight over working conditions, has caused the charcoal production – so far considered a secondary activity − to enter a development path that has been dormant for decades. Coal as a raw material is in turn a low value-added product. Companies have realized that producing coal within quality and safety standards is an expensive task.

Timber/coal yield is low and the price per m³ or ton is almost unaffordable on the market. The cost is highly sensitive to any investment, so any improvement or adequacy tends to make the price of the final product fluctuate upwards. Here comes planning, execution, control, and improvements into play, which can reduce the product cost and make it more competitive compared to its direct competitors.

In order to meet the aforementioned points, it is necessary to operate throughout the production chain, from the quality of the timber used as raw material in the charcoal production, through the entire production process to the production flow.

Tailor-made quality timber

Currently, more than 80% of the timber used in charcoal production comes from planted forests, which is very positive, since it lowers the pressure on native forests and allows actions to be taken to increase the timber quality. Among these actions, the genetic improvement of the clones to be planted stands out.

With the genetic improvement, the aim is to create more productive clones, that is, with higher gravimetric yield, higher mechanical resistance, greater energy potential, and so on. In order to improve these charcoal quality characteristics, the following timber characteristics can be controlled and improved with genetic improvement: higher basic timber density, higher lignin content, higher cellulose crystallinity index and lower heartwood/sapwood ratio.

The development of specific clones for specific products is a goal that must be pursued relentlessly. For years, the industry used clones available on the market, for the simple fact that they showed high productivity rates. However, these were clones developed by the pulp and paper industry, whose timber demanded is quite different from the timber used by the coal industry, furniture industry, etc. Process refinement has required clones with specific characteristics to serve specific purposes.

Availability of timber and supply of carbonization plants

Another important point is to guarantee the availability of timber with the ideal drying time in the carbonization plants. A low drying time results in a high timber moisture content. Such timber represents one of the greatest hurdles for the coal production, directly impacting the time of carbonization/cooling, gravimetric yield and coal quality.

In this scenario, there should be a logistics planning integrated with the harvest. Therefore, an integrated inventory system between the field and the depot, with total traceability of the timber and projected consumption of the plants, greatly facilitates this task. By means of consumption projections of each carbonization plant and the updated inventories of the depot, field and forests ready to be cut down, it is possible to compare this information and generate a much more assertive cut and logistics planning, thus minimizing the idleness of the furnaces by the lack of timber to carbonize.

Management, monitoring and optimization of the production process

However, there is no point in investing only in timber quality and plant supply planning, because in order to obtain high productivity in charcoal production it is needed to constantly strive to improve the production process, since failures and bad practicesare the main productivity hurdles in this segment.

Among the numerous actions to be taken, the highlight goes to the improvement in carbonization monitoring. It is still common to find rudimentary and empirical methods, e.g., the observation of coloration and the smell of smoke, to determine the actions to be taken in the process (opening or sealing of the oxygen inlets).

To improve carbonization control, small producers can implement manual pyrometry control. On the other hand, large producers, can make use of a supervisory system with automation of furnaces (with automatic control of oxygen intake), which also depends on the structure and methodology available for the coal production.

Furnace cooling time

A major challenge in the charcoal production process is the reduction of the furnace cooling time, since this is the longest phase of the charcoal production cycle, accounting for 65% of the total process time.

Currently several companies in the segment are investing in research and development of solutions to reduce the furnace cooling time, some have already yielded great results with “heat exchangers” in rectangular furnaces, but this is still a broad study area with a great deal of opportunities. Even for large carbonization plants, implementing cooling down systems (such as heat exchangers, for example), is still relatively expensive, since most carbonization plants currently do not boast a solid technological infrastructure, not to mention that many of them lack of even electricity.

Optimizing costs for eliminating greenhouse gases

Going a bit deeper into the environmental question, another challenge in the segment is the elimination of gases emitted during the carbonization process.

Currently the most used form is the gas burner, a large furnace connected to the other furnaces with the objective of “burning” the smoke released in the process, eliminating a large part of the gases generated during the timber carbonization and releasing, for the most part, carbon dioxide and steam.

However, the implementation of these smoke burners greatly increases the cost of furnaces and this often becomes a key factor for the implementation decision.

Thus, several alternatives for cost-effective elimination of gases have been studied, such as the reuse of gases for electric energy generation, which is an alternative that has been widely researched, with companies yielding good results.

Managing environmental licenses

Still on the environmental issue, another major challenge is to control the environmental licenses required for timber extraction and charcoal production/commercialization. In this case, an information system integrated with the company’s forest register is the most appropriate tool to assist in this task.

Traceability

Determining the timber origin (plot, species, certifications, licenses and timber characteristics) of the charcoal inventory is extremely important, however, it can be a very tricky task when  timber from several plots is used in the same time frame, or when there are old charcoal inventories or even when internal inventory handling is performed.

Many companies identify the timber origin by estimation, using as sole criterion the period in which the charcoal was produced. But this can be a hassle, since there may be timber inventories in the grids of different plots and even two or more different plots in the same grid.

The right way to ensure production traceability is to have an integrated management system, where it is easy and quick to generate specific queries from any stage of the process, and which allows one to distinguish the origin of the material used: either one’s own or third parties’ timber.

Production flow

There are several challenges in the production flow, namely three:

  • Legal requirements: Timber certification requirements and environmental legislation need to be met before production can be sold or even transferred.Tax
  • Requirements: are the requirements for the issuance of invoices for the material handling (be they related to a sale, a transfer, a donation, etc.)
  • Stock output control: in this respect, the difficulty is to assertively determine the volume/weight that is being shipped, since nowadays most of the carbonization plants scattered throughout the country do not have truck scales and the volume/weight is obtained only by estimation (by estimating the truck volume, for example). It is only when the load reaches the final destination that the volume/weight is determined more concretely, which requires actions to adjust plant inventories and even the issuance of new tax documents.

Consolidation of operational and management data to generate KPIs

One cannot talk about process optimization without talking about key performance indicators. When it comes to charcoal production, companies face a huge challenge, which is to consolidate this information in a timely manner for decision-making. This is due to the fact that even within a single company there can be extremely pulverized production, since the carbonization plants are usually geographically spread, and many of them do not have the minimum infrastructure.

This scenario provides great opportunities for developing mobile systems that ease the collection and consolidation of operational data and those from integrated systems based in an unified database for all the company’s carbonization plants.

Conclusion

In view of the above, it is concluded that charcoal production is an already consolidated market segment with big challenges and opportunities, presenting a steady growth over the years. With the right investment, it can yield great results.

The main opportunities lie within the Genetic Improvement; Integrated Planning; Furnace Research and Technological Innovation; Process Improvement; Integrated Information System, Mobile Data Collection System; Autonomous Systems.

INFLOR, a leader in forest management systems, helps companies maximize the forest asset management performance and promotes more assertiveness in the decision-making process of the charcoal production segment.

Guide with key features and benefits of the INFLOR Forest system

Learn how leading companies in the industry are maximizing their bottom line through efficient management of their forest assets.

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