Charcoal Production: Hydrothermal carbonization at Max Planck Institute

Charcoal Production: Hydrothermal carbonization at Max Planck Institute
A Stroke of Genius? A New Recipe for Coal
in D-W World.DE September 2006 (See Video Link)

Hydrothermal CarbonizationHydrothermal Carbonization

A Stroke of Genius? A New Recipe for Coal Markus Antonietti from the Max-Planck Institute has developed a simple but ingenious way of producing coal using biomass - such as waste from the garden or leaves from the local forest.
The process is environmentally friendly, as the only by-product is water
- not carbon dioxide which would contribute to global warming.
Antonietti has successfully managed to develop this method so that it could be used for commercial coal production. Such coal could just be used for heating purposes, but it could be used far more effectively in electricity and gasoline production. The 70 million tonnes of biomass that Germany produces every year would be sufficient to cover the country's energy needs.
We take a closer look at this potentially revolutionary discovery.
What is this chemist doing for in the woods armed with a pair of scissors?

He's gathering the ingredients for a very special recipe.

Markus Antonietti from Max Planck Institute for Colloid and Interface
Research: "I'm collecting leaves and twigs. We want this material to solve one of the great problems of the age."
It's the problem of the planet's energy supplies. Markus Antonietti wants to use a technique he's developed to cook up some coal, based on the way nature does it.

But instead of millions of years, his method takes only a few hours.

But stop! First the ingredients.

The biomass goes into the autoclave, a kind of pressure cooker. Leaves, pine cones and other plant residues are put into the pot. Water goes in, too, along with a citric acid catalyst. The mixture releases a lot of heat - in other words, energy.

Markus Antonietti from Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces:
"We underestimated this when we started. We could calculate how much energy was stored in the sugar - in the leaf material. But the first time - as you see - we had a runaway reaction, which is obviously dangerous, so we need to carry it out under safe conditions."
Now the reaction is being carried out in an experimental "kitchen" on the roof of the institute. Here it's no problem if the hydrothermal carbonization, as the process is called, causes minor explosions.

It's all part of the joy of experimentation for the 46 year old director of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces. Antonietti says he's only been able to pursue this simple idea since establishing himself in his field.

It really is a simple reaction. The ingredients just have to be heated....

...for 12 hours at 180 degrees Celsius.

And the coal is ready.

The single major by-product of the reaction is water, which can filtered off. In contrast to other biomass techniques this reaction does not generate carbon dioxide. And it gives a higher-energy product, which even smells acceptable.

Markus Antonietti from Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces:
"It has a strong smell. (Very masculine.) Like tobacco."
If it were up to Antonietti, this reaction could go large-scale. The 50,000 tonnes of plant refuse that accumulate yearly in Berlin could be converted into 20,000 tonnes of usable carbon.

Markus Antonietti from Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces:
"The Max Planck Society only does basic research. But with enough engineering back-up, we could establish this in two to five years. It's very simple, there just has to be support for it."
Could this laboratory coal be produced on a large scale? Antonietti says it makes economic sense. The energy needed for the heating is no greater that that required by other methods.

Until that day comes, the Max Planck scientists intend to go on with their research.

They want to study their laboratory coal in detail. This is the structure of a pine cone before ...

... and after carbonization. But not all coal is alike.

Markuis Antonietti from Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces:
"Like in a restaurant you can have your steak rare or well done. We can adjust our coal to be just a bit refined, or we can cook it until it's like hard coal. One end of the spectrum is topsoil, the other is hard coal."
When the researchers cook their coal mixture for just five hours, the result is topsoil,

This nutrient-rich earth can be used to help barren landscapes bloom.

Soft lignite requires nearly as much cooking as hard coal. But in order to get energy out of the laboratory coal, it doesn't necessarily have to be burned.

Markus Antonietti from Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces
says: "We are dreaming of a carbon fuel cell. That would be direct electrochemical conversion of the coal, without the actual burning process. Other applications are in chemistry, for example, directly making gasoline out of the coal."
The scientists intend to pursue those dreams, using nature as a model.
Their next project is to make petroleum - which is a stage in the production of coal. So sometime in the near future these laboratory visions may find a place in everyday life....


More information you find on:

*Coal from biomass :* Go to

right click the desired video format and choose "download as".

* Zauberkohle aus dem Dampfkochtopf: *Go to

find : FOKUS, right click "Zauberkohle aus dem Dampfkochtopf [1985 kB]"
and choose "download as"


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