Coke, Carbon, Charcoals, and Chars

Carbon and carbon-rich materials have desirable properties but are nonvolatile, even at high temperatures. Consequently, pyrolysis is used to produce many kinds of carbon; these can be used for fuel, as reagents in steelmaking (coke), and as structural materials.

Charcoal is a less smoky fuel than pyrolyzed wood. Some cities ban, or used to ban, wood fires; when residents only use charcoal (and similarly-treated rock coal, called coke) air pollution is significantly reduced. In cities where people do not generally cook or heat with fires, this is not needed. In the mid-20th century, “smokeless” legislation in Europe required cleaner-burning techniques, such as coke fuel and smoke-burning incinerators as an effective measure to reduce air pollution.

A blacksmith’s forge, with a blower forcing air through a bed of fuel to raise the temperature of the fire. On the periphery, coal is pyrolyzed, absorbing heat; the coke at the center is almost pure carbon, and releases a lot of heat when the carbon oxidizes.
Typical organic products obtained by pyrolysis of coal (X = CH, N).

The coke-making or “coking” process consists of heating the material in “coking ovens” to very high temperatures (up to 900 °C or 1,700 °F) so that the molecules are broken down into lighter volatile substances, which leave the vessel, and a porous but hard residue that is mostly carbon and inorganic ash. The amount of volatiles varies with the source material, but is typically 25–30% of it by weight. High temperature pyrolysis is used on an industrial scale to convert coal into coke. This is useful in metallurgy, where the higher temperatures are necessary for many processes, such as steelmaking. Volatile by-products of this process are also often useful, including benzene and pyridine. Coke can also be produced from the solid residue left from petroleum refining.

The original vascular structure of the wood and the pores created by escaping gases combine to produce a light and porous material. By starting with a dense wood-like material, such as nutshells or peach stones, one obtains a form of charcoal with particularly fine pores (and hence a much larger pore surface area), called activated carbon, which is used as an adsorbent for a wide range of chemical substances.

Biochar is the residue of incomplete organic pyrolysis, e.g., from cooking fires. It is a key component of the terra preta soils associated with ancient indigenous communities of the Amazon basin. Terra preta is much sought by local farmers for its superior fertility and capacity to promote and retain an enhanced suite of beneficial microbiota, compared to the typical red soil of the region. Efforts are underway to recreate these soils through biochar, the solid residue of pyrolysis of various materials, mostly organic waste.

Carbon fibers produced by pyrolyzing a silk cocoon. Electron micrograph, scale bar at bottom left shows 100 μm.Carbon fibers are filaments of carbon that can be used to make very strong yarns and textiles. Carbon fiber items are often produced by spinning and weaving the desired item from fibers of a suitable polymer, and then pyrolyzing the material at a high temperature (from 1,500–3,000 °C or 2,730–5,430 °F). The first carbon fibers were made from rayon, but polyacrylonitrile has become the most common starting material.

Pyrolysis is the reaction used to coat a preformed substrate with a layer of pyrolytic carbon. This is typically done in a fluidized bed reactor heated to 1,000–2,000 °C or 1,830–3,630 °F. Pyrolytic carbon coatings are used in many applications, including artificial heart valves.

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