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SPRINGFIELD, Ore. – Lay them end to end, and the charcoal briquettes produced at the Kingsford Products Co.’s Springfield plant each year would stretch 92,000 miles – enough to circle the globe at the equator more than three times.

Good thing, too. As backyard grillers fire up barbecues this summer, production at the 250,000-square-foot plant is ramping up to satisfy increased seasonal demand for the tiny, flesh-searing carbonized pillows.

The plant is a major source for barbequers up and down the West Coast.

The Springfield plant supplies between 80 percent and 90 percent of the Kingsford briquettes sold west of the Rockies, said John Villareal, Kingsford’s Springfield operations manager.

In addition to the Springfield plant, Kingsford operates four other U.S. plants in the Midwest and South, and one in Canada.

Kingsford, a division of the Oakland, Calif.-based Clorox Co., is king in the $3 billion barbecue industry, with more than half of the U.S. market share, company officials said.

“We make about 3 billion briquettes here a year,” Villareal said of the Kingsford plant. “That’s enough for 50 million barbecues.”

But nowhere near enough to feed America’s summertime leisure ritual.

Briquette producers sold 939,767 tons of charcoal last year, up 14 percent from 1995, according to the Illinois-based Barbecue Industry Association.

The increase in charcoal sales over the past six years is significant considering the proliferation of inexpensive gas grills.

But enough about barbecuing trends.

What exactly is this mysterious black chunk that millions of Americans labor over every summer? How is it made? When was it discovered?

Before the “gas vs. charcoal” debate, the $2,000 grills with warming ovens, and the designer backyard brick barbecue pits, there was charcoal, a most primordial cooking fuel.

Charcoal was used by prehistoric people and was probably stumbled upon shortly after the discovery of fire itself when a burning log was accidentally covered with sand or dirt. When the log was dug up and relit, those early barbecuers likely realized the fire burned hotter and with less smoke, and cooked brontosaurus burgers more evenly.

Although the Kingsford plant converts wood to charcoal with an array of modern equipment, the basic idea has remained unchanged over the eons: Burn wood in a low-oxygen setting so that it is charred instead of consumed, and voila, you have charcoal.

At Kingsford’s Springfield plant, here is the process the 85 employees use to make briquettes:

Trucks, sometimes as many as 30 a day, deliver waste wood from regional sawmills. Using bulldozers, workers push the wood debris into what is often a six-story-tall pile, spotted easily from Interstate 105.

The bulldozers shove the wood into a pit, where a conveyor belt carries the debris under a huge magnet, which sucks up any metal mixed in with the fiber.

“You’d be surprised what we pull of there,” Villareal said, pointing to a bin with steel chains, sprockets, baling wire, bolts and the like.

The waste wood continues on the conveyor to a “hogger,” which grinds and chops the wood into fine particles. After the debris has been severely downsized, it goes into a huge rotating drum where hot air whisks moisture from the particles.

Then the fiber is conveyed into a huge oven, or retort, where it is baked under low-oxygen conditions.

The low-oxygen burn drives out the hog fuel’s undesirable elements – water, tars, and volatile organic compounds such as methane and hydrogen – but prevents the carbon in the wood from burning. Kingsford essentially incinerates the gases generated by the baking procedure and recycles that heat for use in the drying process.

“We basically cook the wood down so all that is left is a carbon material, which is the char,” Villareal said.

With the volatile component of the wood baked away, all that is left is a very fine black powder with a small amount of ash and tiny bits of wood. The lack of gases, water and tar greatly reduce smoke when the briquettes burn.

So, you ask, what is it that makes briquettes burn?

Once the volatile gases are gone, the oxygen in the air around the burning briquettes is able to come in and steadily pick off carbon atoms. The freshly built molecules fly away as carbon dioxide, and in trace amounts, carbon monoxide, according to an essay written by Hannah Holmes for Discovery Online.

It is these scorching-hot gases rising up from the briquette that brown your steak and grill your halibut.

After the baking process, the char is moved to a storage bin for blending with other compounds such as powdered coal to help with the burn, borax and cornstarch to bind the char, sodium nitrate to help ignite the briquettes, mesquite for flavor, and lime to whiten the ash so grillers know when to begin cooking.

After blending, the mixture is sent out on a conveyor, where it passes beneath a press with pillow-shaped indentations that stamp the powder into the familiar briquette forms.

Then it’s time for more drying, where the briquettes travel slowly through long ovens to wring out any surviving moisture.

From the ovens, the briquettes go into a storage bin and then to the packaging area where automatic machines overseen by employees bag the briquettes and put the bags on pallets.

Villareal said it generally takes a full day for a clump of hogged fuel to be converted into a briquette.

During the winter, the charcoal is usually shipped to regional distribution centers, he said. But during the summer, when the briquettes are in hot demand, Kingsford tends to ship directly to retail stores to avoid delays.

Copyright © 2001, Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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