A little bit of background. I make charcoal for use as biochar: putting carbon into the ground where it retains water and soluble nutrients. It also provides a good habitat for the friendly soil bacteria and fungi, along with low-tech carbon capture and storage for the masses.

I would like to know how much carbon is going back into the ground, and be able to say with confidence what difference I'm making to my carbon footprint, but the two – at least – unknown factors are the ash content of the char, and the water content from quenching and dust abatement sprays. I can say with confidence that a kilo of dry char will retain 3 kilos of water, which makes it difficult to judge by the look and feel.

I'm looking for a simple assay which will tell me with reasonable confidence how much elemental carbon a sample contains.

FWIW, my understanding of chemistry is rusty: I've got an A-level (the UK university entrance qualification from 1976) but my degree is in Physics, and my background is in engineering. Thanks for any help.

  • $\begingroup$ Is your charcoal mostly carbon, water and ash ? Or are there other contaminents you care about ? $\endgroup$
    – SCH
    Sep 25, 2017 at 9:58
  • $\begingroup$ Carbon, -with the cellular structure of the wood still intact- , water and ash are the significant components by weight- the hydrocarbons are long gone. $\endgroup$ Sep 26, 2017 at 10:47

1 Answer 1


Assuming your charcoal is mostly:

  • water (evaporates)

  • carbon (burns)

  • ashes (does neither)

I would :

  1. weigh a sample of your charcoal to get the mass $\ce m_0$

  2. dry it in an oven at low-ish temperature (50°-80° or more, whatever doesn't burn your charcoal) for a few hours.

  3. weigh it again to get $\ce m_1$

  4. burn the sample in air as thoroughly as possible

  5. weigh what's left to get $\ce m_2$

Now you can calculate :

  • mass of water (+ other volatiles) = $\ce m_0$ - $\ce m_1$

  • mass of carbon (+ other non-volatile burnables) = $\ce m_1$ - $\ce m_2$

  • mass of ashes = $\ce m_2$

  • $\begingroup$ Isn't your mass of carbon calculation backwards? In other words, shouldn't you be subtracting the ash content (m2) from m1 (carbon + other non-volatile combustibles + ash)? $\endgroup$
    – airhuff
    Sep 25, 2017 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ Nice and simple idea but m1-m2= c + (o, h..) as well. It doas not tell how much "clean carbon" you have in your char. $\endgroup$
    – Nadav Ziv
    Sep 25, 2017 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the reply- the dry and burn assay is along the lines of what I was thinking. The challenge that I can see is supplying the air to burn the carbon away without carrying away any of the fine ash dust. $\endgroup$ Sep 26, 2017 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think oxygen needs to be supplied. Charcoal burns well in air once ignited (that's the point). You could just set it on fire in a crucible some place protected from any wind. If time in a hurry, you could also experiment with crushi NM the charcoal beforehand. $\endgroup$
    – SCH
    Sep 26, 2017 at 12:40

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