Is it better to burn wood or charcoal?

Half the World’s population of nearly six billion people prepare their food and heat their homes with coal and the traditional biomass fuels of dung, crop residues, wood and charcoal . In China, Asian and Sub Saharan Africa, up to 80% of urban households use biomass fuels for cooking. Wood fuel usage is the most predominant with charcoal a close second. What is their respective influence on global warming? Sorry, but this post will not attempt to discuss this complex issue, because the reality is that for most people struggling with energy security, saving the environment is not exactly high on their list. The following paragraphs will instead focus briefly on the burning characteristics of wood and charcoal, because in many cases availability and affordability of the fuel type will dictate which fuel type is being used.

Typically wood has an energy value of between 14 and 18 MJ/kg when burned. Charcoal has an energy value of around 29 MJ/kg, in other words charcoal burns hotter than wood, but when not insulated or not receiving sufficient air supply (including secondary air), the absence of flames or fast flowing CO2 gases will result in less efficient cooking due to a lower heat transfer efficiency (HTE). In other words with conventional charcoal burning (glowing embers) the pot will receive radiant and infrared heat, with the pot positioned close to the coals. Wood burning flames (especially from open fires) tend to ‘lick’ the pot and transfer heat more effectively, but contain products of incomplete combustion (PIC), also known as ‘particulates’, that are harmful to humans when inhaled. In many instances households cannot afford to purchase or install chimneys that remove the smoke. The flames (yellow colored) will also tend to blacken cooking pots. Indoor smoke inhalation gives rise to pneumonia and other respiratory infections – the biggest killer of children under five years of age. Indoor air pollution (IAP) is responsible for nearly half of the more than 2 million deaths each year that are caused by acute respiratory infections (ARI). Good ventilation and improved cooking stoves can dramatically reduce children’s exposure to smoke.
Charcoal is preferred over wood as a cooking fuel in many parts of the world because it does not produce smoke, is easier to transport and ready to use in a convenient dry- and broken-up form.