Thursday, April 3, 2014

Malaysia 2014 : Charcoal Factory @ Kuala Sepetang, Perak

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Kuala Sepetang, Perak, Malaysia - March 2014
Dome kilns of the charcoal factory.
Visit a charcoal factory? Wouldn't those be hot, dusty and dirty? But we did just that!
Yes, the place was hot. Dusty? ... hmmm the floor was full of dust, but the air was surprisingly clear. Dirty? As in any factory, there is dirt. The factory was relatively clean and we did not leave the place with our clothes dusty or dirty, so there you are!
A few months ago, while on a cycling jaunt in Kuala Sepetang, we passed by the Khay Hor Charcoal Factory and the place had intrigued me even from the outside. What goes on inside there? What goes on inside a place like this? These were questions that popped into my mind.

The mangrove trees of the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve
So when I was up in nearby Taiping for the Taiping Heritage Ride, me & my friends popped into this factory. We wanted to have a quick look but in the end stayed on for almost an hour. The place was that interesting and a worker Mr. Beh enthusiastically described the details of the place and the details of how charcoal is manufactured.

Most of the mangrove logs are brought in by small boats via narrow man-made canals that link to the nearby rivers such as Sungai Sepetang, Sungai Kapal Changkol, Sungai Reba, etc. The logs are harvested from nearby mangrove swamps that are not part of the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve. There must be many of these swamps around as the mangrove trees takes about thirty years to grow to a suitable girth (8-9 inches in diameter) before they can be harvested. The mangrove that make the most suitable are those from the salt water swamps.

The logs which are approximately five feet long, are stored outside the factory. They are sorted out by their diameter. Those of suitable diameter for making charcoal are stripped of their thick bark; the narrower ones will be used as fuel to provide the heat to make the charcoal.

The logs are then lined up outside each kiln ready for the next round of production.
There are six of these kilns in this factory, each of these are about thirty feet in diameter and thirty feet high. This particular kiln has its front opening sealed off, there are logs inside in the process of turning into good quality charcoal.
The amazing thing about these kilns are that they are built by hand from clay bricks with clay (not cement) mortar bonding them together. Why clay and not cement mortar? Clay cools down at a slower rate and thus maintain the heat of the kiln longer - we will come to that later.

The logs are lined inside the kiln, standing vertically on clay blocks (like those seen at the centre).

A close-up look shows the logs standing precariously on the clay blocks. These clay blocks allow for a gap between the logs and the floor; the logs are also spaces such that there is an inch gap between them. These gaps allow heat to circulate evenly in between the logs. These stacking must be done skilfully lest the logs come tumbling down like a stack of dominoes.

Yes, charcoal is manufactured here the traditional way using brick kilns and fire-wood. No electrical oven is used. The above photos shows laterite soil that are soaked into water to make clay for the mortar to seal of the openings to the kilns.

A trolley that is used to transfer the logs. All process in by hand, no mechanized equipment is used.

Once the kiln is full of logs (about 70 to 80 tons of logs), the previously man-height opening is partly sealed of until only a smaller opening about 3-foot high is left. The smaller logs are now used as fire-wood and are burnt only at the entrance (probably extending up to four feet inside the kiln. Other than this opening, the kiln has only a few small piped openings at the top to vent out vapour/smoke. This minimise air (basically oxygen) from entering the inside. Without oxygen, the logs heats up without burning until they are super dry and turn to charcoal.

After being fired for twenty days, the opening is then sealed off with clay bricks and clay mortar. They clay used to construct the kiln allows it to cool down at a slower rate. It takes ten days for the kiln to cool down to room temperature, in the meantime the internal heat is in the final process of turning the logs into good quality charcoal. The original 70 to 80 tons of logs will produce 13 to 14 tons of charcoal.

There are six such kilns in this factory; each at a different stage of charcoal production. As can be seen, the factory itself is built from mangrove wood.
Nothing goes to waste, even that little vapour/smoke that is vented out is condensed into a balm/oil. This balm/oil is suitable for healing burns and lacerations.

The firewood cinders are also collected and stored into drums. These will be sold off, where these cinders are recycled for use in slow burning fire. The ashes are also collected and sold; the purchasers wash, grind these down to powder to make carbon pills!

The finished charcoal is stacked at another area, ready to be packed and sold. Most of these are exported as local demand is not high.
Mr. Beh is seen here giving a piece of charcoal a strong whack to break it up, showing how dense the charcoal made from sea mangrove are. Charcoal made from other wood are apparently not so dense and as such burn off faster.

It was a fruitful and educational visit. Now I know very much more and will be more appreciative of the simple charcoal.

Khay Hor Charcoal Factory
Jalan Taiping - Kuala Sepetang, 34650 Taiping, Perak, Malaysia.
Tel: +6019-4166098 / +6012-4286098 
(GPS: 4.83693, 100.63709)
(Click here for Google Street view)

View Khay Hor Charcoal Factory in a larger map

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