Coal crumbs to briquettes: recipe for home heating

It's a cross between the backyard barbeque and modern-day alchemy. And the wizard behind it is a stocky, former carpenter who wants to ensure an adequate coal supply for New england.

It's called anthracite coal briquetting -- a technique that's been used in Europe for more than 100 years to turn unusable coal grains into burnable briquettes. Larry Trainer, owner and operator of the Plimoth Coal Stove Works here, is the first this side of the Atlantic to attempt the process on a commercial basis, according to Department of Energy (DOE) officials in Washington.

"It's like baking brownies on a large scale," says the bearded entrepreneur, poking a finger at his mold -- a black cast-iron roller notched with two-inch cubbyholes.

Yet for all Mr. Trainer's "good ole bor" charm and talk of Btus, the inventor is a savvy businessman. He is quite serious about keeping home fires burning, despite the possibility of coal shortage this winter.

Last season's scarcity of anthracite coal chilled the hopes of many a New England homeowner who had invester in expensive coal stoves in anticipation of lower fuel bills. Recent energy studies show demand for coal in New england to be three times what it was three years ago. The only domestic suppliers of anthracite -- Pennsylvania mining companies -- predict another shortage should the clamor for the fuel continue."We figure we'll be out [of coal] by January," says one local distributer.

But Trainer, having brushed off the sawdust of his carpenter's trade only to surround himself with the coal dust of his own company, was not about to see his newfound market for coal stoves go up in smoke. Not only is Trainer the Yankee pioneer of anthracite coal briquetting, he is also the inventor-cum-producer of a unique potbellied coal-burning stove. Using an old bean pot as his muse, he jerry-built a test model in his basement. It "flew," as it were, and Trainer started up the business in 1978.

With a thriving business under his belt, Trainer didn't hesitate to jump into fuel production when customers got cranky for want of coal. Pennsylvania mines are producing only about 5 percent of the amount they did during coal's heyday in the 1920s. With the resurgence of interest in the cheap fuel spreading throughout the Northeast, demand for the usable "nut-sized" coal quickly outstripped supply. And customers were left with empty stoves.

With a captive market in hand, all the enterprising entrepreneur needed was the production equipment and the raw materials to transform piles of unusable "buck-wheat-sized" coal into the larger briquettes. (Unless coal is of an adequate size, it will slip between the grating and fall uselessly to the bottom of the stoves.)

The whole process is a carefully guarded secret at Plimoth Coal Stove Works, even though it is common in Europe. So tightly is Trainer holding his cards to his vest, that he blackens out the brand names on the bags of raw materials in his warehouse. "You could see the names from the road," he says.

The biggest component is, of course, the huge piles of coal grains. The coal dust is readily available as a byprodct from the mines. It must be mixed with a binder (the most closely kept secret) and punched out as little briquettes. After "baking," the coal chunks are bagged in 40-pound sacks, convenient enough for any housewife to toss in the back of the station wagon.

By shying away from using "silt" -- an even finer and cheaper coal byproduct -- Trainer estimates the Btu content of his briquettes will be as good as regular anthracite.

When the company starts production sometime this month, Trainer hopes to punch out nearly 100 tons of briquettes a day.With an average household consumption of 2.5 tons a year, he anticipates his company can supply a good part of Massachusetts with coal.

And better yet, he thinks he can do it for less than the going rate for regular coal. While the bulk price of anthracite shot up to $175 a ton in some areas last year, Trainer hopes to hang a $135 price tag on his man-made product. Families can hope to heat their homes for about $400 this year if his calculations hold.

Observers think he may not be on to something. "This could be a major advantage to the homeowner," says Dr. Jerry Pell, DOE anthracite director.

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