ZHANG HONG slowly opens the metal furnace door, letting the radiant light of red-hot coal spread across his smiling face. ``Take a look,'' says Mr. Zhang, using a rod to poke gingerly at a large, square coal briquet.
``Before, I had to stoke raw coal,'' says Zhang, who tends the boiler room of Beijing's Hepingmen Grocery, heating water to fill the tea jugs and supply the bathhouse of the store's 160 employees.
``There was a lot of dust and smoke and I used to cough a lot. Now, it's a lot better. I don't have to shower so often!'' the elderly worker says with a laugh, pointing to his clean blue Mao suit.
Zhang is one of the users of new, experimental coal briquets designed to lower air pollution in Beijing.
China, one of the world's largest coal producers and the nation with the biggest proven reserves, relies on coal for three-quarters of its energy needs. And experts say Beijing, like other Chinese cities, cannot hope to significantly lower its coal consumption in the short term.
With industrial growth, urban sprawl, and a rapidly growing, wealthier population, Beijing's consumption of coal is rising. Coal burned by households is mounting at 3 percent a year, according to official statistics. Heavy government subsidies, which enable residents to buy coal for less than half its cost, are fueling both the consumption and massive waste of coal.
Therefore, the city is focusing its resources on limiting dangerous emissions from the combustion of coal, says Zheng Yuanjing, deputy director of the Beijing Environmental Bureau.
One key element of that strategy is the use of newly developed coal briquets. Molded in large, round and rectangular honeycomb shapes, the briquets are a mixture of coal and lime, which binds with pollutants to prevent their dissipation into the air. The briquets burn more efficiently than raw coal and reduce the sulphur dioxide and dust released by 50 and 70 percent, respectively, Mr. Zheng says.
Throughout this busy, commercial area in the capital's Western District, shops, restaurants, and bathhouses are abandoning the use of raw coal for cooking, heating, and boiling water. Instead, they are using the more efficient, cleaner-burning coal briquet.
The experiment, launched two years ago, is part of Beijing's strategy to reduce severe atmospheric contamination caused by the burning of millions of tons of coal each year.
``Coal is the worst source of air pollution in Beijing,'' says Hao Yuqi, director of air pollution control at the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau.
Beijing burns 21 million tons of coal a year, more than any other city in the world, says Ms. Hao. The pollution is worst in winter, when millions of residents rely on coal to heat their homes, offices, and schools.
Across the city's low-lying skyline, the pipes of 1.4 million small coal-burning stoves belch smoke and fumes from November until March. At the same time, tens of thousands of coal-fueled boilers and big communal stoves operate year round, cooking food and boiling water.
Pollution readings taken at eight stations around Beijing show that in the winter coal-burning season the quantity of Total Suspended Particles - a mixture of coal grit and dust - exceed national standards by 50 percent. Airborne sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide, also exceed China's safety limits by 20 to 30 percent.
The pollutants in Beijing, as elsewhere in China, are contributing to ``a dramatic rise in cancer and respiratory diseases,'' according to Roy Morey, the United Nations Development Programme's Beijing representative.
The new briquets are made of bituminous coal and mainly fuel hot-water boilers and large, communal stoves in restaurants and cafeterias. Households are using a smaller briquet made of anthracite coal for heating stoves. Since 1988, Beijing has set up 12 production lines for the large briquets, and produces about 36,000 tons a year. By this September, Zheng says the city hopes to boost annual output to 100,000 tons.
But even with the tripling of production, the new briquets will amount to less than 0.5 percent of the mountains of coal consumed annually in Beijing. The majority of coal burned, mainly in factories and thousands of giant boilers, is still raw, emitting billowing, gritty smoke.
``For the larger facilities, briquets may not be feasible,'' says Zheng, ``we are looking into other methods to reduce pollution there.''
Nevertheless, in the Western District, residents and workers like boiler tender Zhang say they are delighted over how the new briquets have brightened their environment.
Yin Zunqing, a cafeteria cook, used to wield her sizzling woks over a flame fueled by raw coal.
``The room was full of black smoke,'' says Ms. Yin, who has worked in the kitchen for seven years. ``We had to scrub it every day,'' she says. ``We needed three people to just stoke the ovens. It was dirty and inconvenient.''
But two years ago, Beijing environmental inspectors introduced the large briquet to Yin's cafeteria. ``The new coal is clean and saves time,'' says Yin, dressed in a crisp white smock. She now manages the kitchen and ovens singlehandedly.