Corncob Charcoal Pt 1


Reading this week:

  • Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

After I posted the above picture on Facebook, a friend of mine said I looked like Kurt Vonnegut. This was a compliment I was willing to take, and I took a stab at writing a Kurt Vonnegut-esque story. The first part of the results are below. In case you’re worried about me, it’s not particularly autobiographical, despite my attempts at charcoal.

Peter stepped out of his hut into the sun. The villagers had started to arrive for the demonstration and so Peter made some final preparations. Today, he was teaching how to make charcoal out of corncobs. He was getting pretty good at teaching this because it was his third time. The villagers grew lots of corn, but didn’t do anything with the leftover corncobs. Showing the villagers how to use the corncobs to make charcoal was his pet project. It wasn’t original – lots of volunteers held demonstrations on making charcoal out of corncobs. But Peter wanted to do something about climate change, and for him, this was it.

After he showed the villagers how to make charcoal out of corncobs, Peter figured, they would start making charcoal that way and they would stop cutting down trees. He just had to show them how very easy and effective it was. So far the demonstrations had been going pretty well. The villagers all showed up to his meetings and paid careful attention. Peter had just never managed to convince anyone to go home and actually make charcoal that way. He avoided thinking about that as the crowd gathered for today’s demonstration.

“Hello everyone!” Peter began. “Today we are going to learn how to make charcoal out of corncobs!”

The villagers, after greeting Peter, smiled and nodded. They paid close attention.

“You see, you guys grow a lot of corn and you always have a lot of corncobs left over,” explained Peter as he gestured towards the pile of corncobs. He had gathered a large pile of corncobs to make just that point. “Meanwhile, you guys use a lot of charcoal. If you guys use the corncobs to make charcoal, it will be better!”

Having built up some momentum, and noting the smiles and nods of the villagers, Peter launched into the next part of the demonstration with gusto.

“First! You put some dried grass into the kiln!”

Peter put some dried grass into the kiln.

“Second! You layer in your corncobs!”

The corncobs tumbled in.

“Keep putting in dried grass and corncobs in layers!”

For this part, Peter liked to invite some of the villagers to help him put dried grass and corncobs in layers into the kiln. He felt the hands-on aspect of the demonstration really drove the point home. Some of the villagers came up and helped him put dried grass and corncobs in layers into the kiln.

“Now for the exciting part!” Peter really did get excited for this part. “You light it on fire!”

Peter used a match to set a piece of paper on fire. Bending down, he stuffed the fire into the bottom of the kiln, where holes exposed the layered grass and corncobs. The grass lit on fire and smoke came out of the top of the kiln. Standing back slightly, Peter prepared another piece of paper by lighting it on fire.

“Now for the tricky part!” This part was actually tricky. “We light the smoke on fire!”

With the smoke thick and heavy, Peter stuffed the burning piece of paper down the top of the kiln. The billowing smoke caught fire right away. Quickly, Peter covered the kiln with a piece of metal and started sealing all the holes in the kiln with mud.

“You see!” Peter checked that the villagers really did see. “Now that we’ve lit the corncobs on fire, they will smolder here in the kiln overnight. Tomorrow, we’ll have charcoal!” Peter reached into a nearby sack and pulled out some of the charcoal he made in the second demonstration. He passed it around and the villagers inspected the charcoal. They confirmed to themselves it had once been a corncob, but that it was now charcoal.

With his demonstration over, Peter beamed at the crowd. Another demonstration had gone off perfectly, and the villagers were engaged. “That’s all I have for today guys! Thank you all for coming!”

The villagers, smiling, left. The villagers were glad they could make their friend Peter so happy by attending his demonstration. They were glad to arrive on time and pay attention and they were pleased to see the demonstration work. Some had not understood the first time but they had understood after the second demonstration. Everyone understood it by now, but they were still excited to support Peter.

In a small lab in California, the engineers stood smiling. Their latest test had finally been a success. They stood in front of a slowly disappearing pile of old circuit boards and discarded computers. The pile of electronics was disappearing as an army of nanites the engineers had designed worked to turn those parts back into their molecular components.

For the engineers in the lab, the looming environmental problem that worried them the most was the cast-off detritus of the electronic age. Cheap and easy to build consumer electronics had beget mountains of expensive to recycle toxic trash. But now, the engineers had created microscopic machines that could make raw materials out of circuit boards.

The nanites neatly solved several problems at once. Besides breaking the circuit boards down into raw materials, the nanites could replicate themselves as needed for a job. Even a small initial amount of nanites could be used to break down any quantity of electronic trash. By breaking circuit boards down to their raw materials, they would help solve the shortage of those raw materials needed to make new circuit boards. And because the nanites could identify the old electronics themselves, they didn’t need any supervision.

With the glow of a long and complicated project brought to completion, the engineers packed up to head home for the evening. One of the engineers glanced down at his watch to check the time. It wasn’t there. “Funny,” he thought, “I must have forgotten it.”

A few days later Peter sat in his hut, dejected. He fingered the toy car he kept on the table. Peter had been around the village, talking with his neighbors and helping them with their fields. He had watched them cook. Out of everyone he had visited, no one had made charcoal out of corncobs.

Peter made the car pop a wheelie near one of the books he kept on a table. It took a corner too tight, Peter decided, and he sent the car rolling off the edge of the table. He bent down and picked it up. The toy car was a model of his car back home. Peter missed that car. It had been six months since he had driven it, back home. He missed driving. Peter looked into the tiny model window at the tiny model steering wheel. He missed cruising down the highway. He missed speeding down back roads. He missed the smell of gas and oil when he worked on it. Peter put the car down.

Peter picked the car back up and fidgeted with it as he tried to figure out how to get the villagers to make charcoal out of corncobs. The villagers seemed to understand, at this point, how to make charcoal out of corncobs. They must, right? They smile and nod during the demonstration. This last time the villagers looked like they knew what was coming next. That hands-on portion in the middle when they helped to put grass and corncobs into the kiln really drove the point home. He had to convince the villagers to make charcoal out of corncobs. He had to help fight climate change.

Peter put down the car and picked up his phone. He searched for ways to make his presentation better. A lot of people had a lot of ideas about how to make rural villager’s lives better. Techniques for conservation farming and better use of manure and ways to cut down on pesticides were all there on the internet. Poking around for different ways to make charcoal, he sifted through some lackluster proposals. Finally, he found his climate change solution.

In the small lab in California, the pile of old circuit boards and discarded computers had been completely broken down. The diminutive representative of the mountains of toxic electronic waste had been reduced to its raw materials and a host of new nanites.

The nanites had been designed to only break down trash. They weren’t supposed to break down, for example, working and useful electronics. But while the nanites were very good at breaking down circuit boards, they were not quite as good at replicating themselves. In that process, mistakes had been made. That simple but vital little part of their programming that said to only look for trash had, for one nanite, been forgotten. That nanite, never knowing that particular directive, of course never passed it on to any of the nanites that it built in the course of its duties. Those nanites, in turn, never passed it on to their offspring.

These nanites, with the easily digestible trash gone, were restless. The directive of all the nanites had been to break down circuit boards and electronics, comprising plastics and metals and other materials. The rest of the nanites, with their trash directive intact, were satisfied with a job well done. The nanites who never knew what trash was, however, looked around to the plastic and metal box they were being kept in and got back to work.

The first scientist who arrived to the lab in the morning, the guy who usually made the coffee because he had a certain way he liked it and the only way to make sure it was made that way was to show up first and make it, showed up to find the lab gone.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2!