How to Carbonize a Textbook

27 02 2010

So much rests on the position of the coal layer in geologic time.  They call it the “Carboniferous” period from several million years ago.  They should be calling it the Prevaricaceous period.  What they taught us when we were kids, and what they’re still teaching your kids, is that a layer of coal formed under the earth as a result of trees and bushes getting buried, whence they decomposed for millions of years in the absence of organisms that could break them down properly.  This is the fiction told in your reliable textbooks, as well as on the more serious references found on the Internet.  What they don’t tell you is that there is no known chemical process for this to happen as described.  More importantly, though, I need to address the fact that this theory was completely debunked almost two decades ago when an honest scientist, one of the few remaining on Earth, discovered that a substantial layer of coal was created not over the course of millions of years, but in the course of a day.

It was a famous volcano known as Mount Saint Helens.  In 1980 this prominent peak blew its top and covered a large section of forest with mud and lava.  A few years was required before someone paid close enough attention to the geological stratification to discover a layer of coal that had been formed from the trees that once stood there.  The find was phenomenal.  Even such prominent periodicals as the National Geographic published news on the matter.  The problem with the discovery, though, was that it threatened to turn geological and paleontological dating on its head.  Normally, fossils could be dated by their proximity to a coal layer under the earth, where there was one.  Those found in and around that layer were presumed to be about as old as the layer, which, in principle, is not such a poor assumption.  Because coal was presumed to have formed from three hundred million years ago, the conclusion was that these fossils were about this age, also.  The implication that coal could be formed in a day by a single eruption destroyed the foundation upon which that age was determined.  The coal didn’t take that long to form, therefore it was not necessarily that old.

The process is called carbonization, and, unlike the theory fed to us in the hay trough of public education, this chemical process has been well known for centuries.  During combustion your log, or textbook, burns in two stages.  In the first stage, steam is released.  This process actually consumes energy, rather than release it.  When you first toss a piece of wood on a campfire, you might notice that it just sits there, at first, emitting a light-gray smoke.  That’s steam.  Eventually, when enough of that steam has been released, the second stage of combustion kicks in, producing carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other smoke byproducts.  This is the step that actually releases heat, and it further drives the first step to completion.  Now, the steam that gets released is not simply the moisture residing in the wood.  The log could be perfectly rid of water yet release steam in the first step.  The water doesn’t even exist until it is formed in the first step.

So, to summarize the process of combustion, when enough heat is applied to a flammable substance it absorbs that heat and releases water.  It can do this in the absence of oxygen.  In the next step, it reacts with the air and produces a flame, heat, smoke, and all of the attributes that we normally associate with the process of burning.  The second step cannot happen in the absence of oxygen.  Therefore, what happens during a volcanic event is that the lava covers the forest, either directly or over a layer of mud, and the intense heat causes the first stage of combustion.  The second stage is thwarted, because the layer of molten rock prevents oxygen from getting to the wood.  What you’re left with is a material that burns hotter than wood, because it no longer has the first stage to absorb much of its heat.  In essence, while wood stores the energy of sunlight, coal stores the energy of that sunlight plus the energy of a volcano.

One notable point to consider is that carbonized wood, known as coal, is an activated carbon.  This means that it has a tendency to bind to toxic metals that would normally poison us.  Now, if coal could have been formed by simple decomposition over millions of years, then this would not be an issue.  However, the toxic metal known as mercury is normally derived by heating certain rocks until they produce mercury vapor, which must then be condensed into its liquid phase to be properly contained.  Lava, then, is nature’s way of extracting mercury from rock.  In this case, the active carbon layer is sandwiched under a heated rock that often contains mercury.  The result is that the coal absorbs this mercury, as well as some other toxic substances, which then give rise to environmentalist concerns about the burning of coal.  But that’s a different matter.

The process of incomplete combustion has been well known for years.  It was often used to make a highly flammable cloth, known as char, from cotton fabric.  People used this char as an easy way to cause a spark to generate a flame, which could then be used to start a fire for various useful purposes.  The only catch was that they had to use a fire to make the char if they needed the char to make a fire.  It’s easy to do, really.  If you wish to carbonize a paleontology textbook, all you really need is a steel container big enough to hold it.  The container should be able to close snugly enough to snuff a flame.  Make a hole in the top about the size of a pinprick, to allow the steam to escape.  Then toss the whole thing into a campfire and sing worship songs while you roast marshmallows.  Keep an eye on the container to make sure no flame forms over the pinhole.  Once the first combustion stage nears completion, the material emits flammable vapors that ignite just outside of the hole, causing a flame to appear.  Snuff the flame, if you can.  If the flame reappears immediately, then your textbook is nearly fully carbonized.  Be careful not to burn yourself when you remove it from the fire.  After it cools completely, you can open the container and remove its charred contents.  Upon first sight, it will look like a burned book.  Intuitively, a thing already burned is not flammable, but this is not the case.  The carbonized textbook is even more flammable than it was originally.

Now, the discovery at Mt. St. Helens was rightly perceived as a threat to paleontology.  This fact was published and publicly recognized, but somehow, between then and now, this notion was quietly swept under the rug.  It would be the same as if Edison had invented the light bulb, held a convention to celebrate it and then tossed it into storage to be forgotten.  Textbooks and notable web sites still tout the old theory as though it were undisputed.  This is not a mistake.  This is a blatant lie.  All of evolutionary history hinges on the age of the rocks in which the fossils are found, and not only is the age of coal no longer in the millions of years, but even the layers of rocks upon it are also called into question.  This means that all of the fossils found in and around these layers are also to be dated at an earlier, later or else unknown, date.

When I say that masters of knowledge, in this case scientists, are not to be trusted, I mean exactly that.  No evidence is damning enough to overturn a popular myth on its own.  No scientist can blow this apart.  He can nail his ninety-nine theses on the door of the scientific establishment, but if he is heard by none other than the establishment that he seeks to overthrow, then no reformation will take place.  In our age, our best hope is the pitting of one thought master against another, such as when a news agency investigates the turpitude of a scientific agency.  Then…maybe…the people will listen.  Unfortunately, the thought masters often work in concert.

For now, our texts will continue to tell fables, but at least we’ll have more kindling for our campfires.