FPL Fire Research Featured in America’s Test Kitchen

America’s Test Kitchen (ATK), a PBS cooking show also affiliated with two magazines, had questions they wanted answered. Is one type of charcoal—lump or briquette—better than the other for grilling? Which one burns hotter? Which one burns longer? To find the answers, ATK asked Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) fire science researchers to fire-up their lab and burn some charcoal.

Drs. Laura Hasburgh, (left) and Kara Yedinak, (right) both Materials Research Engineers, with the cone calorimeter where they ran their charcoal tests. Photo by A. Androff – USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory.
Cone Calorimeter located in the fire lab at Forest Products Laboratory used to obtain flammability parameters for various charcoal products. Photo by A. Androff – USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory.

Laura Hasburgh and Kara Yedinak, Materials Research Engineers at FPL, went to work in their fire lab using two primary pieces of equipment, a cone calorimeter and a bomb calorimeter. Each calorimeter was essential to run controlled tests on lump and briquette charcoal. Charcoal was burned in the cone calorimeter to evaluate flammability and in the bomb calorimeter to obtain the charcoal product’s total heat of combustion. 

Separately, ATK ran their own experiments on lump and briquette charcoal. Their results were brought together with FPL’s in one article outlining the individual burn characteristics—from ignition to ash—of both types of charcoal. They hoped to finally put to rest some of grilling’s most heated debates.

So how did this type of collaboration between ATK and FPL occur?

“We are fortunate at FPL because we can collaborate with a variety of partners, from private industry to universities. Working with ATK was a new collaboration but not unusual. In general, FPL’s fire test lab evaluates the fire performance of wood-based products, in this case charcoal. What was great about this study was going beyond product performance and gaining a deeper knowledge of smoldering combustion (which Dr. Yedinak and I are particularly interested in) and formulating new scientific questions—all because of this collaboration. This is exactly the kind of work we love doing!,” explained Dr. Hasburgh.

Although it may look like a 1980s fax machine, the bomb calorimeter is a lot more complex. It was used to obtain the gross heat of combustion for charcoal products. Photo by A. Androff – USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory.

Dr. Yedinak added, “A large part of our decision to take on ATK’s questions had to do with the additional potential value it could bring to our smoldering research questions. It really did set us up for new research questions that should help us more fully unpack the nuance of smoldering combustion.”

And what most avid grill-masters are probably dying to know—are briquettes better than lumps? Lump better than briquette?

Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Briquettes tend to burn hotter and longer and are generally less expensive than lump. Lump charcoal tends to produce a smaller amount of ash, making clean-up a little easier.

But maybe taste is a factor?

Dr. Yedinak explaining the bomb calorimeter and how it operates. Photo by A. Androff – USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory.

Nope. “I was really surprised in our conversations with the article’s author, Miye Bromberg, that the flavor of the food was not affected by which product was used,” said Dr. Hasburgh.

Got more burning questions about charcoal? To explore the full debate and science of briquette vs. lump charcoal, read the America’s Test Kitchen article at www.americastestkitchen.com/equipment_reviews/2539-all-about-charcoal


To find out more about the extraordinary contributions our researchers are making to the world of wood science, please visit the Forest Products Laboratory at https://www.fpl.fs.usda.gov/ 

Contact us about this story or any of our other incredible projects at https://www.fpl.fs.usda.gov/news/mediacontacts/index.php