International Peatland Fire Network

          An Activity of the Global Wildland Fire Network         

Peat: A Cheap and Renewable Fuel

The peat bog shown here has been partially drained and is actually several feet deeper than it looks. A bed of this thickness can contain 1,000 tons of fuel per acre . . . equal to 500 tons of coal!

These peat chunks are drying in Francis’ basement . . . an essential step because of the newly gathered material’s very high water content. The ruler is included to show the size of the pieces.


If you’ve got a wood or coal-burning stove these daysyou’ve got a problem. Coal just ain’t what it used to be (cheap!) and good woodsometimes can be hard to come by . . . even though it does grow on trees. So howcan you keep the home fires burning? Go digging. For peat’s sake. 


Peat is so common in the United States andCanada that most people can’t see the resource for looking at it. There are anestimated eighty million acres of deposit; right here in the continental U.S.Most of this vast natural supply goes unused . . . although some people do throwa few bushels of the muck on their gardens for fertilizer and others use themore fibrous and mossy varieties as a dressing for flowerbeds. What most folksdon’t know, however, is that peat can be a clean-burning, efficient and low-costfuel! 


Last summer I often passed a swamp where aman was digging muck for sale as topsoil. I wondered if the wet material couldbe the “peat” I had heard was used for fuel in other parts of theworld . . . so I obtained a few hundred pounds and dried it. The idea worked!Once lit, the chunks glowed like charcoal and gave off gases that burned with aflickering blue flame! 

Peat is nothing more than partially decayedand compacted vegetable matter which—over a period of time—has accumulatedwhere soil is wet enough to retard oxidation. Its color and consistency can beblack and mucky or brown and fibrous or anything in between. Individual moors,bogs, swamps and shallow ponds each produce their own “copyrighted”variety of the material. In fact, varying types of peat are often found inlayers—each formed as a result of a change in climate or vegetation-within thesame marsh. You might even discover that the “turf” differs from onearea of a single bed to another . . . and the bed itself might be a few inchesto several feet deep. In its natural state, peat is around 95% water by weight (mostof which must be dried out before burning) and frequently contains some sand. 


The fuel value of peat has been utilized inEurope since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans . . . so long, as amatter of fact, that the substance has undoubtedly played an important role inthe development of western civilization. Large amounts were “coked”and used to power automobiles (run on carbon monoxide-producing generators)shortly after World War [I. Today’s rural Europeans still heat their homes withpeat, and in Eastern Europe the fuel is even used to fire thermal power plants.The Soviet Union alone consumes as much as sixty million tons a year! 


Most peat is used close to the bogs fromwhich it comes. Its energy potential per pound is no higher than wood and peathas only half the Btu value of coal. Production costs (on a large scale) aretherefore high when compared to the fossil fuels, and long-distancetransportation of the material is economically impractical. The resource iscompetitive, however, where other fuels are unavailable or just too blamedexpensive. Peat is most frequently used by farmers who have beds of the materialon their land and who can harvest the fuel merely for the labor of digging anddrying. 


Many more folks than do can burn peat today.Granted, there are probably some exceptionally dry areas where the material justcan’t be found . . . but not many. All it takes to extract the treasure is asharp eye, some time and a little effort. 


Harvesting peat is as ecologically sound ascutting wood for the firebox. Moderation is obviously the key . . . youshouldn’t dig up an entire peat bed any sooner than you should level a forestwith a chain saw. Just take what you need and use all you take. Remember: Thisfuel resource—like trees—is renewable. As long as a peat bed is keptsufficiently wet, vegetable matter will accumulate and new peat will continue toform. 


OK. Let’s assume you’ve tromped around fora while and all of a sudden—amuck—you’re up to your boots in peatCongratulations! You’ve found your fuel supply! 


If the bed is solid enough—or if you canmanage to drain it somewhat so the peat is more accessible-you can cut thematerial into blocks with a shovel. Then you just stack the chunks and lot themdry. Sometimes—when the slabs of turf are especially wet—they should be leftlying on the surface of the bed to partially dry before they’re stacked. 


There are any number of variations to thisharvesting procedure and, with a little experience, you’ll find thetechnique that works best for you. The whole idea is simply to remove the peatin some methodical manner and dry the material to a point where the chunks willignite. 


Peat burns pretty much the same as wood orcoal and the general principles are the same: Start with a hot blaze of kindlingand small pieces of wood, and place the dried fuel on top. The carbon monoxide,alcohols, acetone,, acetic acid, methane and what-have-you-contained in burningvegetable matter shouldn’t be wasted or allowed to drift off into the air (inconsideration for your neighbor’s lungs). If the fire is given,too much draft the temperature in thestove is lowered, the peat burns poorly and most of the heat goes up thechimney . . . along with everything else. If there’s not enough air, of course,the fire suffers from lack of oxygen and the energy value of your fuel is moreor less frittered away. A little practice makes perfect. The blocks I hadcontained 50% sand but burned anyway! 


Peat is by no means a total answer to theworld’s energy problems . . . but it could be a partial answer (at least!) toyour own how-to-heat-the-home needs. The fuel is clean, natural and ecologicallysound. There is a great amount of the material here in the area where I live (Leominster,Massachusetts) and I can get a good supply for nearly nothing. I’m going toexplore its use even further! 


Source:MotherEarth News Issue No. 31 – January/February 1975


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