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Sedimentary rock
Coal bituminous.jpg
Primary carbon
Lignite (brown coal) Mineral Lignito GDFL028.jpg
Lignite (brown coal)
Anthracite (hard coal) Coal anthracite.jpg
Anthracite (hard coal)

Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock, formed as rock strata called coal seams. Coal is mostly carbon with variable amounts of other elements; chiefly hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen. [1] Coal is formed if dead plant matter decays into peat and over millions of years the heat and pressure of deep burial converts the peat into coal. [2] Vast deposits of coal originates in former wetlands—called coal forests—that covered much of the Earth's tropical land areas during the late Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) and Permian times. [3] [4]

Sedimentary rock Rock formed by the deposition and subsequent cementation of material

Sedimentary rocks are types of rock that are formed by the accumulation or deposition of small particles and subsequent cementation of mineral or organic particles on the floor of oceans or other bodies of water at the Earth's surface. Sedimentation is the collective name for processes that cause these particles to settle in place. The particles that form a sedimentary rock are called sediment, and may be composed of geological detritus (minerals) or biological detritus. Before being deposited, the geological detritus was formed by weathering and erosion from the source area, and then transported to the place of deposition by water, wind, ice, mass movement or glaciers, which are called agents of denudation. Biological detritus was formed by bodies and parts of dead aquatic organisms, as well as their fecal mass, suspended in water and slowly piling up on the floor of water bodies. Sedimentation may also occur as dissolved minerals precipitate from water solution.

Stratum Layer of sedimentary rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics

In geology and related fields, a stratum is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil, or igneous rock that were formed at the Earth's surface, with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers. The "stratum" is the fundamental unit in a stratigraphic column and forms the basis of the study of stratigraphy.

Carbon Chemical element with atomic number 6

Carbon is a chemical element with the symbol C and atomic number 6. It is nonmetallic and tetravalent—making four electrons available to form covalent chemical bonds. It belongs to group 14 of the periodic table. Three isotopes occur naturally, 12C and 13C being stable, while 14C is a radionuclide, decaying with a half-life of about 5,730 years. Carbon is one of the few elements known since antiquity.


As a fossil fuel burned for heat, coal supplies about a quarter of the world's primary energy and two-fifths of its electricity. [5] Some iron and steel making and other industrial processes burn coal.

Fossil fuel fuel formed by natural processes such as anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms

A fossil fuel is a fuel formed by natural processes, such as anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms, containing energy originating in ancient photosynthesis. Such organisms and their resulting fossil fuels typically have an age of millions of years, and sometimes more than 650 million years. Fossil fuels contain high percentages of carbon and include petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Commonly used derivatives of fossil fuels include kerosene and propane. Fossil fuels range from volatile materials with low carbon-to-hydrogen ratios, to liquids, to nonvolatile materials composed of almost pure carbon, like anthracite coal. Methane can be found in hydrocarbon fields either alone, associated with oil, or in the form of methane clathrates.

Primary energy (PE) is an energy form found in nature that has not been subjected to any human engineered conversion process. It is energy contained in raw fuels, and other forms of energy received as input to a system. Primary energy can be non-renewable or renewable.

Electricity generation Process of generating electrical power

Electricity generation is the process of generating electric power from sources of primary energy. For electric utilities in the electric power industry, it is the first stage in the delivery of electricity to end users, the other stages being transmission, distribution, energy storage and recovery, using the pumped-storage method.

The extraction and use of coal causes many premature deaths and much illness. [6] Coal industry damages the environment, including by climate change as it is the largest anthropogenic source of carbon dioxide, 14 Gt in 2016, [7] which is 40% of the total fossil fuel emissions. [8] As part of the worldwide energy transition many countries have stopped using or use less coal, and the UN Secretary General has asked governments to stop building new coal plants by 2020. [9]

Environmental impact of the coal industry

The environmental impact of the coal industry includes issues such as land use, waste management, water and air pollution, caused by the coal mining, processing and the use of its products. In addition to atmospheric pollution, coal burning produces hundreds of millions of tons of solid waste products annually, including fly ash, bottom ash, and flue-gas desulfurization sludge, that contain mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic, and other heavy metals. Coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Climate change Change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns for an extended period

Climate change occurs when changes in Earth's climate system result in new weather patterns that remain in place for an extended period of time. This length of time can be as short as a few decades to as long as millions of years. The climate system comprises five interacting parts, the atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (water), cryosphere, biosphere, and lithosphere. The climate system receives nearly all of its energy from the sun, with a relatively tiny amount from earth's interior. The climate system also gives off energy to outer space. The balance of incoming and outgoing energy, and the passage of the energy through the climate system, determines Earth's energy budget. When the incoming energy is greater than the outgoing energy, earth's energy budget is positive and the climate system is warming. If more energy goes out, the energy budget is negative and earth experiences cooling.

Carbon dioxide chemical compound

Carbon dioxide is a colorless gas with a density about 60% higher than that of dry air. Carbon dioxide consists of a carbon atom covalently double bonded to two oxygen atoms. It occurs naturally in Earth's atmosphere as a trace gas. The current concentration is about 0.04% (410 ppm) by volume, having risen from pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm. Natural sources include volcanoes, hot springs and geysers, and it is freed from carbonate rocks by dissolution in water and acids. Because carbon dioxide is soluble in water, it occurs naturally in groundwater, rivers and lakes, ice caps, glaciers and seawater. It is present in deposits of petroleum and natural gas. Carbon dioxide is odorless at normally encountered concentrations. However, at high concentrations, it has a sharp and acidic odor.

The largest consumer and importer of coal is China. China mines almost half the world's coal, followed by India with about a tenth. Australia accounts for about a third of world coal exports followed by Indonesia and Russia. [10]

Coal in China National coal consumption

China is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world and is the largest user of coal-derived electricity. The share of coal in the energy mix declined during the 2010s, falling from 80% in 2010 to 60% in 2017. Domestic coal production also decreased with a year on year decline of 9% in 2016. However, imports of coal increased to compensate for the cuts to domestic coal production. Overall electricity consumption continued to rise in the 2010s, and new coal fired power plants were constructed to help meet demand.

Coal mining in India began in 1774 when John Sumner and Suetonius Grant Heatly of the East India Company commenced commercial exploitation in the Raniganj Coalfield along the Western bank of Damodar river. Growth remained slow for nearly a century due to low demand. The introduction of steam locomotives in 1853 boosted demand, and coal production rose to an annual average of 1 million metric tons. India produced 6.12 million metric tons of coal per year by 1900 and 18 million metric tons per year by 1920. Coal production rose steadily over the next few decades, and was boosted by demand caused by World War I. Production slumped in the interwar period, but rose to 30 million metric tons by 1946 largely as a result of World War II.

Coal in Australia Coal in Australia is mined primarily in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria

Coal is mined in every state of Australia. Mining occurs mainly in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. About 75% of coal mined in Australia is exported, mostly to eastern Asia, and of the balance most is used in electricity generation. Coal production in Australia increased 13.6% between 2005 and 2010 and 5.3% between 2009 and 2010. In 2016, Australia was the biggest net exporter of coal, with 32% of global exports, and was the fourth-highest producer with 6.9% of global production. 77% of production was exported.


The word originally took the form col in Old English, from Proto-Germanic *kula(n), which in turn is hypothesized to come from the Proto-Indo-European root *g(e)u-lo- "live coal". [11] Germanic cognates include the Old Frisian kole, Middle Dutch cole, Dutch kool, Old High German chol, German Kohle and Old Norse kol, and the Irish word gual is also a cognate via the Indo-European root. [11]

Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is the earliest historical form of the English language, spoken in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages. It was brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers probably in the mid-5th century, and the first Old English literary works date from the mid-7th century. After the Norman conquest of 1066, English was replaced, for a time, as the language of the upper classes by Anglo-Norman, a relative of French. This is regarded as marking the end of the Old English era, as during this period the English language was heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman, developing into a phase known now as Middle English.

Germanic languages Sub-branch Indo-European language

The Germanic languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family spoken natively by a population of about 515 million people mainly in Europe, North America, Oceania and Southern Africa.

Old Frisian is a West Germanic language spoken between the 8th and 16th centuries in the area between the Rhine and Weser on the European North Sea coast. The Frisian settlers on the coast of South Jutland also spoke Old Frisian but no medieval texts of this area are known. The language of the earlier inhabitants of the region between the Zuiderzee and Ems River is attested in only a few personal names and place-names. Old Frisian evolved into Middle Frisian, spoken from the 16th to the 19th century.


Coal is composed of macerals, minerals and water. [12] Fossils and amber may be found in coal.

Amber Fossilized tree resin

Amber is fossilized tree resin, which has been appreciated for its color and natural beauty since Neolithic times. Much valued from antiquity to the present as a gemstone, amber is made into a variety of decorative objects. Amber is used in jewelry. It has also been used as a healing agent in folk medicine.


Example chemical structure of coal Struktura chemiczna wegla kamiennego.svg
Example chemical structure of coal

At various times in the geologic past, the Earth had dense forests [13] in low-lying wetland areas. Due to natural processes such as flooding, these forests were buried underneath soil. As more and more soil deposited over them, they were compressed. The temperature also rose as they sank deeper and deeper. As the process continued the plant matter was protected from biodegradation and oxidation, usually by mud or acidic water. This trapped the carbon in immense peat bogs that were eventually covered and deeply buried by sediments. Under high pressure and high temperature, dead vegetation was slowly converted to coal. The conversion of dead vegetation into coal is called coalification. Coalification starts with dead plant matter decaying into peat. Then over millions of years the heat and pressure of deep burial causes the loss of water, methane and carbon dioxide and an increase in the proportion of carbon. [12] Thus first lignite (also called "brown coal"), then sub-bituminous coal, bituminous coal, and lastly anthracite (also called "hard coal" or "black coal") may be formed. [2] [14]

The wide, shallow seas of the Carboniferous Period provided ideal conditions for coal formation, although coal is known from most geological periods. The exception is the coal gap in the Permian–Triassic extinction event, where coal is rare. Coal is known from Precambrian strata, which predate land plants—this coal is presumed to have originated from residues of algae. [15] [16]

Sometimes coal seams (also known as coal beds) are interbedded with other sediments in a cyclothem.


Coastal exposure of the Point Aconi Seam in Nova Scotia Sydney Mines Point Aconi Seam 038.JPG
Coastal exposure of the Point Aconi Seam in Nova Scotia
Coal ranking system used by the United States Geological Survey Coal Rank USGS.png
Coal ranking system used by the United States Geological Survey

As geological processes apply pressure to dead biotic material over time, under suitable conditions, its metamorphic grade or rank increases successively into:

Cannel coal (sometimes called "candle coal") is a variety of fine-grained, high-rank coal with significant hydrogen content, which consists primarily of liptinite.

There are several international standards for coal. [18] The classification of coal is generally based on the content of volatiles. However the most important distinction is between thermal coal (also known as steam coal), which is burnt to generate electricity via steam; and metallurgical coal (also known as coking coal), which is burnt at high temperature to make steel.

Hilt's law

Hilt's law is a geological observation that (within a small area) the deeper the coal is found, the higher its rank (or grade). It applies if the thermal gradient is entirely vertical; however, metamorphism may cause lateral changes of rank, irrespective of depth.


Chinese coal miners in an illustration of the Tiangong Kaiwu encyclopedia, published in 1637 Tiangong Kaiwu Coal Mining.gif
Chinese coal miners in an illustration of the Tiangong Kaiwu encyclopedia, published in 1637

The earliest recognized use is from the Shenyang area of China where by 4000 BC Neolithic inhabitants had begun carving ornaments from black lignite. [19] Coal from the Fushun mine in northeastern China was used to smelt copper as early as 1000 BC. [20] Marco Polo, the Italian who traveled to China in the 13th century, described coal as "black stones ... which burn like logs", and said coal was so plentiful, people could take three hot baths a week. [21] In Europe, the earliest reference to the use of coal as fuel is from the geological treatise On stones (Lap. 16) by the Greek scientist Theophrastus (c. 371–287 BC): [22] [23]

Among the materials that are dug because they are useful, those known as anthrakes [coals] are made of earth, and, once set on fire, they burn like charcoal. They are found in Liguria ... and in Elis as one approaches Olympia by the mountain road; and they are used by those who work in metals.

Theophrastus, On Stones (16) translation

Outcrop coal was used in Britain during the Bronze Age (3000–2000 BC), where it formed part of funeral pyres. [24] [25] In Roman Britain, with the exception of two modern fields, "the Romans were exploiting coals in all the major coalfields in England and Wales by the end of the second century AD". [26] Evidence of trade in coal, dated to about AD 200, has been found at the Roman settlement at Heronbridge, near Chester; and in the Fenlands of East Anglia, where coal from the Midlands was transported via the Car Dyke for use in drying grain. [27] Coal cinders have been found in the hearths of villas and Roman forts, particularly in Northumberland, dated to around AD 400. In the west of England, contemporary writers described the wonder of a permanent brazier of coal on the altar of Minerva at Aquae Sulis (modern day Bath), although in fact easily accessible surface coal from what became the Somerset coalfield was in common use in quite lowly dwellings locally. [28] Evidence of coal's use for iron-working in the city during the Roman period has been found. [29] In Eschweiler, Rhineland, deposits of bituminous coal were used by the Romans for the smelting of iron ore. [26]

Coal miner in Britain, 1942 Men of the Mine- Life at the Coal Face, Britain, 1942 D8263.jpg
Coal miner in Britain, 1942

No evidence exists of the product being of great importance in Britain before about AD 1000, the High Middle Ages. [30] Mineral [ clarification needed ] coal came to be referred to as "seacoal" in the 13th century; the wharf where the material arrived in London was known as Seacoal Lane, so identified in a charter of King Henry III granted in 1253. [31] Initially, the name was given because much coal was found on the shore, having fallen from the exposed coal seams on cliffs above or washed out of underwater coal outcrops, [30] but by the time of Henry VIII, it was understood to derive from the way it was carried to London by sea. [32] In 1257–1259, coal from Newcastle upon Tyne was shipped to London for the smiths and lime-burners building Westminster Abbey. [30] Seacoal Lane and Newcastle Lane, where coal was unloaded at wharves along the River Fleet, still exist. [33]

These easily accessible sources had largely become exhausted (or could not meet the growing demand) by the 13th century, when underground extraction by shaft mining or adits was developed. [24] The alternative name was "pitcoal", because it came from mines. The development of the Industrial Revolution led to the large-scale use of coal, as the steam engine took over from the water wheel. In 1700, five-sixths of the world's coal was mined in Britain. Britain would have run out of suitable sites for watermills by the 1830s if coal had not been available as a source of energy. [34] In 1947 there were some 750,000 miners in Britain [35] but the last deep coal mine in the UK closed in 2015. [36]

A grade between bituminous coal and anthracite was once known as "steam coal" as it was widely used as a fuel for steam locomotives. In this specialized use, it is sometimes known as "sea coal" in the United States. [37] Small "steam coal", also called dry small steam nuts (or DSSN), was used as a fuel for domestic water heating.

Sea coal continues to accumulate on beaches around the world from both natural erosion of exposed coal seams and windswept spills from cargo ships. Many homes in such areas gather sea coal as a significant, and sometimes primary, source of home heating fuel. [38] Scavenging sea coal for heating is still commonplace on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the U.S. [39]

Emission intensity

Emission intensity is the greenhouse gas emitted over the life of a generator per unit of electricity generated. Of the currently widely used methods of generating electricity the emission intensity of coal and oil is high, as they emit around 1000g of CO2eq for each kWh generated; natural gas and pumped hydro are medium emission intensity at around 500g CO2eq per kWh; and all other methods are typically low emission intensity of under 100g per kWh. The emission intensity of coal varies with type and generator technology and exceeds 1200g per kWh in some countries. [40]

Energy density

The energy density of coal, that is its heating value, is roughly 24 megajoules per kilogram [41] (approximately 6.7 kilowatt-hours per kg). For a coal power plant with a 40% efficiency, it takes an estimated 325 kg (717 lb) of coal to power a 100 W lightbulb for one year. [42]

27.6% of world energy was supplied by coal in 2017 and Asia used almost three quarters of it. [43]



Average content elements other than carbon
Mercury (Hg)0.10±0.01  ppm [44]
Arsenic (As)1.4–71 ppm [45]
Selenium (Se)3 ppm [46]

Coking coal and use of coke to smelt iron

Coke oven at a smokeless fuel plant in Wales, United Kingdom Coke Ovens Abercwmboi.jpg
Coke oven at a smokeless fuel plant in Wales, United Kingdom

Coke is a solid carbonaceous residue derived from coking coal (a low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal, also known as metallurgical coal), which is used in manufacturing steel and other iron products. [47] Coke is made from coking coal by baking in an oven without oxygen at temperatures as high as 1,000 °C, driving off the volatile constituents and fusing together the fixed carbon and residual ash. Metallurgical coke is used as a fuel and as a reducing agent in smelting iron ore in a blast furnace. [48] The carbon monoxide produced by its combustion reduces hematite (an iron oxide) to iron.

Waste carbon dioxide is also produced () together with pig iron, which is too rich in dissolved carbon so must be treated further to make steel.

Coking coal should be low in ash, sulfur, and phosphorus, so that these do not migrate to the metal. [47] The coke must be strong enough to resist the weight of overburden in the blast furnace, which is why coking coal is so important in making steel using the conventional route. Coke from coal is grey, hard, and porous and has a heating value of 29.6 MJ/kg. Some cokemaking processes produce byproducts, including coal tar, ammonia, light oils, and coal gas.

Petroleum coke (petcoke) is the solid residue obtained in oil refining, which resembles coke but contains too many impurities to be useful in metallurgical applications.

Use in foundry components

Finely ground bituminous coal, known in this application as sea coal, is a constituent of foundry sand. While the molten metal is in the mould, the coal burns slowly, releasing reducing gases at pressure, and so preventing the metal from penetrating the pores of the sand. It is also contained in 'mould wash', a paste or liquid with the same function applied to the mould before casting. [49] Sea coal can be mixed with the clay lining (the "bod") used for the bottom of a cupola furnace. When heated, the coal decomposes and the bod becomes slightly friable, easing the process of breaking open holes for tapping the molten metal. [50]

Alternatives to coke

Scrap steel can be recycled in an electric arc furnace; and an alternative to making iron by smelting is direct reduced iron, where any carbonaceous fuel can be used to make sponge or pelletised iron. To lessen carbon dioxide emissions hydrogen can be used as the reducing agent [51] and biomass or waste as the source of carbon. [52]


Coal gasification, as part of an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) coal-fired power station, is used to produce syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO) and the hydrogen (H2) gas to fire gas turbines to produce electricity. Syngas can also be converted into transportation fuels, such as gasoline and diesel, through the Fischer-Tropsch process; alternatively, syngas can be converted into methanol, which can be blended into fuel directly or converted to gasoline via the methanol to gasoline process. [53] Gasification combined with Fischer-Tropsch technology is used by the Sasol chemical company of South Africa to make motor vehicle fuels from coal and natural gas.

During gasification, the coal is mixed with oxygen and steam while also being heated and pressurized. During the reaction, oxygen and water molecules oxidize the coal into carbon monoxide (CO), while also releasing hydrogen gas (H2). This used to be done in underground coal mines, and also to make town gas which was piped to customers to burn for illumination, heating, and cooking.

3C (as Coal) + O2 + H2O → H2 + 3CO

If the refiner wants to produce gasoline, the syngas is routed into a Fischer-Tropsch reaction. This is known as indirect coal liquefaction. If hydrogen is the desired end-product, however, the syngas is fed into the water gas shift reaction, where more hydrogen is liberated:

CO + H2O → CO2 + H2


Coal can be converted directly into synthetic fuels equivalent to gasoline or diesel by hydrogenation or carbonization. [54] Coal liquefaction emits more carbon dioxide than liquid fuel production from crude oil. Mixing in biomass and using CCS would emit slightly less than the oil process but at a high cost. [55] State owned China Energy Investment runs a coal liquefaction plant and plans to build 2 more. [56]

Coal liquefaction may also refer to the cargo hazard when shipping coal. [57]

Production of chemicals

Production of chemicals from coal Coal to chemicals routes diagram.jpg
Production of chemicals from coal

Chemicals have been produced from coal since the 1950s. Coal can be used as a feedstock in the production of a wide range of chemical fertilizers and other chemical products. The main route to these products is coal gasification to produce syngas. Primary chemicals that are produced directly from the syngas include methanol, hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which are the chemical building blocks from which a whole spectrum of derivative chemicals are manufactured, including olefins, acetic acid, formaldehyde, ammonia, urea and others. The versatility of syngas as a precursor to primary chemicals and high-value derivative products provides the option of using relatively inexpensive[ citation needed ] coal to produce a wide range of valuable commodities.

Because the slate of chemical products that can be made via coal gasification can in general also use feedstocks derived from natural gas and petroleum, the chemical industry tends to use whatever feedstocks are most cost-effective. Therefore, interest in using coal tends to increase for higher oil and natural gas prices and during periods of high global economic growth that may strain oil and gas production. Also, production of chemicals from coal is of much higher interest in countries like South Africa, China and India[ citation needed ] where there are abundant coal resources. The abundance of coal combined with lack of natural gas resources in China is a strong inducement for the coal to chemicals industry there. Similarly, Sasol has built and operated coal-to-chemicals facilities in South Africa.

Coal to chemical processes require substantial quantities of water. Much coal to chemical production is in China [58] [59] where coal dependent provinces such as Shanxi are struggling to control its pollution. [60]

Coal as fuel to generate electricity

Precombustion treatment

Refined coal is the product of a coal-upgrading technology that removes moisture and certain pollutants from lower-rank coals such as sub-bituminous and lignite (brown) coals. It is one form of several precombustion treatments and processes for coal that alter coal's characteristics before it is burned. Thermal efficiency improvements are achievable by improved pre-drying (especially relevant with high-moisture fuel such as lignite or biomass). [61] The goals of precombustion coal technologies are to increase efficiency and reduce emissions when the coal is burned. Precombustion technology can sometimes be used as a supplement to postcombustion technologies to control emissions from coal-fueled boilers.

Power plant combustion

Castle Gate Power Plant near Helper, Utah, US Grand Junction Trip 92007 098.JPG
Castle Gate Power Plant near Helper, Utah, US
Coal rail cars Ashtabulacoalcars e2.jpg
Coal rail cars
Bulldozer pushing coal in Ljubljana Power Station Komatsu bulldozer pushing coal in Power plant Ljubljana (winter 2017).jpg
Bulldozer pushing coal in Ljubljana Power Station

Coal burnt as a solid fuel in coal power stations to generate electricity is called thermal coal. Coal is also used to produce very high temperatures through combustion. Efforts around the world to reduce the use of coal have led some regions to switch to natural gas and electricity from lower carbon sources.

When coal is used for electricity generation, it is usually pulverized and then burned in a furnace with a boiler. [62] The furnace heat converts boiler water to steam, which is then used to spin turbines which turn generators and create electricity. [63] The thermodynamic efficiency of this process varies between about 25% and 50% depending on the pre-combustion treatment, turbine technology (e.g. supercritical steam generator) and the age of the plant. [64] [65] [66] [67]

A few integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plants have been built, which burn coal more efficiently. Instead of pulverizing the coal and burning it directly as fuel in the steam-generating boiler, the coal is gasified to create syngas, which is burned in a gas turbine to produce electricity (just like natural gas is burned in a turbine). Hot exhaust gases from the turbine are used to raise steam in a heat recovery steam generator which powers a supplemental steam turbine. The overall plant efficiency when used to provide combined heat and power can reach as much as 94%. [68] IGCC power plants emit less local pollution than conventional pulverized coal-fueled plants; however the technology for carbon capture and storage after gasification and before burning has so far proved to be too expensive to use with coal. [69] Other ways to use coal are as coal-water slurry fuel (CWS), which was developed in the Soviet Union, or in an MHD topping cycle. However these are not widely used due to lack of profit.

In 2017 38% of the world's electricity came from coal, the same percentage as 30 years previously. [70] In 2018 global installed capacity was 2TW (of which 1TW is in China) which was 30% of total electricity generation capacity. [71] The most dependent major country is South Africa, with over 80% of its electricity generated by coal. [72]

The total known deposits recoverable by current technologies, including highly polluting, low-energy content types of coal (i.e., lignite, bituminous), is sufficient for many years. On the other hand, much may have to be left in the ground to avoid climate change, [73] [74] so maximum use could be reached sometime in the 2020s.

Coal industry

Coal mining

About 8000 Mt of coal are produced annually, about 90% of which is hard coal and 10% lignite. As of 2018 just over half is from underground mines. [75] More accidents occur during underground mining than surface mining. Not all countries publish mining accident statistics so worldwide figures are uncertain, but it is thought that most deaths occur in coal mining accidents in China: in 2017 there were 375 coal mining related deaths in China. [76] Most coal mined is thermal coal (also called steam coal as it is used to make steam to generate electricity) but metallurgical coal (also called "metcoal" or "coking coal" as it is used to make coke to make iron) accounts for 10% to 15% of global coal use. [77]

Legality of coal mining

A court in Australia has cited climate change in ruling against a new coal mine. [78]

Coal as a traded commodity

China mines almost half the world's coal, followed by India with about a tenth. [79] Australia accounts for about a third of world coal exports, followed by Indonesia and Russia; while the largest importers are Japan and India.

The price of metcoal is volatile [80] and much higher than the price of thermal coal because metcoal must be lower in sulfur and requires more cleaning. [81] Coal futures contracts provide coal producers and the electric power industry an important tool for hedging and risk management.

In some countries new onshore wind or solar generation already costs less than coal power from existing plants. [82] [83] However, for China this is forecast for the early 2020s [84] and for south-east Asia not until the late 2020s. [85] In India building new plants is uneconomic and, despite being subsidized, existing plants are losing market share to renewables. [86]

Of the countries which produce coal China mines by far the most, almost half the world's coal, followed by less than 10% by India. China is also by far the largest consumer. Therefore, market trends depend on Chinese energy policy. [87] Although the effort to reduce pollution means that the global long term trend is to burn less coal, the short and medium term trends may differ, in part due to Chinese financing of new coal-fired power plants in other countries. [71]

Major coal producers

Countries with annual production higher than 300 million tonnes are shown.

Production of coal by country and year (million tonnes) [88] [79] [89] [10]
United States9741,0279848137029%
World Total4,7266,0357,2557,8627,727100%

Major coal consumers

Countries with annual consumption higher than 500 million tonnes are shown. Shares are based on data expressed in tonnes oil equivalent.

Consumption of coal by country and year (million tonnes) [90] [91]
China2,6912,8923,3523,6774,5384,6784,5393,970 coal + 441 met coke = 4,4113,784 coal + 430 met coke = 4,21451%
India582640655715841837880890 coal + 33 met coke = 923877 coal + 37 met coke = 91411%
United States1,017904951910889924918724 coal + 12 met coke = 736663 coal + 10 met coke = 6739%
World Total7,6367,6998,1378,6408,9019,0138,9077,893 coal + 668 met coke = 85617,606 coal + 655 met coke = 8261100%

Major coal exporters

Exports of Coal by Country and year (million tonnes) [92]
United States54

Exporters are at risk of a reduction in import demand from India and China. [93]

Major coal importers

Imports of coal by country and year (million tonnes) [94]
South Korea128

Damage to human health

The use of coal as fuel causes ill health and deaths. [95]

The deadly London smog was caused primarily by the heavy use of coal. Globally coal is estimated to cause 800,000 premature deaths every year, [96] mostly in India [97] and China. [98] [99] [100]

Coal smokestack emissions cause asthma, strokes, reduced intelligence, artery blockages, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmias, mercury poisoning, arterial occlusion, and lung cancer. [101] [102]

Annual health costs in Europe from use of coal to generate electricity are estimated at up to €43 billion. [103]

In China, improvements to air quality and human health would increase with more stringent climate policies, mainly because the country's energy is so heavily reliant on coal. And there would be a net economic benefit. [104]

A 2017 study in the Economic Journal found that for Britain during the period 1851–1860, "a one standard deviation increase in coal use raised infant mortality by 6–8% and that industrial coal use explains roughly one-third of the urban mortality penalty observed during this period." [105]

Breathing in coal dust causes coalworker's pneumoconiosis which is known colloquially as "black lung", so-called because the coal dust literally turns the lungs black from their usual pink color. [106] In the United States alone, it is estimated that 1,500 former employees of the coal industry die every year from the effects of breathing in coal mine dust. [107]

Huge amounts of coal ash and other waste is produced annually. Use of coal generates hundreds of millions of tons of ash and other waste products every year. These include fly ash, bottom ash, and flue-gas desulfurization sludge, that contain mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic, and other heavy metals, along with non-metals such as selenium. [108]

Around 10% of coal is ash: [109] coal ash is hazardous and toxic to human beings and some other living things. [110] Coal ash contains the radioactive elements uranium and thorium. Coal ash and other solid combustion byproducts are stored locally and escape in various ways that expose those living near coal plants to radiation and environmental toxics. [111]

Damage to the environment

Aerial photograph of the site of the Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill taken the day after the event Aerial view of ash slide site Dec 23 2008 123002.jpg
Aerial photograph of the site of the Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill taken the day after the event

Coal mining and coal fueling of power stations and industrial processes can cause major environmental damage. [112]

Water systems are affected by coal mining. [113] For example, mining affects groundwater and water table levels and acidity. Spills of fly ash, such as the Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill, can also contaminate land and waterways, and destroy homes. Power stations that burn coal also consume large quantities of water. This can affect the flows of rivers, and has consequential impacts on other land uses. In areas of water scarcity, such as the Thar Desert in Pakistan, coal mining and coal power plants would use significant quantities of water. [114]

One of the earliest known impacts of coal on the water cycle was acid rain. Approximately 75 Tg/S per year of sulfur dioxide (SO2) is released from burning coal. After release, the sulfur dioxide is oxidized to gaseous H2SO2 which scatters solar radiation, hence its increase in the atmosphere exerts a cooling effect on climate. This beneficially masks some of the warming caused by increased greenhouse gases. However, the sulfur is precipitated out of the atmosphere as acid rain in a matter of weeks, [115] whereas carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Release of SO2 also contributes to the widespread acidification of ecosystems. [116]

Disused coal mines can also cause issues. Subsidence can occur above tunnels, causing damage to infrastructure or cropland. Coal mining can also cause long lasting fires, and it has been estimated that thousands of coal seam fires are burning at any given time. [117] For example, Brennender Berg has been burning since 1668 and is still burning in the 21st century. [118]

The production of coke from coal produces ammonia, coal tar, and gaseous compounds as by-products which if discharged to land, air or waterways can pollute the environment. [119] The Whyalla steelworks is one example of a coke producing facility where liquid ammonia is discharged to the marine environment.

Underground fires

Thousands of coal fires are burning around the world. [120] Those burning underground can be difficult to locate and many cannot be extinguished. Fires can cause the ground above to subside, their combustion gases are dangerous to life, and breaking out to the surface can initiate surface wildfires. Coal seams can be set on fire by spontaneous combustion or contact with a mine fire or surface fire. Lightning strikes are an important source of ignition. The coal continues to burn slowly back into the seam until oxygen (air) can no longer reach the flame front. A grass fire in a coal area can set dozens of coal seams on fire. [121] [122] Coal fires in China burn an estimated 120 million tons of coal a year, emitting 360 million metric tons of CO2, amounting to 2–3% of the annual worldwide production of CO2 from fossil fuels. [123] [124] In Centralia, Pennsylvania (a borough located in the Coal Region of the United States), an exposed vein of anthracite ignited in 1962 due to a trash fire in the borough landfill, located in an abandoned anthracite strip mine pit. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, and it continues to burn underground to this day. The Australian Burning Mountain was originally believed to be a volcano, but the smoke and ash come from a coal fire that has been burning for some 6,000 years. [125]

At Kuh i Malik in Yagnob Valley, Tajikistan, coal deposits have been burning for thousands of years, creating vast underground labyrinths full of unique minerals, some of them very beautiful.

The reddish siltstone rock that caps many ridges and buttes in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and in western North Dakota is called porcelanite, which resembles the coal burning waste "clinker" or volcanic "scoria". [126] Clinker is rock that has been fused by the natural burning of coal. In the Powder River Basin approximately 27 to 54 billion tons of coal burned within the past three million years. [127] Wild coal fires in the area were reported by the Lewis and Clark Expedition as well as explorers and settlers in the area. [128]

Global warming

The largest and most long term effect of coal use is the release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that causes climate change and global warming. Coal-fired power plants were the single largest contributor to the growth in global CO2 emissions in 2018, [129] 40% of the total fossil fuel emissions. [8] Coal mining can emit methane, another greenhouse gas. [130]

In 2016 world gross carbon dioxide emissions from coal usage were 14.5 giga tonnes. [131] For every megawatt-hour generated, coal-fired electric power generation emits around a tonne of carbon dioxide, which is double the approximately 500 kg of carbon dioxide released by a natural gas-fired electric plant. [132] In 2013, the head of the UN climate agency advised that most of the world's coal reserves should be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic global warming. [133]

Coal pollution mitigation

"Clean" coal technology usually addresses atmospheric problems resulting from burning coal. Historically, the primary focus was on SO2 and NOx, the most important gases which caused acid rain; and particulates which cause visible air pollution, illness and premature deaths. SO2 can be removed by flue-gas desulfurization and NO2 by selective catalytic reduction (SCR). Particulates can be removed with electrostatic precipitators. Although perhaps less efficient wet scrubbers can remove both gases and particulates. And mercury emissions can be reduced up to 95%. [134] However capturing carbon dioxide emissions is generally not economically viable.


Local pollution standards include GB13223-2011 (China), India, [135] the Industrial Emissions Directive (EU) and the Clean Air Act (United States).

Satellite monitoring

Satellite monitoring is now used to crosscheck national data, for example Sentinel-5 Precursor has shown that Chinese control of SO2 has only been partially successful. [136] It has also revealed that low use of technology such as SCR has resulted in high NO2 emissions in South Africa and India. [137]

Combined cycle power plants

A few Integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) coal-fired power plants have been built with coal gasification. Although they burn coal more efficiently and therefore emit less pollution, the technology has not generally proved economically viable for coal, except possibly in Japan although this is controversial. [138] [139]

Carbon capture and storage

Although still being intensively researched and considered economically viable for some uses other than with coal; carbon capture and storage has been tested at the Petra Nova and Boundary Dam coal-fired power plants and has been found to be technically feasible but not economically viable for use with coal, due to reductions in the cost of solar PV technology. [140]


In 2018 USD 80 billion was invested in coal supply but almost all for sustaining production levels rather than opening new mines. [141] In the long term coal and oil could cost the world trillions of dollars per year. [142] [143] Coal alone may cost Australia billions, [144] whereas costs to some smaller companies or cities could be on the scale of millions of dollars. [145] The economies most damaged by coal (via climate change) may be India and the US as they are the countries with the highest social cost of carbon. [146] Bank loans to finance coal are a risk to the Indian economy. [97]

China is the largest producer of coal in the world. It is the world's largest energy consumer, and coal in China supplies 60% of its primary energy. However two fifths of China's coal power stations are estimated to be loss-making. [84]

Air pollution from coal storage and handling costs the USA almost 200 dollars for every extra ton stored, due to PM2.5. [147] Coal pollution costs the EU €43 billion each year. [148] Measures to cut air pollution benefit individuals financially and the economies of countries [149] [150] such as China. [151]


Broadly defined total subsidies for coal in 2015 have been estimated at around US$2.5 trillion, about 3% of global GDP. [152] As of 2019 G20 countries provide at least US$63.9 billion [129] of government support per year for the production of coal, including coal-fired power: many subsidies are impossible to quantify [153] but they include US$27.6 billion in domestic and international public finance, US$15.4 billion in fiscal support, and US$20.9 billion in state-owned enterprise (SOE) investments per year. [129] In the EU state aid to new coal-fired plants is banned from 2020, and to existing coal-fired plants from 2025. [154] However government funding for new coal power plants is being supplied via Exim Bank of China, [155] the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and Indian public sector banks. [156] Coal in Kazakhstan was the main recipient of coal consumption subsidies totalling US$2 billion in 2017. [157] Coal in Turkey benefited from substantial subsidies.

Stranded assets

Some coal-fired power stations could become stranded assets, for example China Energy Investment, the world's largest power company, risks losing half its capital. [84] However state owned electricity utilities such as Eskom in South Africa, Perusahaan Listrik Negara in Indonesia, Sarawak Energy in Malaysia, Taipower in Taiwan, EGAT in Thailand, Vietnam Electricity and EÜAŞ in Turkey are building or planning new plants. [155]


Countries building or financing new coal-fired power stations, such as Japan, face mounting international criticism for obstructing the aims of the Paris Agreement. [71] And Australia is being criticised by the Pacific Islands. [158]


Allegations of corruption are being investigated in India [159] and China. [160]

Opposition to coal

Protesting damage to the Great Barrier Reef caused by climate change in Australia Coral not coal protest at India Finance Minister Arun Jaitley Visit to Australia (25563929593).jpg
Protesting damage to the Great Barrier Reef caused by climate change in Australia
Tree houses for protesting the felling of part of Hambach Forest for the Hambach surface mine in Germany: after which the felling was suspended in 2018 Gemeinsam stark,Hambacher Forst,NRW.jpg
Tree houses for protesting the felling of part of Hambach Forest for the Hambach surface mine in Germany: after which the felling was suspended in 2018

Opposition to coal pollution was one of the main reasons the modern environmental movement started in the 19th century.

Transition away from coal

In order to meet global climate goals and provide power to those that don't currently have it coal power must be reduced from nearly 10,000 TWh to less than 2,000 TWh by 2040. [161] Many countries, such as the Powering Past Coal Alliance, have already or are transitioned away from coal; [162] the largest transition announced so far being Germany, which is due to shut down its last coal-fired power station between 2035 and 2038. [163] Some countries use the ideas of a "just transition", for example to use some of the benefits of transition to provide early pensions for coal miners. [164] However low-lying Pacific Islands are concerned the transition is not fast enough and that they will be inundated by sea level rise; so they have called for OECD countries to completely phase out coal by 2030 and other countries by 2040. [158]

Peak coal

A coal mine in Wyoming, United States. The United States has the world's largest coal reserves. Coal mine Wyoming.jpg
A coal mine in Wyoming, United States. The United States has the world's largest coal reserves.

Although many countries have coal underground not all will be consumed.

Of the three fossil fuels, coal has the most widely distributed resources. Coal is mined on all continents except Antarctica. However many such resources have no economic value (much value has been destroyed by shale gas fracking). [165] The largest resources are found in the United States, Russia, China, Australia and India:

Proved reserves at end 2017 (billion tonnes) [89] [10]
CountryAnthracite & BituminousSubBituminous & LigniteTotalPercentage of World Total
United States 2213025124
Russia 709016016
Australia 687714514
China 131813913
India 935989
World Total7183171035100

Nowadays "peak coal" means the point in time when consumption of coal reaches a maximum. As of 2018 global peak coal consumption is predicted to occur by the early 2020s at the latest. [93]

Switch to cleaner fuels and lower carbon electricity generation

Coal-fired generation puts out about twice the amount of carbon dioxide—around a tonne for every megawatt hour generated—than electricity generated by burning natural gas at 500 kg of greenhouse gas per megawatt hour. [166] In addition to generating electricity, natural gas is also popular in some countries for heating and as an automotive fuel.

The use of coal in the United Kingdom declined as a result of the development of North Sea oil and the subsequent dash for gas during the 1990s. In Canada some coal power plants, such as the Hearn Generating Station, switched from coal to natural gas. In 2017, coal power in the United States provided 30% of the electricity, down from approximately 49% in 2008, [167] [168] [169] due to plentiful supplies of low cost natural gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing of tight shale formations. [168] [170]

Coal regions in transition

Some coal-mining regions are highly dependent on coal.


Some coal miners are concerned their jobs may be lost in the transition. [171]


The white rot fungus Trametes versicolor can grow on and metabolize naturally occurring coal. [172] The bacteria Diplococcus has been found to degrade coal, raising its temperature. [173]

Cultural usage

Coal is the official state mineral of Kentucky [174] and the official state rock of Utah; [175] both U.S. states have a historic link to coal mining.

Some cultures hold that children who misbehave will receive only a lump of coal from Santa Claus for Christmas in their christmas stockings instead of presents.

It is also customary and considered lucky in Scotland and the North of England to give coal as a gift on New Year's Day. This occurs as part of First-Footing and represents warmth for the year to come.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Energy development Methods of energy production from various sources

Energy development is the field of activities focused on obtaining sources of energy from natural resources. These activities include production of conventional, alternative and renewable sources of energy, and for the recovery and reuse of energy that would otherwise be wasted. Energy conservation and efficiency measures reduce the demand for energy development, and can have benefits to society with improvements to environmental issues.

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Fossil fuel power station Facility that burns fossil fuels to produce electricity

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Climate change mitigation Actions to limit the magnitude of climate change and its impact on human activities

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Coal pollution mitigation

Coal pollution mitigation, often called clean coal, is a series of systems and technologies that seek to mitigate the pollution and other environmental effects normally associated with the burning of coal, which is widely regarded as the dirtiest of the common fuels for industrial processes and power generation.

Carbon capture and storage Process of capturing and storing waste carbon dioxide

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into the atmosphere from heavy industry. It is a potential means of mitigating the contribution to global warming and ocean acidification of carbon dioxide emissions from industry and heating. Although CO
has been injected into geological formations for several decades for various purposes, including enhanced oil recovery, the long term storage of CO
is a relatively new concept. Direct air capture is a type of CCS which scrubs CO
from ambient air rather than a point source.

Clean coal technology is a collection of technologies being developed in attempts to lessen the negative environmental impact of coal energy generation and to mitigate worldwide climate change. When coal is used as a fuel source, the gaseous emissions generated by the thermal decomposition of the coal include sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), mercury, and other chemical byproducts that vary depending on the type of the coal being used. These emissions have been established to have a negative impact on the environment and human health, contributing to acid rain, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. As a result, clean coal technologies are being developed to remove or reduce pollutant emissions to the atmosphere. Some of the techniques that would be used to accomplish this include chemically washing minerals and impurities from the coal, gasification (see also IGCC), improved technology for treating flue gases to remove pollutants to increasingly stringent levels and at higher efficiency, carbon capture and storage technologies to capture the carbon dioxide from the flue gas and dewatering lower rank coals (brown coals) to improve the calorific value, and thus the efficiency of the conversion into electricity. Concerns exist regarding the economic viability of these technologies and the timeframe of delivery, potentially high hidden economic costs in terms of social and environmental damage, and the costs and viability of disposing of removed carbon and other toxic matter.

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Fossil fuel phase-out Stopping burning coal, oil and gas

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Coal power in the United States

Coal power in the United States accounted for 39% of the country's electricity production at utility-scale facilities in 2014, 33% in 2015, 30.4% in 2016, 30.0% in 2017, and 27.4% in 2018. Coal supplied 12.6 quadrillion BTUs of primary energy to electric power plants in 2017, which made up 91% of coal's contribution to US energy supply. Utilities buy more than 90% of the coal consumed in the United States.

Low-carbon power

Low-carbon power comes from processes or technologies that produce power with substantially lower amounts of carbon dioxide emissions than is emitted from conventional fossil fuel power generation. It includes low carbon power generation sources such as wind power, solar power, hydropower and nuclear power. The term largely excludes conventional fossil fuel plant sources, and is only used to describe a particular subset of operating fossil fuel power systems, specifically, those that are successfully coupled with a flue gas carbon capture and storage (CCS) system.

Environmental impact of the energy industry

The environmental impact of the energy industry is diverse. Energy has been harnessed by human beings for millennia. Initially it was with the use of fire for light, heat, cooking and for safety, and its use can be traced back at least 1.9 million years. In recent years there has been a trend towards the increased commercialization of various renewable energy sources.

Electricity sector in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has a National Grid that covers most of mainland Great Britain and several of the surrounding islands, as well as some connectivity to other countries. As of 2017 the electricity sector in the United Kingdom generation uses around 50% fossil fuelled power, roughly 20% nuclear power and 30% renewable power. Renewable power is showing strong growth, while fossil fuel generator use in general and coal use in particular is shrinking, with coal generators now mainly being run in winter due to pollution and costs.

Coal gasification is a process whereby a hydrocarbon feedstock (coal) is converted into gaseous components by applying heat under pressure in the presence of steam. Rather than burning, most of the carbon-containing feedstock is broken apart by chemical reactions that produce "syngas." Syngas is primarily hydrogen and carbon monoxide, but the exact composition can vary. In Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle (IGCC) systems, the syngas is cleaned and burned as fuel in a combustion turbine which then drives an electric generator. Exhaust heat from the combustion turbine is recovered and used to create steam for a steam turbine-generator. The use of these two types of turbines in combination is one reason why gasification-based power systems can achieve high power generation efficiencies. Currently, commercially available gasification-based systems can operate at around 40% efficiencies. Syngas, however, emits more greenhouse gases than natural gas, and almost twice as much carbon as a coal plant. Coal gasification is also water-intensive.


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