Coal (from the Old English term col, which has meant “mineral of fossilized carbon” since the 13th century) is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams. The harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rock because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure. Coal is composed primarily of carbon along with variable quantities of other elements, chiefly hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen.
Throughout history, coal has been a useful resource. It is primarily burned for the production of electricity and/or heat, and is also used for industrial purposes, such as refining metals. A fossil fuel, coal forms when dead plant matter is converted into peat, which in turn is converted into lignite, then sub-bituminous coal, after that bituminous coal, and lastly anthracite. This involves biological and geological processes that take place over a long period.
Coal is the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide, as well as one of the largest worldwide anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide releases. In 1999 world gross carbon dioxide emissions from coal usage were 8,666 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Coal-fired electric power generation emits around 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour generated, which is almost double the approximately 1100 pounds of carbon dioxide released by a natural gas-fired electric plant per megawatt-hour generated. Because of this higher carbon efficiency of natural gas generation, as the fuel mix in the United States has changed to reduce coal and increase natural gas generation, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen. Those measured in the first quarter of 2012 were the lowest of any recorded for the first quarter of any year since 1992.
Coal is extracted from the ground by coal mining, either underground by shaft mining, or at ground level by open pit mining extraction. Since 1983 the world top coal producer has been China, in 2011 China produced 3,520 millions of tonnes of coal – 49.5% of 7,695 millionstonnes world coal production. In 2011 other large producers were United States (993 millionstonnes), India (589), European Union (576) and Australia (416). In 2010 largest exporters were Australia with 328 million tonnes (27.1% of world coal export) and Indonesia with 316 millionstonnes (26.1%), while largest importers were Japan with 207 million tonnes (17.5% of world coal import), China with 195 million tonnes (16.6%) and South Korea with 126 million tonnes (10.7%).
As geological processes apply pressure to dead biotic material over time, under suitable conditions it is transformed successively into:
1. Peat, considered to be a precursor of coal, has industrial importance as a fuel in some regions, for example, Ireland and Finland. In its dehydrated form, peat is a highly effective absorbent for fuel and oil spills on land and water. It is also used as a conditioner for soil to make it more able to retain and slowly release water.
Lignite, or brown coal, is the lowest rank of coal and used almost exclusively as fuel for electric power generation. Jet, a compact form of lignite, is sometimes polished and has been used as an ornamental stone since the Upper Palaeolithic.
Sub-bituminous coal, whose properties range from those of lignite to those of bituminous coal, is used primarily as fuel for steam-electric power generation and is an important source of light aromatic hydrocarbons for the chemical synthesis industry.
Bituminous coal is a dense sedimentary rock, usually black, but sometimes dark brown, often with well-defined bands of bright and dull material; it is used primarily as fuel in steam-electric power generation, with substantial quantities used for heat and power applications in manufacturing and to make coke.
”Steam coal” is a grade between bituminous coal and anthracite, once widely used as a fuel for steam locomotives. In this specialized use, it is sometimes known as “sea-coal” in the US. Small steam coal (dry small steam nuts or DSSN) was used as a fuel for domestic water heating.
Anthracite, the highest rank of coal, is a harder, glossy black coal used primarily for residential and commercial space heating. It may be divided further into metamorphically altered bituminous coal and “petrified oil”, as from the deposits in Pennsylvania.
Graphite, technically the highest rank, is difficult to ignite and is not commonly used as fuel — it is mostly used in pencils and, when powdered, as a lubricant
Coal is primarily used as a solid fuel to produce electricity and heat through combustion. World coal consumption was about 7.25 billion tonnes in 2010 (7.99 billion short tons) and is expected to increase 48% to 9.05 billion tonnes (9.98 billion short tons) by 2030. China produced 3.47 billion tonnes (3.83 billion short tons) in 2011. India produced about 578 million tonnes (637.1 million short tons) in 2011. 68.7% of China’s electricity comes from coal. The USA consumed about 13% of the world total in 2010, i.e. 951 million tonnes (1.05 billion short tons), using 93% of it for generation of electricity. 46% of total power generated in the USA was done using coal.