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Coal Article

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Sedimentary rock
Coal anthracite.jpg
Primary carbon

Coal 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. [1] Coal is a fossil fuel that 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. The geological processes take place over millions of years. [2]

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; while the largest importer is Japan.

Throughout human history, coal has been used as an energy resource, primarily burned for the production of electricity and heat, and is also used for industrial purposes, such as refining metals. 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. The extraction and use of coal makes people ill and damages the environment, including by climate change. [3] Therefore, as part of the worldwide energy transition, many countries have stopped using or use less coal.


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". [4] 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. [4]


Example chemical structure of coal

At various times in the geologic past, the Earth had dense forests [5] 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. As coal contains mainly carbon, the conversion of dead vegetation into coal is called carbonization. [6]

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. [7] [8]


Coastal exposure of the Point Aconi Seam (Nova Scotia)
Coal ranking system used in the United States (US Geological Survey)

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

  • Peat, a precursor of coal
  • Lignite, or brown coal, the lowest rank of coal, used almost exclusively as fuel for electric power generation
    • Jet, a compact form of lignite, sometimes polished; used as an ornamental stone since the Upper Palaeolithic
  • Sub-bituminous coal, whose properties range between those of lignite and those of bituminous coal, is used primarily as fuel for steam-electric power generation and is also an important source of light aromatic hydrocarbons for the chemical synthesis industry.
  • Bituminous coal, 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 and to make coke.
  • 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 is one of the more difficult coals to ignite and not commonly used as fuel; it is most used in pencils, or powdered for lubrication.

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

There are several international standards for coal. [9] 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.


Average content of some other elements
Substance Content
Mercury (Hg) 0.10±0.01  ppm [10]
Arsenic (As) 1.4–71 ppm [11]
Selenium (Se) 3 ppm [12]

Early uses as fuel

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 4000 BC where Neolithic inhabitants had begun carving ornaments from black lignite. [13] Coal from the Fushun mine in northeastern China was used to smelt copper as early as 1000 BC. [14] 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. [15] 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): [16] [17]

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. [18] [19] 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". [20] 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. [21] 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. [22] Evidence of coal's use for iron-working in the city during the Roman period has been found. [23] In Eschweiler, Rhineland, deposits of bituminous coal were used by the Romans for the smelting of iron ore. [20]

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. [24] Mineral 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. [25] 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, [24] but by the time of Henry VIII, it was understood to derive from the way it was carried to London by sea. [26] In 1257–1259, coal from Newcastle upon Tyne was shipped to London for the smiths and lime-burners building Westminster Abbey. [24] Seacoal Lane and Newcastle Lane, where coal was unloaded at wharves along the River Fleet, are still in existence. [27] (See Industrial processes below for modern uses of the term.)

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. [18] 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. [28] In 1947, there were some 750,000 miners in Britain, [29] but by 2004, this had shrunk to some 5,000 miners working in around 20 collieries. [30]

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 US. [31] Small 'steam coal', also called dry small steam nuts (or DSSN) was used as a fuel for domestic water heating.

Uses today

Coal rail cars

Coal as fuel

Coal burnt as a solid fuel to produce 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.

When coal is used for electricity generation, it is usually pulverized and then burned in a furnace with a boiler. [32] The furnace heat converts boiler water to steam, which is then used to spin turbines which turn generators and create electricity. [33] The thermodynamic efficiency of this process has been improved over time; some older coal-fired power stations have thermal efficiencies in the vicinity of 25% [34] whereas the newest supercritical and "ultra-supercritical" steam cycle turbines, operating at temperatures over 600 °C and pressures over 27 MPa (over 3900 psi), can achieve thermal efficiencies in excess of 45% ( LHV basis) using anthracite fuel, [35] [36] or around 43% (LHV basis) even when using lower-grade lignite fuel. [37] Further thermal efficiency improvements are also achievable by improved pre-drying (especially relevant with high-moisture fuel such as lignite or biomass) and cooling technologies. [38]

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 (see coal gasification) 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. Thermal efficiencies of current IGCC power plants range from 39% to 42% [39] ( HHV basis) or ≈42–45% (LHV basis) for bituminous coal and assuming utilization of mainstream gasification technologies (Shell, GE Gasifier, CB&I). The overall plant efficiency when used to provide combined heat and power can reach as much as 94%. [40] 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. [41]

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.

In 2017 38% of the world's electricity came from coal, the same percentage as 30 years previously. [42] In 2018 global installed capacity was 2 TW (of which 1TW is in China) which was 30% of total electricity generation capacity. [43]

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, [44] [45] so maximum use could be reached sometime in the 2020s.

Switch to natural gas

Worldwide natural gas generated power has increased from 740 TW in 1973 to 5140 TW in 2014, generating 22% of the worlds total electricity, less than generated with coal. 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 500kg of greenhouse gas per megawatt hour. [46] 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 2016, coal power in the United States provided 30% of the electricity, down from approximately 49% in 2008, [47] [48] [49] due to plentiful supplies of low cost natural gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing of tight shale formations. [48] [50]

Coking coal and use of coke

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. [51] 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. [52] The result is 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. [51] 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. However, the alternative route is direct reduced iron, where any carbonaceous fuel can be used to make sponge or pelletised iron. 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.


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. The versatility of syngas also allowed it to 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. Alternatively, the hydrogen obtained from gasification can be used for various purposes, such as powering a hydrogen economy, making ammonia, or upgrading fossil fuels.

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 process has been conducted in both underground coal mines and in the production of 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 collected at this state and routed into a Fischer-Tropsch reaction. 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 also be converted into synthetic fuels equivalent to gasoline or diesel by several different direct processes (which do not intrinsically require gasification or indirect conversion). [54] In the direct liquefaction processes, the coal is either hydrogenated or carbonized. Hydrogenation processes are the Bergius process, [55] the SRC-I and SRC-II (Solvent Refined Coal) processes, the NUS Corporation hydrogenation process [56] [57] and several other single-stage and two-stage processes. [58] In the process of low-temperature carbonization, coal is coked at temperatures between 360 and 750 °C (680 and 1,380 °F). These temperatures optimize the production of coal tars richer in lighter hydrocarbons than normal coal tar. The coal tar is then further processed into fuels. An overview of coal liquefaction and its future potential is available. [59]

Coal liquefaction methods involve carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the conversion process. If coal liquefaction is done without employing either carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies or biomass blending, the result is lifecycle greenhouse gas footprints that are generally greater than those released in the extraction and refinement of liquid fuel production from crude oil. If CCS technologies are employed, reductions of 5–12% can be achieved in Coal to Liquid (CTL) plants and up to a 75% reduction is achievable when co-gasifying coal with commercially demonstrated levels of biomass (30% biomass by weight) in coal/biomass-to-liquids plants. [60] For future synthetic fuel projects, carbon dioxide sequestration is proposed to avoid releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Sequestration adds to the cost of production.

Refined coal

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. The goals of precombustion coal technologies are to increase efficiency and reduce emissions when the coal is burned. Depending on the situation, precombustion technology can be used in place of or as a supplement to postcombustion technologies to control emissions from coal-fueled boilers.

Industrial processes

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. [61] 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. [62]

Production of chemicals

Production of chemicals from coal

Coal is an important feedstock in production of a wide range of chemical fertilizers and other chemical products. [63] 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 coal to produce a wide range of valuable commodities.

Historically, production of chemicals from coal has been used since the 1950s and has become established in the market. According to the 2010 Worldwide Gasification Database, [64] a survey of current and planned gasifiers, from 2004 to 2007 chemical production increased its gasification product share from 37% to 45%. From 2008 to 2010, 22% of new gasifier additions were to be for chemical production.

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, India and the United States where there are abundant coal resources. The abundance of coal combined with lack of natural gas resources in China is strong inducement for the coal to chemicals industry pursued there. In the United States, the best example of the industry is Eastman Chemical Company which has been successfully operating a coal-to-chemicals plant at its Kingsport, Tennessee, site since 1983. Similarly, Sasol has built and operated coal-to-chemicals facilities in South Africa.

Coal to chemical processes do require substantial quantities of water. As of 2013 much of the coal to chemical production was in the People's Republic of China [65] [66] where environmental regulation and water management [67] was weak. [68]

Coal industry

Coal as a traded commodity

China mines almost half the world's coal followed by India with about a tenth. [69] 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 (a.k.a. coking coal), which is used to make coke to make steel, is much higher than the price of steam coal (a.k.a. thermal coal), which is used to make steam to generate electricity. This is because metcoal must be lower in sulfer and requires more cleaning. [70]

In North America, Central Appalachian coal futures contracts are currently traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange (trading symbol QL). The trading unit is 1,550 short tons (1,410 t) per contract, and is quoted in U.S. dollars and cents per ton. Coal futures contracts provide coal producers and the electric power industry an important tool for hedging and risk management. [71]

In addition to the NYMEX contract, the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) has European (Rotterdam) and South African (Richards Bay) coal futures available for trading. The trading unit for these contracts is 5,000 tonnes (5,500 short tons), and are also quoted in U.S. dollars and cents per ton. [72]

When the price of higher quality thermal coal is high (as in late 2018 [73]) or when externalities are properly priced, in some countries new onshore wind and solar generation already costs less than coal power from existing plants. [74] [75] However for China this is forecast for the early 2020s [76] and for south-east Asia not until the late 2020s. [77]

Environmental and health effects

Aerial photograph of the site of the Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill taken the day after the event

Health effects

The use of coal as fuel causes adverse health impacts and deaths. [78]

The deadly London smog was caused primarily by the heavy use of coal. In the United States coal-fired power plants were estimated in 2004 to cause nearly 24,000 premature deaths every year, including 2,800 from lung cancer. [79] Annual health costs in Europe from use of coal to generate electricity are €42.8 billion, or $55 billion. [80] Yet the disease and mortality burden of coal use today falls most heavily upon China. [81] [82] [83]

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. [84] 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. [85]

Around 10% of coal is ash, [86] Coal ash is hazardous and toxic to human beings and other living things. [87] 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. [88]

Huge amounts of coal ash and other waste is produced annually. In 2013, the US alone consumed on the order of 983 million short tonnes of coal per year. [89] Use of coal on this scale 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. [90]

The American Lung Association, the American Nurses' Association, and the Physicians for Social Responsibility released a report in 2009 which details in depth the detrimental impact of the coal industry on human health, including workers in the mines and individuals living in communities near plants burning coal as a power source. This report provides medical information regarding damage to the lungs, heart, and nervous system of Americans caused by the burning of coal as fuel. It details how the air pollution caused by the plume of coal smokestack emissions is a cause of asthma, strokes, reduced intelligence, artery blockages, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmias, mercury poisoning, arterial occlusion, and lung cancer. [3]

More recently, the Chicago School of Public Health released a largely similar report, echoing many of the same findings. [91]

Though coal burning has increasingly been supplanted by less-toxic natural gas use in recent years, a 2010 study by the Clean Air Task Force still estimated that "air pollution from coal-fired power plants accounts for more than 13,000 premature deaths, 20,000 heart attacks, and 1.6 million lost workdays in the U.S. each year." The total monetary cost of these health impacts is over $100 billion annually. [92]

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." [93]

Environmental effects

Coal mining and coal fueling of power station and industrial processes can cause major environmental damage. [94]

Water systems are affected by coal mining. [95] 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. [96]

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, [97] whereas carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Release of SO2 also contributes to the widespread acidification of ecosystems. [98]

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. [99] For example, there is a coal seam fire in Germany that has been burning since 1668, and is still burning in the 21st century. [100]

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 act as environmental pollutants. [101] The Whyalla steelworks is one example of a coke producing facility where liquid ammonia is discharged to the marine environment.

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 is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. [102]

In 2016 world gross carbon dioxide emissions from coal usage were 14.5 giga tonnes. [103] For every megawatt-hour generated, coal-fired electric power generation emits around a tonne of carbon dioxide, which is double the approximately 500kg of carbon dioxide released by a natural gas-fired electric plant. [104] Because of this higher carbon efficiency of natural gas generation, as the market in the United States has changed to reduce coal and increase natural gas generation, carbon dioxide emissions may have fallen. [105] Those measured in the first quarter of 2012 were the lowest of any recorded for the first quarter of any year since 1992. [106] 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. [107]

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 and deleterious effects on human health. 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%. [108] However capturing carbon dioxide emissions is generally not economically viable.


Local pollution standards include GB13223-2011 (China), India [109], 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 that Chinese control of SO2 has only been partially successful. [110] It has also revealed that low use of technology such as SCR has resulted in high NO2 emissions in South Africa and India. [111]


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. [112] [113]

Carbon capture and storage

Although still being intensively researched and considered economically viable for some uses other than with coal; carbon capture and storage is being tested at the Petra Nova and Boundary Dam coal-fired power plants and so far 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. [114]

Opposition to coal

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

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

Transition away from coal

Many countries have now transitioned away from coal [115] some using the ideas of a "just transition", for example to use some of the benefits of transition to provide early pensions for coal miners. [116]


Some coal miners are concerned their jobs may be lost in the transition. [117]


The white rot fungus Trametes versicolor can grow on and metabolize naturally occurring coal. [118] The bacteria Diplococcus has been found to degrade coal, raising its temperature. [119]

Economic aspects

In the long term coal and oil could cost the world trillions of dollars. [120] Coal alone may cost Australia billions, [121] whereas costs to some smaller companies or cities could be on the scale of millions of dollars. [122] The economies most damaged by coal (via climate change) may be India and the USA as they are the countries with the highest social cost of carbon. [123]

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.

Air pollution from coal storage and handling costs the USA almost 200 dollars for every extra ton stored, due to PM2.5. [124] Coal pollution costs the EU €43 billion each year. [125] Measures to cut air pollution have beneficial long-term economic impacts for individuals and countries. [126] [127]


Coal in Kazakstan and coal in Turkey were among the recipients of coal subsidies totalling 2 billion USD in 2017. [128]


Countries building or financing new coal-fired power stations, such as Japan, face mounting international criticism for obstructing the aims of the Paris Agreement. [43]

Energy density

The energy density of coal, i.e. its heating value, is roughly 24 megajoules per kilogram [129] (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. [130]

As of 2006, the average efficiency of electricity-generating power stations was 31%; in 2002, coal represented about 23% of total global energy supply, an equivalent of 3.4 billion tonnes of coal, of which 2.8 billion tonnes were used for electricity generation. [131]

Underground fires

Thousands of coal fires are burning around the world. [132] 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. [133] [134] 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. [135] [136] 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. [137]

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". [138] 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. [139] Wild coal fires in the area were reported by the Lewis and Clark Expedition as well as explorers and settlers in the area. [140]

Market trends

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. 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. [43]

Peak coal

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 reserves; coal is mined in over 100 countries[ citation needed], and on all continents except Antarctica. The largest reserves are found in the United States, Russia, China, Australia and India:

Proved recoverable coal reserves at end-2011 (million tonnes) [141]
Country Anthracite & Bituminous SubBituminous Lignite Total Percentage of World Total
United States 108,501 98,618 30,176 237,295 22.6
Russia 49,088 97,472 10,450 157,010 14.4
China 62,200 33,700 18,600 114,500 12.6
Australia 37,100 2,100 37,200 76,400 8.9
India 56,100 0 4,500 60,600 7.0
World Total 403,197 287,333 201,000 891,530 100

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. [142]

Major coal producers

The reserve life is an estimate based only on current production levels and proved reserves level for the countries shown, and makes no assumptions of future production or even current production trends. Countries with annual production higher than 250 million tonnes are shown. For comparison, data for the European Union is also shown. Shares are based on data expressed in tonnes oil equivalent.

Production of Coal by Country and year (million tonnes) [143] [69]
Country 2000 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Share Reserve Life (years)
China 1,384.2 1,834.9 2,122.6 2,349.5 2,528.6 2,691.6 2,802.0 2,973.0 3,235.0 3,520.0 3,945.1 3,974.3 3,873.9 3,747.0 47.7% 31
United States 974.0 972.3 1,008.9 1,026.5 1,054.8 1,040.2 1,063.0 975.2 983.7 992.8 922.1 893.4 907.2 812.8 11.9% 292
India 334.8 375.4 407.7 428.4 449.2 478.4 515.9 556.0 573.8 588.5 605.6 608.5 648.1 677.5 7.4% 89
Australia 313.9 350.4 364.3 375.4 382.2 392.7 399.2 413.2 424.0 415.5 444.9 470.8 503.2 484.5 7.2% 158
Indonesia 77.0 114.3 132.4 152.7 193.8 216.9 240.2 256.2 275.2 324.9 385.9 449.1 458.1 392.0 6.3% 71
Russia 262.1 276.7 281.7 298.3 309.9 313.5 328.6 301.3 321.6 333.5 358.3 355.2 357.4 373.3 4.8% 422
World Total 4,725.6 5,301.3 5,716.0 6,035.3 6,342.0 6,573.3 6,795.0 6,880.8 7,254.6 7,695.4 8,204.7 8,254.9 8,206.0 7,861.1 100% 114

Major coal consumers

Countries with annual consumption higher than 100 million tonnes are shown. Shares are based on data expressed in tonnes oil equivalent.

Consumption of Coal by Country and year (million tonnes) [144]
Country 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Share
China 2,691 2,892 3,352 3,677 4,538 4,678 4,539 50.0%
United States 1,017 904 951 910 889 924 918 10.3%
India 582 640 655 715 841 837 880 10.6%
Germany 243 225 232 232 271 272 264 2.0%
Russia 227 185 232 238 256 229 242 2.3%
Japan 185 164 187 183 197 208 210 3.1%
South Africa 195 185 187 194 204 203 201 2.2%
Poland 135 137 135 147 155 158 151 1.3%
South Korea 114 119 133 144 141 139 144 2.2%
Australia 155 154 148 145 139 134 130 1.2%
Indonesia 58 62 62 68 80 90 107 2.1%
Turkey 108 108 105 111 111 92 100 0.9%
World Total 7,636 7,699 8,137 8,640 8,901 9,013 8,907 100%

Major coal exporters

Exports of Coal by Country and year (million short tons) [145] [146] [147]
Country 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 Share
Indonesia 107.8 131.4 142.0 192.2 221.9 228.2 261.4 316.2 331.4 421.8 29.8%
Australia 238.1 247.6 255.0 255.0 268.5 278.0 288.5 328.1 313.6 332.4 23.5%
Russia 41.0 55.7 98.6 103.4 112.2 115.4 130.9 122.1 140.1 150.7 10.7%
United States 43.0 48.0 51.7 51.2 60.6 83.5 60.4 83.2 108.2 126.7 8.7%
Colombia 50.4 56.4 59.2 68.3 74.5 74.7 75.7 76.4 89.0 92.2 6.5%
Total World 713.9 764.0 936.0 1,000.6 1,073.4 1,087.3 1,090.8 1,212.8 1,286.7 1,413.9 100%

Exporters are at risk of a reduction in import demand from India and China. [142]

Major coal importers

Countries with annual gross import higher than 40 million tonnes are shown. In terms of net import the largest importers are still Japan (206.0 millions tonnes), China (172.4) and South Korea (125.8). [148]

Imports of Coal by Country and year (million short tons) [149]
Country 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 Share
Japan 199.7 209.0 206.0 182.1 206.7 17.5%
China 42.0 56.2 44.5 151.9 195.1 16.6%
South Korea 84.1 94.1 107.1 109.9 125.8 10.7%
India 52.7 29.6 70.9 76.7 101.6 8.6%
Taiwan 69.1 72.5 70.9 64.6 71.1 6.0%
Germany 50.6 56.2 55.7 45.9 55.1 4.7%
Turkey 22.9 25.8 21.7 22.7 30.0 2.5%
Total 991.8 1,056.5 1,063.2 1,039.8 1,178.1 100%

Cultural usage

Coal is the official state mineral of Kentucky. [150] and the official state rock of Utah; [151] 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.

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Further reading

External links