1. Industry
Send to a Friend via Email

Your suggestion is on its way!

An email with a link to:


was emailed to:

Thanks for sharing About.com with others!

All Coal is Not Created Equal

Coal Varies in Its Composition, Global Usage, and Energy Value


Bituminous coal crush pile photo

Pile of crushed bituminous coal.

Photo (c) Arkansas Geological Survey

Coal is a sedimentary black or dark brown rock that varies in composition. Some types of coal burn hotter and cleaner, while others contain high moisture content and compounds that, when burned, contribute to acid rain and other pollution.

Coals of varying composition are used around the world as a combustible fossil fuel for generating electricity and producing steel.

According to the World Coal Association, a total of 7229 million tonnes of coal was produced globally in 2010.

Coal Production

People don't exactly "produce" coal; geological processes and the decaying of organic matter create coal over thousands of years. People mine coal from underground formations, or seams, through underground tunnels or by removing large areas of the earth's surface. The excavated coal must be cleaned, washed, and processed to prepare it for commercial use.

China currently produces more coal than any other country in the world, although its proven reserves rank fourth behind the U.S., Russia, and India.

One international report says that the U.S. experienced its peak production of high quality coal in 1990 and that U.S. coal production is now primarily focused on lower quality sub-bituminous coal found in high quantities found in Illinois, Wyoming, and Montana. This same report predicts that global coal production will peak around the year 2020, with the quality of coal declining steadily.

Coal Exporters and Importers

Australia tops the world wide list of coal exporters, having sent 298 million tonnes of coal overseas in 2010. Indonesia and Russia ranked second and third, exporting 162 and 109 million tonnes respectively. The U.S. came in fourth globally, having shipped 74 million tonnes of coal beyond its borders that same year.

Reliance on Coal

South Africa relies most heavily on coal, getting a full 93 percent of its electric power from coal. China and India also rely on coal for substantial amounts of their energy, at 79 and 69 percents, respectively. In recent years, the U.S. has gotten 45 percent of its electricity from coal. That ranks the U.S. 11th on the global list of countries that generate power from coal.

Hard and Soft Coal

Coal falls into two main categories: hard coal and soft coal (which is also known as brown coal or lignite). The country that produces more hard coal than any other, by a factor of about three, is the People's Republic of China. The whopping 3162 million tonnes of hard coal that China produces dwarfs the output of the second and third ranked country producers -- the U.S. at 932 million tonnes and India at 538 million tonnes.

For soft brown coal, Germany and Indonesia nearly tie for the honor of top honors. In 2010, they dug up 169 million tonnes and 163 million tonnes, respectively.

Coking Coal Versus Steam Coal

Coking coal, also known as metallurgical coal, has low sulfur and phosphorus content. Coking coal is able to withstand high heat. Coking coal is fed into ovens and subjected to oxygen-free pyrolysis, a process in which the coal is heated to approximately 1100 degrees Celsius. This melts the coal and drives off any volatile compounds and impurities to leave pure carbon. The purified, hot, liquified carbon solidifies into lumps called "coke" that can be fed into a blast furnace along with iron ore and limestone to produce steel.

Steam coal, also known as thermal coal, is suitable for electric power production. Steam coal is ground into a fine powder that burns quickly at high heats and is used in power plants to heat water in a boiler that runs steam turbines. It may also be used to provide space heating for homes and businesses.

Energy in Coal

All types of coal contain fixed carbon, which provides stored energy, plus varying amounts of moisture, ash, volatile matter, mercury, and sulfur. Because physical properties of coal vary widely, coal-fired power plants must be engineered to accommodate the specific properties of available feedstock and to reduce emissions of pollutants such as sulfur, mercury, and dioxins.

The stored energy potential within coal is described as the “calorific value,” “heating value,” or “heat content,” and is measured in Btu or MJ/kg.

Btu stands for British thermal unit (Btu), which is the amount of heat that will warm approximately 0.12 US gallons (a pound of water) by one degree Fahrenheit at sea level. Btu is sometimes written all capitalized, as BTU.

Millijoule per kilogram (MJ/kg) is the amount of energy stored in a unit of mass (kilogram). This is an expression of energy density for fuels measured by weight.

Coal that is burned releases thermal energy, or heat, along with carbon and ash. Ash is made up of minerals such as iron, aluminum, limestone, clay, silica, and trace elements such as arsenic and chromium.

Types of Coal Compared and Ranked

The international standards organization ASTM has issued a ranking method for classifying grades of coal formed from biodegraded peat-based humic substances, organic material (vitrinite). The coal ranking is based on levels of geological metamorphosis, fixed carbon, and calorific value, and known as ASTM D388 - 05 Standard Classification of Coals by Rank.

How do the four types of coal compare? The harder the coal, generally the higher its energy value and the higher its rank. Following is a comparative ranking of four different types of coal, from the most dense in carbon and energy to the least dense.

#1 Ranked Coal - Anthracite: 30 Millijoule per kilogram

#2 Ranked Coal - Bituminous: 18.8–29.3 Millijoule per kilogram

#3 Ranked Coal - Sub-bituminous: 8.3–25 Millijoule per kilogram

#4 Ranked Coal - Lignite, or brown coal: 5.5–14.3 Millijoule per kilogram

  1. About.com
  2. Industry
  3. Energy
  4. Power Generation & Storage
  5. Fossil Fuels
  6. Coal
  7. Coal Varieties - Composition, Global Usage, Energy Value

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.