Is Coal a Fossil Fuel?

Learn everything you need to know about coal as a fossil fuel.

Is Coal A Fossil Fuel

Is Coal a Fossil Fuel

Coal is one of the most abundant and affordable fossil fuels worldwide, accounting for nearly 40% of the energy production in the U.S. However, its wide availability, versatility, and affordability also come with some trade-offs regarding its negative environmental impacts.

In the U.S., coal is primarily used for power generation by combustion. The heat given off by burning coal produces high-pressure steam that drives a turbine and produce electricity. While coal can produce vital electricity for our use, you may wonder, “Is coal a fossil fuel?”.

What Is Coal?

Coal is a black sedimentary rock made up mainly of carbon and hydrocarbons. It’s burned for fuel and used as a nonrenewable energy source. It releases energy through its combustion.

Coal takes about a million years to form. The energy from coal is stored by plants living hundreds of millions of years ago, which are covered by layers of rock and dirt. The heat and pressure turn these buried plants into coal.

Coal is a Fossil Fuel

Coal has existed even before the evolution of the first dinosaurs. It formed millions of years ago when the earth was covered by swamps, giant ferns, and plants. When the plants died, they were buried at the bottom of the swamps.
Throughout the years, these plants were covered by water and dirt and eventually compressed down because of the increasing weight. After millions of years, the pressure and heat transformed these plants into what we now call coal.

Coal is a fossil fuel because it came from living plants. Because they originated from plants and these plants got their energy from the sun, the energy coming from coal also originated from the sun.

What Are the Types of Coal?

Coal can be one of four types or ranks. “Rank” is the term for steps in coalification – a natural process wherein the dead plant matter transforms into a carbon-rich, denser, harder, and drier material. The four ranks or types of coal are:

Anthracite

Anthracite is the highest rank. It is commonly called hard coal, characterized by its hard and brittle material. It contains a high amount of carbon and a low amount of volatile matter. It’s mainly used for domestic fuel in automatic or hand-fired stoves.

Bituminous

Bituminous coal is considered middle-ranked coal between anthracite and sub-bituminous. It appears shiny, smooth, and blocky from a distance, but it’s actually thin with dull layers when you look closely. It’s primarily used in steelmaking and electricity generation.

Subbituminous

Subbituminous coal is also called black lignite. It is generally dark brown or black in color and also dull. This rank has a moderate heating value and is primarily used to generate electricity.

Subbituminous

Lignite coal is also called brown coal. It is the lowest rank of coal with the least amount of carbon. Lignite also has the lowest heating value and high moisture content. Generally, lignite is exclusively used to fuel steam-electric power generators.

Uses of Coal

Coal accounts for more than 37 percent of the generated electricity worldwide. It is primarily used to power homes and provide energy in the sectors of transportation, steelmaking, and concrete production. Additionally, the following are the primary uses of coal in various industries:

  • Electricity Creation
  • Metal Production
  • Cement Production
  • Gasification and Liquefaction
  • Chemical Production
  • Other Industries (Paper, glass, and textile)

Benefits of Coal as a Fossil Fuel

Here are some advantages of using coal:

Affordability

Coal is considered the most affordable source of energy. It is cheaper than other fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas.

While hydroelectric power is slightly cheaper than coal, the problem is it has no new facilities. It also has demand time problems because rivers run dry during warmer seasons and freeze during winter.

Abundance

Coal is also the most abundant fossil fuel, with deposits found in more than 70 countries worldwide. Coal reserves are estimated to be nearly 1 trillion tons, which means they could last around twice as long as natural gas and oil reserves, given the current consumption rates.

Low Capital Expense

Since coal is very abundant, it also results in price reduction and stability. Coal power plants are also relatively easier to build with less capital expense compared to other facilities competing for fuel sources. This makes coal the leading choice, especially in developing countries.

Versatility

Coal is very versatile because it is also used in making iron and steel on top of generating electricity. It is also used to manufacture paper, refine aluminum and produce chemicals.

Safety

Coal is relatively easier to handle, store, and transport than other highly flammable fossil fuels.

The Downsides of Using Coal

The advantages of using coal also come with some trade-offs such as the following:

Environmental Impacts

When coal is burned, it causes the release of air pollutants and toxins. The combustion of coal-fired power plants results in the emission of sulfur dioxide, which contributes to respiratory illness and acid rain. It also releases nitrogen oxides that contribute to respiratory illness and smog.

Additionally, coal mining produces methane gas which contributes to global warming. Not only is coal mining bad for the environment, but it also disturbs the lands used for animal habitats, grazing, crops, and forests. Eventually, continuous mining leads to dust and soil erosion.

Danger for Miners

The mining process isn’t only detrimental to the environment but also to the workers. The extraction and combustion destabilize the ground making some locations uninhabitable. This side-effect poses risks to nearby people that often force them to relocate.

Finite Energy Source

Since coal can take millions of years to form, it is considered a nonrenewable energy source that isn’t sustainable

The Future of Coal

Coal is a fossil fuel mainly used to generate electricity. While it is abundant, versatile, and affordable, it also harms the environment and people. Thus, the future of utilizing coal depends on the advancements in clean coal technologies and the use of low-sulfur varieties. Despite its disadvantages, the lack of lower-cost alternatives keeps coal in demand for the next years to come.

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