An Introduction to Coal and Its Many Uses
Coal is a natural fossil fuel that dates to prehistoric times. This energy source developed from living plants that underwent a sun-fueled photosynthesis process. Once these plants died and decayed in peat bogs and swamps, the stored solar energy was released. This energy then was sealed within coal deposits.
Coal began to form between 360 million to 290 million years ago. As the earth’s tectonic movements built-up sediments and buried these wetland areas, these decayed plant materials were exposed to high pressures and temperatures. This caused a chemical and physical change that transformed this common peat into energy burning coal.
All coal is not equal. In fact, there are different coalification degrees that rank this fossil fuel’s formation. Common ranks, from least carbon to most, include lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite.
The world has more than 861 billion tons of coal reserves. At the population’s current usage rate, this is only enough to last another 112 years. The three largest coal producers are North America, the former USSR and China.
Contrary to popular belief, coal is not simply used to power antique locomotives. Coal has several important and vital uses worldwide. Most importantly, coal helps generate electricity, produce steel, acts as a liquid fuel and also plays a significant role in steel production.
Over the last 145 years, coal consumption has rapidly grown, growing faster than any other natural fuel source. The countries that are among the world’s largest coal consumers include China, the U.S., India, Russia and Japan. Total, these five countries use nearly 76-percent of the world’s coal.
Since there are different types of coal, this means coal is used in different ways. Steam, or thermal coal, is used to generate power. Metallurgical, or coking coal is generally used in steel production.
Because coal is not an abundant natural resource in many areas, several countries are forced to import this resource in order to sufficiently meet their energy requirements. Countries that import significant amounts of coal include Japan, Chinese Taipei and Korea.
Coal is also used in other manufacturing processes, including paper manufacturing, alumina refineries, pharmaceutical industries and chemical plants. Refined coal tar is used to make napthalene, creosote oil, benzene and phenol. Coal and coal by-products are also necessary components used to make soap, aspirin, dye, solvents, rayon, nylon and plastic.
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