Coal Research Paper

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Coal, a readily combustible sedimentary rock, fueled the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. It was burned for heat to generate the steam that powered locomotives and machines, and it was an essential ingredient in the smelting of ore. Even though petroleum replaced coal as the most prevalent fossil fuel during the 1960s, coal and coke coal are still used for power generation and metallurgy.

People have known about coal since antiquity, but they did not begin to use coal for fuel on a large scale until the nineteenth century. The physical labor of humans and animals, firewood, and vegetable coal were the main energy resources until the first energy transition to the use of fossil fuels. The “wooden hunger” suffered by Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a consequence of high wood-energy consumption rates by metal foundries led to technical innovations known as “miners’ friends,” including steam pumping, which enabled the exploitation of coal mines and became the precursor of the steam engine. Such innovations allowed large quantities of coal to be extracted for use as coke fuel in smelting ovens.

The Industrial Revolution occurred mainly in the carboniferous basins of Europe, and coal was the main fuel for locomotives and other steam machines. The level of economic development in industrialized countries determined the chronology of their transition to the use of fossil fuels. A minor correlation existed between coal consumption and levels of industrialization during the nineteenth century. During this period the British fleet played an important role in the expansion of coal use worldwide as British cargo ships monopolized the movement of coal.

In the nineteenth century, the work carried out in coal mines was done manually, frequently by children, and only pumping was mechanized. The mechanization of mine pumping spread to other aspects of mining works at the dawn of the twentieth century. Since then surface exploitation has increased, and the number of manual workers has decreased. Consequently, productivity has increased as labor conditions have improved and accidents have decreased.

Great Britain was the first society to use coal on a large scale for its everyday needs. A number of factors contributed to this. First, Britain had a lot of coal, much of it very conveniently located. Second, it was badly deforested relatively early, making the switch to coal imperative. Third, technological developments, especially in metallurgy and precision boring, facilitated the development in England of the world’s first economically viable steam engines, which were essential to pumping water out of the coal mines. Without steam power, it has been estimated, British coal mining could not have expanded beyond its level in 1700; instead it multiplied sevenfold by 1815, and almost a hundredfold by 1900. Coal mining elsewhere grew even faster in the late nineteenth century, albeit from a smaller base.

During the nineteenth century people were already becoming concerned that the supply of coal might run out. For example, the English economist and logician W. Stanley Jevons was concerned that the exhaustion of Britain’s coal supply might contribute to the decline of the British Empire. While new discoveries of coal might have helped to expand the empire, the pollution caused by burning coal in domestic and industrial use endangered human health. For example, the high concentration of London smog during the period 4–10 December 1952 killed more than four thousand people.

The second major energy transition was to petroleum, but this transition did not end the use of coal. In fact, after the oil crises of the 1970s, a recovery in the use of coal took place. During the nineteenth century and until 1914, the eve of the World War I, coal provided about 90 percent of the primary energy from fossil fuels consumed in the world. Between 1930 and 1960 that percentage decreased from 70 to 50. The prevalence of petroleum was not settled down until the 1960s.

In the twentieth century two main markets for international coal trade appeared: (1) the steam coal market for power generation in Asia and (2) the coke coal market for use by metallurgists. Since 1978 world steam coal production has risen by more than 35 percent. The high price of petroleum since that time has fostered the recovery of coal applications in power-generating stations. In other words, the high petroleum prices during the 1970s meant that many power stations had to again use coal as a primary energy. However, coke coal production maintained its level during the 1970s.

Since the nineteenth century the geography of coal production and trade has changed considerably. In 1900 world production totaled 0.6 billion metric tons; the top producer was Europe with 0.45 billion metric tons (United Kingdom, 0.18 billion metric tons). World coal production rose steadily from 1 billion metric tons in 1946 to 3.6 billion metric tons in 1996. The United States produces 1 billion metric tons per year. China’s production has grown since the 1980s to help satisfy the demands of the country’s rapid industrialization. South Africa and Australia, basically export oriented, also have increased their production.

Ten countries have more than 90 percent of the world’s known extractable coal reserves, which leads to a significant maritime trade given that coal is generally transported by sea. The threat of the exhaustion of supplies that worried W. Stanley Jevons has not eased. It is estimated that recoverable coal reserves are around 800 to 900 gigatons. At the current rate of extraction this would last approximately 130 years. Given the annual increase in the rate of coal consumption, however, known coal reserves are more likely to be depeleted in fifty to sixty years.

Coal remains the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide. But it is also one of the largest anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide emissions. In the twenty-first century this represents a serious concern given the relationship between carbon emissions and the phenomenon of global climate change. Governments and the coal industry are working on new technologies such as “clean coal” and geosequestration but the future remains uncertain. In light of the dangers posed by climate change and associated environmental concerns there is a significant push on to find alternative cleaner sources of energy.


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  4. Jaccard, M. (2006).Sustainable fossil fuels: The unusual suspect in the quest for clean and enduring energy. Cambridge. U.K.: Cambridge Uinversity Press.
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