Coal: A short autobiography

Raihan Amin   | Published: June 03, 2018 21:30:22 | Updated: June 05, 2018 20:59:44

Although black and ugly, I am a derivative of carbon and handy for mankind. I am known as a solid fossil fuel (or hydro-carbon). Organically made up of pre-historic vegetation (mostly mosses), I lay buried in sedimentary rocks for millennia. Geological processes turned the organic material into peat and ultimately into coal under the influences of incredible heat and pressure. The increments of temperature (called coalification) expels moisture, carbon dioxide and methane increasing my rank. The strata I lie buried in is coal seam.   

The plants, during the extra-ordinarily long preservation process, have been broken down into organic matter comprising moisture, ash, volatile matter (gases and liquids) and fixed carbon. The volatile matter and fixed carbon both contain energy released on burning the coal. Carbon makes up 0.8 per cent of the earth's crust and essential for life. Ironmongers used me in Europe as early as the 13th Century. Before that coal from the Fushun mine in China may have been used to smelt copper as far back as 1000 BC. What really turned my life around was the invention of steam engine by James Watt in 1734. Although I played hard to get, industrious miners saw through my coyness.

These days I seem to get a lot of bad press. When I burn, CO2, and other harmful gases are released into the atmosphere. Short-wave rays emanating from the sun hit the earth; CO2 (methane and ozone too) prevents the long-wave rays from escaping the earth's atmosphere, thus trapping heat. Scientists pounce on me for "global warming". Suddenly I am a villain.

I am well-spread out around the world; being especially plentiful in the US, Russia and China. Only ten countries have 90 per cent of global coal reserves. Both production and consumption soared during the Industrial Revolution that took place in the 18th & 19th centuries. I am especially grateful to the steam locomotive for making me a sought-after commodity. The railways crisscrossing the UK and US revolutionised commercial transportation thus helping commerce, the movement of people and the spread of ideas. I became an input for smelting iron, heating buildings, lighting homes and streets and laying railway lines. Oil (petroleum) came along in the fifties and ate my lunch! Natural gas, a source of clean energy, followed. I received a punch in my gut but refused to die!

There are four main types of coal: anthracite (highest carbon content), bituminous, sub-bituminous and lignite (lowest carbon content). Thermal (or steam) and metallurgical (or coking) are the two main types of coal that are used and traded. The first type is used in power plants and the second by the steel industry. I also play an important role in the manufacture of cement, pharmaceuticals, and man-made fibres. I am versatile and can be processed into liquid fuel, chemicals or even gas. In my liquid or gaseous states, I traverse long distances in pipelines. Present coal reserves can last for more than 100 years, creating a buffer between renewable and non-renewable energy.

Raihan Amin is a visiting faculty at the International University of Business Agriculture & Technology (IUBAT)


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