All Types of Coal Are Not Created Equal

Coal Varies in Its Composition, Global Usage and Energy Value

Train in coal mine
photography by baoshabaotian / Getty Images

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 contribute to acid rain and other pollution when they're burned. 

Coals of varying composition are used as a combustible fossil fuel for generating electricity and producing steel around the world. It has been the fastest growing energy source worldwide in the 21st century, according to the International Energy Agency.


About Coal Production

People don't "produce" coal. Geological processes and decaying organic matter create it over thousands of years. It's mined 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. The IEA estimates that global supply should increase at a rate of about 0.6 percent through 2020. 

Coal Exporters and Importers

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

Reliance on Coal

South Africa relies most heavily on coal, taking 93 percent of its electric power from this energy source. China and India also rely heavily on coal for substantial amounts of their energy at 79 and 69 percent respectively. The U.S. takes 45 percent of its electricity from this source, ranking it 11th on the global list of countries that generate power from this source.


Hard and Soft Types of Coal

Coal falls into two main categories: hard and soft. Soft coal is also known as brown coal or lignite. China produces more hard coal than any other country by a factor of about three. The whopping 3,162 million metric tons of hard coal produced by China dwarfs the output of the second and third ranked producers -- the U.S. at 932 million metric tons and India at 538 million metric tons. 

Germany and Indonesia nearly tie for the honor of top honors in the production of soft brown coal. These countries dug up 169 million and 163 million metric tons respectively.

Coking Coal Versus Steam Coal

Coking coal, also known as metallurgical coal, has low sulfur and phosphorus content and can withstand high heat. Coking coal is fed into ovens and subjected to oxygen-free pyrolysis, a process that heats the coal to approximately 1,100 degrees Celsius. It melts it and drives off any volatile compounds and impurities to leave pure carbon. The hot, purified, liquefied 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 boilers that run 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 and varying amounts of moisture, ash, volatile matter, mercury and sulfur. Because the physical properties and coal quality 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.” It's measured in Btu or MJ/kg. Btu stands for British thermal unit, the amount of heat that will warm approximately 0.12 U.S. gallons -- a pound of water -- by one degree Fahrenheit at sea level.

Btu is sometimes written as BTU.

MJ/kg stands for millijoule per kilogram and is the amount of energy stored in a kilogram. This is an expression of energy density for fuels measured by weight.

Coal releases thermal energy or heat when it is burned, along with carbon and ash. Ash is made up of minerals such as iron, aluminum, limestone, clay, and silica, as well as 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 and organic material or vitrinite. The coal ranking is based on levels of geological metamorphosis, fixed carbon, and calorific value. It is known as ASTM D388 - 05 Standard Classification of Coals by Rank.

How do the four types compare? As a general rule, the harder the coal, the higher its energy value and rank. The following is a comparative ranking of four different types of coal from the densest in carbon and energy to the least dense:

RankType of CoalCalorific Value (MJ/kg)
#1Anthracite30 millijoule per kilogram
#2Bituminous18.8–29.3 millijoule per kilogram
#3Sub-bituminous8.3–25 millijoule per kilogram
#4Lignite (brown coal) 5.5–14.3 millijoule per kilogram