COAL -- A Fossil Fuel
How Coal Was Formed
How We Get Coal
How Coal is Transported
Types of Coal
Where We Get Coal
How Coal is Used
Coal and the Environment
HOW COAL WAS FORMED
Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock composed mostly of carbon and hydrocarbons. It is the most abundant fossil fuel produced in the United States. Coal is a nonrenewable energy source because it takes millions of years to create. The energy in coal comes from the energy stored by plants that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, when the earth was partly covered with swampy forests. For millions of years, a layer of dead plants at the bottom of the swamps was covered by layers of water and dirt, trapping the energy of the dead plants. The heat and pressure from the top layers helped the plant remains turn into what we today call coal. [pic]
HOW WE GET COAL
Mining the Coal
Coal miners use giant machines to remove coal from the ground. They use two methods: surface or underground mining. Many U.S. coal beds are very near the ground's surface, and about two-thirds of coal production comes from surface mines. Modern mining methods allow us to easily reach most of our coal reserves. Due to growth in surface mining and improved mining technology, the amount of coal produced by one miner in one hour has more than tripled since 1978.
Surface mining is used to produce most of the coal in the U.S. because it is less expensive than underground mining. Surface mining can be used when the coal is buried less than 200 feet underground. In surface mining, giant machines remove the top-soil and layers of rock to expose large beds of coal. Once the mining is finished, the dirt and rock are returned to the pit, the topsoil is replaced, and the area is replanted. The land can then be used for croplands, wildlife habitats, recreation, or offices or stores. Underground mining, sometimes called deep mining, is used when the coal is buried several hundred feet below the surface. Some underground mines are 1,000 feet deep. To remove coal in these underground mines, miners ride elevators down deep mine shafts where they run machines that dig out the coal. Read about a visit to a real underground coal mine.
Processing the Coal
After coal comes out of the ground, it typically goes on a conveyor belt to a preparation plant that is located at the mining site. The plant cleans and processes coal to remove dirt, rock, ash, sulfur, and other unwanted materials, increasing the heating value of the coal.
After coal is mined and processed, it is ready to be shipped to market. The cost of shipping coal can cost more than the cost of mining it. Most coal is transported by train, but coal can also be transported by barge, ship, truck, and even pipeline. Almost 60 percent of coal in the U.S. is transported, for at least part of its trip to market, by train. It is cheaper to transport coal on river barges, but barges cannot take coal everywhere that it needs to go. If the coal will be used near the coal mine, it can be moved by trucks and conveyors. Coal can also be crushed, mixed with water, and sent through a "slurry" pipeline. Sometimes, coal-fired electric power plants are built near coal mines to lower transportation costs.
TYPES OF COAL
Coal is classified into four main types, or ranks (lignite, subbituminous, bituminous, anthracite), depending on the amounts and types of carbon it contains and on the amount of heat energy it can produce. The rank of a deposit of coal depends on the pressure and heat acting on the plant debris as it sank deeper and deeper over millions of years. For the most part, the higher ranks of coal contain more heat-producing energy. Lignite is the lowest rank of coal with the lowest energy content. Lignites tend to be relatively young coal deposits that were not subjected to extreme heat or pressure....
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