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Rise and Fall of Coal

February 4, 2016

The Industrial Revolution began in the United Kingdom, with steam engines fueled by coal. It is, therefore, significant that the last deep-pit mine in the UK, located in Kellingley Colliery, Beal, North Yorkshire, closed on December 18, 2015.[1] The closing ended employment for 450 coal miners,[1] and it was the final coffin nail for Britain's Industrial revolution.

Coal mining

Coal mining.

Whoever said that "hard work never killed anyone," didn't study coal miners.

(Illustration from an 1871 Swedish schoolbook, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Coal mining in Britain goes back as far as the Roman Empire. The Romans didn't use coal as a fuel, since it would have been too hard to transport. Instead, they carved it to make jewelry;[1] and, it's mentioned in Pliny's Natural History as an ophthalmic medication.[2] Much earlier than Pliny, Theophrastus (c. 371 - c. 287 BC) wrote about coal in his treatise, "On Stones" (Περι Λιθων) (see figure).

Section 16 of 'On Stones' by Theophrastus

Section 16 of "On Stones" by Theophrastus. The passage reads, "Among the substances that are dug up because they are useful, those known simply as coals are made of earth, and they are set on fire and burnt like charcoal. They are found in Liguria, where amber also occurs, and in Elis as one goes by the mountain road to Olympia; and they are actually used by workers in metals." (Translation by E. R. Caley and J. C. Richards.[3]

Coal was big business by the end of the 19th century. The first million pound (£) contract in history involved the supply of coal.[1] Coal production in the United States peaked in the early 20th century, my maternal grandparents had a coal-fired furnace, and I enjoyed recovering small lumps of coal from their cellar. The following graph of anthracite coal production in Pennsylvania illustrates the decline of coal in the United States.[4] China's coal production peaked in 2013 at about 3,700 million metric tons per year.

Historical Pennsylvania anthracite production (USGS)

For whom the bell (curve) tolls.

Anthracite mined in Pennsylvania peaked around 1920, and it's declined to nearly zero today.

(Data from United States Geological Survey Circular 1147.)

Science and technology arise to support major industries, and this was the case, also, for coal mining. Coal miners require illumination, which was provided by either candles or oil lamps in the days before electricity. Since coal contains volatile organic compounds, such flammable gases, called firedamp, could be ignited by a flame. The chemist, Humphry Davy (1778 - 1829), who's famous for discovering many chemical elements through the electrolysis of molten salts, invented a safe lamp.

This "safety lamp" was just a standard wick-type oil lamp fitted with a wire mesh between the flame and the atmosphere. The flame is prevented from passing through the mesh, so it will not ignite the outside gases. The lamp was not completely safe, since errant gusts of air would render the screen protection ineffective, and the flame would pass through. Under normal operation, the mesh would glow when high concentrations of flammable gas were present. Some mines would use a Davy lamp as an indicator of when it was safe to use other lamps.

Humphrey Davy's invention of the safety lamp (1878)

"Careful, m'lad. That's one way to burn your finger!

Shades of Johnny Tremain! With the period dress, this reminds me of the book I was forced to read while in elementary school. Johnny's burned hand is a plot point in that book. Even without werewolves and vampires, young-adult fiction was still macabre.

(Illustration from the 1878 book, "The story of Sir Humphrey Davy and the invention of the safety-lamp," Published by T. Nelson, London, and held in the Harold B. Lee Library of Brigham Young University, via Wikimedia Commons.)

As most materials dug from the ground, coal is far from the pure carbon form we desire. Anthracite, the best grade of coal, has the following approximate composition: mineral ash ≤ 20%; volatiles ≤ 10%; hydrogen ≤ 3.75%; oxygen ≤ 2.5%; sulfur ~1%; carbon = balance. Anthracite has a combustion enthalpy of about 30,000 kJ/kg. Aside from the obvious problem in release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through combustion, sulfur dioxide emission produces acid rain.

Simplified chemical structure of hard coal.

Simplified structural formula of hard coal.

Fortunately, I was never subjected to an undergraduate organic chemistry course. My wife, however, excelled in organic chemistry.

(Illustration by Karol Głąb, via Via Wikimedia Commons.)

If it wasn't for some very specific features of the evolution of life on Earth, we would not have had coal. As a consequence, our technological growth would have been limited, and you would not be reading this article on the Internet. This brings up the possibility that most intelligent extraterrestrial species would not develop technology as rapidly as we Earthlings.

As I wrote in an earlier article (Coal, July 23, 2012), coal is the fossilized remains of lignin, a complex polymer that's a part of the cell walls of plants that lived about 300-360 million years ago in the aptly named Carboniferous period. Coal is found today, since vast quantities of lignin were produced in that period as a solar energy reservoir.

Evolutionary forces also put an end to the Carboniferous period, defining the height and depth of coal seams. As discovered in a 2012 study, white rot fungi evolved at the end of the Carboniferous with the capacity to digest lignin, thus ending the sixty-million year span of coal deposition by destroying the accumulation of woody debris that fossilized as coal.[5-7]

A lump of anthracite coal

A lump of anthracite coal

(An image from the "Minerals in Your World" project, a collaboration of the United States Geological Survey and the Mineral Information Institute, via Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Steffan Morgan, "Britain's last lump of coal," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 3, 2016.
  2. Pliny, Natural History, Book 36, Chapter 38, John Bostock and H.T. Riley, Trans., (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1857), p. 364.
  3. Theophrastus, "On Stones - A Modern Edition with Greek Text, Translation, Introduction, and Commentary, E. R. Caley and J. C. Richards, Eds., The Ohio State University Press, 1956.
  4. Robert C. Milici and Elisabeth V. M. Campbell, "The Use of Historical Production Data to Predict Future Coal Production Rates," U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1147, September 17, 1997.
  5. Study on Fungi Evolution Answers Questions About Ancient Coal Formation and May Help Advance Future Biofuels Production, NSF Press Release 12-117, June 28, 2012.
  6. Chris Todd Hittinger, "Endless Rots Most Beautiful," Science, vol. 336 no. 6089 (June 29, 2012) pp. 1649-1650.
  7. David S. Hibbett, et al., "The Paleozoic Origin of Enzymatic Lignin Decomposition Reconstructed from 31 Fungal Genomes," Science, vol. 336 no. 6089 (June 29, 2012) pp. 1715-1719.

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