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About Coal

Coal is a combustible, organic rock composed primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Coal creates fuel that is used to heat buildings and to make various by-products. The main use of coal is in the production of electricity. About half of the electricity in the United States, and two-thirds of that in the world, is supplied by coal-burning power plants. Coke, a product left after heating coal, is used to manufacture iron and steel.
Coal was once the main source of energy in all industrial countries. However, petroleum and natural gas have become leading sources of energy. But, these supplies of fuel are being used up rapidly. The coal supply can last up to 400 years at the present rate. The use of coal, especially for producing electricity, could help relieve the shortage of gas and oil. However, some problems exist with the use of coal including air pollution and safety issues in mining deep underground.
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Coal was created millions of years ago.   It was formed from trees and other plants that once flourished in swamps.  As this organic material died, it settled in the bottom of the swamp. Layers of sediment and mud accumulated, pressing down on the once living material.  The combination of a loss of oxygen and millions of years of weight from the earth pressing down resulted in rich veins of coal. The amount of pressure varies in places around the world.  The more pressure, the more carbon in the coal and the coal is harder. Less pressure results in less carbon and more moisture. The softest coal, with the least amount of carbon and most moisture, is peat. Peat is often associated with Ireland and is found near the top of the earth and cut out like bricks. The hardest coal is anthracite.  If the deposits of anthracite coal waited another million years, they would become diamonds.

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The use of coal depends on its chemical composition and how much moisture it contains. It is usually classified according to the amount of fixed carbon in the coal. As the amount of moisture increases, the coal has a lower heating value.
Coal is useful as a fuel because it is abundant as well as having a relatively high heating value. However, impurities can cause air pollution which limits the usefulness of coal as a fuel.  Many manufacturers changed to natural gas in making their products but are now switching back to coal because it is less expensive. Coal is a non-renewable resource and must be conserved the same as petroleum and natural gas.
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Coal is used for many things in addition to fuel for heating homes or running engines.  Products left after heating coal are coke and coal tar.  Coke is used as a fuel in steel mills and pencil lead is also made from coke.  Coal tar is a dark, sticky substance used in making plastics, perfumes, mothballs, medicine, dyes, explosives and flavorings.


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