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12.6: Coal Power

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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What was the foundation of the Industrial Revolution?

The Industrial Revolution was the change in society that resulted from people learning to use fossil fuels. By harnessing fossil fuels, work could be done more rapidly and more cheaply, allowing people to manufacture goods cheaply and efficiently.


Coal, a solid fossil fuel formed from the partially decomposed remains of ancient forests, is burned primarily to produce electricity. Coal use is undergoing enormous growth as the availability of oil and natural gas decreases and cost increases. This increase in coal use is happening particularly in developing nations, such as China, where coal is cheap and plentiful.

Coal is black or brownish-black. The most common form of coal is bituminous, a sedimentary rock that contains impurities such as sulfur (Figure below). Anthracite coal has been metamorphosed and is nearly all carbon. For this reason, anthracite coal burns more cleanly than bituminous coal.

Lump of bituminous coal

Bituminous coal is a sedimentary rock.

Coal Formation

Coal forms from dead plants that settled at the bottom of ancient swamps. Lush coal swamps were common in the tropics during the Carboniferous period, which took place more than 300 million years ago (Figure below). The climate was warmer then.

Map showing the continents during the Carboniferous period

The location of the continents during the Carboniferous period. Notice that quite a lot of land area is in the region of the tropics.

Mud and other dead plants buried the organic material in the swamp, and burial kept oxygen away. When plants are buried without oxygen, the organic material can be preserved or fossilized. Sand and clay settling on top of the decaying plants squeezed out the water and other substances. Millions of years later, what remains is a carbon-containing rock that we know as coal.

Coal Use

Around the world, coal is the largest source of energy for electricity. The United States is rich in coal (Figure below). California once had a number of small coal mines, but the state no longer produces coal. To turn coal into electricity, the rock is crushed into powder, which is then burned in a furnace that has a boiler. Like other fuels, coal releases its energy as heat when it burns. Heat from the burning coal boils the water in the boiler to make steam. The steam spins turbines, which turn generators to create electricity. In this way, the energy stored in the coal is converted to useful energy like electricity.

US coal producing regions in 1996

United States coal-producing regions in 1996. Orange is highest grade anthracite; red is low volatile bituminous; gray and gray-green is medium to high-volatile bituminous; green is subbituminous; and yellow is the lowest grade lignite.

Consequences of Coal Use

For coal to be used as an energy source, it must first be mined. Coal mining occurs at the surface or underground by methods that are described in the the chapter Materials of Earth's Crust (Figure below). Mining, especially underground mining, can be dangerous. In April 2010, 29 miners were killed at a West Virginia coal mine when gas that had accumulated in the mine tunnels exploded and started a fire.

Coal used in power plants must be mined by methods such as mountaintop removal

The coal used in power plants must be mined. One method to mine coal is by mountaintop removal.

Coal mining exposes minerals and rocks from underground to air and water at the surface. Many of these minerals contain the element sulfur, which mixes with air and water to make sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive chemical. If the sulfuric acid gets into streams, it can kill fish, plants, and animals that live in or near the water.


  • Coal is solid fossil fuels formed primarily from ancient swamp plants, especially during the Carboniferous.
  • Coal is the source of most electricity.
  • Coal mining may bring dangerous materials into the air and coal burning is sometimes quite dirty.


  1. How does coal form?
  2. There are swamps today. Why is coal not a renewable resource?
  3. What are some of the environmental consequences of coal use?

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Use this resource (watch up to 6:17) to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What environment is best for coal formation?
  2. Although the implication is that coal formed due to the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, most coal formed before that. What do the plants that become coal undergo in the swamp?
  3. How does this organic material become coal?
  4. How does brown coal turn into usable bituminous and higher grade coal?
  5. What is the gas exchange done by plants? What is the gas exchange done by coal burning?
  6. Ultimately where does the energy in coal come from?

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A solid fossil fuel from ancient dead organisms used for electricity.

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Difficulty Level:
At Grade
Date Created:
Feb 24, 2012
Last Modified:
Aug 29, 2016
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