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Coal explained  

Coal takes millions of years to form

Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock with a high amount of carbon and hydrocarbons. Coal is classified as a nonrenewable energy source because it takes millions of years to form. Coal contains the energy stored by plants that lived hundreds of millions of years ago in swampy forests.

Layers of dirt and rock covered the plants over millions of years. The resulting pressure and heat turned the plants into the substance we call coal.

Three images showing how coal was formed. The first image is of a swamp, 300 million years ago. Before the dinosaurs, many giant plants died in swamps. The second image is of water, 100 million years ago. Over millions of years, these plants were buried under water and dirt. The third image is of rocks and dirt over the coal. Heat and pressure turned the dead plants into coal.

Types of coal

Coal is classified into four main types, or ranks: anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous, and lignite. The ranking depends on the types and amounts of carbon the coal contains and on the amount of heat energy the coal can produce. The rank of a coal deposit is determined by the amount of pressure and heat that acted on the plants over time.

Anthracite contains 86%–97% carbon and generally has the highest heating value of all ranks of coal. Anthracite accounted for less than 1% of the coal mined in the United States in 2020. All of the anthracite mines in the United States are in northeastern Pennsylvania. In the United States, anthracite is mainly used by the metals industry.

Bituminous coal contains 45%–86% carbon. Bituminous coal in the United States is between 100 million and 300 million years old. Bituminous coal is the most abundant rank of coal found in the United States, and it accounted for about 44% of total U.S. coal production in 2020. Bituminous coal is used to generate electricity and is an important fuel and raw material for making coking coal or use in the iron and steel industry. Bituminous coal was produced in at least 18 states in 2020, but five states accounted for about 74% of total bituminous production: West Virginia (28%), Pennsylvania (14%), Illinois (13%), Kentucky (10%), and Indiana (8%).

Subbituminous coal typically contains 35%–45% carbon, and it has a lower heating value than bituminous coal. Most subbituminous coal in the United States is at least 100 million years old. About 46% of total U.S. coal production in 2020 was subbituminous and about 88% was produced in Wyoming and 8% in Montana. The remainder was produced in Alaska, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Lignite contains 25%–35% carbon and has the lowest energy content of all coal ranks. Lignite coal deposits tend to be relatively young and were not subjected to extreme heat or pressure. Lignite is crumbly and has high moisture content, which contributes to its low heating value. Lignite accounted for 9% of total U.S. coal production in 2020. About 54% was mined in North Dakota and about 39% was mined in Texas. The other 7% was produced in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Montana. Lignite is mostly used to generate electricity. A facility in North Dakota also converts lignite to synthetic natural gas that is sent in natural gas pipelines to consumers in the eastern United States.

Last updated: October 19, 2021