— Coal is a pit fuel formed from parts of ancient plants underground without oxygen. The international name of carbon comes from the Latin word carbo (coal). Coal was the first kind of pit fuel used by man. It allowed bringing about the industrial revolution, which in turn contributed to the development of the coal industry by providing it with more modern technology.

On average, combustion of one kilogram of this fuel results in emission of 2.93 kg of CO2 and allows to generate 6.67 kW•h of power or, at an efficiency of 30 %, 2.0 kW•h of electricity. In 1960, coal accounted for about half the world's energy production. By 1970, its share had fallen to one-third. Increasing use of coal is observed in periods of high prices for oil and other energy products.

Formation of coal

Abundant accumulation of plant matter is required for the formation of coal. Starting from the Devonian period (about 416 million years ago), organic matter had been accumulating in ancient peat bogs to form pit coals under anaerobic conditions. Most commercial deposits of pit coal date from this period, although there are younger deposits. The age of the oldest coals is estimated to be about 300-400 million years.

Coal is formed when decaying plant material builds up faster than its bacterial decomposition takes place. The ideal conditions for this process are created in swamps, where oxygen-depleted standing water prevents the vital functions of bacteria and thus protects plant material from complete destruction. At a certain stage of the process, evolving acids start to prevent further bacterial activity. As a result, a feedstock for coal formation — peat — originates. If it is then buried under other sediments, peat is exposed to compression and converted into coal losing water and gases.

Under the action of a 1 km-thick stratum pressure, a 20-meter layer of peat gives a 4-meter layer of brown coal. If burial depth of the plant material reaches up to 3 miles, the same peat layer turns into a 2- meter coal bed. At a greater depth of about 6 kilometers and at higher temperatures, a 20-meter layer of peat transforms into a 1.5-meter anthracite seam.

Coal seams were experiencing uplift and folding as a result of the Earth's crust movement. The raised zones were disintegrating due to erosion or spontaneous combustion over time, while the lowered zones remained unchanged in vast shallow basins where coal was at least 900 meters from the surface. The formation of the thickest coal seams is associated with those areas of the Earth's crust that were subject to a gradual tectonic subsidence at a rate of peat accumulation on their surface for a considerable time — millions of years. At some places, such as Hat Creek (Canada), the thickness of one coal seam can reach 500 m and more.

Types of coal


Anthracite, the oldest type of the pit coals, has the highest degree of coalification. It is characterized by a high density and lustre. Anthracite contains 95 % carbon. It is used as a high-energy solid fuel with an energy value 6800-8350 kcal/kg. Anthracite has the greatest heat of combustion value, but is difficult to ignite. It is formed from hard coal at an elevated pressures and temperatures and at depths of about 6 kilometers.

Hard coal

Hard coal is a sedimentary rock formed by deep decomposition of plant residues (tree ferns, equisetums, lycopodiums and the first gymnosperms). Most coal deposits were formed in the Paleozoic era, mainly in the Carboniferous period, about 300–350 million years ago. By its chemical composition, coal is a mixture of high molecular weight polycyclic aromatic compounds with a high mass content of carbon, as well as water and volatile substances with small amounts of mineral impurities that give ash after coal combustion. Pit coals differ in the ratio of constituent components, which determines their calorific value. A number of organic compounds in hard coal are carcinogenic.

Depending on coal grade, carbon content in coal varies from 75 % to 95 %. This type of coal contains up to 12 % moisture (3-4 % fixed moisture) and has a higher heat of combustion as compared to brown coal. It contains up to 32 % volatile matter, which results in a higher flammability. Hard coal is formed from brown coal at depths of about 3 kilometers.

Brown coal

Brown coal is a solid pit coal formed from peat. The youngest type of coals contains 65-70 % carbon and is brown in colour. It is used as a domestic fuel and a chemical feedstock. This coal has a high water content (43 %) and therefore a low heat of combustion. It also contains a large number of volatile substances (up to 50 %). Brown coal is formed from dead organic matter under pressure load and at high temperatures, at the depths of about 1 kilometer.

Coal mining

Methods of coal mining depend on the depth of its occurrence. Open-pit coal mining is used, if the depth of the coal seam does not exceed 100 meters. There are also cases when it becomes more profitable to excavate coal deposits by the underground mining method as the coal quarry deepens. Coal mines are used to extract coal from the depths. In the deepest mines of the Russian Federation, coal is excavated from the depths just over 1,200 meters. Besides coal, many types of mineral resources possessing consumer relevance are also found in coal-bearing strata. These resources include enclosing rocks used as raw materials for the construction industry, groundwater, coalbed methane, rare and trace elements, including precious metals and their compounds. For example, some coals are enriched in germanium.

Coal marking

Like oil and gas, coal is an organic substance which has been exposed to slow decomposition caused by biological and geological processes. Plant remains constitute the coal basis. Depending on the degree of conversion and the relative amount of carbon in coal, the following four types of coal are differentiated: brown coal, hard coal, anthracite and graphite. There is a slightly different classification in Western countries: lignite, sub-bituminous coal, bituminous coal, anthracite and graphite respectively.

Coal marking — is established with the aim of rational industrial use of coal. The coals are divided into grades and technological groups, the subdivision being based on the parameters that characterize coal behavior during thermal exposure. The Russian classification differs from the Western one.

Russian classification

Coal grades Letter designation Volatile-matter yield (Vr) Vg, % Carbon content Cg (Сг), % ТHeat of combustion Qgb (Qгб), kcal/kg Reflectivity in immersion oil, %
Brown B(Б) 41 min 76 max 6900-7500 0,30-0,49
Long-flaming D (Д) 39 min 76 7500-8000 0,50-0,64
Gas G (Г) 36 83 7900-8600 0,65-0,84
Fatty Zh (Ж) 30 86 8300-8700 0,85-1,14
Coke К 20 88 8400-8700 1,15-1,74
Lean caking coal ОС 15 89 8450-8780 1,75-2,04
Meager Т 12 90 7300-8750 2,05-2,49
Anthracites А 8 max 91 min 8100-8750 2,50-6,00

For some basins, the following intermediate grades are introduced that differ from those specified in the above table:

  • gas fatty GZh (ГЖ)
  • сoke fatty KZh (КЖ)
  • сoke 2 (K2)
  • low-caking (CC).

Coals are divided into groups by their agglomeration capacity; a number indicating the lower value of the plastimetry layer thickness for these coals, e. g. G6 (Г6), G17 (Г17), KZh14 (КЖ14), etc., is added to the grade letter designation to specify the corresponding technological group.

By size of lumps produced after excavating, coal is classified into the following classes: P (П, slabby) over 100 mm, K (large) 50–100 mm; O (hazelnut-sized) 25–50 mm, M (small) 13–25 mm; C (pea-sized) 6–13 mm, Sh (Ш, culm) 0–6 mm; P (run-of-mine) 0 - 200 mm, career 0–300 mm.

Coal grades D (Д) and G (Г) can burn without blasting, and this feature allows using the grades in boilers. Coal grades СС, Т or ОС can be used in power generation. As a rule, grades G (Г) and Zh (Ж) are used in the ferrous metallurgy.

Other classifications

German classification is based on elemental analysis results (expressed as percentages).

Russian equivalent German equivalent Volatile matter, % С Carbon, % Н Hydrogen, % О Oxygen % S Sulfur % Heat of combustion Qgb (Qгб), kJ/kg
Brown (lignites) Braunkohle 45-65 60-75 6,0-5,8 34-17 0,5-3 < 28470
Long-flaming Flammkohle 40-45 75-82 6,05-5,8 >9,8 ~1 < 32870
Long-flaming gas Gasflammkohle 35-40 82-85 5,8-5,6 9,8-7,3 ~1 < 33910
Gas Gaskohle 28-35 85-87,5 5,6-5,0 7,3-4,5 ~1 < 34960
Fatty Fettkohle 19-28 87,5-89,5 5,0-4,5 4,5-3,2 ~1 < 35380
Coke Esskohle 14-19 89,5-90,5 4,5-4,0 3,2-2,8 ~1 < 35380
Meager Magerkohle 10-14 90,5-91,5 4,0-3,75 2,8-3,5 ~1 35380
Anthracite Anthrazit 7-12 >91,5 <3,75 <2,5 ~1 < 35300
Percentage by weight

Proven coal reserves

Proven coal reserves in 2009, million tons
Country Hard coal Brown coal Total %
USA 111338 135305 238308 28,9
Russia 49088 107922 157010 19,0
China 62200 52300 114500 13,9
India 90085 2360 92445 10,2
Commonwealth of Australia 38600 39900 78500 8,6
South Africa 48750 0 48750 5,4
Ukraine 16274 17879 34153 3,8
Kazakhstan 28151 3128 31279 3,4
Poland 14000 0 14000 1,5
Brasilia 0 10113 10113 1,1
Germany 183 6556 6739 0,7
Colombia 6230 381 6611 0,7
Canada 3471 3107 6578 0,7
Czech Republic 2094 3458 5552 0,6
Indonesia 740 4228 4968 0,5
Turkey 278 3908 4186 0,5
Madagascar 198 3159 3357 0,4
Pakistan 0 3050 3050 0,3
Bulgaria 4 2183 2187 0,2
Thailand 0 1354 1354 0,1
North Korea 300 300 600 0,1
New Zealand 33 538 571 0,1
Spain 200 330 530 0,1
Zimbabwe 502 0 502 0,1
Romania 22 472 494 0,1
Venezuela 479 0 479 0,1
Total 478771 430293 909064 100,0

Top Ten Hard Coal Producers (2010e)
PR China 3162Mt Russia 248Mt
USA 932Mt Indonesia 173Mt
India 538Mt Kazakhstan 105Mt
Australia 353Mt Poland 77Mt
South Africa 255Mt Colombia 74Mt

Top Coal Exporters (2010e)
Total of which Steam Coking
Australia 298Mt 143Mt 155Mt
Indonesia 162Mt 160Mt 2Mt
Russia 109Mt 95Mt 14Mt
USA 74Mt 23Mt 51Mt
South Africa 70Mt 68Mt 2Mt
Colombia 68Mt 67Mt 1Mt
Canada 31Mt 4Mt 27Mt
Top Coal Exporters (2010e)
Total of which Steam Coking
Japan 187Mt 129Mt 58Mt
PR China 177Mt 129Mt 48Mt
South Korea 119Mt 91Mt 28Mt
India 90Mt 60Mt 30Mt
Chinese Tapei 63Mt 58Mt 5Mt
Germany 46Mt 38Mt 8Mt
Turkey 27Mt 20Mt 7Mt