Advantages and Disadvantages of Coal

Advantages and Disadvantages of Coal

If there is one energy source that has stood the test of time, it is coal. It was used years ago to power engines, and it is used today to create energy to power whatever humankind needs it to power. However, the way that people perceived the advantages and disadvantages of coal led to the evolution of energy sources.

WHAT IS COAL?

It is a form of combustible sedimentary rock. Coal is mostly carbon with variable amounts of other elements; chiefly hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen. It starts out as peat, which is formed by decaying dead plant matter. Peat turns into coal over millions of years because of the heat and pressure of deep burial. Coal forests are large deposits of this resource. They are said to originate in former wetlands, which were a large majority of Earth’s tropical land areas 300 million years ago.

Know More – Advantages and Disadvantages of Breastfeeding

HOW IS COAL OBTAINED?

Underground formations called “seams” or “beds” are places where it is found. A coal bed can be as long as 1500 kilometres, and nearly 90 feet thick. It is extracted by mining, which can be surface or underground. Surface mining works for seams that are less than 200 feet underground. There are three forms of surface mining: strip mining, open-pit mining, and mountaintop removal (MTR) mining. Underground mining is used in cases of seams that are as deep as 1000 feet beneath the Earth’s surface. There are three major types of underground mining: longwall mining, room-and-pillar mining, and retreat mining. China is the largest producer of coal in the world, followed by America.

HOW DID WE START USING IT?

Archaeologists think that the first use of fossil fuels by humans occurred around 4000 years ago in northern China. The fuel that they used was coal. However, large-scale combustion of coal is considered to have started around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It was the first and only fossil source until the 1860s when crude oil consumption began.

The first instances of the utilisation of this resource also date back to the Aztecs, who used coal for fuel. In Europe, the Romans turned Britain into a 2nd Century A.D. coal hotbed, seeking to exploit as much of Roman Britain’s coalfields as possible. Archaeological excavation over the following centuries has discovered the remnants of coal stores at numerous forts along the famous Hadrian’s Wall. The nearby fort, Longovicium, houses evidence of the Romans having a smelting industry set up in Northern England. 
Before the Romans became interested in the early coal industry, Greek Scientist Theophrastus wrote the following of coal in his text, On Stones:

“Among the materials that are dug because they are useful, those known as coals are made of earth, and, once set on fire, they burn like charcoal. They are found in Liguria… and in Elis as one approaches Olympia by the mountain road; and they are used by those who work in metals.”

As far as historians and archaeologists know, Theophrastus’s words were among the very first that noted the use of coal in metalworking. 

WHAT ARE ITS TYPES?

There are 4 types of this resource, namely, anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous, and lignite.

Anthracite is the highest rank of coal. It is hard, brittle, and lustrous. It contains a high percentage of fixed carbon and a low percentage of volatile matter. Bituminous usually has a high heating value and is the most common type used in electricity generation in the United States. Subbituminous coal is black in colour and dull (not shiny), and has a higher heating value than lignite. Lignite, aka brown coal, is the lowest grade with the least concentration of carbon.

People all over the world have stated that using this is extremely harmful for the environment.

Are they correct?

Let’s find out.

Advantages of Coal

Abundant Supply

Because of the way that it is formed, coal is found on Earth in extremely large amounts. Over multiple centuries, plant matter has decayed and turned into fuel all over the world. Some researchers claim that the US has already mined enough coal to power the current resources for the next 400 years.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Coal
Coal is the world’s most abundant fossil fuel – more plentiful than oil and natural gas.

No Time Restriction

Unlike solar energy, this resource can be used to generate power 24×7. After it has been mined, it can be used to power machines whenever required. Furthermore, this resource does not need to be extracted constantly. Once a large amount of coal has been extracted, it can be used as fuel for a long period of time. However, with some renewable energies (wind and solar), the process of harnessing the energy is continuous.

Cost

It is one of the cheapest sources of energy. As opposed to renewable sources of energy, the equipment required to harness or utilize the resource does not cost very high. Since it is extracted by mining, the only cost incurred is are the labour wages and transportation costs. The decision to start mining a reserve is made by comparing the cost of labour and wages with the value of the resource.

Reliability

Many advanced pulverized coal-fired power plants are designed to support the grid system in avoiding blackouts. It is a definite source of energy. This means that when it is processed, it will become a source of energy, no matter what. Its ability to supply power during peak power demand is greatly valued as a power plant fuel.

Disadvantages of Coal

Exhaustible

Dead plant matter that decays turns into coal under high heat and pressure. Thus, the formation of this resource takes place over millions of years. No matter how slow its usage is, the formation is slower. This means that the reserve cannot replenish to compensate for the depletion. So, there will come a point when the reserves of coal around the globe run out. Thus, coal is an exhaustible resource.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Coal
Coal-fired plant

High Level of CO2

The world is facing a climate crisis right now. This climate crisis is a direct consequence of global warming. A major contributor to global warming is greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Coal contains one of the highest levels of CO2, out of all forms of energy. Burning it releases a high amount of carbon dioxide. Data shows that the United States is the world leader in terms of carbon emissions from electrical production, emitting 2.79 billion tons, followed by China at 2.66 billion tons and Russia a distant third at 661 million tons.

Know More – Advantages and Disadvantages of Solar Energy

Causes Radiation

“Coal ash” is the residue left after burning this resource. It is a producer of radiation. The ash also settles in areas near the plant. According to Scientific American, a coal power plant can produce up to 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant. Some studies have proved that this combustion can produce mercury and nitrous oxide as well.

Destruction by Mining

Other than land and air pollution, usage of this resource also leads to aesthetic pollution. Mining leads to the destruction of scenery and wildlife habitat. It also displaces the inhabitants of that area in large numbers. Areas surrounding mines are unsafe for human habitation as the land is prone to caving in.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Coal
Surface coal mining

Pros and Cons of Coal

PROS

CONS

Inexhaustible

Large investment

Cost-effective

Far off places

Sustainable

Threat to wildlife

Clean

Noisy

Over and above

Shadow flicker

Author Image
Rhythm Bhatia