What is coal?

Coal is a fossil fuel and is the altered remains of prehistoric vegetation that originally accumulated in swamps and peat bogs. The energy we get from coal today comes from the energy that plants absorbed from the sun millions of years ago.

Coal formation

All living plants store solar energy through a process known as photosynthesis. When plants die, this energy is usually released as the plants decay. Under conditions favourable to coal formation, the decaying process is interrupted, preventing the release of the stored solar energy. The energy is locked into the coal.

Coal formation began during the Carboniferous Period – known as the first coal age – which spanned 360 million to 290 million years ago. The build-up of silt and other sediments, together with movements in the earth’s crust – known as tectonic movements – buried swamps and peat bogs, often to great depths. With burial, the plant material was subjected to high temperatures and pressures. This caused physical and chemical changes in the vegetation, transforming it into peat and then into coal.

Coalification

The degree of change undergone by a coal as it matures from peat to anthracite is known as coalification. Coalification has an important bearing on coal’s physical and chemical properties and is referred to as the ‘rank’ of the coal. Ranking is determined by the degree of transformation of the original plant material to carbon. The ranks of coals, from those with the least carbon to those with the most carbon, are lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite.