The Role of Chemistry in History

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Entries Tagged as 'Coal'


May 6th, 2008 · Comments Off on References

Introduction to Coal | Coal as a Fuel|Coal Affects History| Coal Mining and Effects| Environmental Effects| History Affects Coal|References|

  • Church, R. (1986). The history of the British coal industry, vol. 3. 1830-1913. Oxford, UK:  Clarendon Press.

  • Cross, P.S. (1993). Clean-coal technology: State regulators respond. Public Utilities Fortnightly, 131, 42-45. 
  • Douglas, J.H. (1973, July 7). Coal: The stopgap fuel: Maybe. Science News, 104, 10-12. 
  • Kurtenbach, E. (2007, October 28). Despite worries of climate change, the world’s addiction to coal is increasing. The Salt Lake Tribune.
  •  Lagowski, J.J. (Ed.). (2004). Chemistry foundations and applications, vol. 1. A-C. New York, NY: Macmillan Reference USA 
  • Langton, J. (2000). Proletarianization in the industrial revolution: Regionalism and kinship in the labor markets of the British coal industry from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 25, 31-49. 
  • Lienhard, J.H. (1999). “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have: Power.” Retrieved April 28, 2008, from University of Houston, Engines of Our Ingenuity web site: 
  • McGuire, P.A. (2001, May 28). Coal gets cleaner: And better connected: Fresh technology and a friend in the white house give it new respectability. Business Week, 82. 
  • Mead, J.S. (2001, March 19). The coal is there for us: Will the technology be? St. Louis Post- Dispatch, pp. E7. 
  • Moore, C.A. (2000). New showdown over coal. International Wildlife, 30, 26-31.
  • Peckman, J. (2002, July 22). Ultra-clean fuels from coal liquefaction: China about to launch big projects. Diesel Fuel News.

  • Peterson, I. (1983, September 17). The dirty face of coal. Science News, 124, 189. 
  • Simons, H. (1955, February 5). Coal is mineral storehouse. The Science News-Letter, 67, 90-91. 
  • Thomsen, D.E. (1986, November 8). Rolling with coal. Science News, 130, 298-300. 
  • Torrens, I.M. (1990). Developing clean coal technologies. Environment, 32, 10-33. 
  • Turnbull, G. (1987). Canals, coal and regional growth during the industrial revolution. The Economic History Review, 40, 537-560. 
  • Valenti, M. (1992). Coal gasification: An alternative energy source is coming of age. Mechanical Engineering, 114, 39-44. 
  • International energy annual 2005: World carbon dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuels. Retrieved April 29, 2008, from Energy Information Administration: Official Energy Statistics from the U.S. Government, World Carbon Dioxide Emissions:  

(Note: There were no page numbers given for two of the newspaper articles cited. I apologize for any inconvenience. If you have any questions please e-mail me:


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Categories: Coal

Coal Mining and Effects

April 22nd, 2008 · 7 Comments

Introduction to Coal | Coal as a Fuel|Coal Affects History| Coal Mining and Effects| Environmental Effects| History Affects Coal|References|

Coal mining is the primary means by which coal is extracted from the ground for use as a fuel or other means. Some coal is found on or close to the surface which is likely how pre-historic man was able to obtain coal for use in campfires. However, by 10,000 B.C. in China, and prior to Roman times in Britannia digging pits and primitive mining techniques became common means of coal production. Extensive mining projects developed in Britian and other countries during the industrial revolution and with them a number of social and environmental problems as miners and the regions surrounding the mines suffered the negative side effects of coal mining.

Mining Techniques used in the Early 19th Century

  • Deep Shaft mining: The most common form of mining during the industrial revolution. The method was relatively primitive and involved non-mechanized workers sheering coal of the mine walls with pick axes and other tools. Deep shaft mining was extremely hazardous and resulted in the death of many workers via accident or illness.

  • Blast mining: Another older technique where dynamite or other explosives blow up target areas of the mine. The coal is then collected and transported out of the mine. Obviously, it’s an extremely hazardous technique.

Dangers and Risks

During the industrial revolution coal mining was an extremely hazardous occupation. Miners were subject to many on-site hazards and health risks. For centuries many miners developed fatal or potentially fatal lung diseases from inhaling soot and toxic gasses in the mines. These diseases included black lung, tuberculosis, and lung cancer.


Additionally, the potential for accidents was usually high. Sloppiness and carelessness sometimes led to collapse or partial collapse of mines (known as mine wall failures). Abuse and misuse of cars and other equipments were other causes of accidental deaths. Perhaps the greatest risk to miners was the buildup of hazardous gasses (called damps) which are the product of various reactions with the coal.

  • Black Damp: CO2 and N causes suffocation

  • After Damp: Similar to Black Damp causes explosions

  • Fire Damp: Methane flammable

  • Stink Damp: Mostly Sulfur causes explosions

  • White Damp: Air with a high concentration of CO highly toxic

Such gasses are responsible for some of the worse mining disasters in history including the Senghenydd Colliery Disaster which occurred in South Wales in 1913. An explosion in the mine believed to be caused by fire damp killed 439 miners, some boys.  


Coal Dust Expolosion

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Categories: Coal

Environmental Effects

April 22nd, 2008 · 1 Comment

Introduction to Coal | Coal as a Fuel|Coal Affects History| Coal Mining and Effects| Environmental Effects| History Affects Coal|References|

Coal Mining

  • Contamination of Ground water systems: When coal surfaces are exposed to the elements the FeS2 (also known as pyrite and fools goal) on the coal surface then reacts with water to create sulfuric acid. Once the water drains from the mine the acid enters waterways and groundwater systems. This is not a onetime event either. Sulfuric acid will be produced every time rain falls on the exposed mine.

  • Destruction of above ground structures: Collapses of mines have caused major damage to infrastructure in the surrounding areas. Occasionally, houses and other buildings can sink into the ground mandating the relocation of anywhere from one or two families to a small town. Additionally, mine collapses of significant size have on occasion caused small earthquakes. In 2008, Germany suffered an earthquake that registered 4.0 on the Richter scale as the result of a suspected mine collapse.


  • Damps: The hazardous gasses that build up in the mine often contain greenhouse gasses (example: methane, carbon dinoxide) that contribute to global warming.

Combustion of Coal

The harmful impacts of burning coal are a result of the gasses that are produced as a result of the combustion reaction. These products are principally oxides of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur some of which are greenhouse gasses. However, additional products also include hydrides and nitrides of sulfur and oxygen. Examples include toxic gasses such as hydrogen cyanide.

  • Acid Rain: Acid rain may be produced from SO2 synthesized as a result of burning coal. The SO2 reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere to form SO3 (2SO2 + O2 2SO3). The SO3 in turn reacts with the water in the atmosphere to produce sulfuric acid (SO3 + H2O H2SO4), which falls to the earth as acid rain.

  • Other hazardous waste products: the waste products of coal plants include many heavy metals (examples: As, Pb, Hg, Cr, Cu) as well as several naturally occurring radioactive such as uranium. If not properly disposed these byproducts pose severe risks to people and the environment.


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Categories: Coal

Coal as a Fuel

April 22nd, 2008 · Comments Off on Coal as a Fuel

Introduction to Coal | Coal as a Fuel|Coal Affects History| Coal Mining and Effects| Environmental Effects| History Affects Coal|References|


Early Uses

Archaeologists speculate that coal was first used as fuel as early as 120,000 years ago when it was used for campfire cooking in Germany. Other early uses of coal for fuel have been evidenced in China as early as 10,000 B.C. and in Britannia prior to the Roman invasion where it was used as a source of heat, the Aztecs also used coal for that purpose. Early uses of coal were simplistic, since coal is a ready-combustible material lighting a fire was enough to unlock coal’s potential as a source of heat and a cooking implement.

Industrial Revolution


Coal was the primary fuel used to power the steam engines of the Industrial Revolution (such as the Watt Steam Engine pictured above). The steam engine implemented a thermodynamic process where coal (usually bituminous or sub-bituminous) is used to heat water in a boiler (or “steam generator”) which in turn produces steam. The steam places pressure on a turbine blade or piston. The motion of the blade or piston can then be used to move gears and wheels and thus, power machinery.


Present Day

In the contemporary industrial world, coal is still a popular source of fuel due to its abundance and low cost. Coal plants provide most of the electricity in the United States and many other countries. The basic principle of the steam engine is still used. The principle difference is that the turbines are used to power electrical generators rather than gears and wheels. Additionally, coal is now industrially pulverized before being burned. Most coal plants in the United States are in continuous use and require daily shipments of 10,000 tons of coal per day (or more) to continue to operate.zenit40.png

Other Contemporary Examples

  •   Gasification: Cheaper alternative to natural gas and oil. Cleaner then burning coal the conventional way.
  •   Liquefaction (Coal-to-Liquids or CTL): Conversion of coal to liquid fuels similar to gasoline. Environmentally unsound but a potential means of stabilizing oil prices in the future.
  • Clean Coal Technology: See History Affects Coal

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Categories: Coal

History Affects Coal

April 22nd, 2008 · 7 Comments

Introduction to Coal | Coal as a Fuel|Coal Affects History| Coal Mining and Effects| Environmental Effects| History Affects Coal|References|

Coal Mining

Concerns over the safety of miners have led to a number of safer mining techniques where the work is done primarily by machine.

  • Longwall mining: A modern method of underground coal mining that implements a shearer with a long face of roughly 1000 feet in length. The coal sheered of the wall of the mine is removed from the mine by conveyor belt. This type of mining poses little risk to the worker.


  • Continuous mining: Another modern technique that uses a machine with a steel rotating drum that scrapes off coal with metal attached to the drum. This method also poses little risk to the miner.


The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977: This piece of U.S. Federal legislation set mandatory provisions for the monitoring of active coal mines and reclamation of abandoned and/or collapsed coal mines in order to mitigate harmful environmental affects. It has been used a model for similar legislation in several other countries.

Clean Coal Technology

Clean coal technology was developed as a means of making coal pants more environmentally friendly and is becoming common practice. Clean coal technology aims to both recover the CO2 released during the coal combustion reaction to reduce the carbon cost and to remove sulfur dioxide from the reaction by cleansing the coal of minerals and impurities. The process is promising but has been criticized by some environmentalists who claim: “There is no such thing as clean coal.”


Click on the diagram for a clearer view!

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Categories: Coal

Introduction to Coal

April 22nd, 2008 · 10 Comments

Introduction to Coal | Coal as a Fuel|Coal Affects History| Coal Mining and Effects| Environmental Effects| History Affects Coal|References|


Coal is a fossil fuel formed from plant remains that were trapped in mud and therefore not oxidized. It is technically a sedimentary rock with a chemical structure similar to that of a polymer. Its structure varies based on the age of the coal and therefore the amount of pressure applied to it over time. The main types of coal are listed below from youngest:

·         Peat (technically a precursor to coal)

·         Lignite

·         Sub-bituminous coal

·         Bituminous coal

·         Anthracite (pictured below)

·         Graphite


The structure of coal varies by type and even sometimes within a given age group. However, the typical coal structure consists of numerous aromatic rings of five or six carbons bonded with principally hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, and oxygen atoms. Nitrogen, hydrogen, and sulfur are responsible for the majority of coal’s chemical properties.



The nitrogen and oxygen atoms in coal result in a readily combustible structure which has made coal a popular fuel and source of heat throughout history. Coal was first mined as fuel as far back as 10,000 years ago in China and today is the primary fuel implemented in the production of electricity worldwide. During the last three hundred years, coal played an important role in the technological advances, culture, and the global economy. In the present day coal is a center of controversy; coal mining is notorious for the risks involved and the associated social woes. Additionally, burning coal produces greenhouse gases and is therefore, a contributing factor to global warming. However, political activism and chemical research have done much to alleviate these concerns and coal continues to be an important and improved source of fuel in the twenty first century.


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Categories: Coal

Coal Affects History

April 22nd, 2008 · 50 Comments

Introduction to Coal | Coal as a Fuel|Coal Affects History| Coal Mining and Effects| Environmental Effects| History Affects Coal|References|

Industrial Revolution

As previously mentioned, coal played a pivotal role in the industrial revolution as fuel for the steam engine that was driving the movement. However, beyond its role as a fuel coal also had a tremendous impact on the global economy, politics, and foreign relations during the era of the industrial revolution.

Britain’s abundant supply of coal is the reason that it became the first industrial power. After the invention of the steam engine Britain’s abundant supply of coal allowed it the resources to set up factories and begin the process of industrialization. Many other nations, such as the United States, also benefited from their vast coal resources and were quick to industrialize. However, for other nations shortages in coal resources proved a significant obstacle to industrialization of infrastructure and modernization of their economy. This impacted the balance of power among the imperialist nations of the world. Nations that were able to industrialize were able to produce goods and, perhaps more importantly, munitions faster than their peers. This gave Britain, the United States, and other nations a decided military advantage against unindustrialized opponents. Improvements in the production and quality of arms as a result of the steam engine and the industrial revolution help account for the expansion and maintenance of the British Empire as well as the high casualty rates in the U.S. Civil War.

However, the eagerness of unindustrialized countries to catch up with Britian opened up a lucrative market in trading coal. This market still exists today as many countries import coal as a (as previously mentioned) inexpensive fuel source for power plants. In contemporary times the two largest producers of coal are the United States and Australia. The two exported a combined 308 million tons of coal in 2005.

 Transportation Innovations

In the early 19th century coal fueled the newly invented steam boat and steam locomotive. The steam locomotive in particular revolutionized transportation. Both the steam engine and boat were powered by a steam engine similar to the one powering Britain’s factories. The steam engine allowed for faster and cheaper transportation of goods from one point to another. It was both faster and stronger (could lug more carts) then previous models of train engines. Ironically, the first material to benefit from the new mode of transportation was coal. Steam locomotives transported coal from the mines to rivers (and later canals) where the valuable commodity was shipped to factories.


In the present day, coal is still being used to improve transportation. As previously mentioned, scientists have successfully created a liquid fuel via liquefaction that can be used to power automobiles. It is being investigated as a cheap alternative to less abundant petroleum. Unfortunately, an affordable process of making the liquid fuel environmentally friendly has not yet been discovered.


In the United States Santa Claus stuffs coal in the stockings of naughty children. However, in Scotland coal is a traditional New Year’s gift and represents warmth in the year to come.


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Categories: Coal