What is the Coal Industry?

Alan Rankin

The coal industry is the worldwide group of businesses involved in the mining and processing of coal and its subsequent uses. Coal is a naturally occurring mineral found in many locations around the world. It burns readily, so it is widely used in energy production. Coal and its by-products have many other industrial uses, such as steel manufacturing. The coal industry is controversial in many areas because of pollution and other environmental issues.

Entrance to a coal mine.
Entrance to a coal mine.

Coal is a fossil fuel, meaning it is the product of decaying organic matter that has been changed into a combustible mineral by geologic processes. These processes take millions of years, and in that time many coal deposits were left at or near the surface of the Earth. These deposits, called coal seams, were easily accessible by humans, first by cultivating exposed seams and later by mining for buried coal. Coal has been burned as a fuel for thousands of years. When the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, coal was the primary fuel used to power factories and machinery.

Large tunnels in a coal mine.
Large tunnels in a coal mine.

The modern coal industry includes hundreds of companies in nations around the world involved in coal mining. Coal is removed from subterranean seams either by open pit mining, resulting in gigantic holes in the surface of the Earth, or shaft mining, a dangerous process that sends miners into tunnels that are sometimes miles deep. Once mined, the coal is used in various industrial processes, including power generation. Power plants around the world burn coal to produce steam that activates turbines, producing electricity. Approximately 40 percent of the world’s power is created this way as of 2011.

Coal is mined and processed in the coal industry.
Coal is mined and processed in the coal industry.

The coal industry also produces various other fuels, including ethanol, diesel fuel, and a liquid fuel called coal gas. A major by-product of coal is coke, a substance used in the production of cast iron and steel. Other coal by-products include ammonia and coal tar, which is used in industrial, chemical, and even medical applications.

Coke is a major byproduct of the coal industry.
Coke is a major byproduct of the coal industry.

Unfortunately, the burning of coal produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is believed to contribute to global warming. There are methods of producing so-called clean coal energy, but the process of changing to these methods has been slow because of the high expense of converting existing power plants. Other drawbacks of the coal industry include the dangers of coal mining. Many generations of miners suffered from a condition called black lung as a result of constantly inhaling coal dust. The highly flammable coal and coal dust has also created underground fires and explosions; in April 2010, for example, 29 miners were killed by a coal mine explosion in West Virginia.

Coal mining can be dangerous, as coal dust within an enclosed chamber can ignite.
Coal mining can be dangerous, as coal dust within an enclosed chamber can ignite.
Coal miners have to be comfortable using a variety of tools to extract minerals.
Coal miners have to be comfortable using a variety of tools to extract minerals.

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