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Origins of coal

If concerns over global warming are satisfied, future liquefying and gasifying technologies could make lignite a prized resource. Hartshorne, T. Economic Geography. Young, G.

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Even though it had been a source of energy for centuries, coal was first used on a large scale during the Industrial Revolution in England. From the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, the sky was filled with billowing columns of black smoke. Soot covered the towns and cities, and workers breathed the thick coal dust swirling around them.

Environmental issues, if they were considered at all, were far less important than the jobs the factories provided. Factory owners had little reason or incentive to control the smoke pouring out of their plants—the environmental and public health effects of pollution were not as well understood as they are today, so government imposed little, if any, regulation on manufacturing.

In the United States early colonists used wood to heat their homes because it was so plentiful. Coal was not as readily available and far more expensive. Before the Civil War — , some industries used coal as a source of energy, but its use expanded greatly with the building of railroads across the country. In fact, coal became such a fundamental part of American industrialization that some historians call this era the coal age. As in England, Americans considered the development of industry a source of national pride.

Photographs and postcards of the time proudly featured trains and steel mills belching dark smoke into gray skies. By then it had been overtaken by concerns about pollution, along with the emergence of nuclear power as a promising energy source.


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In , however, the oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries made many Americans reconsider. Consequently, the nation revived its interest in domestic coal as a plentiful and economical energy source. He also asked utility companies and other large industries to convert their operations to coal. In more coal was produced in the United States than any other form of energy: See Table 1.

Coal was the third-largest source of energy consumed in the United States in , after petroleum and natural gas. See Figure 1.

Powder River Basin Coal on the Move - Scientific American

Coal is a black, combustible, mineral solid. It developed over millions of years as plant matter decomposed in an airless space under increased temperature and pressure. Coal beds, sometimes called seams, are found in the earth between beds of sandstone, shale, and limestone and range in thickness from less than an 1 inch 2. Approximately 5 to 10 feet 1. Coal is used as a fuel and in the production of coal gas, water gas, many coal-tar compounds, and coke the solid substance left after coal gas and coal tar have been extracted from coal.

When coal is burned, its fossil energy—sunlight converted and stored by plants over millions of years—is released. One short ton 0. A short ton is 2, pounds [ k]. There are four basic types of coal. Classifications, or coal ranks, are based on how much carbon, volatile matter, and heating value are contained in the coal:.

In domestic mines produced over 1. See Table 4. Lignite accounted for much of the remainder. Very little of the total was anthracite.

What is Jet?

Coal is found in about , square miles 1. Figure 4. Geologists divide U. Miners had been digging deeper and deeper into the Appalachian Mountains for years before bulldozers began cutting open the rich coal seams of eastern Montana. In western mines produced By , however, western production had increased more than twentyfold, to The amount of coal mined east of the Mississippi that year was In mines west of the Mississippi produced The growth in coal production in the western states resulted, in part, because of an increased demand for low-sulfur coal, which is concentrated there.

Low-sulfur coal burns cleaner and is considered less dangerous to the environment. In addition, the coal is closer to the surface, so it can be extracted by surface mining, which is cheaper and more efficient. Improved rail service has also made it easier to deliver this low-sulfur coal to electric power plants located east of the Mississippi River. The method used to mine coal depends on the terrain and the depth of the coal. Before the early s most coal was taken from underground mines. Since then, coal production has shifted to surface mines. Underground mining is required when the coal lies more than feet 61 m below ground.

The depth of most underground mines is less than 1, feet m , but a few are 2, feet m deep. In underground mines, some coal must be left untouched to form pillars that prevent the mines from caving in. In a shaft mine, elevators take miners and equipment up and down a vertical shaft to the coal deposit.

Pennsylvania Annual Report of Mines by Year: 1870-1979

By contrast, the entrance to a slope mine is an incline from the aboveground opening. In a drift mine, the mineshaft runs horizontally from the opening in the hillside.


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  6. As Figure 4. Surface mines are usually less than feet 61 m deep and can be developed in flat or hilly terrain.

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    On large plots of relatively flat ground workers use a technique known as area surface mining. Rock and soil that lie above the coal—called overburden or spoil—are loosened by drilling and blasting and then dug away. Another technique, contour surface mining, follows coal deposits along hillsides. See Figure 4. Open pit mining—a combination of area and contour mining—is used to mine thick, steeply inclined coal deposits. The growth of surface mining and the closure of non-productive mines led to increases in coal mining productivity through the s and s.

    Because surface mines are easier to work, they average up to three times the productivity of underground mines. In the combined average productivity for both mining methods reached an all-time high of 6. In combined average productivity was 6. The law established mandatory health and safety standards for mines and required that mine operators and miners comply with them.

    It also provided assistance to states to develop and enforce effective state mine health and safety programs and expanded research and development aimed at preventing accidents and diseases associated with mining occupations. Throughout its history, coal mining has been a physically challenging and dangerous occupation, with a recognized risk for injury or disease.

    In addition, mine accidents can occur without warning, including cave-ins, fires, underground floods, equipment failures, and gas explosions. Flammable gases, notably methane, are found naturally in coal mines. In underground mines these accidents carry the additional risk of trapping miners in the mine without air, water, or food.

    The number of disasters peaked during the period through , when large accidents occurred. The most deadly event in U. The MSHA shows that was, in fact, the deadliest year on record, with 3, fatalities. With a death toll of and more than 1, injured, the deadliest coal mining accident in recent decades was the massive Buffalo Creek flood in southern West Virginia in February Over million gallons million L of water then poured out and rushed through the valley below in the form of a black wave that reached 15 to 20 feet 4. The power of the water smashed structures and moved whole houses and railroad cars downstream.

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