Coal is the world’s most abundant and widely distributed fossil fuel. Coal is still the primary energy source for several countries world-wide. It is used primarily for the generation of electricity and steel production. Coal is classified by rank, which is a measure of the amount of alteration that the coal has undergone (i.e. amount of heat and pressure that the coal has undergone during formation). The increase in rank describes an increase in temperature and pressure which results in the coals having a lower volatile content, therefore increased carbon content. Coal is also classified according to its sulphur, phosphorous, volatile and ash contents, whose proportions generally vary according to its rank. Consecutive stages in evolution of rank, from an initial peat stage, are brown coal (or lignite), sub-bituminous coal, bituminous coal, and anthracite.

Coking coal is used in the steel making industry whereby the coal requires specific qualities such as low sulphur and phosphorous contents. Approximately 630 kg of coal are used for every ton of steel produced. Electricity generation uses thermal coal, which is ground to a fine powder prior to combustion. China, Australia and India are the world’s major coal producers.

Production and mining

Geographically South America is the continent with the least coal reserves with only 2.2% of total reserves and only 1.5% of the bituminous reserves. Africa has less than 6% of total reserves with these reserves concentrated in the bituminous category and dominated by South Africa with an estimated 90% of the continent’s reserves. Botswana and Zimbabwe have the only significant reserves outside South Africa.

Both North America and Asia have over 25% each of total reserves. While the reserves in North America are almost equally split between bituminous coal and sub-bituminous/lignite, Asia has a significantly higher proportion of reserves in the bituminous classification, accounting for around 35% of total bituminous reserves worldwide.

Total coal reserves held by Europe were slightly over 30% of the world total, while the individual categories show a higher share of world sub-bituminous and lignite reserves and a lower proportion of bituminous (22%). European reserves are dominated by two countries: Germany (21%) and the Russian Federation (50%). In respect of bituminous reserves, Germany, Poland, Russian Federation and the Ukraine account for over 95% of the European reserves.

Total world recoverable coal was 1,083,259 short tons in 2003. Global hard (black) coal production has grown by over 46% in the last 25 years to 3837 Mt in 2002 (3801 Mt in 2001). Major producers include China 1326 Mt, USA 916.7 Mt, India 333.7 Mt, Australia 276.0 Mt, South Africa 223.0 Mt, Russia 163.6 Mt, Poland 102.6 Mt, Indonesia 101.2 Mt, Ukraine 82.9 Mt, and Kazakhstan 70.6 Mt. Brown coal/lignite production totalled 876.5 Mt in 2002 compared with 896.9 Mt in 2001. Approximately 14% (almost 528 Mt) of total hard coal production is currently utilised by the steel industry – almost 66% of total global steel production is dependent on coal.

Shaun Bakamoso

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