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How Do We Get Energy from Coal?

Updated on May 28, 2009

When Was Coal First Used?

Coal has been used by man since very ancient times. Probably the first people to use it were the Chinese. There are records to show the Chinese used coal to smelt copper and iron perhaps as far back in time as three thousand years ago.

Coal is mentioned in Proverbs in the Bible. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 BC, mentions coal in his writings.

During the period when the Romans occupied Britain, which began about 50 BC, coal was used. We know this because in the ruins of Roman villas in Britain both coal and cinders have been found.

There are records that show that coal was mined in the Dutch province of Limburg in the year 1113. This mine, now known as the Domaniale Mine, is still being used and produces the most coal in the Netherlands!

How Do We Get Energy from Coal?

Coal is made of the remains of ancient trees and plants that grew in great swampy jungles in warm, moist climates hundreds of millions of years ago.

When these trees and plants died, they fell into the quiet swamp waters, which protected them against rotting. Bacteria changed some parts of the wood to gases which escaped, leaving behind a black mixture, mostly carbon, which was to become a coal seam.

In time, thick layers of mud and sand were washed in on top of the vegetation. Pressure from this mud and sand gradually squeezed out most of the liquid, leaving behind a pasty mass which slowly hardened into coal. All this took place anywhere from a million to 250 million years ago.

Energy, the ability to do work, comes from matter. Everything in the world that has mass (or weight) and takes up space is made of matter. Energy and matter are the two things that make up the universe and everything in it.

Matter is made of atoms, and every atom has particles of energy. Energy holds the parts of an atom together. Matter can be changed into energy and energy into matter, over and over again.

The energy in coal originally came from the sun. Millions of years ago plants used this energy for chemical transformations necessary to growth, and carbon dioxide from the air was built into carbon compounds that became coal.

The way we release this energy from the coal is by means of heat. Heat makes atoms and molecules move faster and faster, until some of the electrons jump out of them. When coal is burned, it supplies heat energy. The energy was there all the time in a form we call potential energy. The heat releases the stored energy and changes it into kinetic, or working energy.

This is the energy that is used to drive the engines and generators that work for us.


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