Carbon is one of the most common elements in the Universe. It is the chemical building block of life on Earth and carbon products are an inextricable part of our everyday lives. As the basis of several chemical compounds, carbon is found in food, fuels, fertilisers, cleaning products, drinks and medicines – in other words, almost everything man encounters each and every day. As an element, carbon plays an increasingly greater role in our civilisation. It is the basis of the over 10 million organic compounds known to man. Therefore, it plays a crucial role in nearly all fields of life. Without it, we would not have advanced in medicine, pharmacy, biology, chemistry, physics, materials, metallurgy, textiles, gastronomy, automotive, aeronautics, cosmonautics, cosmetics, energy, electronics or arts.
COAL AS A FUEL
Bituminous coal is a solid mineral fuel. It is a sedimentary rock formed from dead plants, mainly during the Carboniferous period, around 360-300 million years ago – in the Palaeozoic era. Over time, with heat and pressure, the dead plant material was subjected to coalification, a process which increases the percentage content of carbon (C), and decreases the amount of oxygen, hydrogen and other substances. In a nutshell, bituminous coal is solar energy converted by the process of photosynthesis – a biological process – in to biomass and then stored through the slow geological processes occurring on Earth.
DATA HARD AS COAL
The European Union is the world's largest producer of lignite
383 million tonnes in 2017
Significant quantities of bituminous coal are extracted in the EU
81 million tonnes in 2017, including 65.5 million tonnes in Poland
The European Union is the fourth largest importer of coal
after China,India and Japan million tonnes in 2017
Conventional energy reserves in the EU lie mainly in coal deposits
– coal and lignite reserves in the EU account 89% of the total.
A CHEAP AND STABLE
SOURCE OF ENERGY
In Poland, the cost of producing one gigajoule (1 GJ) of heat from coal is, on average, €5.70 – enough to heat a home for a week.
For comparison, the cost of producing:
- 1 GJ of heat from gas is c. €11,
- 1 GJ of heat from oil amounts to c. €18,
- 1 GJ of heat from electricity is c. €22.
JOBS FOR TECHNICIANS
AND SPECIALIST ENGINEERS
HOW MUCH CARBON IS IN COAL?
Depending on the type and several other factors, bituminous coal may contain from 60% to 80% carbon (C), anthracite more (92-98%) and lignite less (25-35%). Its composition and heating value depend on the level of moisture, ash, sulphur and other trace compounds.
The element carbon is the main component of bituminous coal. Carbon occurs in various forms, so-called allotropic varieties. It means that its atoms may be laid with time in various characteristic ways, giving each kind of carbon different physical and chemical properties. The most well-known allotropic varieties are: graphite, diamond, graphene (a single layer of carbon atoms), fullerenes (nanotubes and buckyballs).
GRAPHENE – MATERIAL OF THE FUTURE
Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms – the basic structural element of graphite – with unique properties. It is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity and is characterised by a very high tensile strength – considerably higher than structural steel or Kevlar. A membrane made of graphene is gas-tight but entirely permeable to water. It is assumed that in many applications, graphene may substitute silicon, which is of great importance to the modern electronics. Its transparency and excellent conductivity provides for the design of extremely flexible touch screens, and at the same time enables the production of electricity from solar cells and the storage of electricity in new kinds of battery. Graphene also serves to detect even the slightest amount of dangerous substances. It is envisaged that its future use may be crucial in the production ships and spacecraft. Research is currently ongoing on the effectiveness of graphene and syngas production.
A material valued for its universal application is carbon fibre. It consists of a stretched carbon structure, chemically similar to graphite. Carbon fibres are organic polymers with high mechanical strength, and yet infusible and chemically resistant. They are most often used as a structural material in various types of laminates. They strengthen modern sails and the hulls of high-performance boats, sports equipment and other components for the aerospace and automotive industries.
Advanced research is currently ongoing on the gasification of coal and lignite. The process has several significant and ecological advantages. Gasification decreases the emissions of harmful oxides of sulphur and nitrogen.
Simultaneously, it makes it possible to supply more useful energy than from traditional combustion processes. Such a solution creates the possibility of producing fuels for cars, aeroplanes and other equipment powered by combustion engines.
NO SMOKE – JUST FIRE
AND WHAT ABOUT CARBON DIOXIDE?
One of the products of coal combustion is carbon dioxide. Its increased presence in the atmosphere is considered to be the reason for global warming. Academic circles are looking for ways to utilise CO2 to finally solve the problem related to the presence of this gas in the atmosphere. Experts recommend producing fuel for cars and aeroplanes from carbon dioxide using an artificial photosynthesis process. The method still requires further development of the technology, not least to ensure its profitability.
COAL – THE START
OF AN ECONOMIC VALUE CHAIN
As history shows, coal is the driving force for technological advancement. Coal initiated the industrial revolution. Thanks to coal the steel and machinery industries continue to develop, and so its extraction supports the entire European economy. Coal sits at the start of a long value chain.
The modern coal and lignite industry helps in the creation of new materials, facilitating the processes of energy production and processing, while continuously improving the quality and safety of our lives.
Coal is one of the most important sources of heat and electricity, as well as the basis for various branches of modern industry, e.g. steel and cement. In propelling the development of new technologies, it contributes to the emergence and broad application of new clean coal technologies.
The coal industry offers, therefore:
- well-paid jobs,
- knowledge and technological advancement,
- technical skills and competences.
IF NOT COAL,
Coal is one of the most important sources of energy. In the opinion of many specialists, it is impossible to completely replace coal and lignite with alternatives within the time horizon of current climate and energy policies.
The International Energy Agency predicts that, in the coming decades, the world will not be able to meet the demand for energy without coal. It is envisaged that, with new technologies, coal will become an eco-friendly energy material – almost as emission-free as renewable sources of energy.