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Origins Of Coal

Coal forms primarily from ancient plant material that accumulated in surface environments where the complete decay of organic matter was prevented. For example, a plant that died in a swampy area would quickly be covered with water, silt, sand, and other sediments. These materials prevented the plant debris from reacting with oxygen and decomposing to carbon dioxide and water, as would occur under normal circumstances. Instead, anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that do not require oxygen to live) attacked the plant debris and converted it to simpler forms: primarily pure carbon and simple compounds of carbon and hydrogen (hydrocarbons). Because of the way it is formed, coal (along with petroleum and natural gas) is often referred to as a fossil fuel.

The initial stage of the decay of a dead plant is a soft, woody material known as peat. In some parts of the world, peat is still collected from boggy areas and used as a fuel. It is not a good fuel, however, as it burns poorly and with a great deal of smoke.

If peat is allowed to remain in the ground for long periods of time, it eventually becomes compacted as layers of sediment, known as overburden, collect above it. The additional pressure and heat of the overburden gradually converts peat into another form of coal known as lignite or brown coal. Continued compaction by overburden then converts lignite into bituminous (or soft) coal and finally, anthracite (or hard) coal. Coal has been formed at many times in the past, but most abundantly during the Carboniferous Age (about 300 million years ago) and again during the Upper Cretaceous Age (about 100 million years ago).

Today, coal formed by these processes is often found in layers between layers of sedimentary rock. In some cases, the coal layers may lie at or very near the earth's surface. In other cases, they may be buried thousands of feet or meters under ground. Coal seams range from no more than 3-197 ft (1-60 m) or more in thickness. The location and configuration of a coal seam determines the method by which the coal will be mined.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cluster compound to ConcupiscenceCoal - Origins Of Coal, Composition Of Coal, Properties And Reactions, Environmental Problems Associated With The Burning Of Coal