When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Coal is a complex combination of materials, and the combination can greatly differ from one formation or deposit to another. These differences result from:

  • the varying types of vegetation from which the coal originated;
  • the depths of burial, and the temperatures and pressures at those depths; as well as
  • the length of time the coal has been forming in the deposit.

The varying amount of minerals in a coal deposit may also have a significant effect on its properties and classification. In addition to carbon, coals contain hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and varying amounts of sulphur. High-rank coals are high in carbon and heat value, but low in hydrogen and oxygen. Low-rank coals are low in carbon but high in hydrogen and oxygen content. Anthracite is the highest carbon content, followed by bituminous, sub-bituminous and lignite coal, which has the lowest carbon content


Anthracite—a nearly pure form of carbon—is the highest ranked coal. It high carbon content allows anthracite to burn hot and long! When burning anthracite, as opposed to other coals, there is a maximum amount of heat production, with minimum ash. The heat generation is intense enough to melt stoves

Why isn’t anthracite used to make steel? Its high carbon rating would seem to make it ideal. There’s a flaw in the picture: it’s too dense. The solution: heat bituminous coal to more than 1000° Celsius while starving its access to oxygen. The process, known as “coking,” burns off the volatile organic compounds and leaves “coke,” a porous, nearly pure form of carbon—a product ideal for the making of steel.

Anthracite is no longer mined in Canada. Natural gas and electricity have replaced it for in-home use.

Bituminous Coal

Bituminous coal is versatile. It was once used to heat homes, power steam engines, create steel and generate electricity.  Today, bituminous coal is still the fuel of choice for the latter two uses.

Almost all of Canada’s coal exports are bituminous—a product that’s mined in the Rocky Mountains of Elk Valley, BC.

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