Old Earth Ministries Online Earth History Curriculum

Presented by Old Earth Ministries (We Believe in an Old Earth...and God!)

This curriculum is presented free of charge for use by homeschooling families.

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Chapter 7 - The Carboniferous Period

Lesson 37: Coal



     Coal is a readily combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock normally occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds. The harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rock because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure. Coal is composed primarily of carbon along with variable quantities of other elements, chiefly sulfur, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

     Coal begins as layers of plant matter accumulate at the bottom of a body of water. For the process to continue the plant matter must be protected from biodegradation and oxidization, usually by mud or acidic water. The wide shallow seas of the Carboniferous period provided such conditions. This trapped atmospheric carbon in the ground in immense peat bogs that eventually were covered over and deeply buried by sediments under which they metamorphosed into coal. Over time, the chemical and physical properties of the plant remains (believed to mainly have been fern-like species antedating more modern plant and tree species) were changed by geological action to create a solid material.

     Coal, a fossil fuel, is the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide, as well as one of the largest worldwide anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide emissions. Gross carbon dioxide emissions from coal usage are slightly more than those from petroleum and about double the amount from natural gas. Coal is extracted from the ground by mining, either underground or in open pits.

Chapter 7 - The Carboniferous Period


Lesson 36: Overview

Lesson 37:  Coal

Lesson 38:  Oil

Lessson 39: Species In-Depth - Bivalves



Anthracite coal

Photo of Anthracite Coal

US Coal Map 

Map of coal reserves in the United States.  Click the map for a larger view.  Click this link to view the source page which contains the map legend.


    The large coal deposits of the Carboniferous primarily owe their existence to two factors. The first of these is the appearance of bark-bearing trees (and in particular the evolution of the bark fiber lignin). The second is the lower sea levels that occurred during the Carboniferous as compared to the Devonian period. This allowed for the development of extensive lowland swamps and forests in North America and Europe. Some hypothesize that large quantities of wood were buried during this period because animals and decomposing bacteria had not yet evolved that could effectively digest the new lignin. Those early plants made extensive use of lignin. They had bark to wood ratios of 8 to 1, and even as high as 20 to 1. This compares to modern values less than 1 to 4. This bark, which must have been used as support as well as protection, probably had 38% to 58% lignin. Lignin is insoluble, too large to pass through cell walls, too heterogeneous for specific enzymes, and toxic, so that few organisms other than Basidiomycetes fungi can degrade it. It can not be oxidized in an atmosphere of less than 5% oxygen. It can linger in soil for thousands of years and inhibits decay of other substances. Probably the reason for its high percentages is protection from insect herbivory in a world containing very effective insect herbivores, but nothing remotely as effective as modern insectivores and probably much fewer poisons than currently. In any case coal measures could easily have made thick deposits on well drained soils as well as swamps. The extensive burial of biologically-produced carbon led to a buildup of surplus oxygen in the atmosphere; estimates place the peak oxygen content as high as 35%, compared to 21% today.  This oxygen level probably increased wildfire activity, as well as resulted in insect and amphibian gigantism--creatures whose size is constrained by respiratory systems that are limited in their ability to diffuse oxygen.

     In eastern North America, marine beds are more common in the older part of the period than the later part and are almost entirely absent by the late Carboniferous. More diverse geology existed elsewhere, of course. Marine life is especially rich in crinoids and other echinoderms. Brachiopods were abundant. Trilobites became quite uncommon. On land, large and diverse plant populations existed. Land vertebrates included large amphibians.


Types of Coal


     As geological processes apply pressure to dead biotic material over time, under suitable conditions it is transformed successively into

bullet Peat, considered to be a precursor of coal, has industrial importance as a fuel in some regions, for example, Ireland and Finland. In its dehydrated form, peat is a highly effective absorbent for fuel and oil spills on land and water
bullet Lignite, also referred to as brown coal, is the lowest rank of coal and used almost exclusively as fuel for electric power generation. Jet is a compact form of lignite that is sometimes polished and has been used as an ornamental stone since the Iron Age
bullet Sub-bituminous coal, whose properties range from those of lignite to those of bituminous coal are used primarily as fuel for steam-electric power generation. Additionally, it is an important source of light aromatic hydrocarbons for the chemical synthesis industry.
bullet Bituminous coal, dense mineral, black but sometimes dark brown, often with well-defined bands of bright and dull material, used primarily as fuel in steam-electric power generation, with substantial quantities also used for heat and power applications in manufacturing and to make coke
bulletSteam coal is a grade between bituminous coal and anthracite, once widely used as a fuel for steam locomotives. In this specialized use it is sometimes known as sea-coal in the United States. Small steam coal (dry small steam nuts or DSSN) was used as a fuel for domestic water heating
bullet Anthracite, the highest rank; a harder, glossy, black coal used primarily for residential and commercial space heating. It may be divided further into metamorphically altered bituminous coal and petrified oil, as from the deposits in Pennsylvania
bullet Graphite, technically the highest rank, but difficult to ignite and is not so commonly used as fuel: it is mostly used in pencils and, when powdered, as a lubricant.

The classification of coal is generally based on the content of volatiles. However, the exact classification varies between countries.

Coal Mining and History

     Many professions in the field of geology have to do with mining.  Understanding the
Coal Mine
Surface coal mining in Wyoming in the United States.
 layers of rock underground leads geologists to understand where to locate reserves of coal, gold, oil, and many other useful minerals.  Since coal is formed from decayed plant material, which is covered by other rocks, geologists who look for coal are well versed in sedimentary geology and structural geology. 

     The earliest reference to the use of coal as fuel is from the geological treatise On stones (Lap. 16) by the Greek scientist Theophrastus (c. 371287 BC):


Among the materials that are dug because they are useful, those known as coals are made of earth, and, once set on fire, they burn like charcoal. They are found in Liguria ... and in Elis as one approaches Olympia by the mountain road; and they are used by those who work in metals.

      Outcrop coal was used in Britain during the Bronze Age (30002000 BC), where it has been detected as forming part of the composition of funeral pyres. In Roman Britain, with the exception of two modern fields, "the Romans were exploiting coals in all the major coalfields in England and Wales by the end of the second century AD". Evidence of trade in coal (dated to about AD 200) has been found at the inland port of Heronbridge, near Chester, and in the Fenlands of East Anglia, where coal from the Midlands was transported via the Car Dyke for use in drying grain. Coal cinders have been found in the hearths of villas and military forts, particularly in Northumberland, dated to around AD 400. In the west of England contemporary writers described the wonder of a permanent brazier of coal on the altar of Minerva at Aquae Sulis (modern day Bath) although in fact easily accessible surface coal from what became the Somerset coalfield was in common use in quite lowly dwellings locally. Evidence of coal's use for iron-working in the city during the Roman period has been found. In Eschweiler, Rhineland, deposits of bituminous coal were used by the Romans for the smelting of iron ore.

     There is no evidence that the product was of great importance in Britain before the High Middle Ages, after about AD 1000. Mineral coal came to be referred to as "seacoal," probably because it came to many places in eastern England, including London, by sea, but the origin of the term seems to predate this, being used for coal having fallen from the exposed coal seams on cliffs above the shore or washed out of underwater coal seam outcrops. These easily accessible sources had largely become exhausted (or could not meet the growing demand) by the 13th century, when underground mining from shafts or adits was developed. In 1257-59 coal from Newcastle was shipped to London for the smiths and lime-burners building Westminster Abbey. In London there is still a Seacoal Lane and a Newcastle Lane (from the coal-shipping city of Newcastle) where in the seventeenth century coal was unloaded at wharves along the River Fleet. An alternative name was "pitcoal," because it came from mines. It was, however, the development of the Industrial Revolution that led to the large-scale use of coal, as the steam engine took over from the water wheel.

     To learn more about coal mining, visit Coal Mining on Wikipedia. 


End of Lesson

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Source: Coal, Carboniferous