What happens when you apply heat and pressure to dead plants over millions of years? You get coal. That’s why it’s so dense and energy efficient — it’s like a highly concentrated form of heat, plant, and sun energy. Throughout history—dating as far back as the caveman days—coal has been mined and burned, primarily to convert it back into heat.

Coal mines were highly susceptible to flooding in the early days. When a coal mine flooded, good luck getting the water out; it was better to abandon it and go somewhere else. It wasn’t until 1719 when a scientist named Thomas Newcomen invented the first steam engine—powered by coal—to pump water out of the mine. It took another 57 years before a former instrument maker named James Watt invented a more efficient steam engine that was able to pump water even faster, which gave way to faster coal mining.

The more we extracted coal, the more uses we found for it. In the 1800s, coal was the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution, powering steamships, steam-powered trains, and factories; coal also became an essential ingredient in the production of steel. The use of coal to generate electricity, however, didn’t come around until 1882, when Thomas Edison built the world’s first coal-fired power station. It was a 93 kW, 27-ton behemoth that powered nearby residents in London.

Today, coal accounts for roughly a third of the world’s electricity generation, but it is also the largest single source of CO2 emissions. And despite our exorbitant demand for coal, we keep finding more of it — the U.S. alone has more coal that can be mined than the rest of the world has oil that can be pumped. Given’s coal’s abundance and reliability to generate electricity, it will be challenging to replace coal’s impact to the grid; we either need to find a cleaner way to burn it, or a more reliable way to generate renewable-sourced electricity.

Further Reading

Coal Overview

James Watt bio

Thomas Newcomen Thomas_Newcomen#Developing_the_atmospheric_engine

Watt steam engine

Coal – IEA

Edison Power Station


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