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Formation & Location
Environmental Impacts
Social Concerns
Pros and Cons


Early History

Coal is the Earth’s most plentiful fossil fuel and has been around since the cavemen and the Romans in England in 100-200 AD.  In North America in the 1300s, Hopi used coal for cooking, heating, and baking.  In the 1700s, it was found to burn cleaner and hotter than charcoal and during the Industrial Revolution the overwhelming need for energy allowed coal to become dominant.  The first recorded use of coal in the United States was on a map of the Illinois River by Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette in 1673-74, on which it was called “charbon de terra”.  The first commercial mines were opened in 1748 in Richmond, Virginia. 

Old coal mine

Coal in the United States

Coal has been used in many different ways in the United States since the mid-1700s.   In 1814 it was used to heat salt brines to produce salt in southwestern Pennsylvania and in 1816 it was used for streetlights in Baltimore, Maryland.  In the 1830s, the prevalence of locomotives required massive amounts of coal and the steam shovel was developed to meet the demand.  This was the first instance of mechanized surface mining.  In the 1870s and early 1880s, coal production increased by 300% because of the need for steel and iron.  In 1882, Thomas Edison created the first coal fired electric generating station in New York City.  By 1961 coal was one of the major fuels for electricity.  The use of coal has increased from 520 million tons in 1970 to one billion tons in 1990 to 1.1 billion tons now.
Old steam locomotive

Coal in the Modern World
The main uses of coal in the modern world are electricity generation, steel production, cement manufacturing, and liquid fuel.  About 6.6 billion tons of coal are consumed yearly worldwide, and coal consumption has grown faster than any other fuel.  The top five countries by coal use are India, Russia, the United States, China, and Japan with 76% of the consumption – 67% of this consumption occurs in Asia alone.  Other uses include aluminum refineries, paper manufacturers, chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

Earth Science 18 - Environmental Geology, Fall 2012
Brett Gilson, Andrew Milligan, Kemi Mugo, Mac Murphy, Zan Song
Professor Xiahong Feng, Dartmouth College