The rock that we refer to as coal is derived principally from decomposed organic matter (plants) consisting primarily of the element carbon. When coal is burned, it produces energy in the form of heat, which is used to power machines such as steam engines or to drive turbines that produce electricity. Almost 60 percent of the electricity produced in the United States is derived from coal combustion.
Coal is an extraordinarily complex material. In addition to organic matter, coal contains water (up to 40 or more percent by weight for some lignitic coals), oils, gases (such as methane), waxes (used to make shoe polish), and perhaps most importantly, inorganic matter (fig. 1). The inorganic matter--minerals and trace elements--cause many of the health, environmental, and technological problems attributed to coal use (fig. 2).
'Coal quality' is the term used to refer to the properties and characteristics of coal that influence its behavior and use. Among the coal-quality characteristics that will be important for future coal use are the concentrations, distribution, and forms of the many elements contained in the coal that we intend to burn. Knowledge of these quality characteristics in U.S. coal deposits may allow us to use this essential energy resource more efficiently and effectively and with less undesirable environmental impact.