The chemistry and technology of coal
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But how does spongy, rotting plant debris become a hard seam of coal? As discussed earlier, plant material growing in mires dies, and then rots under anoxic conditions to form peat by the process of humification. With time, the mire becomes covered with layers of sediment, the weight of which squeezes water and gas out of the pore spaces and compacts the vegetation.
As subsidence allows deposition of further mire-sediment cycles, the process of compaction continues. The vegetation matter interbedded with sand, silt and mud progressively increases in density to become indistinguishable from coal. The first stage in the chemistry of turning plant material into coal is one of biochemical decomposition. Bacterial breakdown of the more soluble components, principally the cellulose, results in enrichment of the more resistant, waxy leaf coatings, spores, pollen, fruit and algal remains.
Decomposition also expels some gases originally contained in the rotting matter — chiefly water, carbon dioxide and methane — leaving organic residues rich in carbon. The second phase starts when the plant deposits are progressively buried beneath substantial amounts of mud, sand and silt. As depth of burial increases so too does pressure. Because of the Earth's internal heat flow, temperature also increases with depth.
The Chemistry and Technology of Coal
Coalification of the deposit involves progressive physical and chemical changes brought about by the increased temperature and pressure. The degrees of change result in distinguishable stages of coal quality, or rank , which reflect the maturity of the coal. The different rank stages are listed in Table 1 , together with some of the parameters used to define them. Changes in rank are gradual and so the boundaries of the rank categories are somewhat arbitrary.
View document [ Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. Hide tip ]. Compaction under pressure progressively increases the hardness of the coal. The continuous variation of chemical composition through the rank series is shown in Figure.
Low-rank coals b, c contain more volatiles than do high-rank coals d, e , reflected by the variation in their oxygen and hydrogen content in Table 1. To form, they require high pressures associated with tectonic deformation or high temperatures near to igneous intrusions. Metamorphism at very high temperatures and pressure transforms coal to graphite deposits, which are not energy resources, although valuable in their own right. Using Table 1 and Figure 7 , describe how the chemistry of coal changes with increasing rank.
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The most important chemical change shown by increasing rank is the increase in the amount of carbon at the expense of oxygen. Changes in rank involve the expulsion of water, carbon dioxide and methane CH 4. As the complex organic compounds in buried vegetation are slowly transformed to simpler, more carbon-rich compounds, coal changes colour from brown to black.