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COAL: Ancient Gift Serving Modern Man
American Coal Foundation

Types of Coal

We use the term "coal" to describe a variety of fossilized plant materials, but no two coals are exactly alike. Heating value, ash melting temperature, sulfur and other impurities, mechanical strength, and many other chemical and physical properties must be considered when matching specific coals to a particular application.

Coal is classified into four general categories, or "ranks." They range from lignite through subbituminous and bituminous to anthracite, reflecting the progressive response of individual deposits of coal to increasing heat and pressure. The carbon content of coal supplies most of its heating value, but other factors also influence the amount of energy it contains per unit of weight. (The amount of energy in coal is expressed in British thermal units per pound. A BTU is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit.)

About 90 percent of the coal in this country falls in the bituminous and subbituminous categories, which rank below anthracite and, for the most part, contain less energy per unit of weight. Bituminous coal predominates in the Eastern and Mid-continent coal fields, while subbituminous coal is generally found in the Western states and Alaska.

Lignite ranks the lowest and is the youngest of the coals. Most lignite is mined in Texas, but large deposits also are found in Montana, North Dakota, and some Gulf Coast states.


Anthracite is coal with the highest carbon content, between 86 and 98 percent, and a heat value of nearly 15,000 BTUs-per-pound. Most frequently associated with home heating, anthracite is a very small segment of the U.S. coal market. There are 7.3 billion tons of anthracite reserves in the United States, found mostly in 11 northeastern counties in Pennsylvania.


The most plentiful form of coal in the United States, bituminous coal is used primarily to generate electricity and make coke for the steel industry. The fastest growing market for coal, though still a small one, is supplying heat for industrial processes. Bituminous coal has a carbon content ranging from 45 to 86 percent carbon and a heat value of 10,500 to 15,500 BTUs-per-pound.


Ranking below bituminous is subbituminous coal with 35-45 percent carbon content and a heat value between 8,300 and 13,000 BTUs-per-pound. Reserves are located mainly in a half-dozen Western states and Alaska. Although its heat value is lower, this coal generally has a lower sulfur content than other types, which makes it attractive for use because it is cleaner burning.


Lignite is a geologically young coal which has the lowest carbon content, 25-35 percent, and a heat value ranging between 4,000 and 8,300 BTUs-per-pound. Sometimes called brown coal, it is mainly used for electric power generation.


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Last Updated: Thursday, 15-Dec-2005 11:27:50 EST