Clouds of pillow-like smoke floating above the chimney of a locomotive: that’s the image most people think of when they hear the word coal. While the story along the train tracks is truly iconic, this fossil fuel is one of the most multifaceted energy sources in U.S. history. The evolution of coal has been driven by everything from the earliest civilizations to war-driven weapon demand.

In the 1300s, the Hopi Indians of North America’s Southwest used coal for cooking, heating and baking clay pottery. Later, Virginia’s commercial coal mines opened in the mid-1700s. Then, the Industrial Revolution sparked coal’s expansion in the U.S. with coal-powered steamships and steam-powered railroads. Even Civil War weapons factories used coal.

One of the most recent developments came in the 1880s: coal powered electricity for homes and factories. Today, coal still generates electricity for a large part of the country. The U.S. generated 4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA); and 67 percent of that electricity was generated by fossil fuels including coal, natural gas and petroleum. Of those three fossil fuels, coal and natural gas were used evenly, at 33 percent of the total electricity generation. Meaning that petroleum was only used to generate 1 percent of fossil fuel electricity.

Countless Uses of Coal

—But coal-fueled electricity is only one of the many uses of the natural resource in the U.S.

In the 1980s in the U.S.—not that long ago!—high-sulfur coal replaced the need to use petroleum in the commercial production of acetyl chemicals: ingredients used in the synthesis of an array of products, according to the American Chemical Society. Now, coal gasification technology enables the creation of complex chemicals that are used to produce plastics, fibers and dyes among other consumer products.

Coal tar is a by-product when coal is made into coke (what coal becomes after being heated in an oxygen-free oven) and coal gas. It was discovered around 1665 and then used for medical purposes around the 1800s. Today, coal tar is still used in pharmaceuticals. The topical medication is used on the skin to treat itching, scaling and flaking due to skin conditions such as eczema and seborrheic dermatitis.

Coal tar is also used for the creation of electrodes for the aluminum and steel industries. Furthermore, the metal casting industry in the U.S. is expected to experience an ongoing recovery and upswing, which means the demand for high-quality foundry machinery is also on the rise in the U.S.

Future of Coal

The U.S. carries close to a 235-year supply of the resource if the country continues to utilize coal at the rate it does today, according to American Coal Foundation (ACF). As the coal industry evolves, the ACF believes that coal may be tapped into for use in “communications and transportations systems, computer networks, and space expeditions.”

While it’s very likely that your home or workplace currently depends on coal-generated electricity—or, has at some point in the past—there are many other products in day-to-day life that also depend on this incredible fossil fuel.

To find out more information about coal powered electricity and it’s many other uses, contact General Kinematics today.

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