Feature Report: Coal, Still a Growing Energy Resource

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Underground and Surface Mines

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Coal was the fuel that stoked the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Extracting coal from underground or open-pit mines continues to be a vital part of the world economy today.

A gallery in an underground coal mine. © Tomas Sereda

Depending on the depth of the depositAn accumulation of natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, metal ore or another commodity..., coal is extracted from underground or open-pit mines. In underground mines, vertical shafts are sunk and then galleries excavated horizontally. In open-pit mines, benches are drilled to allow trucks to circulate. 

Underground Mines Are More Common

Several techniques exist:

  • The room-and-pillar method involves cutting rooms into the coal seamTerm for a coal bed in a sedimentary series. and leaving a series of large pillars at regular intervals  to support the mine roof. At each level where coal is present, the shafts connect to a grid of huge galleries (10 to 20-square-meter sections) that can extend over dozens of kilometers.
  • The longwall method involves using a machine called a shearerMechanical cutting machine used to extract coal in underground mines. that looks like a huge plow. The shearer slowly pushes and cuts through the coalface. It recovers the loosened ore as it advances and lets the roof collapse behind it. This is called caving. Sometimes buildings or roads located above the mine can be damaged as a result. This problem can be solved by backfilling, which consist of using mine waste to support the roof after the coal has been removed. However, this is very expensive.

Conveyors or cars (railway wagons) transport the coal to vertical shafts for removal from the mine. After the coal is brought up to the surface by conveyors, it undergoes flotationProcess in which the contrasting behavior of solid particles is used to selectively separate them in a water-filled..., a process that removes sand and mud by immersing the coal in a solution of water and tiny magnetite particles. The different elements separate naturally. The coal floats while the other ores, called tails, sink to the bottom.

An open-pit bucket-wheel excavator is 240 meters long

In mountainous regions, galleries can be drilled horizontally into the side of the slope, eliminating the need to build special infrastructure to bring the coal back up to the surface.

There are hazards. Galleries can flood or collapse, or fine particles of coal in the right concentration can explode in contact with a source of heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter....

Fire damp explosions can also occur. They are caused by undetectable pockets of methaneThe main component of natural gas deposits and oil deposit gas caps. Methane is produced naturally by landfills... mixed with the air in the galleries that are highly combustible. Almost 1,800 miners died in France in coal mining disasters between 1876 and the shutdown of the industry. More recently, more than 6,000 miners died in China in mining accidents in 2004, while 301 miners were killed in a mining accident in Soma, Manisa province, Turkey on May 13, 2014.

Open-pit Mining is More Profitable

An open-pit coal mine is a huge hole in the ground with terraces along which earth-moving vehicles excavate seams. It looks a bit like a sports stadium. The largest open-pit mines are several kilometers long and hundreds of meters deep.

First of all, the layer of earth — overburden — above the first coal seam has to be removed. (The seam can be up to 200 meters below the surface.) All the earth around the base of the seam is removed before extraction begins. When the hole is large enough, the miners dig down to the next layer of coal. Each layer is called a bench.

Fire damp explosions are caused by pockets of methane that can explode when exposed to even a spark.

Huge excavators extract the coal. The biggest of these machines is 240 meters long (longer than two football stadiums) and 96 meters high (equivalent to a 38-story building). The buckets on the excavators can hold up to 300 tons of rock.

Open-pit mining costs less than underground mining and is therefore more profitable in terms of productivity. Working conditions in these mines are also much safer. However, open-pit mining is less acceptable from an environmental standpoint, because it disfigures the landscape and causes dust pollution.

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