We’ve already written a guide about the different types of coal.
In this guide, we outline specifically what black and brown coal are, and their differences.
Summary – Brown vs Black Coal
- There are various different types of coal – each with their own properties
- Brown coal tends to be the softer and less efficient energy source, and usually contains more moisture
- Black coal has multiple stages, and tends to be harder, with a higher carbon content, as well as lower moisture content, and has more energy content compared to brown coal
- Each of the coal types also tend to have different carbon emission rates per unit of electricity produced – soft coal like brown coal tends to emit more than hard coal like black coal (unearthed.greenpeace.org)
- Brown and black coal can be found in different regions of the world, and the quality of the coal also differs (although, about 70% of the coal in the world is high quality coal – ourworldindata.org)
Brown vs Black Coal: What They Each Are
Sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite are referred to as black coal, whilst lignite is brown coal.
- In Australia, sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite are collectively referred to as black coal, whilst lignite is referred to as brown coal (in Europe, sub-bituminous coal is also considered to be brown coal).
Brown vs Black Coal: Differences In Properties
Coal types can differ in:
- Carbon Content
- Energy Per Unit
- and Moisture Content
- As the coal increases in rank [from softer brown coal to harder black coal], the carbon content – and hence the energy content – increases, whilst the moisture content decreases.
- Black coal is many millions of years older than brown coal and has a lower water content.
- Black coal has a heat content of approximately 35300 kJ/kg where as brown coal has a heat content of approximately 28470 kJ/kg, depending on the water content.
- Unlike black coal, brown coal must be dried before it is burnt
Apart from these differences, they can also differ in where they are found in the world (geographic location), and in what quantities/abundance.
Brown vs Black Coal: Differences In Greenhouse Gas Emissions
OurWorldInData.org has a good graph/chart showing how much carbon dioxide each type of coal fuel source emits per unit of electricity produced – view it at https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels
In order of most to least emissions:
- Lignite (brown coal)
- Sub Bituminous Coal
Differences In Impact On Human Health & Mortality
Pros and Cons Of Brown Coal Specifically
Unearthed.greenpeace.org has a good article about some of the pros and cons of brown coal:
- Can be a cheap form of electricity
- Can provide jobs
- Can support the local economy
- Can provide energy independence for countries like Poland and Germany, who might be keen to cut their dependence on Russian natural gas
- Burning brown coal for power is one of the most carbon intensive methods there is (more so than black goal, and more than natural gas)
- Emits air toxins/contaminants (like NOx and SO2) > this leads to air pollution > this can leads to human health conditions and death > and, air contaminants can travel by wind to other states and countries
- Emits mercury
- Is inefficient – it is wet when it is extracted and burned. So, it takes more brown coal in quantity, and more mining, to produce the same amount of power from less black coal
- The mining of brown coal can contribute to damage to local communities, pollution of groundwater and surface water sources, and even increase in the risk of flooding
Other pros and cons of brown coal might be:
- Victoria in Australia is one place that enjoys the benefits of brown coal resources for economic growth, jobs and income (environmentvictoria.org.au)
- Can be a cheaper form of electricity compared to renewable when you take subsidies out of the picture (joannenova.com.au)
- When brown coal is burnt it releases a long list of poisonous heavy metals and toxic chemicals like sulphur dioxide, mercury, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (environmentvictoria.org.au)
- Victorian (in Australia) brown coal has a high moisture content, containing more moisture than black coal – it can contain up to 70 percent water. This high moisture content makes long distance transportation uneconomic and so brown coal is not currently used for export markets (environmentvictoria.org.au)
- Air pollutants from brown coal might not be well monitored (environmentvictoria.org.au)
- The costs on the health system in Australia alone from air pollution might be up to $800 million (environmentvictoria.org.au). Health problems from air pollution can included more common conditions like lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases (wikipedia.org)