How did coal become so entrenched in our lives?
Coal is a black rock formed by the slow decomposition of vegetation. A forest or marsh that got flooded by acidic water would not have the same access to organisms or air for oxidation and biodegradation would also be hard because of the water itself but also due to the presence of mud.
Coal has been known as a fuel since 4000 BC when the Chinese used it. During the Iron Age and the Bronze Age coal was used for the extraction of Iron and Copper. It would have been nearly impossible to extract vast quantities of these metals without a great heat source.
So, why did the Industrial Revolution, which was completely powered by coal take so long to get started?
While Coal existed and it was known and understood well; wood was easily available. It was easier to find and burn. Apart from cutting the tree, it did not require any processing. Coal had to be dug out and cleaned. There were so many grades that it had to be processed. It was a lot of work to use coal.
By the 19th century, the demand for Iron significantly went up. In 1850, Henry Bessemer came up with a process known as Bessemerisation which made it possible to remove the excess carbon in iron and turn it into Steel. The production of Steel resulted in a boom in demand. People wanted to change everything that had been made of Iron over the past 10 centuries into steel!
The trouble was that Bessemerisation required very high temperatures and therefore a lot of wood!
At one point people in England feared that all the forests on the island would disappear if they continued to be cut at the rate at which they were.
Ironically, it was consideration for the environment that led to the decision to use more and more coal. The forest was left alone and this substance came out of the ground and hence was not seen as having a detrimental impact on the environment.
In the late 19th century electricity was starting to be used and that resulted in the use of Coal as a way of generating the steam required to turn the turbine that generates electricity. The proliferation of thermal power plants took coal consumption to another level.
This was especially accelerated after the Second World War when all the inventions of war started transforming into modern electrical gadgets including washing machines, dishwashers, microwave ovens, electric ovens and so many more.
That is how Coal went from being a brown rock that not many cared about for millennia to being at the centre of the energy economy.