Burning coal is far and away the main culprit for elevated atmospheric CO2 and global climatic warming. That is a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and a mode of production that centres on the market value of commodities rather than their intrinsic usefulness and thus on the continual generation of profit. As the main original energy source for this capitalist mode, whose viability depends on incessant economic growth, world coal production grew at an exponential rate through the 19th and 20th centuries, as did its influence on global climate. Beginning in the 1920s, coal was joined by other carbon-based fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) in massively increasing energy and greenhouse-gas production. In the data there is little sign of an appetite to reduce this dependence on carbon burning, renewable energy output accounting today for only a few percent of the energy demands of capital. Although coal’s energy contribution is flattening off to be replaced by those of oil and gas, in terms of CO2 emissions it still dominates. That is because oil and gas are carbon-hydrogen compounds rather than almost pure carbon in the case of coal. Unless burning fossil fuels is outlawed and economic growth is drastically curtailed, we are set to live on a far warmer planet.
For various reasons coal is unique in a social sense. Every producing area has large communities who depend on mining for income. Britain now produces vastly less coal than it did up to the 1990s, with wholesale closure of underground mines. Since 1960 these communities have lost over half a million jobs in mining, let alone those in related industries and those that served mining communities. Three decades on from the last round of closures, those communities remain socially devastated in many respects. A huge amount of coal still lies beneath them. Can it make a come-back? A recent study suggests that perhaps it can, with diametrically opposite environmental consequences.
It seems that surfaces of coal particles are able to take-up and store gases, increasingly so as pressure increases. Miners faced the consequences of that in the form of adsorbed carbon dioxide and methane (‘choke damp’ and ‘fire damp’) that were released when coal was mined underground. Miners’ safety lamps (invented in 1815 by Humphry Davy) enable them to monitor the risks of suffocation by CO2 or explosion of CH4 when the lamps dim or flare, respectively. Engineers at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia, experimentally measured the amounts of hydrogen adsorbed by crushed coal at different pressures (Iglauer, S et al. 2021. Hydrogen adsorption on sub-bituminous coal: Implications for hydrogen geostorage. Geophysical Research Letters, v. 48, article 2021GL092976; DOI: 10.1029/2021GL092976). From surface atmospheric pressure to 40 times that, adsorption increases rapidly, especially for hydrogen (from 0.05 to 0.25 grams per kilogram). At higher pressures it rises less rapidly to about 0.6 g kg-1 at 100 times atmospheric pressure, which is equivalent to a depth of about 500 m in a sedimentary rock formation. At deeper levels hydrogen adsorption remains about the same.
The experimental results suggest that large amounts of hydrogen can be stored in coal at quite shallow depths. The potential storage in a ton of fractured coal is about 600 kg, equivalent to about 12 cubic metres of liquid hydrogen, but without the need for containment and refrigeration. In the absence of oxygen, such storage would be safe and long-term. If feasible from an engineering standpoint, underground storage of hydrogen in coal seams to overcome one of the current barriers to a hydrogen-based industrial economy through the storage of energy generated by carbon-free technologies, such as wind, wave, tidal and solar generation that operate at highly variable rates, not suited to energy use patterns. Effectively, coalfields could become giant ‘batteries’ without the need to mine vast amounts of elements, such as lithium, needed for conventional batteries; provided that a sustainable means of repeated hydrogen recovery can be devised. A central technology of a future ‘hydrogen economy’ is that of the fuel cell in which hydrogen and oxygen combine using a catalyst to generate electricity, without any combustion and emitting only water vapour.