Why Does One Ton Of Coal Make 2.86 Tons Of Carbon Dioxide?

Posted on Sun 12/14/2008 by


(This post was originally posted in December 2008, so updated figures appear at the U.S. Energy Information Administration site.)

CO2 Capture MiniThis is the only blog site that I contribute to. There are a couple of other sites who pick up on my posts with permission, and that is only a recent thing. I also make comments to articles here in my homeland Australia. One of the problems I have is that the figures I come up with are astronomical, and that tends to make them sound like they are unbelievable. I am a perfectionist, and I cannot stand it if something is incorrect, so I like to check the facts. That’s why I always try to find and include backup links, where possible to the main site where I obtain these facts.

I come from a background in the electrical trade where I also taught electrical trade subjects. That was the background that made me question the ramifications of what we are all being asked to believe as an absolute

What that has led me to is to make posts from the point of view of actually believing what is basically ‘spin’. I am not of the belief that we are contributing to Anthropogenic Global Warming, or Climate Change as it is now being called. I do believe that we have made a contribution, but on a level nothing like what those rabid environmentalists believe, and that what we do down here on the surface is not having the result that we are being told about in such a scary way. I also dispute that the emissions of Carbon Dioxide are the cause of this Global Warming/Climate Change.

What I have tried to achieve is to explain that if we are to believe the worst of it, then what will those results be, and what will we have to do if we are to significantly change things.

Because of that, the numbers that do I write about in my posts are in fact, astronomical. Directly because of that, when I do make comments at some of the news releases here in Australia, I am discounted because those people who are well intentioned have no understanding of what I am trying to say.

There are two things especially that people find difficult to wrap their heads around. The first is the actual amount of coal being burned by those large plants, and the second is the perceived anomaly of how much Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is produced from the burning of that coal.

Some people who reply to a comment I have made dismiss out of hand the amount of coal burned at these large plants, because it just sounds like it is so much.

For those really large coal fired plants, they will burn more than 10,000 tons of coal each day, and on hot days where there is high demand, they can burn as much as 15,000 tons per day or more. I have always used the Bruce Mansfield Plant in Pennsylvania, not because they burn more than any other plant, but because I like to keep a constant point as a referral. Bruce Mansfield burns on average around the same as for all of those large coal fired plants, and Bruce Mansfield burns around 7 Million tons of coal each and every year. That averages out to nearly 19,000 tons per day, so the figures I actually show in my posts are conservative to say the least. The US produces just a fraction under half its total consumed power from these coal fired means, and to do that, they burn 1.08 Billion tons of coal every year. That is why it sounds so unbelievable, because that number sounds so high.

This is the link to the website that shows just that figure.

When you arrive at the page, the heading for the table says Table 2.1.C Coal … (etc) and at the end of the text there, in brackets it says (Thousand Tons).

The left hand column alongside the year numbers is for the Total for all sectors.

Scroll right to the bottom of that column and alongside 2008 is the number 1,076,810. That is thousand tons of coal burned, or rounded out, 1.08 Billion tons of coal burned each year.

Recently I have had two replies to comments I have made for the amount of CO2 produced from the burning of coal. I said that for each ton of coal burned, it produces 2.86 Tons of CO2. What I said was discredited because people just cannot understand how that actually happens.

Remember back to when you were a child and were asked at school ….. “What is heavier? One ton of lead or one ton of feathers.” The automatic belief is that feathers are lighter, so the ‘feathers’ was the answer you gave. However, the weight of both is the same. One ton.

The same applies here in this case. You have one ton of a heavy solid, that being coal. You have a gas, CO2, so how can a solid weighing one ton produce a gas weighing 2.86 tons. It sounds incongruous, and because of that, is easily disbelieved. If that gas were able to be compressed to a solid, it would weigh 2.86 tons, but just because people know that a gas is so light that it just wafts away, the impression is that the amounts are different, but in actual fact it is the weight that is the important factor here.

This was always something that concerned me as well. So, what I had to do was to then go and find actual written proof of this perceived anomaly.

This is the link to the page that explains this.

When you arrive at the page, scroll down to the heading ‘Coal Combustion And Carbon Dioxide Emissions’. It sounds technical, but is relatively easy to understand, and the third paragraph best explains it.

Remember back to High School Science when you learned the first few atoms in the periodic table of elements. Both Carbon and Oxygen are relatively close together on that table, so each atom ‘weighs’ approximately the same, so combining that one atom of Carbon with two atoms of Oxygen virtually triples the weight of the original Carbon atom.

Basically, coal is just compressed Carbon with other elements that go to make up the overall content. As the coal is burned, those Carbon atoms combine with 2 Oxygen atoms from the air during the burning process. The resultant compound, the gas CO2 is made up of every Carbon atom in the coal, which then combines with 2 Oxygen atoms, so the resultant is actually heavier than the Carbon content of the coal itself, hence the anomaly of the gas weighing heavier than the solid lump of coal.

That is why each ton of coal produces 2.86 tons of the gas CO2. Anthracite is the hardest of coals. Lignite, the softest coal, (brown coal) produces even more CO2, in fact one third as much again, but most of the coal burned in the US is the steaming coal, both bituminous and sub bituminous.

That is why there is the perceived anomaly that is so easily disbelieved.

When taken in context with the amount of coal burned in the US to produce electrical power, then the amount of CO2 produced amounts to 3.1 Billion tons of CO2. When added to the amount produced from the natural gas plants as well, that figure approaches 4 Billion tons.

Now, the US produces one quarter of all the World’s power, and just under 50% comes from coal fired sources. For the rest of the World, the figures from the coal fired source amount to nearly 85%, and the only reason that the whole World total is at 78% is that the US brings that figure lower.

At 85%, the rest of the World emits nearly 30 Billion tons of CO2, and that is just from the coal fired sector alone. When added to the US figure and the other sources of electrical power are taken into consideration, the number approaches 45 Billion tons of CO2 emitted from all power plants on the Planet.

Electrical power generation makes up just under 30% of the total CO2 emissions, so the total CO2 emitted on Planet Earth each year is around 150 Billion tons. Keep in mind this is a conservative amount only. Some sources have it as little as 50 Billion tons and some have it much higher again than that 150 Billion tons.

It’s easy sometimes to get confused with percentages for this next bit. Nitrogen makes up 76.55% of the total Atmosphere. Oxygen makes up 20.54%, and the Greenhouse Gases make up 2% of the overall Atmosphere.

The amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere is a known amount. The largest of the Greenhouse gases is water vapor (suspended water mainly in clouds) and this comprises 98% of the total Greenhouse gases. (98% of that 2% total) CO2 is the next largest Greenhouse gas, and that makes up 1.98% of the total Greenhouse gases. (1.98% of that 2% total) The other 0.21% of greenhouse gases is made up of methane and other trace gases. The total CO2 content currently in the Earth’s atmosphere amounts to 385 Parts per million, (or 0.0385% of the overall total Atmosphere), and this amount has changed very little since the end of the Second World War. So look again at the figure for the amount of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere for the last 60 and more years and then see how really insignificant amount that huge figure really is.

Now perhaps you see just how astronomical these figures really are, and in reality, how insignificant they really are at the same time.

So now when you see that one ton of solid coal produces 2.86 tons of a wafting gas that just floats away, be aware that the weight is really what you are looking at, and that one ton of coal really does produce 2.86 tons of CO2.

POST SCRIPT As this was originally posted in December 2008, and the figures shown at those stat pages have changed slightly since that time, as has the overall CO2 content in the Atmosphere, now at 388PPM, still only 0.0388% of that overall Atmosphere.


In reply to a Comment below from pablomayrgundter, I have added the following image that shows historical levels of Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere throughout Earth’s History.

Historical Global Carbon Dioxide Concentration Levels

There has historically been much more CO2 in our atmosphere than exists today. For example:

During the Jurassic Period (200 mya), average CO2 concentrations were about 1800 ppm or about 4.7 times higher than today.

The highest concentrations of CO2 during all of the Paleozoic Era occurred during the Cambrian Period, nearly 7000 ppm — about 18 times higher than today.

The Carboniferous Period and the Ordovician Period were the only geological periods during the Paleozoic Era when global temperatures were as low as they are today. To the consternation of global warming proponents, the Late Ordovician Period was also an Ice Age while at the same time CO2 concentrations then were nearly 12 times higher than today– 4400 ppm.

According to greenhouse theory, Earth should have been exceedingly hot. Instead, global temperatures were no warmer than today. Clearly, other factors besides atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration influence earth temperatures and global warming.