National Geographic : 1944 May
Coal: Prodigious Worker for Man BY ALBERT W. ATWOOD W E AMERICANS take our high standard of living and abundant luxuries very much for granted. In the same way, we are quite unconscious, ex cept when strikes or wars interfere with its smooth supply, that coal, which seems so com monplace, is the prodigious servant that does the bulk of our work. It is the only substance of which there is enough available in the world at present to provide the light and heat and power that make modern civilization possible. Measured in dollars, our country's annual output of coal is nearly twice that of iron ore, copper, gold, and silver combined. It takes an unbelievable amount of coal to supply the country. The weight of one week's production of coal is greater than that of all motorcars produced in the United States in the automobile industry's most prosperous year. West Virginia and Pennsylvania together produce a bigger bulk of coal in a single year than all the earth excavated from the Panama Canal. Coal is used in these prodigious quantities because, directly or indirectly, it heats a large percentage of all buildings, drives a large pro portion of all factory engines, railroad trains, streetcars, and steamships, and must be used in about the same quantity to make steel as iron ore itself. Over half of all the electricity and most of the manufactured gas are made from coal. Electricity provides much of our artificial light and power, and makes possible our movies, radios, and countless appliances. Coal, gas, and electricity together cook the food of city folks, and of many more in towns and in the countryside. Lumps of Coal Are Genii of Chemical Miracles But this is only a beginning. Many of the newest discoveries of science stem from a lump of coal. The wizardry of modern chemistry has touched it with a magic wand and brought forth such useful things as sulfa drugs, vita mins, fibers, rubber, fertilizers, dyes, per fumes, disinfectants, insecticides, and paints (page 591). Nor is national survival in modern war at all likely without coal and its inseparable companion, iron ore. Italy, the first of the Axis countries to collapse, has neither coal nor iron in quantity. Amply supplied with both, England, Ger- many, Russia, and the United States were predestined to be great world powers. Coal deposits are in reality gigantic storage batteries of solar energy, the rays of the sun having been hoarded up in the living vegeta tion of millions of years ago. In the future man may get his light, heat, and power direct from the rays of the sun, but he does not yet know how to do that. At present he must depend upon the mineral fuels-coal, petroleum, and natural gas-and upon water power. But the coal mined in this country in one normal day contains more potential power than the total generated by the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams combined, operating at capacity continuously for three years. There is not enough water power in the whole world to do man's work, and much of the undeveloped power is at present in inac cessible parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. True, petroleum and natural gas do practi cally the same work as coal. But the known reserves of these fuels in this country will last for only a relatively few years as compared with probably a few thousand years for coal, unless the period is cut by increased demands for energy and chemicals.* New sources of petroleum and natural gas may be found, as in the past, but the voracious appetite of war is depleting oil reserves much faster than those of coal. United States Has More Than Half of All the World's Coal Reserves Coal is widely distributed throughout the world, although most of it is in the Northern Hemisphere. North America, Europe, and Asia are the continents with ample coal. Africa, Australia, and South America are not nearly so well endowed in this respect. According to latest estimates, North Amer ica has five-sevenths of the world's reserves of over seven trillion metric tons, and the United States has slightly more than half the world total. This country also produces and uses more coal than any other. Canada ranks next in reserves, with 17 per cent of the world's total. But its great coal resources are remote as yet from centers of population and industry. China and the Soviet Union also have vast untapped reserves. We have used up a much larger percentage * See "Today's World Turns on Oil," by Frederick Simpich, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, June, 1941.