Brown Coal vs Black Coal Comparison: Differences, Emissions & More

We’ve already put together a separate guide where we outline what coal is, explain how it forms, & explain the different types of coal.

In the guide below however, we specifically discuss black and brown coal.


Summary – Brown vs Black Coal Comparison

Overall, there’s one type of brown coal, and three main types of black coal

Each of these types of coal has a different rank, and has different traits and qualities

We list these ranks and traits/qualities in the guide below

In general, black coal might be higher ranked, higher quality, harder, have a higher energy content and carbon content, and have a lower moisture content compared to brown coal

Black coal may also emit less carbon dioxide than brown coal

At the bottom of this guide, we list some potential pros and cons of brown coal specifically, and coal in general


What Is Brown Coal, & What Is Black Coal?

– Brown Coal

Brown coal is lignite


– Black Coal

Black coal includes sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite 


How Brown Coal & Black Coal Form

We explained the formation process of coal, and brown coal and black coal in this guide.

Chronologically, the formation of brown coal happens before black coal, and in this order (from first to last):

– Lignite (brown coal) (peat progresses into Lignite)

– Sub-bituminous (black coal)

– Bituminous (black coal)

– Anthracite (black coal)


Brown Coal vs Black Coal: Key Differences 

Some of the key differences between brown coal and black coal might be:

– How long they each take to form

Black coal may take longer to form in the coal formation process than brown coal


Black coal is many millions of years older than brown coal …  ( 


– The rank and quality of coal

Brown coal might be lower ranked and lower quality than black coal (which is higher ranked and higher quality)

Overall, the higher the rank of coal, the harder it might be, the higher it’s energy and carbon content, and the lower it’s water/moisture content

Less of the higher ranked forms of coal (in quantity) might be required to produce the same amount of energy as for lower ranked coal notes that: ‘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’


– How hard or soft each one is (known as ‘hardness’)

Brown coal tends to be softer, and black coal harder


– Heating value

The higher the rank of coal, the higher the heating value (in Btu) might be


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 (


– Energy content

This is energy per unit, or, energy per kg

Higher ranked coal (black coal) might have a higher energy content


– Moisture content/water content

Which affects how dry the coal has to be before being combusted/burnt

Lower ranked coal (brown coal) might have a higher moisture content than higher ranked coal


Black coal … has a lower water content [… than brown coal, and …] Unlike black coal, brown coal must be dried before it is burnt (


– Carbon content and carbon concentration

Higher ranks of coal (black coal) might have a higher % of fixed carbon, and the lower ranks of coal (brown coal) might have the least concentration of carbon


– Overall volatile matter

Volatile matter includes water, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide

As coal rank increases, volatile matter % in the coal decreases


– Where they are found geographically in the world

Brown and black coal might each be more abundant or more scarce in different geographic regions of the world


– How much of each type of coal there is in the world

There might be more black coal in the world in total than brown coal notes that 70% of the coal in the world is high quality coal (black coal)


– Summary of the different traits of black coal and brown coal

Below is a paraphrased summary from of each type of black coal, and also brown coal:

[Anthracite is hard and black, contain a high % of fixed carbon, and a low % of volatile matter]

[Bituminous has a] high heating (Btu) value [and is] the most common type of coal used in electricity generation in the US]

[Sub-bituminous is black, and] has a higher heating value than lignite

[Lignite is brown coal, and is] the lowest grade coal with the least concentration of carbon


Brown vs Black Coal: Differences In Greenhouse Gas Emissions has a graph/chart showing how much carbon dioxide each type of coal emits per unit of electricity produced 

Generally, the lower quality the coal, the more greenhouse gases it might emit.

Some reports indicate that the emissions difference between high ranked coal and low ranked coal might be around the 9% to 10% mark.


In order of most to least emissions (from

Lignite (brown coal)


Sub Bituminous Coal 

Bitumen also notes that soft coal like brown coal tends to emit more than hard coal like black coal 


Potential Difference In Impact On Human Health & Mortality

When taking into account deaths from accidents and air pollution, brown coal (according to some studies) might be more harmful than black coal.


Potential Pros and Cons Of Brown Coal

Paraphrased from,,,, and, some of the potential pros and cons of brown coal might be:



– Might be a cheaper form of electricity than some other energy sources

For example, it may be cheaper than renewables when subsidies are taken into account 

This might especially be the case where brown coal is abundant locally, and cheap to mine and use for electricity


– Might have a number of economic benefits

Such as providing jobs, income and supporting a local economy mentions Victoria in Australia may be an example of a place that receives these benefits


– Might help some countries reduce their foreign energy dependence

For example, it might help Poland and Germany reduce their dependence on foreign Russian natural gas



– Burning brown coal for energy may be more carbon intensive than black coal, and also natural gas


– May emit air toxins/air pollutants, poisonous heavy metals, and toxic chemicals

Such as NOx (nitrogen oxides), SO2 (sulphur dioxide), mercury, particulate matter

In some geographic regions, the concentration of these pollutants and chemicals in the air might not be adequately monitored or regulated too – which could compound the issue in some ways


-May have indirect social costs and health costs to consider

For example, mentions that ‘The costs on the health system in Australia alone from air pollution might be up to $800 million’

It’s unclear how much coal pollution may contribute to this though


– Might be an inefficient way of generating energy inefficient

Because brown coal is wet when it is extracted and burned, it takes more brown coal (in quantity), to produce the same amount of power compared to black coal


– Brown coal might not be economically feasible to transport longer distances mentions this might be the case with Victorian brown coal (in Australia)

Because it contains up to 70 percent water (has a high moisture content), it isn’t suitable from an economic perspective for long distance transport, and isn’t used for export markets i.e. it may be restricted to some local markets


– The mining of brown coal may have a range of negative environmental and social effects

It may contribute to the pollution of groundwater and surface water sources, increase in the risk of flooding, and generally impact local mining communities in some regions


Potential Pros & Cons Of Coal In General

You can also read more about the pros and cons of coal in general in this guide














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