We’ve already written a separate guide about the different types of coal.
In the guide below however, we outline specifically what black and brown coal are, and their differences.
Summary – Brown vs Black Coal
There are various different types of coal, and they each have their own properties
When it comes to brown and black coal, they can be found in different regions of the world, and the quality of the coal also differs (although, ourworldindata.org notes that 70% of the coal in the world is high quality coal)
Brown coal tends to be softer, is usually less efficient as an energy source, and also usually contains more moisture and has a lower carbon content
Black coal has multiple forms or stages of development
In general, black coal tends to be harder than brown coal, and have a higher carbon content, a lower moisture content, and have a higher energy content compared to brown coal
Different types of coal also tend to have different carbon emission rates per unit of electricity produced
For example, unearthed.greenpeace.org notes that soft coal like brown coal tends to emit more than hard coal like black coal
Brown vs Black Coal: What They Each Are
Sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite might be referred to as black coal, whilst lignite is referred to as brown coal.
However, sometimes sub-bituminous coal might be considered a brown coal
Brown vs Black Coal: Differences In Properties
Coal types can differ in the following properties and performance traits:
– Carbon Content
– Energy Per Unit
– Moisture Content
ga.gov.au 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’
Black coal is many millions of years older than brown coal and has a lower water content.
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.
Unlike black coal, brown coal must be dried before it is burnt
Apart from these differences, they can also differ in where they are found in the world (geographic location), and in what quantities/abundance.
Brown vs Black Coal: Differences In Greenhouse Gas Emissions
OurWorldInData.org has a good graph/chart showing how much carbon dioxide each type of coal fuel source emits per unit of electricity produced
In order of most to least emissions (from ourworldindata.org):
Lignite (brown coal)
Sub Bituminous Coal
Differences In Impact On Human Health & Mortality
Pros and Cons Of Brown Coal Specifically
Unearthed.greenpeace.org has a good article about some of the pros and cons of brown coal:
Can be a cheap form of electricity
Can provide jobs
Can support the local economy
Can provide energy independence for countries like Poland and Germany, who might be keen to cut their dependence on Russian natural gas
Burning brown coal for power is one of the most carbon intensive methods there is (more so than black goal, and more than natural gas)
Emits air toxins/contaminants (like NOx and SO2) > this leads to air pollution > this can leads to human health conditions and death > and, air contaminants can travel by wind to other states and countries
Is inefficient – it is wet when it is extracted and burned. So, it takes more brown coal in quantity, and more mining, to produce the same amount of power from less black coal
The mining of brown coal can contribute to damage to local communities, pollution of groundwater and surface water sources, and even increase in the risk of flooding
Other pros and cons of brown coal might be:
Victoria in Australia is one place that enjoys the benefits of brown coal resources for economic growth, jobs and income (environmentvictoria.org.au)
Can be a cheaper form of electricity compared to renewable when you take subsidies out of the picture (joannenova.com.au)
When brown coal is burnt it releases a long list of poisonous heavy metals and toxic chemicals like sulphur dioxide, mercury, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (environmentvictoria.org.au)
Victorian (in Australia) brown coal has a high moisture content, containing more moisture than black coal – it can contain up to 70 percent water. This high moisture content makes long distance transportation uneconomic and so brown coal is not currently used for export markets (environmentvictoria.org.au)
Air pollutants from brown coal might not be well monitored (environmentvictoria.org.au)
The costs on the health system in Australia alone from air pollution might be up to $800 million (environmentvictoria.org.au). Health problems from air pollution can included more common conditions like lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases (wikipedia.org)