What Is the Difference Between Coal & Charcoal?

Updated February 21, 2017

Coal and charcoal may sound like similar fuel types, but they are, in fact, are different, made in separate ways and used in alternative applications. The United States is one of the largest producers of coal, but charcoal is produced in wooded areas close to centres of industry. Both are non-renewable fuels, and both have been heavily criticised by the environmental lobby.


Coal is a fossil fuel created over millions of years by the pressurising of organic material. It is then mined out of the ground like any other rock or mineral. Coal deposits can be found across the world, although demand has been overtaken by oil and gas.


Despite its name, charcoal is nothing like coal. It is made by partially burning wood to create a blackened substance that can be used in a similar way to coal. It is made in kilns, where the oxygen supply is limited so the wood is cooked through rather than burnt.


The main issue with distinguishing between coal and charcoal is the different grades available. Anthracite coal is very high quality and will burn very hot for long periods of time. Lignite coal is low grade and will burn cooler for shorter times. As a general rule, it takes more charcoal to create the same heat, but it will hold its heat for longer.


Both coal and charcoal are used as fuels, sometimes as a fuel in itself, other times to heat water to power steam turbines. In the home, the most common form of both will be as barbecue fuel. In industry, what is used depends on where it is. In Brazil, charcoal is favoured as there is a supply of trees. In the United States, coal is more commonly used.

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About the Author

Chris Rowling has been a professional writer since 2003. He has written news and features for publications covering insurance, pensions and financial markets as well as articles for local newspapers such as the "Richmond and Twickenham Times" and the "Hounslow Chronicle." Rowling graduated in 2002 from St. Mary University, London, and took a postgraduate degree in journalism.