What Is the Difference Between Coal & Charcoal?

Written by chris rowling | 13/05/2017
What Is the Difference Between Coal & Charcoal?
Both coal and charcoal can be used to heat barbecues. (Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

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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