The Chemistry of Coal

Author: Mark Roland
Edited by Debbie Gevirtzman and Stephanie Nardei


3 Class Periods

Preparation Time:


Materials: Websites, listed below

This lesson serves as a review of conservation of mass, simple reactions and equation balancing. During the lesson, students will research chemical components of coal, as well as environmental health impacts of mining and burning coal.

Students will be able to:
1. List some of the major chemical components of coal.
2. Based on review of the mass conservation, determine the products of coal combustion.
3. Articulate connections between coal combustion products and environmental health issues in a written form.

National Science Education Standard:
Content Standard B-Physical Science

  • Chemical reactions occur all around us, for example in health care, cooking, cosmetics, and automobiles. Complex chemical reactions involving carbon-based molecules take place constantly in every cell in our bodies.
  • Chemical reactions may release or consume energy. Some reactions such as the burning of fossil fuels, release large amounts of energy by losing heat and by emitting light. Light can initiate many chemical reactions such as photosynthesis and the evolution of urban smog.
    Content Standard F-Science in Personal and Social Perspectives


  • Human populations use resources in the environment in order to maintain and improve their existence. Natural resources have been and will continue to be used to maintain human populations.
  • The earth does not have infinite resources; increasing human consumption places severe stress on the natural processes that renew some resources, and it depletes those resources that cannot be renewed.


  • Natural ecosystems provide an array of basic processes that affect humans. Those processes include maintenance of the quality of the atmosphere, generation of soils, control of the hydrologic cycle, disposal of wastes, and recycling of nutrients. Humans are changing many of these basic processes, and the changes may be detrimental to humans.
  • Materials from human societies affect both physical and chemical cycles of the earth.
  • Many factors influence environmental quality. Factors that students might investigate include population growth, resource use, population distribution, over consumption, the capacity of technology to solve problems, poverty, the role of economic, political, and religious views, and different ways humans view the earth.

Teacher Background
http://library.thinkquest.org/10429/high/balequa/balbody.htm?tqskip1=1#bal (Balancing information)
http://bc.barnard.columbia.edu/~schapman/bc1601/balcomb.htm (Balancing combustion reactions tutorial)

Related and Resource Websites
http://www.wfu.edu/~ylwong/balanceeq/combust.html (Balancing equations)
http://www.steel.org/learning/howmade/coal.htm (Coal classifications)
http://www.wci-coal.com/web/bl_content.php?menu_id=2.0 (World Coal Institute)
http://mccoy.lib.siu.edu/projects/crelling2/atlas/macerals/mactut.html (Coal macerals)
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5174391/ (MSNBC article on coal)


Day 1
1. As students enter the classroom, have questions posted them to respond:

  1. What is meant by the conservation of mass? (Hint-balancing chemical equations)
  2. Balance these equations:
  3. These are all combustion reactions with organic compounds. What two products are always formed from the combustion of organic compounds?

2. Review answers to assigned questions. The last equation may be difficult for students. Try practicing more equations, if necessary. There is a balancing equations website with interactive practice (see Related and Resource Websites).

3. Discuss again the idea of mass conservation. Look at products for last equation to be balanced. If another atom of sulfur was present in the reactant, how would this effect the balanced equation? Have the students re-balance the equation with another sulfur atom:

4. In general, combustion reactions are all very similar, producing carbon dioxide and water. Other products depend on other present elements. Sulfur will produce sulfur dioxide. Nitrogen will produce nitrogen dioxide or nitrogen monoxide. Coal is a very complex substance containing countless compounds. This discussion of mass conservation will help students understand products of coal combustion based on relative elemental composition.

5. Allow students to have the remainder of the class to begin researching coal. Here are questions to guide them: NOTE: Most teachers will need computer lab for an entire class for Internet research.

  1. What is coal composed of?
  2. What names are used in classifying coal? Describe their meanings.
  3. What compounds are created through coal combustion? Are there other coal components that might not combust?

Students begin by using websites labeled coal classification, World Coal Institute, and coal macerals (see Related and Resource websites). These websites are a good starting place but encourage students to look elsewhere.

6. Discuss and summarize class findings. When discussing the compounds created by coal combustion ask questions to get an idea of students’ previous knowledge about environmental health concerns, because they will be researching these next.

Day 2 and 3
1. The discussion from the end of Day 1 might need to be completed at the beginning of Day 2. Otherwise, review some of ideas from Day 1.

2. In preparation for the lesson ‘s final project, a short paper on the potential environmental health impacts of coal combustion products, begin to gauge how much experience your students have had with research, especially Internet. Discuss search engines, keyword searching, and evaluating credible sources. Try allowing students to independently research today, helping them when necessary.

3. Ask students to research potential environmental health impacts of coal combustion products. A massive amount of information is available on these topics, so two days are given for students to sort through it all. As stated before, this is a chance for them to have guided practice with technical Internet research. Monitor the class closely to ensure they are on-task, finding reliable information, and refining their search as necessary. Otherwise, allow them freedom in researching information satisfying their curiosity and answering their own questions.

4. As students finish their research, they should begin to write their papers. Direct students to write a one to two page paper describing potential health impacts of coal combustion products. As much as possible students should refer to the chemical components.

The short paper on the environmental health impacts of coal combustion will need to be completed at home.

Embedded Assessment
Some ideas for grading the paper:
1. Is the paper well organized, with an introduction, body, and conclusion?

2. Does the student reference information properly?

3. Are the sources used reliable? If they are slanted, does the student present the information as fact when it might not be?

4. Are opinions on the environmental health impacts of coal backed with factual research?














PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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