Connellsville Coal Set Standard For Metallurgical Coal
Coal Bin By Harold Hough
Metallurgical coal is the king of the coals. Not only does it need to produce heat – lots of it – it needs to be free from impurities that can contaminate the final product. That’s why a small town in Southwest Pennsylvania gave its name to the best of the metallurgical coals – Connellsville Coal, and Connellsville Coke.
Connellsville, PA started without coal, but it was coal and coke that built it. It was founded on March 1, 1806. By 1833, the first coke was produced in a beehive oven in the region. Coke was used in iron foundries. It replaced charcoal when chestnut trees became scarce. Called "silver cinders" or "the bones of coal," coke was produced by baking coal in beehive-shaped brick ovens for 24 to 72 hours. The high temperatures burned off impurities, leaving almost pure carbon in a hard, porous form. Such fuel is ideal for making steel and is easier to transport than the soft bituminous coal itself.
In many ways, the industrial revolution started in Connellsville. It fired Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills in Pittsburgh that made the steel for the rails and machinery that made America grow in the late 1880s. At one time, Connellsville had more millionaires per capita than anyplace in the world.
The purity of the Connellsville coal bed, as well as its chemical and physical characteristics, made it particularly adapted for coking. The coke that was produced from this coal vein was almost 100 percent pure carbon. Connellsville coal was used as run-of the mine coal in the blast furnaces of Pittsburgh without any need to wash it to remove impurities often present in inferior grades of coal; nor was there any need to sort or crush it before the coking process. Chemically speaking, Connellsville Region coal had a low percentage of ash and phosphorus and its sulphur content was less than 1 percent. Being almost entirely free from slate, or other blemishes, no other bituminous seam in Pennsylvania approached it in overall excellence or could compete with it in “cheapness” of production. The seam was of a consistent thickness (7–15 feet) and uniform in quality, remarkably soft, and of superior chemical composition. A 1-foot acre from this area of the Pittsburgh seam was equal to 1,500 tons of coal.
Although Connellsville set the standard for metallurgical coal, it is no longer a center for it. The steel mills in Pittsburgh are closed and the only steel associated with Pittsburgh today is the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers, which means there is no demand for Connellsville coal and coke. In addition, in 1972 the EPA closed the last of the beehive coking operations.
Ironically, the need for more coal products laid the foundation for the end of Connellsville’s metallurgical coal and coke industry. The chemical revolution of the late 1800s produced many essential products from coal tar. The traditional coking method didn’t produce as much coal tar and when WWI came, America was no longer able to import it or its byproducts from Germany. Since benzol and toluol, both coal tar products, were necessary for the manufacture of high explosives, there was a push to move away from the old coking methods. These coking operations were built elsewhere, like Detroit and Chicago, and fueled from coal mines in Kentucky.
Fortunately, there is still a future for metallurgical coal in the US. The reason is China, which has few domestic metallurgical coal deposits necessary for high quality steel. China is in the middle of a massive infrastructure building that includes a high speed rail network. As a result, China’s demand for metallurgical coal is expected to be 100 million tons per year. Other nations importing metallurgical coal in 2010 included India (30 million tons) and Brazil (14 million tons). Japan, Korea and Taiwan required another 94 million tons. While export demand is expected to increase by 20% in 2011, the supply is only expected to increase by 13%. Every ton of steel made in a traditional blast furnace requires 0.6 tons of metallurgical coal, according to the World Coal Institute. Approximately 66% of all steel is manufactured using this method.
Although American coal mines are gearing up for more metallurgical coal production, Connellsville’s mines are closed and the seam is nearly exhausted. However, Connellsville Coal will always be the standard that metallurgical coals will strive to meet