The World Of Coal And Its Contribution To A Friday Night At The Bar
Think coal is mined just to produce energy? Wrong. Coal is an indispensible part of our lives and its impact extends to things we never associate with coal. For example, we will look at a Friday night at the local bar and show you how coal is a serious part of your evening’s entertainment.
So, what’s the first thing you do when you walk into a bar? You order a drink.
Let’s say your favorite tipple is gin and tonic. Have you ever wondered what gives your G&T that bite? The quinine in the tonic. That’s right, the same quinine used to treat malaria. No wonder G&T drinkers rarely have malaria.
Actually G&T started as a medicinal drink. Some smart British soldier in India discovered that the bitter quinine he was forced to take went down better with gin. History was made and gin and tonic became the preferred way British soldiers took their prescribed dose of quinine in tropical climates. However, when the Japanese captured the Dutch East Indies in WW II, they captured the bulk of the world’s quinine production. The result was that thousands of British and American soldiers in Africa and Asia died of malaria during the early parts of the war.
Quinine wasn’t only important for controlling malaria; The Polaroid Corporation needed it as a light polarizer. Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid, agreed to finance chemist Robert Burns Woodward’s research into discovering a method for making synthetic quinine. Woodward was successful and the base chemical needed for synthetic quinine was found to be aniline - which is prepared commercially by the reduction of nitrobenzene, a product of coal tar.
But, that may not be the only coal contribution to your G&T. If your gin and tonic uses diet tonic water, you are getting a second dose of coal. Coal derivatives are the base of many of the artificial sweeteners on the market today. And, the most popular diet tonic water sweetener is saccharin.
Saccharin was first produced in 1878 by Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist working on coal tar derivatives at Johns Hopkins University. The sweet taste of saccharin was discovered when Fahlberg noticed a sweet taste on his hand one evening, and connected this with the compound which he had been working on that day.
Although saccharin was commercialized not long after its discovery, it was not until sugar shortages during World War I that its use became widespread. Its popularity further increased during the 1960s and 1970s among dieters, since saccharin is a calorie-free sweetener. In the United States saccharin is often found in restaurants in pink packets; the most popular brand is "Sweet'N Low.”
Maybe your taste runs to scotch and soda. Well, you will still be consuming coal because soda water requires baking soda, which can be produced from coal. Baking soda gives soda water and tonic water its fizz.
This coal technology goes back to the 1700s, when baking powder required wood ash. Unfortunately, that required a lot of wood so in 1783 the French Academy of Sciences ran a contest for inventors who could develop a process for converting salt to soda ash. This contest was won by Nicolas LeBlanc in 1791. In his process, salt was reacted with sulfuric acid, coal, and limestone to produce soda ash. The soda ash was tried by bakeries as a leavening agent and found to be equivalent to potash. Baking soda was soon after extracted from soda ash and used to sooth stomach acids. The superior leavening properties of this material were discovered by American bakeries by the 1830s. It released gas quicker and the aftertaste was not as bitter as soda ash.
In fact baking soda can also be a byproduct of clean coal technology. One firm that does that is Skyonic Corporation, based in Austin, Texas. With its SkyMine technology, flue gases from coal can be blended with water and heat. The mixture then passes through a membrane, which scrubs out sulfur dioxide (SOx), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and mercury. The result? Sodium bicarbonate, which is baking soda.
Okay, enough drinking. Let’s have an order of buffalo wings with some coal on the side. Buffalo wings like chicken nuggets and fried mozzarella sticks contain the food preservative sodium benzoate. And, sodium benzoate is commercially produced through the partial oxidation of toluene, a coal derivative.
If you want to play a game at the local bar, you might head to the billiard table. There you will find even more coal products because many modern billiard balls are made from coal based plastics.
But the development of the modern billiard ball is also the story of the development of plastics. In the 1800s, the balls were made from ivory. However, the average elephant tusk could only produce eight balls, so it was obvious there weren’t going to be enough elephants to go around. To solve the problem, billiard manufacturers offered a $10,000 prize for the first successful artificial ivory. The first was Parkesine, which is the father of all plastics. Unfortunately, it cracked too easily, which is a bad characteristic in billiard balls. It was also unstable.
Eventually billiard manufacturers settled on Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic made from phenol, another coal based derivative. It was discovered in 1909 and it offered the first stable, moldable plastic material. Although modern balls are made from more impact resistant plastics like phenolic resins, they are still based on the coal based chemical phenol.
So, next time you go to a bar, don’t forget coal’s contribution to your evening. Better yet, if you are reading this while attending a coal convention, why not head on out tonight and throw a few drinks back in celebration of your industry and its contributions to a night on the town.