Lignite, often referred to as brown coal, is a soft, brown, combustible, sedimentary rock formed from naturally compressed peat. It is considered the lowest rank of coal due to its relatively low heat content. It has a carbon content around 25 to 35 percent. It is mined all around the world and is used almost exclusively as a fuel for steam-electric power generation. Lignite is the most harmful coal to human health.
Lignite is brownish-black in color and has a carbon content from as low as 20-25 percent up to 60-70 percent, a high inherent moisture content sometimes as high as 75 percent, and an ash content ranging from 6-19 percent, compared with 6-12 percent for bituminous coal.
The energy content of lignite ranges from 10 to 20 MJ/kg (9-17 million BTU per short ton) on a moist, mineral-matter-free basis. The energy content of lignite consumed in the United States averages (13 million BTU/ton), on the as-received basis (i.e., containing both inherent moisture and mineral matter). The energy content of lignite consumed in Victoria, Australia, averages (7.3 million BTU/ton).
Lignite has a high content of volatile matter which makes it easier to convert into gas and liquid petroleum products than higher-ranking coals. Unfortunately, its high moisture content and susceptibility to spontaneous combustion can cause problems in transportation and storage. Processes which remove water from brown coal reduce the risk of spontaneous combustion to the same level as black coal, increase the calorific value of brown coal to a black coal equivalent fuel, and significantly reduce the emissions profile of 'densified' brown coal to a level similar to or better than most black coals. However, removing the moisture increases the cost of the final lignite fuel.
Because of its low energy density and typically high moisture content, brown coal is inefficient to transport and is not traded extensively on the world market compared with higher coal grades. It is often burned in power stations near the mines, such as in Australia's Latrobe Valley and Luminant's Monticello plant in Texas. Primarily because of latent high moisture content and low energy density of brown coal, carbon dioxide emissions from traditional brown-coal-fired plants are generally much higher per megawatt generated than for comparable black-coal plants, with the world's highest-emitting plant being Hazelwood Power Station until its closure in March 2017. The operation of traditional brown-coal plants, particularly in combination with strip mining, is politically contentious due to environmental concerns.
The German Democratic Republic relied extensively on lignite to become energy self-sufficient also feeding their extensive chemical industry with lignite via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis in lieu of petroleum which had to be imported for hard currency following a change in policy by the Soviet Union in the 1970s which had previously delivered petroleum at below market rates. East German scientists even converted lignite into coke suitable for metallurgical uses (cf. de:Braunkohlenhochtemperaturkoks on the German Wikipedia) and much of the railway network was dependent on lignite either through steam trains or electrified lines mostly fed with lignite derived power. As per the table below, East Germany was the largest producer of lignite for much of its existence as an independent state.
In 2014, about 12 percent of Germany's energy and, specifically, 27 percent of Germany's electricity came from lignite power plants, while in 2014 in Greece, lignite provided about 50 percent of its power needs. Germany has announced plans to phase out lignite by 2038 at the latest.
An environmentally beneficial use of lignite can be found in its use in cultivation and distribution of biological control microbes that suppress plant disease causing microbes. The carbon enriches the organic matter in the soil while the biological control microbes provide an alternative to chemical pesticides.
Lignite begins as an accumulation of partially decayed plant material, or peat. Burial by other sediments results in increasing temperature, depending on the local geothermal gradient and tectonic setting, and increasing pressure. This causes compaction of the material and loss of some of the water and volatile matter (primarily methane and carbon dioxide). This process, called coalification, concentrates the carbon content, and thus the heat content, of the material. Deeper burial and the passage of time result in further expulsion of moisture and volatile matter, eventually transforming the material into higher-rank coals such as bituminous and anthracite coal.
Lignite deposits are typically younger than higher-ranked coals, with the majority of them having formed during the Tertiary period.
|Countries||Lignite reserves (millions of tonnes)|
The Latrobe Valley in Victoria, Australia, contains estimated reserves of some 65 billion tonnes of brown coal. The deposit is equivalent to 25 percent of known world reserves. The coal seams are up to 98 metres thick, with multiple coal seams often giving virtually continuous brown coal thickness of up to 230 metres. Seams are covered by very little overburden (10 to 20 metres).
Lignite can be separated into two types. The first is xyloid lignite or fossil wood and the second form is the compact lignite or perfect lignite.
Although xyloid lignite may sometimes have the tenacity and the appearance of ordinary wood, it can be seen that the combustible woody tissue has experienced a great modification. It is reducible to a fine powder by trituration, and if submitted to the action of a weak solution of potash, it yields a considerable quantity of humic acid.Leonardite is an oxidized form of lignite, which also contains high levels of humic acid.
|Country or territory||1970||1980||1990||2000||2010||2011||2012||2013||2014||2015|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||[h]||[h]||[h]||3.4||11||7.1||7||6.2||6.2||6.5|
|Source: World Coal Association · U.S. Energy Information Administration · BGR bund.de Energiestudie 2016 · 1970 data from World Coal (1987)|
- no data available
Germany has been the largest lignite producer in the world since the beginning of industrial lignite mining. It still is, followed by China, Russia, and the United States. The softer and moister lignite (also called brown or soft coal) has a lower calorific value than hard coal and can only be mined in opencast operations. When burned, it is more CO2 intensive than hard coal.