Top 10 Unexpected Uses Of Coal

March 2, 2011
Coal isn’t just a new Spike series premiering Wednesday, March 30 at 10PM/9C, it’s also the name of the substance that heats approximately 48% of American homes. Now, coal doesn’t just heat your homes. In fact, it does a lot more than that. Here are ten of the most surprising and unexpected uses for one of the world’s strongest natural resources.

10. Perfume

As you may expect, some of the most common natural ingredients in perfume-making include flowers, spices, grasses and fruits, all of which smell nice. However, apart from these balsams, substances like petrochemicals, alcohol, coal tars and coal are also used in perfume production. Used as fixatives, they enable perfume to evaporate slowly and emit odors longer. There’s not just one chemical or item used to create that great scent, but rather, it takes a village to build an “eau de toilette”.


9. Lice Shampoo

Hopefully, you've never had the burden of dealing with lice, but if you have, you’ve probably used coal to help get rid of those pesky critters. Most effective lice shampoos contain coal tar (the result of turning coal into coke, or carbonized coal). Coal tar is a common remedy for many skin conditions, but it can prevent and kill lice when used in a high concentration. If you ever happen to find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having lice, you now know what will come to your rescue.

8. Fertilizer

In a process called gssification, the carbon dioxide and hydrogen in coal is converted to produce urea and ammonia for fertilizer. In this process, coal is fed into a chemical reactor, where extreme heat and pressure break the chemical bonds in the coal, creating a synthetic gas. The hydrogen portion of this gas is then combined with nitrogen to create anhydrous ammonia, which can be put directly on a field or reformulated to create other types of fertilizers. Not bad: coal lights your lights AND grows your grass.


7. Steel

Coal is one of the main ingredients in one of the strongest and most important building materials in the world: steel. Through a process called coking, coal is converted into carbonized coal, or coke. From there, the coke is mixed with limestone and fed into a furnace with iron ore. The coke burns and the limestone mixes with the ore, creating a gray material called slag. The iron is then re-melted and finally refined into the steel used in buildings and cars.

6. Golf Balls

Whether you’re Tiger Woods or just an average Joe on the links, the ball you're likely driving (or shanking) has a little bit of coal in it. Much like tennis rackets, golf balls utilize coal ash, which is a byproduct of coal combustion, as a low-cost filler. So next time you’re on the back nine, just remember that coal helped get you there.


5. Concrete

Fly ash concrete is a newly-developed, environmentally sound form of the familiar building material. Fly ash is recycled and lasts ten times longer than its predecessor, releasing one ton less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during development and considerably lowers overall construction costs. Its strength lies in the fly ash, a coal combustion product which comes from boilers used in the electrical generation process. Coal’s contribution leads to an increase in workability and reduces water demand and bleeding in fresh concrete.

4. Shingles

With its inclusion in shingles, coal goes from the ground beneath your feet to the roof over your head. Boiler slag is one of the coal byproducts (the remaining waste products of coal that are re-purposed) that is put to use in shingles. Watch your heads!

3. Hair Dye

If you don’t like the color of your hair and you want to change it, then just use coal. One of the light oils that you can distill from the fossil fuel is a common ingredient in hair dye. In fact, the very first hair dye was created in 1856 by English chemist William Perkin using coal tar chemicals. The dye was called “mauve” and has been used since to create a pale purple color.


2. Baking Soda

Anyone who’s spent time in a kitchen knows that there’s baking soda, and then there’s baking powder. Baking soda is a white crystalline compound used in making effervescent salts and beverages, artificial mineral water, pharmaceuticals and fire extinguishers. Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda, starch and at least one slightly acidic compound (such as cream of tartar) that works as a leavening agent in baking. Interestingly enough, baking soda can be combined with powdered coal and made in baking powder. So, when you’re eating that next cake, just remember to think of all that tasty coal in it.


1. Moth Balls

Ever find a mysterious hole in your sweater that you stored for the winter? You can thank moths for that. However, you have nothing to fear if you’ve got mothballs to protect you. These small balls of chemical pesticide are composed of a coal byproduct, the very distinctive-smelling naphthalene. They may not smell good, but at the very least, they’ll keep your clothes protected.

This is only ten unexpected uses of coal. The list could easily have gone on and on, because there are endless amount of uses for this natural resource. Check out the Coal season premiere on Wednesday, March 30 at 10PM/9C and you just might learn a few more.