All I Want for Christmas is Coal

It’s Christmas morning. The fire burns bright in the fireplace and the house is charged with anticipation. Children come racing down the stairs towards the tree. Chaos ensures. The good kids find their stockings full of gadgets and lollipops. The bad kids find only coal. I don’t often cite Wikipedia, but I’d like to bring your attention to the following phrase: “Coal is rarely if ever left in a stocking, as it is considered cruel.

Let me tell you what’s cruel. Cruel is denying children the joy of experiencing geology at its best. And for what? Video games and useless gizmos? Electronics may last one year, maybe two. Video games will waste away the best years of a child’s life. But geology? Geology is forever. How else would a child find out that there are three types of coal – anthracite, bituminous, and lignite – that range in their ‘grade’ or carbon content. How else are kids to learn to evaluate mineral properties such as color, luster, specific density, hardness, and cleavage? How else are young ones to learn about the depositional history of coal – its formation from organic matter, laid down in anoxic conditions and compressed over time?

Coal_anthraciteAnthracite is the highest grade of coal, with a carbon content between 86 and 98%

Coal_bituminousBituminous coal is next in the chain, between 45 and 86%

800px-Lignite-coalLignite, containing 25-45% carbon

I’ve spent a lot of time lately chatting with physicists, and I’ve learned that no analysis is complete without a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Let’s assume that the volume of a single reasonably-sized lump of coal is one cup. Assuming that Santa has good tastes and left behind anthracite, this translates to 0.26 kg. At roughly 8000 kilocalories per 1 kg of anthracite, this is equivalent to 2075 kilocalories of energy, or roughly 4 chocolate bars. Assuming 500 million children visited by Santa each year and a 9:1 ratio of good kids to bad kids, this equates to 104 billion kilocalories of coal in Santa’s sled when he starts his rounds on Christmas Eve. This adds up to 120,000 MWh of electricity – enough to power 11,000 U.S. households for a year.

So, parents, give your children coal. And if you’re worried about them burning it in the house, just tell them scary stories about CO2 emissions and acid rain. Because let’s be honest, the only things scarier than real life are the monsters in my closet.

Be warned: you may have just sustained a lethal dose of mostly harmless science

If you enjoyed this article, please comment below and share with your friends! I’d love for you to follow me on WordPress or on Twitter @harmlessscience (just click Follow on the right sidebar). Thanks for reading!

Cover photo courtesy of cathcuk, Flickr Creative Commons. All other images from Wikimedia Commons.

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2 responses to “All I Want for Christmas is Coal

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