Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/October 1872/Coal as a Reservoir of Power



THE sun, according to the philosophy of the day, is the great store-house of Force. All the grand natural phenomena are directly dependent upon the influence of energies which are poured forth without intermission from the central star of our system. Under the influences of light, heat, actinism, and electricity, plants and animals are produced, live, and grow, in all their infinite variety. Those physical powers, or, as they were formerly called, those imponderable elements, have their origin in one or other of those mysterious zones which envelop the orb of day, and become evident to us only when mighty cyclones break them up into dark spots. Is it possible to account for the enormous amount of energy which is constantly being developed in the sun? This question may be answered by saying that chemical changes of the most intense activity are discovered to be forever progressing, and that to these changes we owe the development of all the physical powers with which we are acquainted. In our laboratory we establish, by mechanical disturbance, some chemical phenomenon, which becomes evident to our senses by the heat and light which are developed, and we find associated with them the principle which can set up chemical change and promote electrical manifestations. We have produced combustion, say, of a metal, or of a metallic compound, and we have a flame of a color which belongs especially to the substance which is being consumed. We examine a ray of the light produced by that flame by passing it through a prism, and this analysis informs us that colored bands, having a fixed angle of refraction, are constant for that especial metal. Beyond this, research acquaints us with the fact that, if the ray of light is made to pass through the vapor of the substance which gives color to the flame, the lines of the spectrum which were chromatic become dark and colorless. We trap a ray of sunlight and we refract it by means of a spectroscope an instrument giving results which are already described in this journal[1] when we detect the same lines as those which we have discovered in our artificial flame. We pursue this very interesting discovery, and we find that several metals which give color to flame, and produce certain lines, when subjected to spectrum analysis, are to be detected in the rays of the sun. Therefore our inference is, that some substances, similar to the terrestrial bodies, with which we are familiar, are actually undergoing a change in the sun, analogous to those changes which we call combustion; and, more than this, we argue that the high probability is, that all solar energies are developed under those conditions of chemical change—that, in fact, the sun is burning, and while solar matter is changing its form, Force is rendered active, and as ray-power passes off into space as light, heat, etc., to do its work upon distant worlds, and these forms of Force are expended in doing the work of development on those worlds. This idea—theory—hypothesis—call it what we may—involves of necessity the waste of energy in the sun, and we must concede the possibility of the blazing sun's gigantic mass becoming eventually a globe of dead ashes, unless we can comprehend some method by which energy can be again restored to the inert matter. Certain it is that the sun has been shining thousands of years, and its influence on this earth we know to have been the production of organized masses, absorbing the radiant energies, in volumes capable of measurement. On this earth, for every equivalent of heat developed, a fixed equivalent of matter has changed its form; and so likewise is it with regard to the other forces. On the sun, in like manner, every cubic mile of sunshine represents the change of form of an equivalent of solar matter, and that equivalent of matter is no longer capable of supplying Force, unless by some conditions, beyond our grasp at present, it takes up again that which it has lost. That something of this kind must take place is certain. The sun is not burning out. After the lapse of thousands of years we have the most incontrovertible evidence that the light of to-day is no less brilliant now than it was when man walked amid the groves of Eden. We may venture farther back into the arcana of time, and say that the sun of the past summer has shone with splendor equal to the radiant power which, myriads of ages ere yet man appeared on this planet, stimulated the growth of those luxuriant forests which perished to form those vast beds from which we derive our coal. Not a ray the less is poured out in any hour of sunshine; not a grain-weight of matter is lost from the mass of the sun. If either the sunshine were weakened, or the weight of the vast globe diminished, the planets would vary in their physical conditions, and their orbits would be changed. There is no evidence that either the one or the other has resulted. Let us see if we can guess at any process by which this stability of the solar system is maintained.

It was first shown by Faraday, in a series of experimental investigations which may be regarded as the most beautiful example of inductive science with which the world has been favored since Bacon promulgated his new philosophy, that the quantity of electricity contained in a body was exactly the quantity which was necessary to decompose that body. For example, in a voltaic battery—of zinc and copper plates—a certain fixed quantity of electricity is eliminated by the oxidation of a portion of the zinc. If, to produce this effect, the oxygen of a given measure of water—say a drop is—necessary, the electricity developed will be exactly that which is required to separate the gaseous elements of a drop of water from each other. An equivalent of electricity is developed by the oxidation of an equivalent of zinc, and that electricity is required for the decomposition of an equivalent of water, or the same quantity of electricity would be equal to the power of effecting the recombination of oxygen and hydrogen, into an equivalent of water. The law which has been so perfectly established for electricity is found to be true of the other physical forces. By the combustion—which is a condition of oxidation—of an equivalent of carbon, or of any body susceptible of this change of state, exact volumes of light and heat are liberated. It is theoretically certain that these equivalents of light and heat are exactly the quantities necessary for the formation of the substance from which those energies have been derived. That which takes place in terrestrial phenomena is, it is highly probable, constantly taking place in solar phenomena. Chemical changes, or disturbances analogous to them, of vast energy, are constantly progressing in the sun, and thus is maintained that unceasing outpour of sunshine which gladdens the earth, and illumines all the planets of our system. Every solar ray is a bundle of powerful forces; light, the luminous life-maintaining energy, giving color to all things; heat, the calorific power which determines the conditions of all terrestrial matter; actinism, peculiarly the force which produces all photographic phenomena; and electricity regulating the magnetic conditions of this globe. Combined in action, these solar radiations carry out the conditions necessary to animal and vegetable organization, in all their varieties, and create out of a chaotic mass forms of beauty rejoicing in life.

To confine our attention to the one subject before us. Every person knows that, to grow a tree or a shrub healthfully, it must have plenty of sunshine. In the dark we may force a plant to grow, but it forms no woody matter, it acquires no color; even in shade it grows slowly and weak. In sunshine it glows with color, and its frame is strengthened by the deposition of woody matter eliminated from the carbonic acid of the air in which it grows. A momentary digression will make one point here more clear. Men and animals live by consuming the products of the vegetable world. The process of supporting life by food is essentially one of combustion. The food is burnt in the system, developing that heat which is necessary for life, and the living animal rejects, with every expiration, the combinations, principally carbonic acid, which result from this combustion. This carbonic acid is inhaled by the plant; and, by its vital power, excited by sunshine, it is decomposed; the carbon forms the ligneous structure of the plant, and the oxygen is liberated to renew the healthful condition of the atmosphere. Here we see a sequence of changes analogous to those which have been shown to be a law of electricity.

Every equivalent of matter changing form in the sun sends forth a measured volume of sunshine, charged with the organizing powers as potential energies. These meet with the terrestrial matter which has the function of living, and they expend themselves in the labor of producing a quantity of wood, which represents the equivalent of matter which has changed form in the sun. The light, heat, chemical and electrical power of the sunshine have produced a certain quantity of wood, and these physical energies have been absorbed—used up—in the production of that quantity. Now, we learn that a cube of wood is the result of a fixed measure of sunshine; common experience teaches us that, if we ignite that wood, it gives out, in burning, light and heat; while a little examination proves the presence of actinism and electricity in its flame. Philosophy teaches us that the powers set free in the burning of that cube of wood are exactly those which were required for its growth, and that, for the production of it, a definite equivalent of matter changed its form on a globe ninety millions of miles distant from us..

Myriads of ages before man appeared—the monarch of this world—the sun was doing its work. Vast forests grew, as they now grow, especially in the wide-spread swamps of the tropics, and, decaying, gathered into thick mats of humus-like substance. Those who have studied all the conditions of a peat-morass, will remember how the ligneous matter loses its woody structure in depth—depth here representing time—and how at the bottom a bituminous or coaly matter is not unfrequently formed. Some such process as this, continued through long ages, at length produced those extensive beds of coal which are so distinguishingly a feature of the British and American coal-fields. At a period in geological time, when an Old Red Sandstone land was washed by ocean-waves highly charged with carbonic acid, in which existed multitudinous animals, whose work in Nature was to aid in the building up masses of limestone-rock, there prevailed a teeming vegetation from which have been derived all the coal-beds of the British Isles. Our space will not allow of any inquiry into the immensity of time required for the growth of the forests necessary for the production of even a single seam of coal. Suffice it to say that, within one coal-field, we may discover coal-beds to the depth of 6,000 feet from the present surface. The section of such a coal-field will show us coal and sandstone, or shale, alternating again and again—a yard or two of coal and hundreds of feet of shale or sandstone—until we come to the present surface every one of those deeply-buried coal-beds having been at one time a forest, growing under the full power of a brilliant sun, the result of solar forces, produced then, as now, by chemical phenomena taking place in the sun itself. Every cubic yard of coal in every coal-bed is the result of a very slow, but constant, change of a mass of vegetable matter; that change being analogous to the process of rotting in a large heap of succulent plants. The change has been so slow, and continued under a constantly-increasing pressure, that but few of the gaseous constituents have escaped, and nearly all those physical forces which were used in the task of producing the woody matter of the plant have been held prisoners in the vegetable matter which constitutes coal. How vast, then, must be the store of power which is preserved in the coal deposits of these islands!

We are now raising from our coal-pits nearly one hundred and ten millions of tons of coal annually. Of this quantity we are exporting to our colonial possessions and foreign parts about ten million tons, reserving nearly a hundred million tons of coal for our home consumption. Not many less than one hundred thousand steam-boilers are in constant use in these islands, producing steam—to blow the blast for smelting the iron-ore—to urge the mills for rolling, crushing, and cutting with giant power—to twirl the spindle—and to urge the shuttle. For every purpose, from rolling cyclopean masses of metal into form to weaving silky textures of the most filmy fineness, steam is used, and this steam is an exact representative of the coal employed, a large allowance being made for the imperfections of human machinery. This requires a little explanation. Coal is a compound of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, the last two elements existing in quantities so small, as compared with the carbon, that they may be rejected from our consideration. The heat which we obtain in burning the coal is almost all derived from the carbon; the hydrogen in burning produces some heat, but for our purpose it is sufficient to confine attention to the carbon only.

One pound of pure coal yields, in combining with oxygen in combustion, theoretically, an energy equal to the power of lifting 10,808,000 pounds one foot high. The quantity of heat necessary to raise a pound of water one degree will raise 772 pounds one foot. A pound of coal burning should yield 14,000 units of heat, or 772 x 14,000=10,808,000 pounds, as above. Such is the theoretical value of a pound of pure coal. Many of our coal-seams are about a yard in thickness; several important seams are much thicker than this, and one well-known seam, the thick coal of South Staffordshire, is ten yards in thickness. This, however, concerns us no further than that it is useful in conveying to the mind some idea of the enormous reservoir of power which is buried in our coal formations. One square yard of the coal from a yard-thick seam—that is, in fact, a cubic yard of coal—weighs about 2,240 pounds avoirdupois; the reserved energy in that cube of coal is equal to lifting 1,729,200 pounds one foot high. We are raising every year about 110,000,000 tons of coal from our coal-beds, each ton of coal being about a square yard. The heat of that coal is equal to a mechanical lifting power which it is scarcely possible to convey to the mind in any thing approaching to its reality. If we say it is 190,212,000 millions we merely state an incomprehensible number. We may do something more than this, if we can convey some idea of the magnitude of the mass of coal which is raised annually in these islands.

The diameter of this globe is 7,926 miles, or 13,880,760 yards; therefore the coal raised in 1870 would make a solid bar more than eight yards wide and one yard thick, which would pass from east to west through the earth at the equator. Supposing such a mass to be in a state of ignition, we can perhaps imagine the intensity of its heat, and its capability, if employed in converting water into steam, of exerting the vast force which we have endeavored to indicate. It was intimated last year in the House of Commons by a member of the coal commission that the decision of that body, after a long and laborious inquiry, would be that there existed in our coal-fields a supply for about one thousand years at our present rate of consumption. We have therefore to multiply the above computation by 1,000 to arrive at any idea of the reserved power of our British coal-fields. What must it have been ere yet our coal deposits were disturbed! At the time of the Roman occupation coal was used in this country. In the ruins of Roman Uriconium coal has been found. Certainly up to the present time a quantity of not less than three thousand million tons of coal has been dug out of our carboniferous deposits and consumed. All this enormous mass of matter has been derived from vegetable organizations which have been built up by sunshine. The sun-rays which compelled the plants to grow were used by the plant, absorbed, imprisoned in the cells, and held there as an essential ingredient of the woody matter. The heat, light, actinism, and electricity, which are developed when we burn a lump of coal, represent exactly the quantity of those forces which were necessary to the growth of the vegetable matter from which that coal was formed. The sunshine of infinitely remote ages becomes the useful power of the present day.

Let it not, however, be supposed that we employ all the heat which is available in our coal. All our appliances, even the very best, are so defective that we lose far more than we use. A pound of pure coal should evaporate thirteen pounds of water; in practice a pound of coal does not evaporate four pounds, even in the most perfectly-constructed steam-boilers, with the most complete steam-engines, such as have been constructed for pumping water for the Chelsea and the other water-works upon the Thames.

Numerous attempts have been made to burn our coal so as to secure a more effective result than this. There has been some advance, the most satisfactory being in the regenerative furnace of Mr. Siemens. In this system the solid fuel is converted into crude gas; this gas is mixed with a regulated quantity of atmospheric air, and then burnt. The arrangements are essentially the gas-producer, or apparatus for converting the fuel bodily into the gaseous state; then there are the regenerators. These are sunk chambers filled with fire-bricks, piled in such a manner that a current of air or gas, passing through them, is broken into a great number of parts, and is checked at every step by the interposition of an additional surface of fire-brick; four of these chambers are placed below each furnace. The third essential is the heated chamber, or furnace proper. This, the furnace-chamber, communicates at each extremity with two of the regenerative chambers, and, in directing currents of gas and air upward through them, the two gaseous streams meet on entering the heated chamber, where they are ignited. The current descends through the remaining two regenerators, and heats the same in such a manner that the uppermost checkerwork is heated to nearly the temperature of the furnace, whereas the lower portions are heated to a less and less degree, the products of combustion escaping into the chimney comparatively cool. In the course of, say, one hour, the currents are reversed, and the cold air and gas, ascending through the two chambers which have been previously heated, take up the heat there deposited, and enter into combustion at their entrance into the heated chamber, at nearly the temperature at which the products of combustion left the chamber. It is not difficult to conceive that by this arrangement, and with its power of accumulation, any degree of temperature may be obtained in the furnace-chamber, without having recourse to purified gas, or to an intensified draught. Where the temperature of the melting-chamber has certainly exceeded 4,000 degrees of Fahrenheit, the products of combustion escape into the chimney at a temperature of only 240 degrees. The practical result of this regenerative system is stated to be, that a ton of steel requires by the ordinary method about three tons of Durham coke—which, being estimated as coal, will be about four tons—to melt it, whereas, in Siemens's furnace, the melting is effected with twelve hundred-weight of ordinary coal. This economy is produced by reserving the heat, by means of the regenerator, which is ordinarily allowed to escape by the chimney.

Another plan for consuming coal with economy has been recently introduced by Mr. T. R. Crampton, and is now in use at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, and at the Bowling Iron Works, in Yorkshire. Instead of converting coal into gas, as in the Siemens process, the coal is reduced by Mr. Crampton to a very fine powder, and then blown into the heated chamber by means of a fan-blast. By this arrangement the perfect combustion of the coal is produced, and a heat of the highest intensity can be obtained. The utilization of this heat, without waste, when it is produced, is an important question still requiring careful attention. There are several other experiments being carried

  1. Popular Science Review, vol. i., pp. 210-214.