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A Tale of Two Coals

Of the 60 million tonnes of coal Canada produces each year, just over half is thermal coal, the variety of coal used for power generation. The other, lesser-known coal that Canada produces in almost equal measure is metallurgical coal. Metallurgical coal, also known as met coal, coking coal, or steelmaking coal, is a vital ingredient for making steel, iron alloy, carbon and other metals used in everything from buildings, tools, trains, planes, and automobiles, to cookware, cutlery, surgical tools and implants. 

Steelmaking coal has characteristics that make it ideal for heating and transform it into coke, the carbon source needed to make steel. Metallurgical-grade coal is heated to over 1000 degrees Celsius in the absence of oxygen, and then quickly cooled in water or air to produce a hard, porous brick of carbon known as coke. The coke is fed into a blast furnace with iron ore and a handful of other ingredients to make molten iron, which is then mixed (alloyed) with other metals to make the many diverse types of steel that are the backbone of our everyday lives.

According to the World Coal Association, around 770 kilograms of met coal makes 600 kilograms of coke, which in turn produces one tonne (1000 kilograms) of steel using a basic oxygen furnace. Basic oxygen furnaces are currently used to produce about 74 per cent of the world’s steel.

Green steel?

In 2016, the Government of Canada announced its plan to eliminate the use of traditional coal-fired electricity in Canada by 2030. Currently, about 10 per cent of Canada’s electricity is generated using thermal coal, but this number is closer to 66 per cent worldwide. Four Canadian provinces still use thermal coal for power generation: Saskatchewan, Alberta, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. This initiative does not apply to metallurgical coal, which will continue to be needed for steel-making.

Steel has a critical role to play in building green energy infrastructure as the world transitions to a low-carbon economy. Steel is needed to build wind turbines, solar panels, tidal power systems and bioenergy infrastructure. According to the BC Coal Alliance, 100 tonnes of steelmaking coal is required to produce the 185 tonnes of steel used to build a typical wind turbine.

Most of Canada’s metallurgical coal is produced at mines in British Columbia where it has been mined for more than a century. Vancouver-based Teck Resources is the largest producer of steelmaking coal in North America with five steelmaking coal mines in British Columbia and one in Alberta. Almost all of Canada’s steelmaking coal is exported, according to the Coal Association of Canada, while much of the thermal coal produced in Canada is used domestically. Canada is the world’s third largest exporter of metallurgical coal, after Australia and the United States.

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