Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"Upon the Road of Anthracite"

I was recently watching A Room with a View, the 1985 Ivory-Merchant film dramatization of E. M. Forster’s Edwardian-period novel. The stellar cast includes Helen Bonham-Carter, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and others recognizable from the last 30 or more years of British film. Skipping a plot synopsis and getting right to the point, in one short scene Maggie Smith's character is traveling by train in England. In her compartment, she is sitting by the window, which is open. At one point, she uses her handkerchief to dab something out of her eye. The man sitting opposite her politely volunteers to close her window. 

Her little move to wipe her eye, and the implication that particulates are coming in the window, was a realistic aspect of train travel in the era of coal-powered steam engines. Steam engines were especially sooty. Using anthracite coal, rather than bituminous, however, reduced the particulates. The Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (DL&W), serving New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and which owned anthracite mines in Pennsylvania, used this advantage of anthracite combustion in an early twentieth-century ad campaign promoting its clean ride. It was the first ad campaign using a "fictional character based on a live model" ( Phoebe Snow was always dressed in white and could disembark the train at her destination as pristine as when she boarded. 

Postcard, by Anthracite Museum Press, Scranton, PA, showing a 1910 DL&W Phoebe Snow advertisement.
Coal rank based on calorific value and fixed carbon content (Figure 5), from Stanley P. Schweinfurth, 2009, An introduction to coal quality-Ch. C: US Geological Survey Professional Paper 1625-F.
With high carbon content and low volatile matter, anthracite burns more cleanly than bituminous coal. It is well-suited for boilers associated with engines and space heating. However, it does not soften and vesiculate ("coke") like bituminous coals; therefore, anthracite cannot be used to make coke (porous, high strength product with high carbon content) for steel making. Other limiting factors for anthracite utilization are that it is much less abundant than bituminous coal and, in Pennsylvania, was previously mostly produced from underground mines, which have higher production costs and are more dangerous than surface mines. One of the last big institutional US customers of Pennsylvania anthracite was the New York City School system, but they retired their old coal-fired furnaces in the late 1990's. 

However, PA anthracite is still used in domestic home heating in the NE USA, interestingly common in Amish homesteads. The clean-burning characteristics apparently make it an attractive fuel for Chinese industry, but the following blog article explains that the export market, as of 2014, is dominated by Russia.

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