A brown to black combustible rock that originated by accumulation and subsequent physical and chemical alteration of plant material over long periods of time, and that on a moisture-free basis contains no more than 50% mineral matter. The plant debris accumulated in various wet environments, commonly called peat swamps, where dead plants were largely protected from decay by a high water table and oxygen-deficient water. The accumulating spongy, water-saturated, plant-derived organic material known as peat is the precursor of coal. Over time, many changes of the original vegetable matter are brought about by bacteria, fungi, and chemical agents. The process progressively transforms peat into lignite or brown coal, subbituminous coal, bituminous coal, and anthracite. This progression is known as the coalification series. The pressure exerted by the weight of the overlying sediment and the heat that increases with depth, as well as the length of exposure to them, determine the degree of coalification reached.
Coal is used primarily for producing steam in electric power plants. Other important uses are by industry for producing steam and heat, and by the steel industry for coke making. Conversion of coal to synthetic liquid or gaseous fuels does not constitute a major use of coal worldwide or in most countries.