Is coal an infinite resource? You'll dig the answer

News-DemocratMarch 10, 2014 

We were stopped for a train that was hauling carload after carload of coal. We've seen these trains rumble past all of our lives and we've wondered: Is there no end to the coal? I mean, each train must be pulling hundreds of tons. At that rate, won't we eventually run out? How long can this go on? We are amazed we keep seeing these trains, so we finally thought we'd ask. -- Terry and Roxie Collins, of Millstadt

Prepare, then, to be further amazed by an answer that even popular cosmologist Carl Sagan would have loved.

According to a recent estimate by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are bill-yuns and bill-yuns of tons yet to be mined in the United States -- 260 billion to be exact, give or take a few pounds. That's about a quarter of the world's known coal reserves and 50 percent more than Russia, which has the world's second-largest reserves.

Of course, that number probably doesn't mean much to you, so let me put it in some perspective. Each one of those cars you see holds roughly 120 tons of coal. So if you have, say, a 100-car train, you're talking about 12,000 tons of coal.

Sound like a lot? Actually, it's a drop in the bucket. Do you have the slightest idea how many of those 100-car trains you could fill if you mined all of the coal reserves in the U.S.? Turns out it would be just shy of 21.7 million.

Let me put it another way: If it took 10 minutes for a 100-car train to roll through, you would have to sit in traffic a little over 412 years to see all the coal in the U.S. pass by. I hope you have a lot of reading material handy.

If you're looking for real-life numbers, the USEIA says we mined nearly 1.1 billion tons of coal in 2011 in 25 states -- which, at the current rate, means Tennessee Ernie Ford could keep singing "Sixteen Tons" for another 220 years.

What is interfering with my radio when I go down 17th Street, north or south, onto West Main Street? -- Carol Asbury, of Belleville

Without knowing exactly what you're experiencing, I can only guess, but I'm betting it may be the same thing that kills KMOX on my radio every time I pass by the News-Democrat building via North Lincoln.

What's happening is that my car is passing under or near some heavy-duty power lines. As electricity flows through these lines, they generate a mild electromagnetic field that disrupts the radio signal bouncing back to Earth from the upper atmosphere.

As a result, I experience a brief disruption until I leave the range of that narrow field and the radio signal once again beams down into my car undisturbed. It's the same reason you hear so much crackling during a thunderstorm and why you may experience reception problems crossing bridges or going through tunnels or mountainous areas -- they're all interfering with the signal.

Settle a bet: I say at least 80 percent of the cars in Brazil can run on alcohol because of their vast sugar-cane production. My friend says I'm wrong. What do you say? -- T.M., of Belleville

The same thing President Calvin Coolidge reportedly once said when someone bet she could make him say three words: You lose.

It is true that Brazil began converting sugar cane into ethanol in the 1920s, and fuel blends of up to 50 percent ethanol were seen in the early 1940s as German U-boats sank oil shipments.

As production increased, a third of the country's motor fleet reportedly was running on pure ethanol by the late 1980s. But when ethanol production started to run short because of the high demand, gas stations started to run out and many of those vehicles reportedly had to be parked by mid-1989.

By 1991, gasoline prices had dropped and Brazil actually began importing ethanol. Now, you'll largely find stations selling a blend with 20 percent to 25 percent ethanol, far from pure alcohol.

Today's trivia

What is the only Middle Eastern country that does not have a desert?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: If you visit the U.S. Capitol, you'll find two statues of famous people from each of the 50 states. Representing Illinois are James Shields, the only person in history to serve as a U.S. Senator from three states (Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri) and Frances Willard, an educator, suffragist and long-time president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. But the only king among the 100 statues is King Kamehameha I, who conquered the Hawaiian Islands and established the Kingdom of Hawai'i in 1810. The other Hawaiian represented is Father Damien, known for his ministry to people with Hansen's disease (leprosy) on the island of Moloka'i.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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