High Grade Coal
Is it true that scientists from Argonne National
Laboratories "combined wood, water and acidic clay, and heated in a sealed
container (with no addedd pressure) at 150 C for 28 days, and obtained
high-grade black coal." (Creation ex nihilo, Vol. 19, No. 3, P. 14) ? This
article claims to have found this in "Organic Geochemistry", 6:463-471,
1984. The research was supposedly led by a R. Hayatsu et. al..
Unfortunately, I have no way of obtaining that article in "Organic
Geochemistry" to see the research for myself. Is there anyway to get a
hold of this article (by phone or on the net)? I realize that R.
Hayatsu may not be at this laboratory any more, but is the above
statement of his results accurate?
NO! NO! NO! NO!
This question has been answered a few times before, so I'll run the answer
"I'm not a coal chemist, and I'm not part of the group here at Argonne that
did that work (R. Hayatsu, R.L. McBeth, R.G. Scott, R.E. Botto, R.E.
Winans, Organic Geochemistry, vol. 6, pp 463-471, 1984), but I'll take a
crack at it anyway. I have skimmed the article in question, and I think I
can clear up some fog here.
First of all, the study did not use wood. It used an isolated component of
wood, called lignin. Wood is principally composed of three types of
material: cellulose, lignin, and hemicellulose. Cellulose is a fibrous
glucose polymer, hemicellulose is a shorter mixed polymer of several
different kinds of sugar, and lignin is a polymer chemically related to
sugars and to tannins. The cellulose fibers provide the strength of wood,
and the hemicellulose and lignin bind the cellulose fibers together, much
like epoxy binds together glass wool to make fiberglass.
So, for this study, the researchers used only the lignin, which makes up
about 25% of wood material. They treated it pretty much as described in
the article that you read. However, they also ran the treatment for longer
periods of time, up to 8 months. After two months, the material resembled
low-rank coal in terms of its atomic composition, chemical reactivity, and
spectroscopic properties. Materials treated for longer times were more
similar to higher-rank coals. Specifically, these lignin reaction products
resembled a coal component called vitrinite, which is formed from
low-hydrogen plant parts, such as wood, bark, and roots. (The rank of coal
refers to the amount of geological transformation that the coal has
undergone - the higher the rank, the higher the carbon content and the
lower the hydrogen and oxygen content.)
This research does NOT mean that it is possible to "make coal from wood in
28 days." What it does mean is that conditions similar to those found in
buried peat bogs can indeed transform chemicals found in plants into
chemicals found in coal.
I don't want to wade deeply into the muck of a creation-evolution debate,
but I hope that Mr. Wieland wasn't using this study to claim that since it
only taked a month to make coal from wood, all the coal deposits on earth
could have been formed during Noah's flood. If he was, perhaps you can ask
another question, about how the ages of coal and other rocks are
After I posted this answer, an alert reader brought to my attention that
water was not used in the study; instead, they used powdered dry lignin and
clay. He also confirmed my suspicion that this specious argument was used
by a creationist to support the claim that all the coal and other fossil
deposits in the world were formed in a very short time, during the Noachian
flood. If this is the kind of lame argument that creations need to use,
one tends to suspect that they don't have anything better on hand to
support their scripture-based contentions.
Richard Barrans Jr., Ph.D.
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Update: June 2012