Enlarge Coal assay Czechoslovakia
A lignite stockpile (above) and a lignite briquette

Lignite, often referred to as brown coal,[1] is a soft, brown, combustible, sedimentary rock formed from naturally compressed peat. It is considered the lowest rank of coal due to its relatively low heat content. It has a carbon content around 20-35% percent.[1] It is mined all around the world, is used almost exclusively as a fuel for steam-electric power generation, and is the coal that is most harmful to health.[2]


Lignite mining, western North Dakota, US (c. 1945)

Lignite is brownish-black in color and has a carbon content from as low as 20-25 percent up to 60–70 percent, a high inherent moisture content sometimes as high as 75 percent,[1] and an ash content ranging from 6–19 percent, compared with 6–12 percent for bituminous coal.[3]

Strip mining lignite at Tagebau Garzweiler in Germany

The energy content of lignite ranges from 10 to 20 MJ/kg (9–17 million BTU per short ton) on a moist, mineral-matter-free basis. The energy content of lignite consumed in the United States averages 15 MJ/kg (13 million BTU/ton), on the as-received basis (i.e., containing both inherent moisture and mineral matter). The energy content of lignite consumed in Victoria, Australia, averages 8.4 MJ/kg (7.3 million BTU/ton).

Lignite has a high content of volatile matter which makes it easier to convert into gas and liquid petroleum products than higher-ranking coals. Unfortunately, its high moisture content and susceptibility to spontaneous combustion can cause problems in transportation and storage. Processes which remove water from brown coal reduce the risk of spontaneous combustion to the same level as black coal, increase the calorific value of brown coal to a black coal equivalent fuel, and significantly reduce the emissions profile of 'densified' brown coal to a level similar to or better than most black coals.[4] However, removing the moisture increases the cost of the final lignite fuel.


Layer of lignite for mining in Lom ČSA, Czech Republic

Because of its low energy density and typically high moisture content, brown coal is inefficient to transport and is not traded extensively on the world market compared with higher coal grades. It is often burned in power stations near the mines, such as in Australia's Latrobe Valley and Luminant's Monticello plant in Texas. Primarily because of latent high moisture content and low energy density of brown coal, carbon dioxide emissions from traditional brown-coal-fired plants are generally much higher per megawatt generated than for comparable black-coal plants, with the world's highest-emitting plant being Hazelwood Power Station[5] until its closure in March 2017.[6] The operation of traditional brown-coal plants, particularly in combination with strip mining, is politically contentious due to environmental concerns.[7][8]

In 2014, about 12 percent of Germany's energy and, specifically, 27 percent of Germany's electricity came from lignite power plants,[9] while in 2014 in Greece, lignite provided about 50 percent of its power needs.

An environmentally beneficial use of lignite can be found in its use in cultivation and distribution of biological control microbes that suppress plant disease causing microbes. The carbon enriches the organic matter in the soil while the biological control microbes provide an alternative to chemical pesticides.[10]

Reaction with quaternary amine forms a product called amine-treated lignite (ATL), which is used in drilling mud to reduce fluid loss during drilling.


Pendant in lignite (jet) from the Magdalenian culture

Lignite begins as an accumulation of partially decayed plant material, or peat. Burial by other sediments results in increasing temperature, depending on the local geothermal gradient and tectonic setting, and increasing pressure. This causes compaction of the material and loss of some of the water and volatile matter (primarily methane and carbon dioxide). This process, called coalification, concentrates the carbon content, and thus the heat content, of the material. Deeper burial and the passage of time result in further expulsion of moisture and volatile matter, eventually transforming the material into higher-rank coals such as bituminous and anthracite coal.

Lignite deposits are typically younger than higher-ranked coals, with the majority of them having formed during the Tertiary period.


Germany has the biggest deposits,[11] followed by China, Russia and United States.[12]


The Latrobe Valley in Victoria, Australia, contains estimated reserves of some 65 billion tonnes of brown coal.[13] The deposit is equivalent to 25 percent of known world reserves. The coal seams are up to 100 metres thick, with multiple coal seams often giving virtually continuous brown coal thickness of up to 230 metres. Seams are covered by very little overburden (10 to 20 metres).[13]


Lignite can be separated into two types. The first is xyloid lignite or fossil wood and the second form is the compact lignite or perfect lignite.

Although xyloid lignite may sometimes have the tenacity and the appearance of ordinary wood, it can be seen that the combustible woody tissue has experienced a great modification. It is reducible to a fine powder by trituration, and if submitted to the action of a weak solution of potash, it yields a considerable quantity of humic acid.[14] Leonardite is an oxidized form of lignite, which also contains high levels of humic acid.[15]

Jet is a hardened, gem-like form of lignite used in various types of jewelry.


Lignite mined in millions of metric tonnes
Country or territory 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
 East Germany 261 258.1 280 [a] [a] [a] [a] [a] [a] [a]
 Germany 108[b] 129.9[b] 107.6[b] 167.7 169 176.5 185.4 183 178.2 178.1
 China 24.3 45.5 47.7 125.3 136.3 145 147 145 140
 Russia 145[c] 141[c] 137.3[c] 87.8 76.1 76.4 77.9 73 70 73.2
 Kazakhstan [d] [d] [d] 2.6 7.3 8.4 5.5 6.5 6.6
 Uzbekistan [d] [d] [d] 2.5 3.4 3.8 3.8
 United States 5 42.8 79.9 77.6 71.0 73.6 71.6 70.1 72.1 64.7
 Poland 36.9 67.6 59.5 56.5 62.8 64.3 66 63.9 63.1
 Turkey 14.5 44.4 60.9 70.0 72.5 68.1 57.5 62.6 50.4
 Australia 32.9 46 67.3 68.8 66.7 69.1 59.9 58.0 63.0
 Greece 23.2 51.9 63.9 56.5 58.7 61.8 54 48 46
 India 5 14.1 24.2 37.7 42.3 43.5 45 47.2 43.9
 Indonesia 40.0 51.3 60.0 65.0 60.0 60.0
 Czechoslovakia 82 87 71 [e] [e] [e] [e] [e] [e] [e]
 Czech Republic [f] [f] [f] 50.1 43.8 46.6 43.5 40 38.3 38.3
 Slovakia [f] [f] [f] 3.7 2.4 2.4 2.3
 Yugoslavia 33.7 64.1 [g] [g] [g] [g] [g] [g] [g]
 Serbia [h] [h] [h] 35.5[i] 37.8 40.6 38 40.1 29.7 37.3
 Kosovo [h] [h] [h] [j] 8.7[k] 9[k] 8.7[k] 8.2[k] 7.2[k] 8.2[k]
 North Macedonia [h] [h] [h] 7.5 6.7 8.2 7.5
 Bosnia and Herzegovina [h] [h] [h] 3.4 11 7.1 7 6.2 6.2 6.5
 Slovenia [h] [h] [h] 3.7 4 4.1 4
 Montenegro [h] [h] [h] [j] 1.9 2 2
 Romania 26.5 33.7 29 31.1 35.5 34.1 24.7 23.6 25.2
 Bulgaria 30 31.5 26.3 29.4 37.1 32.5 26.5 31.3 35.9
 Albania 1.4 2.1 30 14 9 20
 Thailand 1.5 12.4 17.8 18.3 21.3 18.3 18.1 18 15.2
 Mongolia 4.4 6.6 5.1 8.5 8.3 9.9
 Canada 6 9.4 11.2 10.3 9.7 9.5 9.0 8.5 10.5
 Hungary 22.6 17.3 14 9.1 9.6 9.3 9.6 9.6 9.3
 North Korea 10 10.6 7.2 6.7 6.8 6.8 7 7 7
Source: World Coal Association[16] · U.S. Energy Information Administration[17] · BGR Energiestudie 2016[18] · 1970 data from World Coal (1987)[19]

no data available

  1. ^ a b c d e f g East Germany became a part of Germany as a result of German reunification in 1990.
  2. ^ a b c Data prior to 2000 are for West Germany only.
  3. ^ a b c Data prior to 2000 represent the Soviet Union.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Country was a part of the Soviet Union during this time.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Country was a part of Czechoslovakia during this time.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Yugoslavia broke up in a process that concluded in 1992.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Country was a part of Yugoslavia during this time.
  9. ^ 2000 data is for Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
  10. ^ a b Country was a part of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during this time.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Albanians unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, but the country it is not member of UN and its status is heavily disputed.


See also


  1. ^ a b c Kopp, Otto C. "Lignite" in Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. ^ "Lignite coal - health effects and recommendations from the health sector" (PDF). Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). December 2018.
  3. ^ Ghassemi, Abbas (2001). Handbook of Pollution Control and Waste Minimization. CRC Press. p. 434. ISBN 0-8247-0581-5.
  4. ^ George, A.M.. State Electricity Victoria, Petrographic Report No 17. 1975; Perry, G.J and Allardice, D.J. Coal Resources Conference, NZ 1987 Proc.1, Sec. 4.. Paper R4.1
  5. ^ "Hazelwood tops international list of dirty power stations". World Wide Fund for Nature Australia. Archived from the original on 2008-10-13. Retrieved 2008-10-02.
  6. ^ "End of generation at Hazelwood". Engie. Archived from the original on 2017-03-31. Retrieved 2017-06-30.
  7. ^ "The Greens Won't Line Up For Dirty Brown Coal In The Valley". Australian Greens Victoria. 2006-08-18. Retrieved 2007-06-28.
  8. ^ "Greenpeace Germany Protests Brown Coal Power Stations". Environment News Service. 2004-05-28. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2007-06-28.
  9. ^ "Statistics on energy production in Germany 2014, Department of Energy (in german, lignite = "Braunkohle")" (PDF). 2014-10-01. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-12-06. Retrieved 2015-12-10.
  10. ^ Jones, Richard; Petit, R; Taber, R (1984). "Lignite and stillage:carrier and substrate for application of fungal biocontrol agents to soil". Phytopathology. 74 (10): 1167–1170. doi:10.1094/Phyto-74-1167.
  11. ^ "Deutschland ‒Rohstoffsituation 2015" (PDF). Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe (in German). 1 November 2016. Archived from the original (pdf) on 6 July 2019. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
  12. ^ Appunn, Kerstine (7 August 2018). "Germany's three lignite mining regions". The Clean Energy Wire. Archived from the original on 26 November 2018. Retrieved 5 July 2019. Germany has been the largest lignite producer in the world since the beginning of industrial lignite mining. It still is, followed by China, Russia, and the United States. The softer and moister lignite (also called brown or soft coal) has a lower calorific value than hard coal and can only be mined in opencast operations. When burned, it is more CO2 intensive than hard coal.
  13. ^ a b Department of Primary Industries, Victorian Government, Australia, ‘Victoria Australia: A Principle Brown Coal Province’ (Fact Sheet, Department of Primary Industries, July 2010).
  14. ^ Mackie, Samuel Joseph (1861). The Geologist. Original from Harvard University: Reynolds. pp. 197–200.
  15. ^ Tan, K.H. 2003. Humic matter in soil and the environment: principles and controversies, CRC Press, 408 pp.
  16. ^ "Resources". World Coal Association. 2014. Retrieved 2015-12-22.
  17. ^ "Production of Lignite Coal". U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2012. Retrieved 2015-12-23.
  18. ^
  19. ^ Gordon, Richard (1987). World coal: economics, policies and prospects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 44. ISBN 0521308275. OCLC 506249066.