As geological processes apply pressure to dead biotic material over time, under suitable conditions it is transformed successively into:

  • Peat, considered to be a precursor of coal, has industrial importance as a fuel in some regions, for example, Ireland and Finland. In its dehydrated form, peat is a highly effective absorbent for fuel and oil spills on land and water
  • Lignite, also referred to as brown coal, is the lowest rank of coal and used almost exclusively as fuel for electric power generation. Jet is a compact form of lignite that is sometimes polished and has been used as an ornamental stone since the Upper Palaeolithic
  • Sub-bituminous coal, whose properties range from those of lignite to those of bituminous coal are used primarily as fuel for steam-electric power generation. Additionally, it is an important source of light aromatic hydrocarbons for the chemical synthesis industry.
  • Bituminous coal, dense sedimentary rock, black but sometimes dark brown, often with well-defined bands of bright and dull material, used primarily as fuel in steam-electric power generation, with substantial quantities also used for heat and power applications in manufacturing and to make coke
  • Steam coal is a grade between bituminous coal and anthracite, once widely used as a fuel for steam locomotives. In this specialized use it is sometimes known as sea-coal in the U.S. Small steam coal (dry small steam nuts or DSSN) was used as a fuel for domestic water heating
  • Anthracite, the highest rank; a harder, glossy, black coal used primarily for residential and commercial space heating. It may be divided further into metamorphically altered bituminous coal and petrified oil, as from the deposits in Pennsylvania
  • Graphite, technically the highest rank, but difficult to ignite and is not so commonly used as fuel: it is mostly used in pencils and, when powdered, as a lubricant.

The classification of coal is generally based on the content of volatiles. However, the exact classification varies between countries. According to the German classification, coal is classified as follows:

Name Volatiles % C Carbon % H Hydrogen % O Oxygen % S Sulfur % Heat content kJ/kg
Braunkohle (Lignite) 45-65 60-75 6.0-5.8 34-17 0.5-3 <28470
Flammkohle (Flame coal) 40-45 75-82 6.0-5.8 >9.8 ~1 <32870
Gasflammkohle (Gas flame coal) 35-40 82-85 5.8-5.6 9.8-7.3 ~1 <33910
Gaskohle (Gas coal) 28-35 85-87.5 5.6-5.0 7.3-4.5 ~1 <34960
Fettkohle (Fat coal) 19-28 87.5-89.5 5.0-4.5 4.5-3.2 ~1 <35380
Esskohle (Forge coal) 14-19 89.5-90.5 4.5-4.0 3.2-2.8 ~1 <35380
Magerkohle (Non baking coal) 10-14 90.5-91.5 4.0-3.75 2.8-3.5 ~1 35380
Anthrazit (Anthracite) 7-12 >91.5 <3.75 <2.5 ~1 <35300
Percent by weight

The middle six grades in the table represent a progressive transition from the English-language sub-bituminous to bituminous coal, while the last class is an approximate equivalent to anthracite, but more inclusive (the U.S. anthracite has < 6% volatiles).

Cannel coal (sometimes called "candle coal"), is a variety of fine-grained, high-rank coal with significant hydrogen content. It consists primarily of "exinite" macerals, now termed "liptinite".