The History Channel program Life After People focuses on how civilization would fare if humans instantly vanished. One episode says that one hour after people, unattended oil refineries blow up in flames. Another episode says that simple gas leaks are enough to turn residential neighborhoods like Levittown, New York, into raging infernos.

Yet the show does not cover the fate of humanity's primary fossil fuel--coal. When humans instantly disappear (how they did is not relevant to the show or the question), what fate will befall the coal factories?

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    $\begingroup$ When you say "coal factories", I assume you are referring to plants or factories that use coal to power themselves? I just wanted to point out that raw coal from mines is at least sometimes refined (has impurities removed) before being used as a fuel. So, technically, there are places that could be considered coal "factories" (places that produce coal), namely coal mines and also coal refineries. This page might be of interest to you. $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Dec 3 '16 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ Please explain what a "coal factory" is. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 15 at 1:49

Automated loss-of-fuel shutdown - not very exciting

For coal powered plants, pulverized coal is fed from hoppers into the furnace. Human operator action is required to switch between hopper feed sources, or to refill the currently on-use hopper.

With no humans, the hopper which is being fed will eventually empty. I would assume that the plant has an automated loss-of-fuel shutdown procedure. I have experience with oil fired systems, which will perform an auto-shutdown when fuel runs out; coal plants probably do something similar.

Mostly, the auto-shutdown consists of ensuring that the output electrical generators are disconnected from the grid, so as their frequency drops they don't try to turn into motors. In oil plants, the feed fuel tanks all automatically shut their safety vales, to make sure there is no accidental feed into a not-running burner; again I would assume coal does something similar.


Even the most automated plants will run out of fuel within a few hours, coal plants require trainloads of coal per day and there are no people to run the trains, trucks, and tractors.


I'm not clear on the meaning of "coal factories", but coal fired thermal energy plants will shut down after the fuel in the ready bins runs out without anyone to refill them.

Coke plants (burning off the impurities in coal to make a pure carbon fuel for steel mills) will also shut down without operator supervision, although if they were suddenly unmanned during the coking process, there is a chance they would catch fire and all the coke/coal in and around the plant would be consumed in the fire.

Coal mines will generally fill up with water without running pumps, and this includes underground plants and pit mines. Exposed seams of coal from open air mining could potentially catch fire if a =proper heat source was induced (lightning strike, or a forest fire), creating underground coal seam fires which can burn for decades,


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