Abstract Demineralized Hiawatha (Utah) coal was divided into narrow density fractions of resinite and vitrinite macerals using a density gradient centrifugation technique. The distribution of an iron-based catalyst in the coal maceral matrix was studied using an electron probe microanalyser. The data indicate that the iron catalyst is evenly dispersed inside the vitrinite. This uniform dispersion is preserved upon mild (275 °C) hydrotreatment and attendant partial depolymerization of the vitrinite maceral. However, the iron catalyst does not completely penetrate into the resinite maceral matrix due to a lack of microporosity. The small amount of dispersed iron catalyst in the resinite causes some depolymerization of maceral components, e.g. dimers, trimers or higher polymers, into monomers. Due to the insufficient dispersion of the iron catalyst in the resinite a competing thermal breakdown of the maceral occurs. This apparently involves a partial dehydrogenation reaction which may be favoured during the hydrotreatment of resinite.