Fossil fuels are natural fuels formed by the decomposition, heating, and pressurization of buried phytoplankton and zooplankton (not dinosaurs). It is called “fossil” fuel because it’s found buried in the ground, not because it contains fossils. Like wood and biodiesel, fossil fuels are rich in carbon. But, fossil fuels are considered a type of non-renewable energy because they take millions of years to form.
Here are examples of fossil fuels, their uses, and the problems associated with them.
Fossil Fuel Examples and Uses
The three main types of fossil fuels are coal, oil, and natural gas. Other fossils fuels come from processing these resources.
- Coal: Coal is a carbon-rich solid that looks like a rock. The four different types of coal are lignite, sub-bituminous coal, bituminous coal, and anthracite. The carbon content distinguishes the types of coal. Burning coal provides about 40% of the electricity in the United States. Less commonly, burning coal is used for heating homes.
- Crude oil or petroleum: Crude oil or petroleum is a hydrocarbon-rich liquid. It occurs in underground reservoirs, oil sands, and oil shale. Refining oil yields several other types of fossil fuels, used mainly for transportation and heating. Petroleum is also the source material for other petrochemicals, including plastic, fertilizers, pesticides, and many drugs.
- Natural gas: As the name suggests, natural gas is a gas. It consists mainly of methane, with varying amounts of other alkanes, carbon dioxide, helium, nitrogen, and hydrogen sulfide. Burning natural gas accounts for about 27 of U.S. electricity. It’s also used for heating, cooking, and as a feedstock to make plastics and other organic chemicals.
- Liquefied natural gas (LNG): LNG consists of methane and ethane from natural gas that is cooled to make a non-pressurized liquid. LNG fuels some locomotives, ships, and high-horsepower engines.
- Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG or LP gas): LP gas is a flammable mixture of propane, butane, and pentane used for heating, cooking, and fueling some vehicles. It’s a feedstock for olefins (ethylene, butene, propylene) and acrylic acid. Liquefied petroleum comes from refining petroleum and natural gas. LP gas accounts for around 3% of all energy currently consumed.
- Propane: Propane is a by-product of petroleum and natural gas refining. Technically, it’s one type of LP gas. Propane finds use for cooking and powering buses, recreational vehicles, taxis, and boats.
- Butane: Butane is a gas dissolved in crude oil. It’s used as a fuel, aerosol propellant, gasoline additive, and as a key ingredient in synthetic rubber.
- Gasoline or petrol: Gasoline is a flammable liquid made from fractional distillation of petroleum. It’s mainly used to fuel internal combustion engines for vehicles.
- Kerosene or paraffin: Kerosene is a mixture of liquid hydrocarbons made from petroleum. It’s used for cooking, heating, lighter fuel, aircraft fuel, and some outboard motors.
- Diesel: Diesel is any liquid fuel made for diesel engines. It’s a distillate of petroleum, but it’s also possible to make diesel from other sources (e.g., biodiesel). Diesel fuel finds use fueling trucks, buses, aircraft, locomotives, ships, tractors, and heavy equipment.
Problems With Fossil Fuels
There are problems with using fossil fuels:
- They aren’t renewable. When we run out, we’re out (for the next few million years).
- Burning them dumps huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air, driving global warming. Of course, burning wood or other fuels has the same effect. But, right now most of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels.
- Obtaining and refining them damages ecosystems. Unearthing and transporting fossil fuels disrupts landscapes. Many processes release toxic wastes into the environment.
- Burning fossil fuels leads to air pollution. Some refined fuels burn cleanly, but others produce soot and harmful combustion products.
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- Stephenson, Michael (2018). Energy and Climate Change: An Introduction to Geological Controls, Interventions and Mitigations. Elsevier. ISBN 978-0128120217.