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What Are Fossil Fuels?

Oil well

Fossil fuels still represent today the main source of electricity and heat that powers our civilization, despite the fact that we are aware of the damage done to the environment by using them.

The green sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind power are intermittent because they generate electricity only when the Sun is up or when the wind blows.

During the night or in the days without wind, solar panels and wind turbines are not producing energy, so the utility companies need to rely on fossil fuels to cover the energy demand of the grid.

Types of Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels is a term used to describe a group of fuels that were formed from ancient plants and organisms that lived and died on this planet during the Carboniferous Period, about 360 to 285 million years ago (way before the age of dinosaurs).

In the Carboniferous Period, the land was covered by swamps filled with a wide variety of organisms and plants.
When they died, they sunk to the bottom of the swamps and oceans and start to decompose.

Over a period of millions of years, multiple layers of sand, clay and other minerals covered the layers of dead plants and organisms.

Being subjected to huge amounts of pressure and increased temperatures in an anaerobic environment, the layers of dead plants and organisms, have been turned into today’s fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels come in three different types: solid (coal), liquids (crude oil) and gases (natural gas).

1. Coal

Coal was formed in swampy areas filled with ferns, plants and trees. When these plants died and sank to the bottom of the swamps where they were covered over a long period of time with different layers of sediments.

Being subjected to high levels of pressure and heat in an anaerobic environment, the layers of dead vegetation have been turned into peat, and then being subjected to more pressure and heat they’ve been turned into lignite, and finally into different forms of solid coal.

The most pure coal is anthracite (the most amount of carbon and the lowest amount of impurities and moisture).

Coal is extracted by surface mining or underground mining, and sent to coal-fired power plants where is used as fuel for energy generation.

Once arrived at the power plant, coal is placed into large boilers where is burned to produce steam. The steam produced this way is then used to spin a turbine and generate electricity using a generator.

2. Crude Oil

Oil was formed from small organisms such as zooplankton and algae that died and sunk to the bottom of the oceans where were covered by multiple layers of sediments.

Under extreme heat and pressure conditions, the layers of dead organisms have been turned into today’s crude oil.

Crude oil is pumped out of the ground and sent to refineries to produce different petroleum products.

Once extracted from the underground reservoir, crude oil is sent to refineries where is heated and used to produce diesel fuel, gasoline, kerosene, fuel oil, petroleum, etc.

Oil sands and oil shales are another source of crude oil. These are solid, but hey can be mined and processed to produce a liquid fuel.

Fuels produced from crude oil are mostly used in the transportation sector due to the fact that they are more energy dense than coal and release a smaller amount of emissions into the atmosphere while burning.

3. Natural Gas

Natural gas was formed the same way as oil, but the layers of dead organisms have been subjected to higher levels of pressure and heat, which made them to further decompose and turn into a gaseous form.

Natural gas consists mostly of methane, and is used mostly for residential heating, electricity generation and for transportation (LPG).

A gas-fired power plant uses a gas turbine that receives natural mixed with a stream of air, the composition is ignited and the combustion expands through the turbine and makes it to spin and generate electricity by rotating the shaft of a generator.

Natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil because it releases a smaller amount of emissions into the atmosphere while burning.

Being limited resources with high energy density, fossil fuels have both advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of Fossil Fuels

The biggest advantage of fossil fuels is represented by the fact that they produce a huge amount of energy per pound.

1. Coal is cheap and easy to extract

Coal is one of the cheapest sources of power available on our planet, and this is the reason why many developing countries rely on coal to bring their economies close to the level of the developed countries.

Coal is also a fossil fuel that can be extracted at the surface using strip mining, open-pit mining or mountaintop removal mining.

2. Petroleum is a liquid fuel easy to move from one place to another

Petroleum and all the related products in liquid form can be easily transported from one place to another, which makes this fossil fuel extremely accessible all over the planet.

3. Fossil fuels have high energy density

Using fossil fuels like coal or natural gas release a larger amount of energy than using wood or another form of biomass.

Fuels obtained from oil (gasoline, diesel, kerosene, etc.) also have high energy density and this is the reason why they are used to power vehicles.

Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels

The biggest disadvantage of fossil fuels is represented by the high level of emissions released when we burn fossil fuels for energy or heat generation, which leads to global warming and climate change.

1. Coal is the dirtiest source of power available on the planet

When we burn coal for electricity or heat generation, we release into the atmosphere a huge amount of harmful emissions including nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter (PM), mercury (Hg), and other substances that are very dangerous for human health.

2. Oil is a fossil fuel that pollutes the atmosphere and the oceans

Besides coal, oil is another fossil fuel that turned the transportation sector into a major source of air pollution especially in the big cities.

When we burn petroleum-based fuels to power our vehicles, we release into the atmosphere: nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon dioxide (CO2), particulate matter (PM), etc.

When nitrogen oxides combine with sulfur dioxide in the air, acid rain is formed.

Oil spills can occur when transporting oil on sea (marine spills).

Marine spills are known for major environmental disasters that have killed many birds and marine life, habitats and environments.

3. Fossil fuels are limited resources

Coal, oil and natural gas represent limited resources on our planet.

They are consumed quickly for energy and heat generation, but they require a very long period of time (millions of years) and special conditions of high pressure and temperature to be produced, which is unsustainable.

4. Fossil fuels are responsible for all the pollution on the planet

In terms of emissions released into the atmosphere, coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel.

Oil is somewhere in the middle, and natural gas releases the least amount of emissions when burned.

However, even if we would use only natural gas as fossil fuel to power the civilization we would still have a major problem with the air pollution produced when burning gas for energy or heat generation.

Our atmosphere will have a chance to clean itself only when mankind will completely stop using fossil fuels.

Environmental Impact of Fossil Fuels

Coal, oil, natural gas, and the cement industry are all major producers of carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas that along with methane (a very potent greenhouse gas) and water vapor have increased the average global temperature due to the greenhouse effect.

This has lead to climate change, which brings extreme weather conditions such as waves of heat during the summer, extremely cold winters, drought or floods during the summer, seasons that change (now at the end of October 2019, we have outside June-like temperatures – 84°F or 29°C during the day, and 55°F or 13°C during the night, which is way hotter than usual for this month).

Coal and oil-fired power plants are also polluting the soil and the water courses located near the power stations.

Using petroleum-based fuels turns our vehicles into major sources of air pollution, which affects both our life and the life of the people living close to roads.

Final conclusion

Due to the fact that renewable energy is not yet capable to power our civilization without the help of fossil fuels, we are still bound to use these dirty sources of energy to power our society.

Luckily, the dirty coal is slowly replaced by natural gas, which is a low-carbon energy source.

Oil will become history when the transportation sector will rely only on electric vehicles with zero emissions.

However, the good news is that the green future that will follow is pretty close to us today.

Article written by:

I am a writer and reporter for the clean energy sector, I cover climate change issues, new clean technologies, sustainability and green cars. Danny Ovy

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