It's not unusual to toss around the phrase "fossil fuels" without really stopping to think: What does the gasoline in your car, heating oil in your furnace or the gas in your stove have to do with fossils? Although there are several types of fossil fuels, they all share a common origin; fossil fuels are formed from the remains of once-living organisms. Prehistoric plants and animals that lived and died millions of years ago provided the raw material for the list of fossil fuels that are in use today. The organisms stored the energy of the sun either directly through photosynthesis or indirectly when animals ate plants (or each other) to survive. The stored energy is now available to the world in the form of fossil fuels. Learning about examples of fossil fuels will help you understand the importance of these materials as major sources of energy for the modern world.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Fossil fuels are energy sources formed from the remains of living organisms that have been transformed into fuel by natural processes such as decomposition and pressure.
Types of Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuels are known as non-renewable fuel sources. That is, once the fuel is consumed, it is no longer available for use, and there is no expectation that new fossil fuel will be created to replace it. Other sources of energy, such as solar energy or wood fuels, are renewable, since using the fuel does not necessarily diminish the amount available for future use (that is, the sun will continue to shine, and new growth of trees can replace those that are burned as fuel).
Fossil fuels are, at present, the major source of energy for the world's industrial and consumer needs. Power plants burn a variety of fossil fuels to produce electricity, factories power their operations with fossil fuels and consumers use them to heat their homes and cook foods. Most automobiles still run on gasoline – a type of fossil fuel – although electric vehicles are making inroads into this market.
Petroleum and Gasoline
Petroleum products are perhaps the most well-known and commonly used of the fossil fuels. Almost everyone is familiar with the act of putting gasoline in the fuel tank of a car in order to power their vehicles. Petroleum products are mainly produced by drilling oil wells. Wells can be sunk on dry ground, in shallow near-shore waters or in the deep, open ocean. The crude oil extracted from the ground is refined into many different products, such as gasoline, diesel fuel and heating oil. Not all products are used for energy, as petroluem also provides a good deal of the raw materials used in the chemical industry to manufacture plastics and other goods.
The Increasing Use of Natural Gas
Natural gas has gained a reputation as the cleanest-burning of the fossil fuels. As such, it is finding increasing use as a major energy source for industry. Natural gas is also the product used in homes in gas-burning stoves. Natural gas is typically extracted from the ground at the same sites where petroleum is found. The gas is processed and transported either by truck, ship or pipeline for use in factories and homes.
Coal and Power Generation
Coal has historically been a mainstay of fossil fuel use, famously powering the factories and railroads of the Industrial Revolution. However, its use is declining in favor of other fossil fuels that are cleaner-burning and contribute less to pollution and global climate change. Coal mining is still active, however, and is a major source of fossil fuel use, chiefly for burning in power plants to produce electricity. Although demand for coal is decreasing, it is not likely to vanish as an energy source anytime soon.
About the Author
David Sarokin is an ecologist and noted environmentalist with more than 30 years experience in environmental policy. He created the nation's Right-to-Know program for chemical pollutants, and is the author of Missed Information (MIT Press, 2016), detailing how our social systems like health care, finance and government can be improved with better quality information.
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