Fossil Fuels: what are they and how are they used?


Fossil fuels: everything you ever wanted to know

As concerns about climate change take an ever more prominent role, the term “fossil fuels” is becoming part of our everyday lives. But do we really know what fossil fuels are, about their advantages and disadvantages, or how they differ from alternative energy sources?

What are fossil fuels?

Fossil fuels are natural fuels formed from the remains of living organisms. Coal, oil, and natural gas are all examples of fossil fuels. These fuels are made from decomposing animals and plants, and are found in the Earth’s crust. Fossil fuels all contain carbon and hydrogen, which are burned to produce energy.

How are fossil fuels formed?

Fossil fuels are formed from the remains of dead animal and plants, which produce combustible organic material as they decompose. Coal is found in sedimentary rock, in which the dead plant and animal matter piles up to form layers. Oil as a fuel is found as solid material that sits between layers of sedimentary rock. When heated, this solid material produces a thick oily substance that can be used to make gasoline. Natural gas normally occurs in pockets on top of these oil deposits, but can also be found elsewhere. Methane is the main component of natural gas.

Are fossil fuels renewable?

Fossil fuels are non-renewable energy sources as they have been formed over millions of years of the Earth’s development. It would be unrealistic to consider waiting for new deposits of fossil fuels to form, which is why exploring alternative fuel sources has become so urgent.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of fossil fuels?

One of the main advantages of fossil fuels is that they are both relatively cheap and dependable. Until recently, our supply of fossil fuels had been considered abundant, without much regard for when that supply might be exhausted. Other advantages include the fact that fossil fuels are stable, making them easy and safe to store and transport and, as such, very cost effective.

Despite these clear advantages, we are now becoming more aware of the disadvantages that fossil fuels also bring with them. First among these is that fossil fuels are not renewable and we need to reduce our reliance on them before they begin to run out. Secondly, fossil fuels are polluting; combustion of this kind of fuel contributes to greenhouse gases and subsequently to global warming, one of the biggest challenges faced by humanity today.

What are the alternatives to fossil fuels?

There are five main sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels: renewable energy (wind, solar, hydroelectric, or tidal), nuclear power, hydrogen, biomass, and geothermal energy. These non-fossil fuel power sources are often referred to as “clean energy,” although some are cleaner than others. For example, nuclear power can be dangerous and the safe disposal of nuclear waste remains a controversial issue.

Whatever the most viable alternatives to fossil fuels may be, it is important to remember that it will take time for humanity to transition entirely away from them. With long-standing, well-established structures in place for the exploitation of fossil fuels, a move away from them to a reliance on alternative energy sources is sure to be costly. There are also a great many political and practical obstacles to this transition. See this article for a discussion of these barriers and current signs of progress.