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Fossil Fuels

[Wyoming - Forbes]


- Fossil Fuels – Coal

Fossil fuels are the remains of dead plants and animals on land and in the seabed. These are formed from the fossilized remains of dead animals and plants that are exposed to heat and pressure in the earth’s crust for hundreds of millions of years. 

Fossil fuels primarily consist of hydrocarbons. They contain carbon and hydrogen in varying ratios, such as methane, that has a low carbon to hydrogen ratio, or anthracite coal, which is almost pure carbon. Hydrocarbons are formed when the fossilized remains of dead organisms are chemically altered over hundreds of millions of years by intense pressure and heat found in the earth’s crust. The chemical energy ‘stored’ in these fuels is released during combustion to produce electric power. 

According to estimates provided by the Energy Information Administration, fossil fuels account for 86% of the total energy produced in the world. Of this, petroleum accounted for 36.8%, coal 26.6% and natural gas 22.9%. However, fossil fuels are non-renewable sources of energy. They take hundreds of millions of years to form and are depleted much faster than new reserves can be created. It is estimated that 23.5 tons of fossilized organic material deposited on the ocean floor is required to produce 1 liter of gasoline. In 1997, the total amount of fossil fuel used was equivalent to plant matter that grew on the entire land and ocean surface of the earth over a period of 422 years. 

Another disadvantage of our heavy dependence on fossil fuels is the amount of carbon dioxide produced during combustion, which is estimated at 21.3 billion tons per year. However, natural processes are capable of absorbing only about half of the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions released into the atmosphere, which means every year the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing by 10.65 billion tons, which is theorized to be the leading contributor to global warming that could potentially have very adverse effects on the ecosystem.  


- Fossil Fuels – Natural Gas

Natural gas is usually found along with fossil fuels, in coal-beds and trapped in other types of rock. It is created by methanogenic organisms present in landfills, marshes and wetlands. It naturally consists of methane and small amounts of other gases such as ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hydrocarbons of higher molecular weight, sulfur, helium and nitrogen. The constituents of natural gas other than methane need to be removed before natural gas can be used as a source of fuel. 

Although natural gas is considered to be cleaner than other fossil fuels, it has still been found to contribute to pollution and global warming. While it can be used to supplement the world’s ever depleting reserves of traditional fossil fuels, it is not a 100% clean, non-polluting alternative. In 2004, carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the use of natural gas stood at 5,300 million tons while coal and oil contributed to carbon dioxide emissions of 10,600 million tons and 10,200 million tons, respectively. However, this trend is expected to reverse by 2030 when natural gas is likely to emit 11,000 million tons of carbon dioxide as opposed to 8,400 million tons from coal and 17,200 tons from oil at that time. Also, when released directly into the atmosphere, natural gas is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide but since this occurs in very small amounts, it is currently not a major cause of concern.



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