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We often hear about fossil fuels in the news and in the speech of scientists and politicians. However, do we really know what are fossil fuels? The obvious one that comes to mind is gasoline. However the term covers a wide variety of fuels that are now used. Fossil fuels are basically any carbon based substance that is used by mankind as a source of energy. They are called fossil fuels because they usually are formed from the remains of dead animals and other organisms.
The normal process that forms fossil fuels is pretty straight forward. An animal or plant dies and its remains are covered by sediment over time. As more layers start to cover the remains, they start to act like a press. The heat and pressure over time convert these organic remains into the hydrocarbons we mine as fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels cover many types of fuel now used to power cars, homes, and entire cities. In the United States and many other countries the most well known fossil fuel is coal. Coal has been used as a power source since the dawn of the industrial revolution. However its application as a source of energy has changed over time. At first coal was used to help power steam engines of locomotives. Later, with the practical harnessing of electrical power it became the main fuel source of power plants. Even now it is the most used source of electric power in the United States.
Gasoline, also known in its raw form as petroleum is another fossil fuel. Everyone knows about gasoline because the important role it plays in our economy. Gasoline powers the majority of automobiles and vehicles on the planet today. The combustion engine made using gasoline a cheap and efficient source of energy for powering these vehicles. Of all fossil fuels gas is the most politically controversial. Demand for gas is ever increasing as more countries develop a market for cars and trucks. Unfortunately the supply is limited and a good portion of it is in the Middleast which has poor relations on average with most western countries.
What really makes fossil fuels controversial is the pollution they create. Even the most ardent supporter of continued use of fossil fuels will admit that they produce pollutants that are harmful to the environment. This battle over the environmental effects stretches from climate change to the health risks from overexposure. Whether it is the greenhouse gases released or spilled petroleum in sensitive natural habitats, the dangers of pollution from fossil fuels is very real.
At the same time scientist and entrepreneurs are looking for better ways to harvest and use fossil fuels. Some examples are mixing gasoline with biofuel and using more clean forms of carbon fuels such as natural gas and biomatter from livestock.
We have written many articles about fossil fuels for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the causes of global warming, and here’s an article about how generators work.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.