Understanding Fossil Fuels: The Four Types and Their Uses

Fossil fuels are a vital part of the nation’s energy demands. But they also put a lot of strain on the environment and other countries. As such, you should know the four types of fossil fuels and the role they play in our society. 

There is a reason we made fossil fuels as popular as we did — these raw materials are incredibly efficient at producing quick energy. Today, fossil fuels heat our homes, fuel our cars and power our electronics. The different types of fossil fuels are so important they now take significant precedence over most of United States’ foreign political alliances. As such, it is also essential to be aware of some of the drawbacks inherent with fossil fuels. In this article, we will teach you everything you need to know about fossil fuel.

What Are the Four Different Types of Fossil Fuels?

Most of the world’s machinery, houses and appliances run on some form of energy created by the different types of fossil fuels. For those who do not know, there are four different types of fossil fuels out there: petroleum, natural gas, coal, and Orimulsion. It is essential to have a solid understanding of the function each of these different fuel sources has in our daily life. So let us take a closer look at each type and their role in our lives.

Petroleum or Crude Oil

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Petroleum is a yellow-black liquid found in geographic formations under the earth’s crust — petroleum forms when prehistoric organisms, namely zooplankton, and algae species, are trapped under the earth’s surface and chemically changed for intense pressure and heat. Extractors reach petroleum reserves through an intensive drilling process. The crude oil is then further distilled for a more potent product. When refined through a rigorous distillation process, petroleum forms the following types of fuel sources:

  • Diesel fuel
  • Kerosene
  • Fuel oil
  • Jet fuel
  • Gasoline
  • Butane
  • Liquefied petroleum gas

 As you can see, people mainly use petroleum for powering automobiles, airplanes and certain types of heating sources. However, people use the derivatives of oil in a variety of nonfuel related products. Many types of plastics, lubricants, asphalts, sulfuric acids and waxes come from the same chemical compounds that form petroleum. Like all fossil fuels, oil is a non-renewable resource with a limited supply available for ready-to-use extraction.

Natural Gas

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Natural gas is a mixture comprised mostly of hydrogen, carbon, and methane. However, the gas compound may also contain trace elements of nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide, helium, and carbon dioxide.

Much like petroleum, natural gas forms when dead organic compounds, namely prehistoric animals and plants, change their chemical composition due to years of intense pressure and heat. Though companies often use the word gas interchangeably with the fossil fuel, you should not confuse the term with gasoline.

Favorite uses of natural gas include heating homes, supplying gas-based stoves with fuel and producing electricity. When combined with renewable power sources like steam, wind, and solar and water, natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than power sources like coal. As such, it is more well-suited for environmentally conscious companies. In addition to the usual power supply source, people also use natural gas to power certain vehicles, and produce fertilizer, hydrogen and animal food.

Natural gas can come from a variety of different sources — the first popular method of extracting it was as a byproduct of oil distillation. During the distillation process, gas compounds would arise from the crude oil. However, nowadays natural gas can be extracted from shale, coal and biological sources of methane. Like most of the fossil fuels on this list, natural gas reserves are depleting rapidly.

Coal

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Coal is a combustible sedimentary rock that has a brown or black color to it. You can find the fossil fuel in rock formations known as coal beds or seams. The main ingredient in coal is carbon, though it also contains trace amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and hydrogen. All of the fuel is made up of dead organic plant lifeforms. Though people once used coal for heating, it is now mainly used for electricity. Coal is still the largest generator of power in the world today.

Depending on when it is accessed, coal can come in many different forms, each with higher carbon content. Peat converts into lignite over time, which then becomes sub-bituminous coal, which transforms into bituminous coal, and finally ends up as anthracite — the most potent source of fuel with the highest carbon content. Anthracite is a metamorphic rock because it exposes itself to elevated levels of heat. These geological productions take millions of year to form fully.

Coal is one of the most volatile fossil fuels regarding its combustibility and environmental impact. Out of all the different types of fossil fuels, coal produces the most carbon dioxide when utilized. As such, it is the one type of fossil fuel that many countries try to become less dependent on for their future energy needs.

Orimulsion

Though not many people know of Orimulsion, the fuel source has quickly become adopted as the fourth leading type of fossil fuel. Orimulsion is a human-made product created out of the naturally occurring product bitumen. Bitumen is a type of petroleum that has freezes into a solid state or viscous semi-solid state. Power plants use Orimulsion to fuel their boilers, though it can be modified to fit the needs of most coal or oil-run products.

Orimulsion became popular during the 1980s when Venezuela discovered large sources of the material of its coast. Orimulsion, in its final stages, has some benefits over coal. There is a more abundant supply of it, and thus it is cheaper than a lot of other energy option. It is also safer for manufacturers to produce and handle it.

What Are the Drawbacks for Fossil Fuels?

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Since fossil fuels have been such a convenient way to power our nation’s machines, homes, and industries, we built them into our infrastructures in ways that make them more cost-effective than many safer, greener options. But, as we will see, besides being unsustainable for the long term, fossil fuels also bring a host of other problems for the environment, workers and ourselves.

The major biggest drawback to fossil fuels is the fact that they contribute to global warming. Each fossil fuel affects global warming in its way, though they all share many of the chemical compounds released into the air. Oil, when burned, releases sulfur dioxide and other ozone into the air. Natural gas releases large amounts of methane into our atmosphere. Coal releases incredible amounts of carbon dioxide.

Ozone, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are popularly known as greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases occur naturally in our atmosphere. They help keep our planet warm and liveable by absorbing and reflecting the sun’s rays, thus heating our planet. Without greenhouse gases, in our atmosphere, the world would be much colder. However, when an excess of these chemicals fill our atmosphere, they trap more and more solar energy in our ozone layer.

This process accounts for the increase in global temperature. A rise in the world’s temperature can raise sea levels (due to melting ice caps), affect temperature-sensitive ecosystems, and transform our air quality.

Mining and extracting our planet’s fossil fuels has also been a historically dangerous process. Oil explosions, coal inhalation, and mine collapses are just some of the problems that workers face when extracting. We are likely all familiar with the “black lung” and disturbing images of children miners covered in soot. Fossil fuels also affect our environment. Strip mining and submerged tunnels can destroy roads, homes, and infrastructure.

Fossil fuels also affect the quality of our planet’s water. Oil spills in oceans and seas can destroy water quality and wildlife health for generations to come. Drilling for coal, oil or natural gas can cause fossil fuels to leak into groundwater — creating undrinkable reservoirs. This process happened recently in Flint, Michigan.

How Much Can Longer We Depend on Fossil Fuel Sources?

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Unless we see some significant changes in our consumption of fossil fuels within the next few years, it is very likely we will start seeing substantial strains placed on our reserves. The world consumes roughly eleven billion tons of petroleum each year. Assuming that further pressure from a growing global population does not deplete our supplies faster, then it is projected that we will run out of oil by 2052. Once the petroleum runs out, then we will still have some natural gas supplies, but only enough to last us roughly eight more years.

Assuming we use more coal to compensate for the lack of petroleum and natural gas, then experts predict that we will run out of coal supplies by 2088. However, it is crucial to note that these years listed are if we do not make any effort as a human species to switch to more renewable sources of fuel. Depending on the extent that we begin relying on non-fossil fuel sources of energy, we can likely make our remaining supplies last a lot longer.

What Are Some Alternative Fuel Sources that Are Not Fossil Fuels?

Luckily, there are many different alternative fuel sources we can use to start weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. While not all of these types are as safe, effective and clean as some methods, they are all, for the most part, much more preferable to fossil fuels.

Nuclear Energy

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Nuclear energy uses the heat produced by a nuclear reaction which is then used to power turbines. These turbines generate electricity using a nuclear power plant. While atomic energy produces far fewer carbon emissions, it does produce radioactive waste which can be costly and dangerous to dispose of after we use it. There have also been some instances of nuclear reactors exploding, like in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Biofuels

Biofuels use the plants and algae to produce biologically active energy. Essentially, biofuels either mimic the process of photosynthesis or turn biomass (like plants) into usable energy. The process is obtained either through biochemical, chemical or thermal conversion.

Hydrogen Fuel

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Hydrogen fuel powers fuel cells through an electrochemical reaction. Hydrogen fuel produces zero emissions. Essentially, oxygen combines with the hydrogen to create and sustains, the result. As long as you continuously add oxygen and hydrogen fuel, fuel cells can run forever.

Hydroelectricity

Hydroelectricity uses the water from human-made dams to spin turbines and create electricity.  While this method of clean energy is great because it does not produce emissions, the development of a barrier can have a severe impact on the surrounding environment and community. Entire homes and villages might be destroyed to construct larger dam developments.

Solar Power

Understanding Fossil Fuels

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Solar power is one of the most popular and widely used sources of alternative energy. Solar power transforms cosmic rays into electricity using mirrors and solar cells. This transformation is possible thanks to photovoltaics cell technology. While this solar technology used to be expensive, it has become much more affordable in recent years. Unfortunately, the production of some of these panels does produce greenhouse gases.

Wind Power

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Wind power uses the power of air currents to propel human-made air turbines. These turbines then provide electric power through the mechanical revolution of the blades. Besides reports of bird and bat population flying into the turbines, there is almost no negative environmental impact associated with wind power.

We hope this article was helpful in teaching you about the four different kinds of fossil fuels. Since there is a finite amount of these resources available on earth, it is essential to be aware of how much we currently depend on them. It is also crucial to know that these fuel sources have a detrimental effect on our planet’s atmosphere and environment. Luckily, there are a lot of promising, more sustainable power sources that can hopefully be utilized more in the future.

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