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Written by Rishi Das   
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Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Examples of Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels: of the many words being thrown around in environmental discussions across newspapers, books and mass media spanning far and wide across the globe, these two words rest at the center of nearly every discussion. If one were to sum up the entire global environmental crisis in two words, indeed fossil fuels takes center stage. It is the keystone, the consequential essence of nearly everything discussed in matters of energy and the environment, a single point that every transient environmental line of thought eventually leads. While it may be one of the most recognized concepts that sees no geographic borders, it is important to capture the essence of what the term means within the context of history and the modern environmental movement.

World in Oili

Definition of Fossil Fuels: "Fossil Fuel," in other words fossilized fuels, can refer to one of three types of fuels used today: oil, coal and natural gas.1 While all three have slightly different sources of origin, all three speak of a miraculous story of a prehistoric earth that was evolving to support life. A fossil is familiar to us as some organism that has been preserved over time2 that can be carefully dug up, collected and sent to the nearest natural history museum to awe the public. Most fossils that we are used to understanding are actually gargantuan in size, the size of shelled organisms and insects. The earth’s biomass, however, is most concentrated in plant matter and micro-organisms which were one of the first organisms to ever originate on planet earth. If we are to view a fossil as some remnant of the past and assume that matter has been conserved on earth, then one would wonder how the vast collection of earth's early plant and microscopic life may have been preserved over time. The answer, unfortunately, is less romantic than an amber colored stone found in Jurassic Park and rather takes either the form of a dark, possibly oily substance or a pocket of gas trapped between layers of rock that have been collectively known as fossil fuels.

Through many environmental phenomena that may still not be well understood, a highly pressurized environment under numerous layers of rock3 gave rise to a carbon rich substance that is combustible. In this regard, it is postulated that there was a Carboniferous period4 beginning 360 million years ago in earth's history that supported the growth of large trees and leafy plants. Additionally, the seas were littered with hoards of photosynthetic algae that continued to sequester carbon in a carbon dioxide (CO2) rich atmosphere. It is believed that plant matter and marine organisms during this swamp filled period eventually sank to the bottom of the earth under immense pressure to gradually form the majority of the fossil fuels that are extracted today. Indeed, as we continue to consume coal, oil and naturally gas we are in fact burning historical record of an earth that was beginning to enable animal based life.

Fossil Fuels and Energy: So we have established a rough timeline of how fossil fuels came to exist, but there is still the question of when human beings began to make use of ancient history to fuel its practical needs. The use of fossil fuels can be dated as far back as the days of modern human origin to the period of the caveman, when evidence suggests the use of coal for heating purposes.5 More apparent are archaeological findings dating to the Roman period (100 – 200AD) in the English quarter of the Roman Empire. Additionally, there is record of the Hopi Indians of the North American Southwest using coal as a heat source to cook and make pottery.6 Until this point, however, coal was never a prominent source of fuel and instead wood charcoal was the mainstream staple. The history of fossil fuels is characterized by transition points in usage, and the first such transition occurred during the onset of the Industrial Revolution in which the birth of manufacturing produced a dire need for a new energy source. Now let’s look at the different forms of fossil fuels.

Coal: As one of the first fossil fuels ever to be produced, coal is also the most abundant fossil fuel found globally, with the United States accounting for over 25% of the global supply.7 Its relative abundance relates to its prehistoric origins as ancient plant matter that has been compressed into a dark sediment-like material known as peat.8 Prior to coal, the main sources of energy came from wood burning and, ironically, through renewable sources such as water and wind via turbines. Indeed, the wind turbine, which is now gaining prominence as an ideal alternative energy, was already being used since the 1300s in the Western World mainly in mills for grain processing.9

Fossil Fuel Coalii

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution,10 there had been a growing demand for the integration of manufacturing processes that were usually sluggish and dependent upon the mobilization of members of the household to complete a specific process in the production pipeline. Greater modernization came with an increasing demand for larger volume of commodities that were cheaper to produce, and specialized production was in need of machinery that had easy access to an easily available source of power. The answer to the problem soon came in the form of the revolutionary steam engine developed by James Watt that made use of highly pressurized steam to power a heavy machine such as a train.11 From the 1800s onwards spawned the generation of steam powered vehicles such as ships, trains as well as coal powered factories to make steel.12 While coal derived electricity still accounts for 40% of all electricity produced in the world, coal was never used to produce electricity until the end of the 19th century.13

In the United States today, an astonishing 26 of our 50 states14 is involved in coal mining with four different types of coal being mined.
  1. Lignite: The most abundant type of coal found worldwide with a soft, brownish-black appearance. In terms of the quality, this is the least energy dense form of coal with samples even housing textures of the original wood of the prehistoric plant making the coal. In the United States, lignite is most abundant west of the Mississippi.

  2. Sub-bituminous: A better quality of coal that is assumes a dull and dark appearance, this category characterizes a type of coal that is more energy dense than lignite but not good enough to be categorized as bituminous. This form of coal is mostly mined in Montana, Wyoming and other parts of the American West.

  3. Bituminous: Also known as soft coal, bituminous coal is of far better quality than lignite and sub-bituminous. The darkness of the coal indicates its grade, and bitumen is a far darker and energy dense form of coal than the previous. The bulk of this form of coal is found in the Midwestern States: Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois.

  4. Anthracite: This is the caviar of all coal, the least abundant type of coal but the best burning of all four types. Unlike bituminous coal, anthracite is extremely hard and gives off the greatest amount of heat. The largest reserve of Anthracite is in Pennsylvania, with most global reserves in Russia, Ukraine and China.

While the use of coal to generate electricity in the United States has dropped significantly over the years, amounting to 45%15 for electricity production, much of the concern has fallen on developing nations to reduce their usage of coal. China, the largest consumer and producer of coal derives 79% of its electricity generation from coal powered plants, with India following at 68%. One of the important agreements designed to address this issue comes in the form of the Kyoto Protocol which set national targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions , which in turn would require the reduction of coal consumption for power generation.16 While this agreement outlines a plan for carbon reduction by 2050, one of the key issues is the lack of any binding agreements for developing nations on carbon emission goals. In other words, the targets are free to fluctuate based on an argument of low carbon emissions per capita due to the massive population sizes of major upcoming developing nations. A more recent plan comes in the form of the Cancun Agreements,17 developed as an accessory to the Kyoto Protocol that pledges the most comprehensive assistance to developing nations in terms of finance and technology for carbon emissions so far.

Oil: Unlike coal, oil has an unusual history as a fluid that was never initially used as a source of energy. Historically, the first use of oil can be traced back to 4000BC in modern day Iraq where it was used as Asphalt to waterproof baths and boats18. The first oil well is believed to have been drilled in 347AD China but it was not until the latter half of the 19th century that the value of oil was realized as a reliable source of fuel. Similar to coal, the origins of oil are also over millions of years due to highly pressurized environments, specifically attributed more through marine organisms than plant matter.19 The initial uses of oil rested more on the sideline as oil was mostly converted to lubricant, grease and even therapies for consumers. The birth of oil as a modern fuel represents a convergence of new isolation methods and the growing transport sector born out of the Industrial Revolution. As more and more goods were manufactured, shipping and railways were the only means of transporting goods for sale, and raw materials to production plants. As an underground fluid, it was never immediately apparent how oil was to be extracted from the ground or whether there was even such a need given the widespread availability of coal. The monumental decision to adopt oil as a fuel for ships over coal20 to maximize range and speed represents a turning point in the history of energy, and the introduction of an all new character to the industrial age: oil.

Fossil Fuel Oiliii

While the shipping industry was quick to adopt oil, the advent of the automobile and the creation of a postindustrial global village that is flatter and more mobile went hand in hand with the use of oil to produce energy. So successful has the adoption of oil been in the transport sector, that the United States alone consumes 18 million barrels of oil per day,21 with 1 barrel being almost 160 Liters of fluid. Close to the U.S. with the silver trophy is China, with a whopping 10.2 million barrels followed by Japan with 4.7 million barrels per day. In the modern context however, the use of oil is carried out through a collection of refined products:
  1. Gasoline: One of the most common fuel types in use for personal automobiles, gasoline is a cocktail of numerous hydrocarbons designed to fuel non industrial, typically smaller engines.

  2. Diesel: A fuel most synonymous with heavy machinery and industrial equipment, diesel requires the use of a different type of engine and is often subsidizes in many nations on account of its clean burning and fuel saving properties.

  3. Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG): Just as the name suggests, LPG represents the gaseous byproduct produced during oil refining consisting of gases such as propane and butane. Such gases are capable of being compressed and used as a liquid in internal combustion engines.

  4. Kerosene Jet Fuel: As one of several distillate products from oil refining, a modified formulation of kerosene makes up the hundreds of gallons of jet fuel burnt away in single flights. Kerosene has also found domestic use in stoves and heating systems.  
Oil is perhaps one of the most sought after fuels in the world given the large variety of products made available due to the substance. Its use has taken center stage in a raging debate against environmental damage and fossil fuels. With more than 200 million vehicles on the road in the U.S. alone,22 the collective effect of emissions with the additional consideration of coal usage illustrates an image of the modern world shrouded in fossil fuels. But as demand remains unrelentingly high for oil, its extraction has become increasingly complicated and this matter is further complicated by the unequal distribution of accessible oil around the globe. More than half of the world's proven reserves are located in the Middle East followed by Canada, the United States and in isolated pockets in Africa (Nigeria) and Latin America (Venezuela).23 In fact, the most productive field in the world, the Ghawar Field of Saudi Arabia, is estimated to contain a whopping 85 million barrels of oil.24

At the current rate of consumption, it is believed that the U.S. will stop producing oil in 50 years and will be closely followed by other oil producers.25 This number, however, may change over the years as newer technologies make oil more accessible and we can be quite confident that at this point in time the production of oil will not stop unless it is limited by economics and becomes far too expensive for usage. Unfortunately, usage of oil to an economic endpoint may be far too environmentally damaging in the long run, given that we are essentially working to convert carbon rich animal matter that lived in a carbon rich primordial atmosphere back into an atmosphere that has evolved into an oxygenated environment that has made modern life possible.

Unfortunately, there is no direct legislation in place to curb oil consumption, but rather legislation in place to encourage greater safety and ascribe liability to any oil spills to the party responsible for its handling.26 In fact, legislative and political efforts seem to be moving in the opposite direction away from oil independence. A great example of this comes in the form of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S.27 to forward a thirsty American habit of importing a majority of its oil from Canada and its rich tar sands deposits.28

Natural Gas: Like oil and coal, the identification of natural gas as a source of energy is of ancient origin dating back to 100-125AD Iraq.29 Additionally, natural gas is also of fossil fuel origin formed from highly pressurized plant/animal matter, but it differs from oil formation in aspects of temperature. One of the key differences in the conditions of formation between oil and natural gas is the high temperature needed for gas creation, which can only be found in very deep pockets of the earth. In addition to a slightly different source of origin, another major difference with natural gas formation is the fact that it can be continuously formed, as opposed to oil which requires millions of years. Biogenic methane derived from specialized bacteria are also a source of natural gas from landfills or special environments. Therefore, an important distinction is often made between the fossil origins and modern origins of natural gas, with the latter being far more abundant when reserves have been tapped.30

Fossil Fuel Natural Gasiv

Perhaps the first conscious effort to drill and extract natural gas came from a New Yorker in 1821 by the name of William Hart who had successfully managed to increase gas flow to the surface for use in energy production. The early years of natural gas, however, never saw its application beyond that of lighting and eventually heating. Even as we fast forward to the days of World War II, natural gas only found novelty in uses such as welding for wartime production. It was only post-WWII that the practical significance of natural gas was realized for large scale heating through the construction of expansive pipeline networks.

Like oil, the growing use of natural gas also underscores an important transition in fuel usage in a society that is increasingly adapting natural gas a fuel source in the transport sector. Although natural gas is a well established fuel for cooking and heating, it has seen very limited use in the transport sector primarily due to issues of storage requiring specialized infrastructure that in turn make for finding a compressed natural gas (CNG) filling station quite challenging. Placing issues of storage aside, implementing CNG in vehicles is surprisingly easy for the end user with conversion kits31 available that allow for the existing engine to use natural gas. There are approximately 12 Million vehicles worldwide that make use of CNG,32 and amazingly most of these vehicles are found in the developing world33 given the ease of implementing its use. Ironically, while the developed world attributes growing levels of fossil fuel based pollutions to the developing world, it seems that the developing world is already ahead in an effort to reduce its dependence on oil.

As one of the fossil fuels of the modern world that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and saves the air, its composition is very much carbonated in nature with 70-90% of natural gas being methane followed by trace compositions of ethane, propane and butane that are also found in gasoline.34 So far the largest proven reserves for natural gas are believed to be in Russia with an estimated 44 trillion cubic meters of gas, followed by Iran and Qatar which possess nearly half of that each.35 While there are prospects of natural gas being a cleaner fuel and a better fossil fuel available on the market, its use still contributes to environmental degradation and a growing habit for non-renewable energy that cannot be sustainable in the long run.

Environmental Damage

Fossil fuels and their use illustrate a fascinating transition in human development towards industrialization, and such industrialization has been primarily powered by non-renewable energy that is relatively easy to access. As an increasing percentage of our population moves from its pastoral roots towards a life centered about the thirsty industrial machine, it is crucial that a greener and more abundant form of energy that minimizes emissions be utilized. Unfortunately, there has already been both short term and long term effects of using fossil fuels that have been at the center of movements to promote a more sustainable world. The following are some of the major environmental concerns associated with fossil fuels.

Fossil Fuel Warningv

Acid Rain : The burning of fossil fuels generates a variety of aerosolized pollutants that are released into the atmosphere in copious quantities. The presence of sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides poses an additional concern of rain water acidification when the gases dissolve in cloud water in the upper atmosphere.36 In the U.S., two thirds of all sulfur dioxide emissions come from coal powered electricity plants alone. Acidic rain, even by slight pH variations, can affect the ecosystem in a major way.37 Acidified rain waters are capable of accelerating deforestation and weathering, leaches nutrients out of soil and directly damage plants and trees. Additionally, acid rain can have a major effect on marine life that depends on specific acidic conditions for delicate physiological processes in their habitat.

Global Warming : Perhaps one of the most far reaching and damaging consequences of burning fossil fuels comes in the form of a phenomenon known as global warming. As a combustion process, the use of fossil fuels will tend to generate much water as well as carbon dioxide . In addition to carbon dioxide, gases such as methane and nitrous oxides38 together make up a category of gases known as greenhouse gases that are responsible for inherently trapping heat in the atmosphere. With an increasing rate of fossil fuel combustion, natural mechanisms are unable to cope with an increasingly carbon rich atmosphere that is continuing to trap heat. In 2011, as much as 6.7 thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere.39 Additionally, an increasing usage of fossil fuels has accelerated climate change over the years at an unprecedented rate. Global warming is actually part of a broader global phenomenon known as climate change,40 which encompasses not only the temperature effects of warming but rising water levels and the increasing incidence of natural disasters as well.

While the above effects are generalized to fossil fuels, their far reaching effects could fill pages over pages as new research is continually elucidating new outcomes. The discovery of fossil fuels has undoubtedly ushered in an era of human innovation and productivity, marking an important transition in history from the pastoral beginning of human communities to the industrial setting of the modern city. Progress, however, is also measured by the growth of human understanding and in these decades characterized by greater awareness of the perils of fossil fuels it is important that cooperation and cognizance prevail in a continual pursuit for forwarding sustainable human development.

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 28 January 2014 )