Fossil fuels get their name because their origin is linked to the decomposition of animal and plant remains over thousands or, sometimes, millions of years. They have been widely used since the Industrial Revolution, as they have a large energy production capacity and a high heat output.
Therefore, because they take so long to form, fossil fuels are considered a non-renewable energy source, as they cannot be renewed in the short term for human use.
Origin of Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuels, for the most part, are located in the deepest layers of the soil, whether on the continent or in the ocean. They result from the organic decomposition of plants and animals over the years, which justifies the non-renewable characteristics.
Over thousands of years, these organic remains are buried with sediments coming from the highest parts of the relief. Over time, geological processes, such as erosion and tectonic dynamics (tidal waves and earthquakes), transform them into fossilized fuels, hence the name fossil fuel.
These fuels generate great potential for energy production, as they have a high calorific content. Because of this, many countries fight over possession of an area that contains a large reserve of one of them. As an example, I can mention the Gulf War, which took place in the early 1990s between Iraq and Kuwait, countries located in the southwest of the Asian continent.
Types of fossil fuels
Fossil fuels fall into the non-renewable group of energy sources in the world. I can mention three: oil, natural gas, and mineral coal.
Oil is the primary source of energy used by humanity since the 19th century, starting with the Second Industrial Revolution. Generally, where there are oil reserves, natural gas is also present, but this is not a rule.
This fuel is formed based on organic matter deposited in areas of sedimentary basins. With the action of time, the heat of the rocks, and the pressure exerted on them, there is the emergence of a substance with hydrocarbons (chemical compounds of hydrogen and carbon) in liquid and gaseous form.
Its importance is related to both energy production and its derivatives. From petroleum, we produce gasoline, diesel oil, and raw materials used to make polymers. These, in turn, are used in producing plastic, a material present in almost everything we use, from cups to car bumpers to human prosthetics, among others.
The beginning of oil exploration occurred in continental areas in Europe and North America. As new ways of incorporating it into our daily lives were discovered, other countries began investigating their territories in search of black gold, as it became known in the 19th century.
Thus, with the advancement of technology in the 20th century, maritime areas began to be explored in the deepest waters, ranging from 1000 m to 2000 m deep. This exploration led to significant discoveries of oil reserves in other countries, such as Asia and South America.
These discoveries, added to the importance of oil in everyday life, made this fuel a reason for great speculation. Given this, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, was created in 1960.
This organization aims to control the price and production of oil around the world not to expand its supply or increase its price, in a way that makes the fuel accessible to all countries that do not have reserves.
Natural gas can be found in oil reserves, as it is formed in the same way, in addition to being located on the same or similar land. It is a fuel widely used in generating energy, heating boilers in thermoelectric plants, and can be used to heat homes in the coldest countries on the globe, located in medium and high latitudes.
In some locations, natural gas replaces energy generation from hydroelectric plants, as this fossil fuel takes up less space and can be used in any region with a gas reserve but does not have a water reserve. Hence, the replacement.
The countries that produce the most natural gas in the world are the Russian Federation, the United States, and Canada, in that order.
Coal is a fossilized sedimentary rock with a high degree of pollution. It was the primary fuel of the First Industrial Revolution. These rocks have large amounts of carbon formed by decomposing large forests (plant organisms) with low amounts of oxygen. The more carbon, the more heat the coal will generate. We can classify it into four types according to its carbon content and heat capacity.
Anthracite: The rarest type, containing up to 96% carbon. It was formed in the Paleozoic era.
Coal: The most common and most frequently present in sedimentary basins. It has about 75% to 90% carbon.
Lignite: Formed in the Mesozoic era, it contains 65% to 75% carbon.
Peat: The type with the lowest calorific value, 55%. This is because its formation was recent, in the Cenozoic era.
Mineral coal is widely used in thermoelectric plants, in steel mills (to produce steel), in chemical industries, and in other types that need large amounts of heat to produce some other material. It can be found in regions of Asia, Europe, and North America in great abundance.
Across the globe, the world’s two largest economies hold the titles of largest coal producers. China, the second largest economy, is the largest producer, followed by the United States.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels
These fuels have positive points but also negative points. As an advantage, I can mention the high production of energy (oil and coal) and the heating of homes in cold seasons (natural gas), in addition to having revolutionized the way we produce things.
Natural gas, for example, can be considered a source of clean energy, as it is lighter than air, dissipates quickly, and pollutes less than oil and coal. When used for domestic purposes, it can replace firewood, which reduces deforestation. However, during its production, leaks that release methane gas into the atmosphere may occur.
Mineral coal, used on a large scale in the 18th and 19th centuries, has advantages for thermal plants, steel mills, and chemical industries due to its excellent heating power. However, it is highly polluting, which creates obstacles to its use by international organizations, as it emits many gases that can destroy the ozone layer.
Oil, in turn, has the advantage of producing numerous derivatives, such as plastic, gasoline, and asphalt, which brings us a diversity of products for society.
However, this advantage is also a disadvantage, as we become dependent on this fuel, which also generates gases that damage the ozone layer, contributing to global warming. Furthermore, geopolitical disputes often have as a backdrop the exploration of areas with large oil reserves.
The excessive use of fuels generates severe environmental problems for the entire world, not only in the countries that produce them, much less in those that use them in their territory. This is what we call the globalization of pollution.
Due to the burning of these fuels, large areas of the globe, especially urban areas (where the most significant gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are concentrated), are full of environmental problems that affect nature and, consequently, human life.
For example, we can mention the existence of acid rain, the destruction of the ozone layer, the acceleration of the greenhouse effect, and atmospheric pollution, contributing to a lower quality of life in large urban centers. There is also the pollution of the soil, oceans, rivers, and nature.
In coal extraction, large deposits are opened, which compromises the recovery capacity of that soil. Cargo ships may have leaks, polluting large ocean areas, such as what happened on the beaches of Northeast Brazil in mid-August 2019.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ), a scientific organization founded by the United Nations (UN), carries out environmental studies and conferences to seal agreements to protect the environment and reduce pollution levels across the globe. However, there is still much to be done, as environmental, social, and economic interests are at stake.