Fossil Fuels

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An Overview of Fossil Fuels

Fossil Fuel is an umbrella term used to refer to hydrocarbons like petroleum, coal, natural gas, tar sands which are found on the earth's surface. The fuels were formed from the fossilized remains of plants and animals that died millions of years ago. The remains were then pushed deeper and deeper into the earth's crust where they were subjected to intense heat and pressure. Additionally, these fuels are also termed as a non-renewable source of energy as they are finite. The effect of fossil fuels has been explained below. 

Types of Fossil Fuels

The three conventional fuels and their environmental impacts have been explained below. 

  • Natural Gas 

It is a gaseous form of hydrocarbon which is non-toxic, odourless, and colourless. It has methane as its major component. They are generally found near other fossil fuel reserves like coal and petroleum. However, in certain cases, gas reservoirs also exist without any oil. This is known as dry gas. 

Natural Gas in its purest form cannot be used. Instead, it is processed into much cleaner fuel for mass consumption. During processing, many other gases are also extracted as by-products. This includes nitrogen, propane, ethane, carbon dioxide, which can be utilized for other purposes.

Among all the other fossil fuels, natural gas is the cleanest. Compared to coal, it releases around half of the carbon dioxide and only one-tenth of air pollutants when it is used for electricity generation. Consequently, the effect of fossil fuels like natural gas on the environment is also less.

  • Petroleum 

Petroleum or crude oil is another fossil fuel that is found buried deep beneath the earth's surface. The word Petroleum was derived from the two Latin words 'Petra' which means rock and 'oleum' meaning oil. Much of the Petroleum found in the world today formed during the Mesozoic period when plankton, algae, and other living organisms got buried deep under the seafloor.

This fuel whose main components are carbon and hydrogen holds significant influence as a world energy source. Petroleum is used to manufacture several essential objects that we require on a day to day basis. Accordingly, the effect of fossil fuel like petroleum on the environment is also the highest.

This includes products like gasoline, plastics, paints, detergents, dyes, pesticides, rubber, and the likes. Indeed due to its high demand in almost every country of the world, it is sometimes termed as liquid gold. Some of the major Petroleum producing countries include the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, which constitute around 40% of the world's petroleum supply.

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  • Coal 

This fossil fuel was formed from the remains of plants and vegetation in swamp areas and peat bogs that got buried deep under the earth’s crust due to tectonic plate movement and other natural processes. Due to extreme heat and pressure, during the burial process, the remains of vegetation were first converted to peat and then finally into coal. 

This process of conversion of vegetable matter to peat to anthracite is known as coalification. It is a crucial process in the sense that many of the physical and chemical properties of coal are determined during this process which is known as the ‘rank’ of coal. Based on this rank, coal can be subdivided into several types – Anthracite, Bituminous, Subbituminous, and Lignite. 

Apart from coalification, several other factors determine the quality of coal. This includes the following. 

  1. Depth at which the coal was buried

  2. The temperature and pressure of the depth

  3. The time duration of the coal formation in a particular deposit

  4. Vegetation type

Did you know?

Coal formation first began during the Carboniferous Period of the Palaeozoic era, which lasted from 360 million to 290 million years ago. It is also known as the first coal age. 

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Effect of Fossil Fuels on the Environment

Conventional sources of energy fossil fuels are one of the world's biggest sources of energy. It is used to generate electricity, heat homes, run vehicles, power industries, as well as manufacture many essential products.  

As such, our life as we know it is heavily dependent on these fuels – Petroleum, coal, natural gas.

However, like everything, it comes at a price. The harmful effects of fuels have had a significant impact on our environment in several ways.

  • Harmful Effects of Fossil Fuels on the Ecosystem 

First and foremost drilling in sea beds and coal mining significantly impacts the natural ecosystem of a particular place. For instance, when new coal mines are found, forests, grasslands, and even villages are cleared in most cases to build roads for smooth transportation of coals. This disturbs the everyday lifestyle of not only human beings living in that area but also of animals and birds residing in that particular area.

  • Effect of Fossil Fuel on Human Health 

Digging for natural gas and oil around human habitat may have a severe health impact on nearby communities. For instance, due to some unforeseen damage, the air or drinking water may get contaminated, resulting in fatalities or disabilities.

  • Environmental Impact of Fossil Fuels 

The use of the latest technology to derive Petroleum from the sea bed reduces groundwater level and results in land degradation. Burning fossil fuels affects the air too by creating pollution.

  • The Harmful Effect of Burning Fuel 

Lastly, fossil fuels when burned emit harmful carbon and other poisonous gases that trap heat, thereby accelerating global warming and other climate changes. The oceans which absorb most human-made carbon have become more acidic compared to at the start of the industrial revolution. 

Lastly, it is essential to remember that these fossil fuels are a non-renewable source of energy. This means they are not abundant in nature. If we use them without paying any heed to sustainable consumption, then they will get exhausted quickly, and there will not be fuel left for future generations. 

So besides responsible usage, it is now high time that we look for other renewable sources of energy to meet our needs and to avoid the toxic effect of fossil fuels.

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FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. What is Meant By a Renewable Source of Energy?

Ans. Some renewable source of energy includes wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower source of energy. These resources are called renewable because they are present in an unlimited capacity around us. These should be used to avoid the harmful effect of fossil fuels.

2. What Steps Can Be Taken To Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Ans. Some of the steps that can be taken to reduce the effect of fossil fuels like greenhouse gas emissions are  – (1) Reduce, reuse, and recycle wherever possible (2) Drive less and use more public transport (3) Plant a tree if possible (4) Opt for energy-efficient products at home (5) Reduce the usage of single-use plastics

3. What is Fracking?

Ans. It is a drilling technology that is applied to extract petroleum or crude oil from shale rock. In this method, sand, water, and several chemicals are directed at the rock at high pressure which forces the gas to flow out towards the head of the well.