Types of Fossil Fuels and Their Uses

types of fossil fuelsFor years, the world has run on fossil fuels, with humankind using these ancient non-renewable resources to power cars, airplanes, machinery, trains, home heating systems, and more. Modern technology is working toward developing renewable energy methods that would replace these fossil fuels as the main source of gas and power for the world, largely because fossil fuels have become a scarce and wildly expensive property. Worst of all, since fossil fuels were derived hundreds of millions of years ago by a long and laborious geological process – transforming from plants into a spongy composite called peat, which in turn morphed into the fuels we use today, they are completely un-renewable. If the science of this interests you, be sure you check out Udemy’s introductory earth science course. There is no hope of more fossil fuels being created, or of scientists figuring out how to synthesize petroleum or coal in a lab through experimentation of plant matter. Because of this, mankind is in a tight spot as far as energy is concerned. Still, while scientists strive to create new alternative energy possibilities (or to increase the efficiency of existing ones, such as solar power), fossil fuels remain the most robust and effective means we have of powering vehicles and other machinery in reliable fashion. To understand precisely why that is, we need to look at the different types of fossil fuels and examine why they have long made for such effective sources of energy.

The Different Fossil Fuels 

Though different terms are occasionally used that are interchangeable for each, there are three primary varieties for fossil fuels. These are coal, oil, and natural gas.

  • Coal

Of the three types of fossil fuels, coal is the only one still in a solid state. It appears as chunks of midnight black rock, which are harvested from the Earth by workers in mining operations. Coal is composed of five different elements: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur, with the distributions of those five elements varying depending on the piece of coal. In fact, because of these differing elemental make-ups, there are actually three different types of coal, each with different energy properties. The highest in energy content is anthracite coal, which is harder and has a higher distribution of carbon than the other varieties. The other two types of coal – lignite and bituminous – aren’t quite as energy-rich, but still have their uses. Lignite is high in oxygen and hydrogen instead of carbon, while bituminous occupies a sort of happy medium between the two extremes. Coal is a dynamic fossil fuel in terms of how it is used. Depending on the breakdown of coal uses that you look at, you might see the top uses listed as a generic “electricity generation” or “electrical utilities,” or you might see things broken down a bit into smaller categories. In any case, coal today is used for everything from producing steel and cement to keeping the lights on in homes and businesses.

  • Oil

Oil, also called petroleum, is arguably the most often discussed form of fossil fuel in the world today, with every conversation about vehicular fuel economy and “arm and a leg” gas prices relating back to the near-universal value of this ancient fossil fuel. Just how ancient are most of our world’s petroleum reserves? Over 300 million years, according to scientific consensus. Of those 300 million years, civilizations have been making use of oil for about five or six millennia. From the Sumerians (who used oil to invent asphalt) to the Native Americans (who used it for treating wounds and waterproofing canoes), oil has a long history of maximizing efficiency and convenience for human civilization. Today, we think of oil as the fuel that we pump into our cars at gas stations, but refined gasoline is not what comes out of the ground at oil wells. On the contrary, crude oil is the type of petroleum that occurs naturally. In the United States, we get our crude oil from multiple sources, though unfortunately, most of it is not mined domestically and must be purchased from the Middle East. Due to this fact, recent wars fought by the United States in that part of the world have caused many Americans to question current society’s reliance on fossil fuels and to urge a greater movement toward alternative energy development. Once crude oil arrives in the United States, it is taken to refineries, where it is processed into fuel that we can actually use. From any given gallon of crude oil, these refineries produce a range of different oil substances that are then used for different applications. A little less than half of the average barrel of oil is refined into gasoline, which is indeed the type of petroleum that we use to fuel our cars. However, other parts of the barrel are refined into oil for asphalt, jet fuel, kerosene, lubricants, and more. These different categories showcase how widespread the use of oil truly is.

  • Natural Gas

The final variety of fossil fuel is natural gas. In an introductory chemistry course such as this one offered by Udemy, you will learn about the fact that each different type of fossil fuel occurs in a different chemical state, as well as why this occurs. Where coal is a solid and oil is a liquid, natural gas is, of course, a gas. It is made up primarily of methane and is incredibly lightweight (as well as incredibly flammable). In the United States, natural gas is used primarily to heat homes, power air conditioning systems, and fuel stoves and other cooking appliances. Usually, when a mining operation locates a petroleum reserve, it will also have found a source of natural gas. These two types of fossil fuels simply tend to occur close to one another underground, making mining and harvesting the two resources thankfully efficient once they are found. Unlike oil, though, which is pumped from the ground by massive oil rigs, natural gas is channeled into pipeline. These pipelines take the natural gas to storage facilities, eventually making its way to your home to meet a portion of your energy needs. When we use natural gas for cooking, we often notice a distinctive smell that we associate with the gas. Interestingly, natural gas is odorless when it is mined from beneath the Earth’s surface, with the smell being added later as a means of alerting people to leaks of the substance.

Why Knowing about Fossil Fuels is Important 

So why is it of pivotal importance to understand how the different types of fossil fuels originated, how they are harvested, and how they are used? For one thing, it is important simply because these substances still play such a pivotal role in our lives. They give us the means to get around, to keep our homes warm, to cook our meals, and more. Given the state of the movement toward alternative energy, it is likely that fossil fuels will continue to play these key roles for years or even decades still to come. In short, their importance isn’t dimming just yet. For another thing, though, learning about the incredible geological processes that brought about fossil fuels in the first place shows just how precious these fuels are, and reminds us of why preserving them – whether through “green” lifestyle choices, fuel economy cars, or the use of alternative energy – is an important thing to do. Companies that do building projects can even work toward greater levels of sustainability consciousness by pursuing Green LEED certification (and taking this Udemy course to help them get there). Ultimately, the important thing to remember is that fossil fuels, while amazing sources of energy, won’t last forever, so making plans for the future is something that we need to do now.