Skip to main content
Chemistry LibreTexts

8.3: Fossil Fuels

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Fossil fuels is the term given to energy sources with a high hydrocarbon content (see Chapter 1 for a review of hydrocarbon molecules) found in the Earth’s crust that formed in the geologic past and can be burned to release their energy. They were formed from prehistoric plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago (100 – 500 million years ago). When these ancient living organisms died they were quickly buried and subjected to immense pressure from overlying earth materials including layers of mud, rock, sand, and sometimes surface water bodies such as oceans and lakes.

    During the millions of years that passed, the dead plants and animals slowly decomposed in anaerobic (very low to no oxygen) conditions and their chemical energy became concentrated. The organic compounds that once made up tissues of these organisms were chemically changed under high pressures and temperatures. While some fossil fuels may be in the process of formation today, the amount of time required for usable quantities to form is measured in millions of years, so these fuels will never be available for us. Thus for all practical purposes we consider fossil fuels to be finite and non-renewable.

    4.2.1: Fossil Fuel Types and Formation

    There are three main types of fossil fuels – natural gas, oil, and coal – and the specific type formed depends on the combination of organic matter that was present, how long it was buried and what temperature and pressure conditions existed when they were decomposing. Oil and natural gas were created from organisms that lived in water and were buried under ocean or river sediments. Long after the great prehistoric seas and rivers vanished, heat, pressure, and bacteria combined to compress and transform the organic material under layers of silt or shale rock (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). In most areas, a thick liquid called oil formed first, but in deeper, hot regions underground, the transformation process continued until natural gas was formed. Over time, some of this oil and natural gas began working its way upward through the earth’s crust until they ran into rock formations called “caprocks” that are dense enough to prevent them from seeping to the surface. It is from under these caprocks that most oil and natural gas is retrieved today.

    Screenshot (36).pngFigure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Oil and natural gas (petroleum) formation. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

    Coal is a fossil fuel that formed from the remains of trees, ferns, and other plants that lived 300 to 400 million years ago (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). In some areas, such as portions of what is now the eastern United States, coal was formed from swamps covered by sea water. The sea water contained a large amount of sulfur, and as the seas dried up, the sulfur was left behind in the coal. Scientists are working on ways to take the sulfur out of coal because when coal burns, the sulfur is released in to the atmosphere as an air pollutant (see Chapter 6). Some coal deposits, however, were formed from freshwater swamps which had very little sulfur in them. These coal deposits, located largely in the western part of the United States, have much less sulfur in them.

    Screenshot (37).pngFigure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The process of coal formation. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

    4.2.2: Consumption

    Historically, human prosperity has been directly correlated with energy use. The health and vitality of world societies critically depends on energy, most of which comes from fossil fuels (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)). Energy resources, however, are unevenly distributed throughout the world, and so are the consumption rates. Developed regions generally consume far more energy than the developing regions. For example, the United States has only about 5% of the world’s population but constitutes over 20% of the world’s energy consumption. Additionally, developing countries devote a larger proportion of energy consumption to subsistence activities such as growing and preparing food, and heating homes. Industrialized nations rely more on mechanized equipment and technology and, therefore, a greater proportion of their energy consumption goes to transportation and industry.

    Fossil fuels can be utilized without being converted or transformed to another form of energy, this is referred to as primary energy consumption. In their primary form, fossil fuels can be used for transportation, heating and cooking, or used to generate electricity. The use of electricity is a form of secondary energy consumption. Transforming fossil fuel energy into electricity allows for easier transportation over long distances and application to a variety of uses. Additionally, there are four major sectors that consume energy: 1) The industrial sector which includes facilities and equipment used for manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and construction; 2) The transportation sector includes vehicles that transport people or goods including cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, trains, aircraft, boats, barges, and ships; 3) The residential sector consists of homes and apartments; 4) The commercial sector includes offices, malls, stores, schools, hospitals, hotels, warehouses, restaurants, places of worship, and more. Each of these sectors also consumes electricity produced by the electric power sector.

    Screenshot (40).pngFigure \(\PageIndex{3}\): U.S. primary energy consumption by source (all sectors), 2015, showing that about 80 % of our energy consumption comes from fossil fuels. Data from U.S. Energy Information Administration, April 2016.

    • Was this article helpful?