Fossil Fuels


Fossil fuels are the remains of living things that were buried underground before they had time to decay. Coal is made of plants, so it contains the remains of the carbohydrates they created using the energy of sunlight. So coal is stored solar energy, compacted over millions of years.

For thousands of years, timber was the main fuel used for heating, cooking, and—in the form of charcoal—industrial processes like metalworking. But in the 1700s, people started mining coal, which is a more concentrated, abundant source of energy. Coal fueled the rise of modern industry, as well as the railroads and steamships of the 1800s. In the 1900s oil and natural gas were developed into fuels for road vehicles and aircraft, and both coal and gas are used to generate the electricity that powers our modern lives. All these are carbon-rich "fossil fuels,"created from long-dead organisms by processes that take millions of years. They are being burned far more quickly than they are formed, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere and adding to the greenhouse effect.


Where coal is found close to the surface it can be extracted from open-pit mines, which create huge holes in the landscape like this one in Wyoming. Deeper coal seams are exploited by sinking deep shafts leading to tunnels, where miners use special machinery to cut the coal out.


Oil is a hydrocarbon, an organic compound containing only the elements hydrogen and carbon. It is found in rocks that were formed on shallow sea floors and is made up of the remains of microscopic marine plankton like these diatoms, which were buried and compressed in the same way as coal-forming plants. The same process that produces oil also creates natural gas, which is mostly methane.

In the 1800s, factories relied on coal for power


Coal transformed industry by providing an abundant, portable source of energy. People did not like the smoke and soot pollution it caused, but some enjoyed the wealth it created. Manufacturing industries flourished, leading to the growth of towns and cities, and liberating people from relying on the land to supply their needs. Coal created modern society.


The world's first oil well was sunk at Baku on the shores of the Caspian Sea in 1847. But the oil industry did not take off until the early 1900s, when a refined form of oil began to be used as a fuel for cars. Today oil and gas are tapped from reserves all over the world, on land and beneath shallow seas, where it is pumped up from below the sea bed by oil platforms like this one in the North Sea.

Spiral roads provide access for giant trucks

Massive excavators dig out the coal

Spiral roads provide access for giant trucks

Massive excavators dig out the coal


Burning coal, or any fossil fuel, releases its energy as heat. But it also combines its carbon with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. This accelerates part of the carbon cycle by oxidizing masses of ancient carbon that would naturally be recycled over millions of years. The carbon dioxide pours into the atmosphere much faster than it can be soaked up by the processes that formed the fuel in the first place, so the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air increases.


Different fossil fuels release different quantities of carbon dioxide. Coal is the worst, followed by oil, then gas. Coal also contains other pollutants such as soot and sulfur dioxide, which can combine with water vapor to form smog and acid rain.

In 1952 the dense smog seen here killed up to 12,000 people in London, England, and this led to coal fires being banned in the city.

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Guide to Alternative Fuels

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