Understanding Fossil Fuel

22 05 2010

With all this chatter about global warming, being green, energy sources and the spewing oil nightmare that is rocking the nation I thought I’d give myself a little assignment.  I thought not only would I educate myself, but some of you too.  In all seriousness, when you are fueling up your gas tank do you ever consider the life history of where that fuel came from? Was it really once a dinosaur?
What is fossil fuel?
Fuel that was formed through anaerobic digestion of microorganisms in the earth from prehistoric times which break down into biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen from remains of living-cell organisms.  Some commonly known fossil fuels are oil, coal and natural gas or their by-products (such as petroleum).  The age of the organisms and their resulting fossil fuels is typically millions of years, and sometimes exceeds 650 million years.  Fossil fuels range from volatile materials with low carbon:hydrogen ratios like methane, to liquid petroleum to nonvolatile materials composed of almost pure carbon like coal.  Because they take millions of years to form, fossil fuels are a non-renewable energy source and are being depleted much faster than new ones are being formed.  Fossil fuels are of great importance because they can be burned, producing significant amounts of energy. (To read a more detailed explanation of fossil fuel, go here: http://www.umich.edu/~gs265/society/fossilfuels.htm )
When did man begin to use it as an energy source?
Fossil fuels have been used since cavemen discovered how to burn peat (decayed plant materials that have not reached the coal stage) or coal for heat. Plutarch, a Greek historian, wrote about the “external fires” in the area of present day Iraq. These fires were probably caused by natural gas that was seeping through cracks in the ground and ignited by lightning. Alexander the Great burned petroleum to scare the war elephants of his enemies. The Egyptians used asphalt, a derivative of petroleum, to preserve human remains. Coal was discovered by explorers in 1673, but it was not mined commercially until the 1740’s in Virginia. Before then, coal had been used by the Hopi Indians in the 1300’s for heating and cooking. However, prior to the latter half of the eighteenth century, windmills or watermills provided the energy needed for industry such as milling flour, sawing wood in mills, or pumping water.  Burning wood provided domestic heat.  The wide-scale use of fossil fuels (coal at first and petroleum later) to fire steam engines (to perform mechanical work using steam as it’s working fluid) enabled the Industrial Revolution[1].  Also during this time, sources for light were using natural gas or coal gas derived from fossil fuels.  Natural gas was first sought commercially in 1821, when William A. Hart[2] drilled a 27 foot deep well in Fredonia, NY, to get a larger flow of gas from a naturally occurring surface seepage. This natural gas was sent through wooden pipes to nearby homes for lighting. The wooden pipes allowed some gas to escape and was not an effective way to send natural gas long distances. It was more than 100 years before an efficient distribution system allowed natural gas to be sent long distances to homes, factories, and businesses. In 1859, Edwin L. Drake[3] began the modern day petroleum industry in Titusville, Pennsylvania, when he drilled a 69 foot deep well and discovered crude oil. The crude oil that was obtained from this well was used to form kerosene to use in lamps for illumination and to form grease for machinery. The invention of the internal combustion engine, also during the mid 1850’s, greatly increased the demand for gasoline and diesel (both fossil fuels) thus creating a huge demand for such fossil fuels in the transportation industry for automobiles, trains and aircrafts.  Major use for fossil fuels became the use of generating electricity and, of course, the petrochemical industry.  Also tar, a leftover of petroleum extraction, is used in road construction.  “The capital fact to note is that petroleum was born in the depths of the Earth, and it is only there that we must seek its origin.”-Dmitri Mendeleev, 1877[4]
What are the pros of using fossil fuels?
The main reason behind the immense popularity of fossil fuels is that combustion of fossil fuels generates a large amount of usable energy and they are considered high efficiency fuels.
The pros of using fossils fuels begin with the benefit of increased income for our country’s economy. The sale of fossil fuels involves much more than simply providing a finished fuel product to a buyer. A long list of businesses exists along the supply chain employing millions of people. Mining fossil fuels here in the U.S. also helps our country in avoiding dependency on foreign energy supplies.  Another pro is that it is really is easy to transport fossil fuels in liquid, gas or solid form. The cheap cost of fossil fuels tops the list of pros. In addition, technology currently exists to use fossil fuels, which makes their use immediate. The cost of obtaining and using fossil fuels may become an issue in the future, however, currently large deposits of oil, natural gas and coal are available.
What are the cons?
Some studies show that with combustion of fossil fuels, large amount of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. In the atmosphere, it absorbs heat and contributes towards the green house effect. However, other studies disagree with this concept.  Cons include both the limited supplies of fossil fuels and the fact that no fossil fuel can be recycled. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, fossil fuel use accounts for 85 percent of total energy use. To continue at our current rate of consumption, suppliers must tap existing and new reserves of fossil fuels. Excavating and oil drilling are dangerous and expensive endeavors requiring long-term planning and research. The biggest disadvantage lies in the fact fossil fuels are only housed deep within the earth’s surface, making acquisition a difficult task. Cons can also include the cost of advancing technology to use fossil fuels more efficiently as well as reduce the acquisition impact on the environment. Both require extensive research to develop new techniques for extraction of fossil fuels. Extraction is expected to become even more dangerous as mining gets deeper and farther out in the ocean.  Also, extraction of fossil fuels is harmful to the environment in numerous ways ecologically as well as some of the gasses produced in the burning of these fuels creating pollution.
What are the alternatives?
The renewed interest in alternative energy sources is steadily gaining popularity as people become more aware of the globally damaging effects of the extraction and use of fossil fuels.  Though it would be nearly impossible for mankind to completely stop the use of fossil fuels, we can use other renewable energy sources and work toward preserving the longevity of fossil fuels for more necessary uses.  In doing so, we can also help to better the environment and possibly save lives of plants, animals and human beings too!
Solar powered energy is a great idea and one of the most resourceful sources of renewable energy available today.  Solar energy, radiant heat and light from the sun, has been harnessed by humans since ancient times.  Unfortunately, today only a small fraction of solar energy available is actually used. The ways for people to obtain solar power in most cases is unaffordable or not very easily obtained.  Now is the time for our government to step up to the plate and make this resource easily available to the people.  There comes a time when greed and the desire for capital gain must be put aside in order to ultimately save the planet before there is nothing left to fight for or fight over any more, right? Why are we ignoring a free, natural and renewable energy sources? The creation and maintenance of solar panels would generate employment in place of the employment lost as well as income.  Of course, solar power would depend on the weather which may cause complications.  In my opinion it could be used as a primary source in a household for powering appliances with fossil fuels as a secondary source or back up should the solar energy fail for some reason.
Wind is another natural and renewable source of energy which also relies on the weather (more than solar powered energy), but through the use of windmills producing energy we can avoid damaging the environment using this as an energy source for some smaller necessities.  The fins of a windmill rotate in a vertical plane which is kept perpendicular to the wind by means of a tail fin.  On average, the power that can be produced when an wind mill is facing the wind of about 10mph is around 50 watts.
As we know, in the past water was often used as an energy source.  It’s a relatively simple concept, but can be slightly expensive to achieve today in order to meet modern energy needs/standards.  Hydroelectricity comes from the damming of rivers using the potential energy stored in the water.  As the stored water is released at a high pressure, it’s kinetic energy is transferred onto turbine blades and used to generate electricity.  While this system does have enormous costs up front, it is relatively low maintenance and provides power quite cheaply.  Again, this would provide employment and income in the construction and maintenance of the dams and turbines.  Once again, I am made aware of the greed involved in the industry of power production when I learn that in the U.S. an estimated 180,000 MW of hydroelectric power potential is available but only about 1/3 of that is being harnessed.  (Learn more about renewable energy resources here: http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/home )
The alternatives are plentiful and the desire to use them should be too! Cars fueled by renewable sources such as lard or water have been in existence for decades, but not approved for market sales.  Why? Geothermal energy uses the heat of the earth and while it does require excavation, the process is much simpler and safer than the extraction of fossil fuels.   Why are these alternatives not being used? What will it take to activate the use of renewable energy? A disaster?


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fredonia_Gas_Light_Company
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_L._Drake
[4] http://www.chemistry.co.nz/mendeleev.htm




12 responses

22 05 2010
uncle jailbird

the earth is surrounded by an electromagnetic field. i’m wondering if there is a way to tap into it and use it?

22 05 2010

Now that sounds safe, Unc!

23 05 2010

Hey Suz! You tackled an interesting and complex subject here. I’m no expert, but would like to address the issue of hydro-electric power. Here in the Pacific Northwest, hyrdo-electric supplies nearly all of the power. In fact, much of our power is transported to other regions, including California.

What is interesting is that it is not greed of power companies that has hindered further hydro-electric production, but lawsuits by environmentalist and government regulation, resulting in tear downs of existing dams and fights to keep new dams from being built. Salmon use our rivers for seasonal migration and spawning, and the environmentalist claim is that dams destroy salmon populations.

As I said, these issues are complex and multi-faceted. While government can help to set the tone, it really is the free market that I believe will dictate the future types of energy useage. As consumers of fuels, the majority of us will use whatever is the most affordable. As long as fossil fuels supply the lowest-cost energy source, they will be the primary fuels. As technology expands and becomes capable of producing *affordable* and *efficient* alternative technologies, those will become the new fuels.

Sometimes I think about hydro-fuels–changing water into hydrogen–and the effect that could have on our future. Would it really be 100% positive if water was the new fuel? We need water to survive. I don’t know enough about the technology to speculate, but I still think it’s fun to do so! 🙂

23 05 2010

Oops, look down Abe I didn’t hit reply… lol

23 05 2010

Abe, I think moderation is key… and that’s something EVERY human being has struggled with since the dawn of time, right? But, I believe we could use several sources of energy (renewable and non) in moderation with well thought out & logical plans as to which works best for what. Electric cars is a well thought out plan that helps the environment regarding both pollution and petro! This should be made a more reasonable possibility for the public! Solar power for homes is well within reason too. Like you, I’m truly no expert and in my heart of hearts I want to believe there is good reason and not just greed as the reason we haven’t gotten better at this so-called-energy-thing yet. I spent my entire evening yesterday putting together this blog and researching it. I still don’t have a clue, but what I do know for sure is incidents like this BP disaster, other comparable disasters that are beyond harmful to the planet AND coal mining disasters…etc… there has got to be a better way, a solution, an alternative or all of the above. We do need water to survive… all living things do, but look at what this incident has done to the water!

23 05 2010
bok choi

Human Power is a novel concept, huh? Move away from the small towns and rural areas of the country and into large developed urban areas with the infrastructure in place to make it possible.
Most of my friends in Portland use their autos as a last possible resort… all the time. Whether commuting to work, shopping, or going out at night, these guys do it on a combination of human power and public transit. I think they have it right.
I know it would be a dangerous thing to ride bikes around BSL and Waveland, where NO bike lanes exist. Not many areas have sidewalks and streets are too narrow, and the public is not trained to look out for bikes (which have the same rights as auto drivers on most local streets, of course “rights” don’t matter when you get run down.
Ride your bike to work for a week. You’ll feel better and use NO fossil fuels.

23 05 2010

My work is 35 miles from my house… I don’t think I’d feel better after one trip… lol. But yes, it does have a lot to do with my location as far as options go. They are making bike lanes and improvements in that sense here, but I don’t see public transit as ever being an option. Anyway, riding my bike wouldn’t mean I’d be using NO fossil fuels, just less. We all use fossil fuels every day in some way! That’s why I don’t think we could ever do away with it completely.

23 05 2010

I’ve been a strong advocate for both Renewable and Green (low emissions) power sources for more than 30 years. I recommend listening to Jimmy Carter’s “Great Malaise” speech. It’s not like there weren’t plenty of people in America who were ready to make the changes needed long ago. The problem is that there were a lot of other people who weren’t listening or informing themselves, people who bought into the notion of limitless energy without consequences as presented to them by conservative politicians and corporations. That’s not a dig; that’s a fact. We wasted a lot of years that we might have used addressing this issue in a more reasoned and manageable fashion.

Now we’re all running around, still throwing hand grenades at each other, but not taking much responsibility. Your other poster, WordOfAbe has already pointed out that virtually every form of energy has hidden costs. When he talks about Hydro up here in the PNW, however, I don’t think he takes the point far enough. The hang-up with Hydro is not the environmentalists, it’s the environment itself. Reports from explorers in the early days of European migration said that one could walk across the Columbia River on the backs of migrating salmon, they were so thick. Today many streams are entirely empty of spawning salmon. Salmon fisheries have moved farther and farther north as populations here have declined. The mistake was that we built too many dams without fish ladders. Later when salmon populations went plummeting, ladders were added and “programs” were established to reinvigorate the salmon runs. There has been some success, but we’ll never restore the old balance of nature. It’s gone.

Although you mention the cost of technology for extraction and impact, I feel your “cons” consideration of oil (and coal) should flatly say “Cost.” And by that I don’t just mean the cost of filling up at the gas station. Free markets unfortunately only capture direct and observable costs. The market rarely captures the long term costs or the unforeseeable “black swan” costs such as we are now witnessing in the Gulf. The Free Marketeers refuse to believe in this cost, and have successfully kept society from accounting for it. The left is not without it’s own blinders. What modern day greenies don’t take into account is that, just as WordOfAbe said, modern replacements for oil may well or definitely do have their own hidden costs. We don’t know about all of these hidden costs yet, because we talked ourselves in to ignoring the problem for years. It’s time to admit that we have been falsely worshipping the Free Market God on this topic. What we’ve needed is a thoughtful non-left-right debate on the most sensible national strategy.

So here’re some of the details we’re still missing in my opinion. Let’s start with electricity. Greenies like the idea of everything electric. Of course right now that would really mean 50% coal. But even assuming that we could transfer the power generation behind electricity to renewable low emissions sources we would still have issues of storing power. I am still puzzled as to how the manufacture and use of millions of batteries is going to have lower environmental costs. Giant densely packed wind farms will undoubtedly be a problem for migratory birds. Solar technology currently depends on certain exotic materials that have to be extracted and/or manufactured. Location specific sources like hydro, wind and solar all then need to be “routed” to where the power is needed. Numerous environmental advocates have taken issue with the draping of power lines through certain regions. You get the picture.

I think the first peak oil reports are now about two decades old. In the interim we have indeed reached our peak of oil production relative to demand. Meanwhile, demand is rising fast as a consequence of globalism. From here on out, oil will have to get more and more expensive. In other words, we all knew we’d be right where we are today and because of political obfuscation, we just walked straight into the fan blade. As you point out, oil extraction gets trickier with time. Who hasn’t gotten the Baden Oil Field email from a conservative friend telling them that the American West is the new Saudi Arabia? But only a tiny fraction of the oil is currently and cost effectively extractable. BP is a perfect example. It might be easier overlooked or forgotten that back in September of 2009 BP Oil presented good news of a massively large oil find in the Gulf.

The irony is that the video above concludes that we will reduce our dependence on foreign oil with the new BP find. But such extreme deepwater wells are in international waters. The oil is extracted by BRITISH Petroleum and placed on the Global Market. Anyone can buy it and we’ll be competing with China and India if we want it. Deepwater oil extraction has little to do with patriotism or the USA or whatever – well… except when everything goes wrong. When everything goes wrong and the worst oil spill ever is coming at LA and MS in the sea currents, then suddenly, yes, it’s about us and about carrying the burdens – PAYING THE COSTS – of a ‘trust-the-Corps’ energy and oil exploration policy.

23 05 2010

“It’s time to admit that we have been falsely worshipping the Free Market God on this topic. What we’ve needed is a thoughtful non-left-right debate on the most sensible national strategy.” One of the best statements I’ve seen on this topic, hands down!! Your last paragraph pointing out the irony is freakin brilliant and something I’ve been preaching to no avail it seems! Thank you!!! I really enjoyed your informative and educational response here. I still have much to learn and now more than ever do I plan to research and get involved as much as I possibly can. I don’t want to be in a position later wondering what I could’ve done, what WE could’ve done when it’s too little too late… and I’m afraid we’re speeding down that road, aren’t you? Therefore, I’m doing a 180 and I want as many people as possible to join me. Thanks so much for this comment. I enjoyed the read and hope to hear more from you as I post more on these topics.

31 05 2010
deja vous « Waiting on karma to pay back that debt…

[…] Understanding Fossil Fuel […]

2 06 2010

Fascinating history; Fredonia NY is not far from me (there is a SUNY College at Fredonia that I used to frequent for partying). I think solar energy is bullshit and I associate it with the 1970s and Jimmy Carter and the anti nuclear kooks like Jackson Brown and Graham Nash and their no nukes concerts. I am a real believer in nuclear power to relieve some of our energy concerns….we should also invest in unlocking shale oil from the ground as we could possibly use 100s of years worth of it before it depletes.

2 06 2010

i can’t give an educated reply on shale oil… i don’t know enough about it. i need to look it up.

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