How are Fossil Fuels Used?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Fossil fuels are high energy substances that are extracted from the Earth. Some fossil-based fuels, such as coal, have been used for heating and fueling purposes for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. Others, such as natural gas and petroleum, rose in popularity after the Industrial Revolution to become the most prominent forms of fuel throughout the 20th century. Fossil fuel, used to run so much of the world, has a heavy environmental price, compounded by the unnerving fact that the planet is running out of reserves.

Most vehicles use fossil fuels.
Most vehicles use fossil fuels.

Petroleum, coal, and natural gas are by-products of geological processes deep in the Earth. Coal is created in swamps, where plant sediment gathers over vast periods of time and slowly turns into peat and finally to coal. Petroleum and gas tend to form in the depths of the ocean, where the Earth cooks deeply buried organic material over millions of years to form oil.

Fossil fuels used throughout history show a growing trend of importance, tied greatly to human scientific understanding of energy and burning power. Fossil fuels for powerful fires date back to ancient China, where there is evidence that coppersmiths used coal in their forge fires. Oil may be the oldest of the fossil fuels used as a type of petrochemical; the ancient Egyptians used oil for medical treatments and possibly cosmetics. Native Americans, too, had fossil fuels for waterproofing and sometimes also for medical purposes.

Until the late 19th century, whaling provided the majority of oil used for lamps and lighting fixtures. With the devastation of the whale population, due to whaling, the price of whale oil increased dramatically, leading many to search for alternative lamp fuel. Petroleum, which is relatively cheap and seemed at the time to be a boundless resource, quickly became the leading fuel for lights.

Fossil fuels used for power dates back to the Chinese coppersmiths, and throughout the Industrial Revolution, the smoky and smoggy skies were the result of coal-powered factories. Yet not until the development of automobiles and aircraft did fossil fuels used for power gain their true power over the world. Since the early 20th century, almost all transportation methods have been powered by natural gas.

Petroleum and natural gas power homes, factories, and transportation, but also make their way into the daily life of nearly everyone through petrochemicals. These refined components of oil are used in thousands of household products, from plastic items, to clothing, to medicine and cosmetics. Any product that contains propylene, vinyl, ethanol, glycol, butadene, or ingredients that end in xylene is a petrochemical derived from fossil fuels.

The creation of fossil fuels used today began over 300 million years ago, according to some experts. As science has discovered, the Earth is rapidly running out of fossil fuels; a prospect which could be devastating to all facets of modern existence. Additionally, fossil fuels do heavy damage to the environment and are a main culprit in the case of human-caused global warming. Although they have powered the world almost exclusively for a century and contributed to human society for long before, it appears that fossil fuels will someday need to be replaced by other energy sources.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


Coal mining shows that there are many companies that answer the call of a cleaner coal to help the environment preserve its purity and also the coal industry's longevity. Both must work hand in hand to see the sky rocket success in the coal prices and green house effect.


@ Glasshouse- I would like to point out that fuel cells are not completely zero emissions. They emit about a third of the carbon dioxide per kilowatt as electricity generated from coal, and about half that generated from other fossil fuel sources. However, they only emit carbon dioxide (no other pollutants), and if fuels like landfill gas, biogas, or ethanol are used, fuel cells are zero net emission devices. They are also far more efficient at converting usable energy from fuel than coal, petroleum and natural gas.

I am not trying to discredit their effectiveness by any means because increasing efficiency is just as important as reducing consumption and finding renewable energy sources. It is a great innovation, but they are still dependent on a continuous resource stream. We have to develop renewable resource streams to maximize the effectiveness of innovations like this.


@ Glasshouse- The idea behind bloom box is simple chemical electrolysis. The box is filled with a number of electrochemical cells made up of an electrolyte sandwiched between an anode and a cathode. The fuel passes over the anode, and an oxidant like air passes over the cathode, causing an exchange of electrons that produces an electrical current over the cells circuitry. These cells are stacked upon each other to form an array of electrochemical fuel cells.

It is a promising alternative source of energy, but there are still some durability issues that will have to be overcome before it will be adopted on a large scale commercially. It will probably be five years before they are adopted commercially, and about ten years until they are ready for residential application.


I recently read about an alternative energy source called a bloom box. It is able to produce electricity for houses and offices without creating any emissions. The article I read said that the device could use fossil fuels or biofuels, but it produced no emissions. How does this work? They sound like interesting devices, and it would be nice to buy a device the size of an air conditioning unit that would take me off my unreliable power grid. I live in Phoenix, and we have two-three power outages a year. It wouldn't be too bad, except they always occur during the middle of summer when it is over 100 degrees at night.

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