What are Fossil Fuels?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Fuel is material that can produce heat while being consumed, by burning, for example. Fossil fuels, also called mineral fuels, are combustible materials that are organic, having derived from remains of living beings. They include coal, lignite, natural gas, peat, and oil. Artificial fuels, such as gasoline and kerosene, are made from these natural fuels. Fossil fuels can take a number of forms: methane is a gas, oil a liquid, and coal a solid.

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

Some fossil fuels are referred to as carbonaceous fuels, which derive from plant waste. The carbonaceous fuel with the lowest carbon content is peat, which is estimated to cover about 2% of the Earth’s land in wetlands known variously as bogs, mire, moors, swamps, and peatlands. Fuel peat is different than moss peat, which is used in agriculture.

Natural gas, which is mostly composed of methane, can be liquefied and transported via rail or pipelines.
Natural gas, which is mostly composed of methane, can be liquefied and transported via rail or pipelines.

Lignite is the carbonaceous fuel with the next highest amount of carbon. Also called brown coal, is brownish or yellowish and has more moisture than coal. It is found in North America and Germany.

Crude oil is an example of a fossil fuel.
Crude oil is an example of a fossil fuel.

Coal, which has the highest carbon content, still has a range among its five types. They are, in increasing order, black lignite or subbituminous coal, bituminous coal, semibituminous coal, semianthracite, and anthracite. Note that semibituminous coal is high-grade bituminous coal, while semianthracite is low-grade anthracite coal. Of these, anthracite is most nearly pure carbon.

Kerosene, commonly used in lamps, is a made from crude oil.
Kerosene, commonly used in lamps, is a made from crude oil.

Natural gas is composed of gaseous hydrocarbons mixed with other components. Its main component is methane, which makes of 80–95% of its content. Other gases included may be butane, ethane, and propane. It is found both near deposits of petroleum, as well as separately.

Crude oil, or petroleum, is another of the fossil fuels. It is found in deposits in rock formations within the Earth and extracted for use as fuel oil, gasoline, and other products such as wax, manufacturing of plastics, lubricants, and sulfuric acid, among others. Saudi Arabia is both one of the largest producers and largest exporters of crude oil in the world.

In 2006, world energy consumption was 86% fossil fuels or their derivatives. This included 36.8% petroleum, 26.6% coal, and 22.9% natural gas. The remaining energy was supplied by non-fossil fuel such as hydroelectric, nuclear energy, geothermal energy, and energy generated by solar power, tides, and wind. World energy consumption rises yearly.

Because there is a finite amount of fossil fuels available, their depletion is a source of concern. The fact that these fuels release pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, when burned is another source of concern. The possibility that their burning contributes to global climate change or global warming has been the subject of heated debate.

Fossil fuels are typically mined from underneath the Earth's surface.
Fossil fuels are typically mined from underneath the Earth's surface.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments

anon304291

How did the plants and animals that make up fossil fuels get their energy? (Other than the sun).

FrameMaker

Can anyone describe the difference between the way coal is formed and the way that petroleum and natural gas are formed? Is it the same process, or are there significant differences?

Georgesplane

The most efficient fossil fuel power plant is the natural gas powered plant. This is also the fastest growing source of fossil fuel electricity generation. When you examine the air pollution and emissions from fossil fuels, coal emits about two to three times as much as natural gas per unit of energy produced. The lower the quality of the coal burned, the more pollutants and carbon that is emitted into the atmosphere.

submariner

What is the least polluting type of fossil fuel burning power plant?

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