Fossil fuels include coal, petroleum, natural gas, oil shales, bitumens, tar sands, and heavy oils. All contain carbon and were formed as a result of geologic processes acting on the remains of organic matter produced by photosynthesis, a process that began in the Archean Eon (4.0 billion to 2.5 billion years ago). Most carbonaceous material occurring before the Devonian Period (419.2 million to 358.9 million years ago) was derived from algae and bacteria, whereas most carbonaceous material occurring during and after that interval was derived from plants.
All fossil fuels can be burned in air or with oxygen derived from air to provide heat. This heat may be employed directly, as in the case of home furnaces, or used to produce steam to drive generators that can supply electricity. In still other cases—for example, gas turbines used in jet aircraft—the heat yielded by burning a fossil fuel serves to increase both the pressure and the temperature of the combustion products to furnish motive power.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain in the second half of the 18th century, fossil fuels have been consumed at an ever-increasing rate. Today they supply more than 80 percent of all the energy consumed by the industrially developed countries of the world. Although new deposits continue to be discovered, the reserves of the principal fossil fuels remaining on Earth are limited. The amounts of fossil fuels that can be recovered economically are difficult to estimate, largely because of changing rates of consumption and future value as well as technological developments.
Advances in technology—such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), rotary drilling, and directional drilling—have made it possible to extract smaller and difficult-to-obtain deposits of fossil fuels at a reasonable cost, thereby increasing the amount of recoverable material. In addition, as recoverable supplies of conventional (light-to-medium) oil became depleted, some petroleum-producing companies shifted to extracting heavy oil, as well as liquid petroleum pulled from tar sands and oil shales. See also coal mining; petroleum production.
One of the main by-products of fossil fuel combustion is carbon dioxide (CO2). The ever-increasing use of fossil fuels in industry, transportation, and construction has added large amounts of CO2 to Earth’s atmosphere. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations fluctuated between 275 and 290 parts per million by volume (ppmv) of dry air between 1000 CE and the late 18th century but increased to 316 ppmv by 1959 and rose to 412 ppmv in 2018 (see also Keeling Curve). CO2 behaves as a greenhouse gas—that is, it absorbs infrared radiation (net heat energy) emitted from Earth’s surface and reradiates it back to the surface. Thus, the substantial CO2 increase in the atmosphere is a major contributing factor to human-induced global warming. Methane (CH4), another potent greenhouse gas, is the chief constituent of natural gas, and CH4 concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere rose from 722 parts per billion (ppb) before 1750 to 1,859 ppb by 2018. To counter worries over rising greenhouse gas concentrations and to diversify their energy mix, many countries have sought to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels by developing sources of renewable energy (such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, tidal, geothermal, and biofuels) while at the same time increasing the mechanical efficiency of engines and other technologies that rely on fossil fuels.
Written by Otto C. Kopp, Professor Emeritus of Geological Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
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