Advantages and Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels

Advantages and Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels

As the name suggests, fossil fuels are derived from the remains of dead organic matter. This organic matter has decayed over millions and millions over years, underneath the Earth’s crust. Under high heat and pressure over millions of years, it turns into fuel. People all over the world say that its advantages and disadvantages do not exactly match. They are harmful to the environment.

WHAT ARE FOSSIL FUELS?

They are fuels formed by the anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms. These dead remains are a source of power because they contain energy originating in ancient photosynthesis. Therefore, they contain high percentages of carbon, and range from volatile, to liquid, and non-volatile materials. Volatile materials have low carbon to hydrogen ratios; whereas non-volatile materials almost entirely have carbon.

WHAT ARE TYPES OF FOSSIL FUELS?

Fossil fuels include coal, petroleum, natural gas, oil shales, bitumens, tar sands, and heavy oils. Coal is a form of combustible sedimentary rock. Coal is mostly carbon with variable amounts of other elements; chiefly hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen. Coal forests are large deposits of this resource. They are said to originate in former wetlands, which were a large majority of Earth’s tropical land areas 300 million years ago. It is a hydrocarbon gas mixture. Its primary component is methane, but it also includes varying amounts of other higher alkanes. This resource also contains small percentages of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen sulphide, or helium. Petroleum is yellow-ish black in colour. Therefore, it has to be refined into various types of fuels.

HOW DID WE COME ACROSS FOSSIL FUELS?

In 1597, Andreas Libavius first gave the theory that these fuels formed from the fossilized remains of dead plants by exposure to heat and pressure. It was also given by Mikhail Lomonosov in 1757. Caspar Neumann, a German chemist first coined the term “fossil fuels” in English translation in 1759. Archaeologists think that the first use of fossil fuels by humans occurred around 4000 years ago in northern China. The fuel that they used was coal. However, large-scale combustion of coal is considered to have started around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It was the first and only fossil source until the 1860s when crude oil consumption began. Natural gas production began a couple of decades later, in the 1880-90s.

The backlash against use of fossil fuels has led to the invention of many energy sources that are eco-friendly.

But is this backlash justified?

Let’s find out.

Advantages of Fossil Fuels

Abundant Supply

Advantages and Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels
Coal

These fuels are in large quantities all over the world. Dead plant matter accumulating over millions of years has created large reservoirs of fossil fuels. New, untapped reservoirs are found every year, with amounts that are beyond any prediction that could be made.  In 2013, up to 233 billion barrels of oil was discovered to be in the Australian Outback. Studies suggest that the Earth has over a century’s worth of currently known resources.

Cheap

Since they have been around for a long time, the technology used for extracting them is quite developed. As a result, it is also cheap to extract fuels. This also leads to the resource being cheap for consumers. Although, the costs are now rising because of a decreasing supply of known reserves. Humans are also mostly dependent on them for their energy requirements. Thus, a large number of governments also provide subsidies to organizations to make electricity cheaper for the public. This has twofold benefits: it allows consumers to satisfy their energy requirements for a lower price, and it also incentivizes newer organizations to join this industry. Additionally, as the number of companies increases in a field, the price further decreases. This happens because of the simple laws of supply and demand.

24×7 Availability

Because it is not dependent on any other resource, this resource can be extracted and used 24×7. Oil rigs function around the clock, extracting oil from the Earth’s crust. Some forms of renewable energies, like solar power are time-bound. They can only be harnessed while the sun is up. After sundown and before sun up, alternative forms of energy need to be used. This is not the same with fossil fuels. On the contrary, it is feasible to extract coal, natural gas, and oil around the clock.

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Easy to Store and Transport

It is easy to store these fuels. Since they are found in 3 states of matter, transportation is easy. Therefore, natural gas can be transported via pipelines or tanks. Large containers can be used to store coal. Petroleum can also be transported via pipelines or tanks. These are not innovative forms of storage or transportation, and hence are cheap.

High Calorific Value

The calorific value refers to the total energy released as heat when a substance undergoes complete combustion with oxygen under standard conditions. This means that a higher calorific value symbolises production of higher amount of heat with a smaller amount of fuel. Fossils fuels have extremely high calorific values. Thus they produce high levels of heat without requiring a higher quantity of fuel. The measuring unit is joules per kilogram. The combustion process generates water vapour and certain techniques may be used to recover the quantity of heat contained in this water vapour by condensing it. The calorific value of some fossil fuels are: natural gas – 12500 kcal/kg, propane-butane – 11950 kcal/kg, diesel – 10000 kcal/kg, and fuel oil – 9520 kcal/kg. “Kcal” is the symbol of kilocalorie. One kilocalorie is equal to 1000 calories.

Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels

Human Error

Fossil fuels are at a high risk of causing additional environmental damage unintentionally. They can spill during transportation or during storage. Even regular wear and tear, if not properly maintained, can lead to a higher risk of a leak occurring. Thus, oil spills are a common disaster leading to the loss of millions of animal lives and sometimes causing irreversible damage. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. It spilt an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. According to the satellite images, the spill directly affected 68,000 square miles.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels
Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Harmful for Environment

Upon consumption, fossil fuels release a large amount of greenhouse gases. They release CO2 as well as methane. Consequently, it results in more than 65% of the total carbon dioxide emissions, while methane is responsible for 16% of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases lead to global warming. They trap the heat radiation of the sun instead of reflecting it back. Thus, it raises the average temperature by not allowing heat to escape. Extraction of these resources also causes environmental damage. Coal ash, the residue left after burning coal, is a producer of radiation. Moreover, the ash also settles in areas near the plant. According to Scientific American, a coal power plant can produce up to 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant. Mining leads to the destruction of scenery and wildlife habitat. It also displaces the inhabitants of that area in large numbers.

Exhaustible

Although they might be available in large quantities, fossil fuels are a finite resource. Their formation takes place over millions and millions of years, but their consumption does not. The rate of their consumption is way faster than that of their replenishment. Hence, there will be a day when the Earth runs out of this resource. That day might be far, but it will arrive one day. Hence, alternative forms of energy that are renewable must be found.

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Pros and Cons of Fossil Fuels

PROS

CONS

Abundant supply

Human error

Cheap

Harmful for environment

24×7 availability

Exhaustible

Easy to store and transport

 

High calorific value

 

 

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Rhythm Bhatia