Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

16: Fossil Fuels

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Chapter Hook

    Human use of coal dates back thousands of years, and archeologists have found evidence for its use and excavation across the globe. As such, it is impossible to know how coal’s utility was discovered. In the Americas, Aztecs used coal for fuels and decoration. In Europe, Romans were noted as early as the late 2nd century AD to be extracting coal and using it to smelt iron ore and heat their famous public baths. Coals earliest reference in writings was by a Greek scientist Theophrastus (c.371-267 BC) about its usage in metalworking. In Asia, the Chinese are known to have been mining and using coal as far back as 3490 BC. Overall, there is a deep history of human usage of coal. As there is a limited supply, it regrettably won’t last forever.

    Fossil charcoal in weathered coal

    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): Fossil charcoal in weathered coal. Image by James St. John in Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY2.0)


    • 16.1: Types of Fossil Fuels and Formation
      Fossils fuels are extractable, nonrenewable sources of stored energy created by ancient ecosystems. The natural resources that typically fall under this category are coal, oil (petroleum), and natural gas. Coal formed from swamp vegetation, while oil and natural gas formed from marine microbes. In both cases, ancient organisms were transformed under high temperatures and pressures over millions of years.
    • 16.2: Mining, Processing, and Generating Electricity
      Coal is mined through surface mining or subsurface mining. Coal power plants generate electricity by combustion of coal and production of high-pressure steam, which turns a turbine. This powers a generator. Conventional oil and natural gas are extracted through drilling to piece the impervious rock that traps them. Fracking is a common approach for extracting unconventional oil and natural gas. Crude oil must be refined into petrochemicals, which each have a different function.
    • 16.3: Fossil Fuel Consumption
      We are heavily dependent on fossil fuels, which comprise 62.6% of electricity generation in the United States and 84.3% of global energy consumption. Coal reserves are abundant in the United States, but globally, proven oil and natural gas reserves are projected to last another 50 years.
    • 16.4: Consequences of Fossil Fuels
      Fossil fuels have met global and national energy needs for many years, but their use causes a range of human and environmental issues. Technologies and practices can reduce these negative impacts but do not eliminate them.
    • 16.5: Data Dive- Global Fossil Fuel Consumption
    • 16.6: Review


    Modified by Rachel Schleiger (CC-BY-NC).

    This page titled 16: Fossil Fuels is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

    • Was this article helpful?