What are the Different Types of Fossil Fuels Used?

Sonal Panse

Fossil fuels account for a large percentage of the fuels used for energy consumption around the world. Much of the modern world operates by fossil fuels use. They are used in transportation, in electricity production, in powering homes and industries, and in the production of plastics and other derivatives.

A stove burner that runs on natural gas, a fossil fuel.
A stove burner that runs on natural gas, a fossil fuel.

The history of fossil fuels goes back to many millions of years ago. Plants, animals and microorganisms that dwelt in those ancient times died, decomposed and became enmeshed in the soil. Layers of sediment settled over their decomposed organic remains and kept on accumulating as time went by, subjecting them to tremendous heat and pressure.

Entrance to a coal mine.
Entrance to a coal mine.

As a result of such treatment, the decomposed organic matter underwent chemical transformation to form hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons, compounds of hydrogen and carbon, are the substances that make up fossil fuels. The main fossil fuels are coal, natural gas, and petroleum.

Oil is a fossile fuel.
Oil is a fossile fuel.

Fossil fuels are extracted from the earth's crust and processed for direct and indirect consumption. Petroleum is refined from its crude state to form gasoline, diesel, and other fuels that are used in vehicles, planes, trains and ships. Derivatives from petroleum are used in the plastics industry.

Fossil fuels are used to create diesel fuel.
Fossil fuels are used to create diesel fuel.

Coal is used to operate power plants that generate electricity, and electricity of course has its own myriad uses. These include providing light, heating systems, cooling systems and energy to people and places around the world. Coal is also used directly as a source of heat and energy.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel by-product of petroleum. Once discarded as a waste, it is now in wide demand as one of the clean fossil fuels. Usually, fumes and ash-laden smoke result from fossil fuels use, but natural gas burns with a clean flame. It is used as a cooking fuel, and for running heating and cooling systems. In the USA and many other countries, it is piped directly into buildings for use.

The fossil fuel advantages are obvious, but so are the disadvantages. The processes that are used to extract fossil fuels have a ruinous effect on the natural landscape. This is evident with coal mining, where large tracts of land are denuded and left barren.

Fossil fuels use on a large-scale has also created some serious environmental problems like global warming and acid rain. The likelihood of oil spills and the dangers posed by them are also a matter of concern. Equally worrying is the fact that fossil fuels are nonrenewable resources and may soon be used up.

It is essential to come up with alternatives that will be more eco-friendly and as effective. Many countries are already cutting down on fossil fuels use and exploring other possibilities like hydroelectricity, nuclear fission, solar power and geothermal power. The signs are encouraging, but there is still a long way to go before these alternatives replace fossil fuels entirely.

Some diesel-electric locomotives have been converted to run on biodiesel fuels.
Some diesel-electric locomotives have been converted to run on biodiesel fuels.

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Discussion Comments


Does anyone know if there is any type of home heating oil that is an alternative energy fuel? I live in a cold climate and my family uses hundreds of gallons of heating oil to keep warm. If the price were reasonable, I would consider switching to something more eco-friendly.


@ Georgesplane, You can make a coal substitute for gasoline. In fact, it is already being done, and it has been for a few decades (South Africa). Coal has not been the savior that one would expect though. Coal is a very dirty fossil fuel (regardless of what the industry says). Think about it, petroleum and natural gas are filtered through permeable layers in the earth's crust until it reaches an impermeable layer. Coal is just compacted over millennia. Coal to liquid (CTL) also requires large amounts of clean water.

This matters because when coal is burned it releases almost twice the carbon natural gas or petroleum does into the atmosphere. The same happens when you cook coal into liquid fuel. The raw carbon in the coal bonds with carbon to form combustible hydrocarbons. If all cars on the road switched over to coal fuel, the effect of greenhouse gases would be felt much faster. It is better to stick with petroleum based gasoline and spend resources and dollars to ramp up renewable alternative fuels that cost the same as CTL.


Can one make liquid fuel from coal? I think this might be a viable means of helping to stabilize fuel prices during a transition to renewable energy sources. We have a ton of coal buried underground, and it is produced right here in the USA. I know it is not a fix for fossil fuel use, but it eliminates some of the need to send our dollars to conflict areas in exchange for fuel.

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