How Are Fossil Fuels Formed

Contrary to what their name suggests, fossil fuels aren’t made from old dinosaur bones. This assumption about the source of fossil fuels is quite a common misconception. In reality, how fossil fuels are formed is by a process that takes many millions of years. But before we get into how fossil fuels are formed, it’s important that you understand what exactly a fossil fuel is.

What is a Fossil Fuel?

Even if you aren’t familiar with the term, you likely know what a fossil fuel is. A fossil fuel is a fuel that is created by a natural process. An example of one of these processes is the decomposition of dead organisms that have been buried. These processes form fuels that are high in carbon such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas. The derivatives of fossil fuels are likely what you are used to. These more commonly known fossil fuels are kerosene and propane, both of which were frequently used as a heating source. In fact, a study done just a few years back found that fossil fuels were the primary source of energy throughout the world. They contributed to 86.4% of the world’s energy sources. The use of fossil fuels has been growing just about 2.5% every year.

How Are Fossil Fuels Formed:

The question “how are fossil fuels formed?” is sometimes a difficult one to answer. Fossil fuels got their origination back in the Carboniferous period about 300 million years ago. The land back then was covered with plants, trees, and swamps. All of the water sources (oceans, lakes, streams, etc.) were filled with algae.
When the trees and plants would die, they would sink and sit at the bottom of the water sources. After a bit of time, they formed peat, which is a soft, spongy material. As the years would pass, this peat was covered by sand and clay. It would then form into sedimentary rock.

The process would continue, and rocks would form on top of other rocks becoming heavier and heavier. The heavy rocks would press down onto the peat, draining it of the water content. Over a significant amount of time (millions of years!), it would turn into natural gas, petroleum, oil, and coal – all different types of fossil fuels. This process is how fossil fuels are formed.

how are fossil fuels formed

The Most Common Types of Fossil Fuels:

Coal
Coal is made of a combination of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and sulfur. The amounts of each element that are in coal determine which type of coal it is. There are three primary types of coal. The first, anthracite, is the hardest of the three because it has more carbon. This gives anthracite a higher energy content. Lignite is lower in carbon content, but has increased hydrogen and oxygen. This makes Lignite the softest of the coals. The middle ground is bituminous which is not quite as hard as Anthracite and not quite as soft as Lignite. Peat, which is the soft spongy material that plays a role in how fossil fuels are formed, is used on its own as an energy source in some countries.

coal - how fossil fuel is formed
Petroleum and Oil
Many researchers believe that diatoms – small creatures of the sea about the size of a pinhead — are the main source of oil. Diatoms are very similar to plants in that they can take sunlight and convert it into stored energy. Diatoms inject themselves into the process of how fossil fuels are formed at the point when they die. At that moment, they begin to sink to the bottom of the sea and are buried under sediment rock. As the sediment rock would become heavier as more and more rock would grow on top, it would squash the diatoms and trap the energy that they have and didn’t allow it to escape. Eventually the carbon turned into heat under a tremendous amount of pressure. As the earth moved and shifted over millions of years, pockets were formed where petroleum and oil were formed.

fossil fuel - oil
Natural Gas
Natural gas can be found near oil and petroleum in the small pockets that are formed by the stored energy of diatoms. Natural gas doesn’t have a high sulphur level so you can’t smell it. It’s lighter than air and is made up primarily of methane, which is made of just hydrogen and carbon atoms. Natural gas is highly flammable.

Preserving Fossil Fuels

We always hear that preserving and conserving energy is necessary. Now that you know how fossil fuels are formed, you might think that we have an endless supply of them. The process is natural – there’s nothing man-made about it. The earth makes energy for us. After all, plants are constantly dying, sinking, and converting to peat. The process is constantly beginning. So doesn’t that mean that we have an endless supply of fossil fuels?

Not exactly.

In fact, fossil fuels are considered a non-renewable resource. How can that be possible if they are formed by naturally occurring processes? Simple: The time is takes for fossil fuels to go from deceased animal to their final state is millions of years, so at any given moment, we only have the amount of fuel that was deposited millions of years ago. Anything that is dead and buried now, and anything less than deposits that were made millions of years ago, won’t be fossil fuel for another hundreds of millions of years. In addition to the timeline that is working against us, we aren’t helping matters either. We are using fossil fuels at a much quicker rate than we are producing it. While it is very true that fossil fuels automatically renew themselves, we only have a limited source of them until they are able to form. Unfortunately, once our sources of fossil fuels are gone, they’re gone and cannot be recreated.

So before you shrug off the recommendation to conserve energy, consider the fact that we are only given a limited amount. It’s important that we are all mindful of how much energy we are using as to not run out before more can be generated.

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