Fossil fuels, mostly oil, coal and natural gas provide energy for the whole world. Fossil fuels are the dominant source of energy for everything that needs power, from our homes, automobiles, to our electronic devices which need some kind of power source. As of 2009, we drill about 85 million barrels of oil out of oil wells around the world each year. Fossil fuels were formed millions of years ago. They cannot be regenerated and replaced at the same rate as they are being used. So, eventually, the world will run out of them. What happens when there is no more fossil fuel left to burn? Will there be alternatives found to replace the existing energy sources?
How fossil fuels were formed
Fossil fuels were formed by a natural process called the anaerobic decomposition, a process that occurs in nature. In this process, micro-organisms break down bio-degradable materials in the absence of oxygen. It takes about 10 million years for fossil fuels to form. The fossils we use today come from the dead bodies of plants and animals of the prehistoric world and mass extinction of dinosaurs and other creatures that lived in the Triassic and Jurassic periods, about 200 million years ago. According to the US Department of Energy, “most of the fossil fuels we find today were formed Fossil fuels were formed from plants and animals that lived 300 million years ago in primordial swamps and oceans (top). Over time the plants and animals died and decomposed under tons of rock and ancient seas (middle).
Eventually, many of the seas receded and left dry land with fossil fuels like coal buried underneath it (bottom).
Ten feet of prehistoric plant debris was needed to make one foot of coal.millions of years before the first dinosaurs.” They were formed from prehistoric plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago.
Three hundred million years ago or so, when the surface of the earth was just forming, there were prehistoric swamps, ancient trees, and plants everywhere. There were fish in those swamps that looked very different from what we are used to. The prehistoric animals looked much stranger than
what we see today. There were tiny, single-celled organisms swimming in the oceans, which were much warmer than today. When all these living things died, their bodies became buried with mud and soil. Millions of years of pressure and heat turned them into organic compounds and fossil fuels.
Fossils are hydrocarbon compounds, also known as methane, which is formed when dead animals and plants are buried underground and are exposed to extreme heat and pressure over thousands or even millions of years. The energy of natural gas comes from the sun’s energy which is trapped and stored in the chemical bonding of hydrogen and carbon atoms.
Although we are not exactly sure how much more natural gas we have left, some experts believe that we have around 6000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which will last another 50 years or so, assuming that the rate at which natural gas is being consumed will keep increasing. However, new sources of natural gas can also be found in the future. Natural gas is highly explosive and there are difficulties associated in the transportation process.
Oil, also known as petroleum,was formed when organisms living in the ocean and on the sea-floor died and got buried in the stagnant ocean floors. The setting had to be unusual, because there had to be no organisms to eat the dead bodies, or no oxygen present to break the bodies down. A high sediment rate was also required to produce enough pressure and heat before any decay could take place. The stuff that we use to fill up our cars, gasoline or gas, is about 99% octane, a compound made with hydrogen and carbon chains.
Half of the reserve of the world’s oil is in the Middle East and half is in the United States. Proved reserves of oil in the United States totaled 21.317 billion barrels in 2007. Undiscovered reserves of oil were estimated at 5.5 billion barrels. Total proved and undiscovered oil reserves in the U.S. were estimated to be 166.7 billion barrels. Proved reserves are those amounts of fossil fuels that have been discovered and defined, typically by drilling wells or other exploratory measures. (Source: World and U.S. Fossil Fuel Supplies – Agricultural Marketing Resource Center)The USA uses oil at a much faster rate because we use oil in several other industries, including plastic manufacturing, where crude oil is used not only as a fuel but also as a raw material. Currently, experts speculate that oil will run out by the end of 2070 or so. According to HowStuffWorks, we have about 40 years of uninterrupted supply of oil available, as it stands today. (HowStuffWorks “Have we reached peak oil?”)
Coal is usually formed on land and from the vegetation in low swampy areas. America has more coal in reserve than any other fossil fuel and more than any other county of the world. More than a quarter of all coal of the world is in the United States. According to the Department of Energy, “The United States has more coal that can be mined than the rest of the world has oil that can be pumped from the ground. “Coal is a very labor intensive source of fossil; it is usually found 300 feet below the surface of the earth. We haven’t tapped into all the coal resources buried underground, yet. It is also the most plentiful fossil fuel available.
What if we run out of fossil fuels?
As human civilization progresses, we have come to realize that we need to decrease our dependency on oil and other forms of fossils, and come up with better solutions. We already have an abundant source of energy above us that is the sun. Using less and less non-renewable fossils and more renewable sources can address the energy crisis issues around the world.
At the rate we are using fossils around the world today, we are bound to run out of all reserve resources of non-reusable energy sources, eventually. The demand for cleaner and reusable energy sources are bound to increase as the world population increases and the developing countries of the world start to use more and more energy. With the increasing demand for energy resources, we are approaching the ultimate crisis in terms of oil supply. There is an increasing global awareness to reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we use. If we can find alternative energy sources, it would not matter if we ran out of oil, gas or coal.
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Photo credits: 1. The US Department of Energy