What are fossil fuels? Concept, Uses, Examples and Impact

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  1. What are fossil fuels?
    1. Formation of fossil fuels
  2. Examples of fossil fuels
    1. There are four types of fossil fuels:
    2. Uses and importance of fossil fuels
    3. Environmental impact
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What are fossil fuels?

We explain what fossil fuels are, how they are formed and examples. Uses, importance and the environmental impact they generate.

What are fossil fuels

Fossil fuels are the main source of energy worldwide.

Fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and natural gas, are those that come from the natural decomposition of organic matter (plants, microorganisms, bacteria and algae) after a transformation process that can last more than 600 million years.

They are called non-renewable energies because they are limited natural resources because to be formed they require an extensive period of time and specific conditions. There is no other way to generate them.

Despite this, they are the main source of energy worldwide because of their high calorific value compared to other sources such as wind or solar energy.

Formation of fossil fuels

Fossil fuels are obtained through excavation processes.

Organic matter accumulated over millions of years at the bottom of lakes and seas undergoes various alterations due to increased soil pressure and temperature.

It is then transformed into different types of sedimentary rock or fossils containing concentrated heat.

This results in substances such as oil, coal or natural gas, which can be extracted from the depths of the soil by means of excavation processes. Then, through treatments, they can release that concentrated energy to become fuels.

Examples of fossil fuels

There are four types of fossil fuels:


It is a dark black sedimentary rock, rich in carbon and other chemical elements such as hydrogen, sulphur, oxygen and nitrogen. The extraction of this mineral can be done in two ways: through open pit mining (when coal is less than 60 meters deep) or through underground mining.

Between the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, trains, ships and industrial machinery worked thanks to the energy of this fuel.

Today, despite having been surpassed by oil in terms of its energy capacity, coal is used for the production of plastics and oils, among other uses.

Oil. It

Is an oily liquid composed of carbon and hydrogen (conjunction called "hydrocarbon") that is extracted from a well, between 600 and 5000 meters deep. In order to obtain it, drilling towers are installed that can be located on the land surface or on platforms in the sea.

From oil can be produced plastic, printing inks, rubber for the manufacture of tires, gasoline, among the main of a long list.

Natural gas

It is a mixture of hydrocarbons in a gaseous state, mostly methane and in smaller quantities, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, butane, among others.

It is extracted with drilling towers and, by means of pipes designed to transport gases on a large scale, it is directed to the power stations for subsequent transport by sea.

Natural gas is odorless and colorless, that is, we cannot perceive it with our senses. Therefore, a product with an odor is added to detect it in cases of leakage.

Liquefied petroleum gas

It is composed mainly of butane and propane, gases that are compressed into liquids, and is obtained as a by-product of the oil or natural gas refining process.

It is mainly used as an alternative fuel for gasoline-powered cars. These are adapted to run on both gasoline and liquefied petroleum gas.

In spite of generating less power than gasoline, its differential advantages are the economic price and the lower emission of carbon dioxide.

Uses and importance of fossil fuels

Derivatives from oil and natural gas are used as fuel for automobiles.

Fossil fuels were discovered thousands of years ago. However, it was not until the Industrial Revolution (mid 18th century) that they began to be used on a large scale in transport and machinery.

Today they are the main source of energy for societies because they release a large load of heat, can be transported easily and their cost of production is cheaper compared to other alternative sources. They are used to generate electrical energy and, mainly, mechanical energy (for machinery, automobiles, airplanes, etc.).

They have multiple uses, for example:

  • Residential. Derivatives of petroleum and natural gas can be used in equipment such as water heater, kitchen, carafe, electric generator, among others.
  • Commercial They can be used in a similar way to residential but on a larger scale. For example, in central heating systems.
  • Farming. They are used for equipment that generates hot air in greenhouses, for irrigation pumps, machinery that works the land, among the main ones.
  • Industrial Natural gas is used in production machinery such as ovens, dryers or boilers.
  • Transport. Derivatives from oil and natural gas are used as fuel for automobiles, to facilitate cleaner combustion of engines or as a coolant.

Environmental impact

Oil spills affect marine animals through direct contact.

The process of extracting fossil fuels is detrimental to the environment. The drilling work operates 24 hours a day, interrupting the order of the habitat almost completely. The following problems may occur:

Ecological damage

The increase in vehicle traffic, the deployment of work machinery and the activity of workers are damaging the local fauna.

There have been alterations in the relationship between predators and prey, as well as the interruption of communication between songbirds during the nesting and breeding seasons.


Liquids used during the excavation process are disposed of in parallel pits for further treatment.

However, they are sometimes partially spilled and their long-term impact can cause damage on the ground and affect the health of the inhabitants. Offshore oil spills affect marine animals through direct contact, inhalation and ingestion of liquids.

Changes in the landscape

The construction of roads to move the necessary machinery to the excavation area causes partial or total removal of vegetation and increases soil erosion.

This accelerated wear and tear causes damage that impacts local agriculture: it causes flooding and leads to the loss of nutrient-rich upper layers of sleep among the main problems.

Water and air pollution

Parallel pits used for dumping waste are open wells that may contain wastewater chemicals, petroleum hydrocarbons and other substances that compromise the safety of drinking water.

Explosions of pipes and wells sometimes occur, even though they have been drilled properly. This causes the pollution of aquifers and the air, by the release of methane gas and carbon dioxide that in large quantities are harmful to the atmosphere and the local environment.

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