What are fossil fuels and when will they run out?

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(WETM) – As the COP26 climate summit nears its final day, activists and UN officials continue to urge world leaders to commit to drastic greenhouse gas reductions to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Fossil fuels are almost always the focus of discussions about climate change. The big three we always hear about are oil, coal, and natural gas. But how strongly do fossil fuels permeate our everyday lives, how are they created and how long do they last?

How fossil fuels are made

Fossil fuels are all made from decomposed living material, i.e. – plants and animals. Plants and animals build up carbon and hydrogen in their bodies, which become stored energy when they die.

Over millions of years, this dead material is buried deeper and deeper in the earth’s crust and experiences extremely high levels of heat and pressure.

The Smithsonian explains that the heat begins to break down the molecules of the material. First of all, it becomes “partially modified material” such as peat. Peat made from plants can still be used as fuel, but it doesn’t have as much energy as, for example, full-fledged fossil fuel coal.

Over the course of millions of years, plants eventually turn into coal and animal material, especially plankton, turns into natural gas and oil.

The Department of Energy says coal was created from dead power plants about 300 million years ago, and oil and natural gas are nearly 200 million years old, according to Southeastern Louisiana University.

Where do we get fossil fuels from

Humans have to dig deep into the ground to get fossil fuels.

Coal is usually found in sedimentary rocks (rocks made up of layers of compacted material) in which the decomposed material has been layered for millions of years.

Similarly, oil is also found in sedimentary rocks, originally as a solid between the layers. It is then heated so that it can be extracted.

And natural gas – which consists mainly of methane – is usually found in rock pockets over oil deposits. The dead material needs even higher temperatures than oil to be converted into natural gas.

Are there any other fossil fuels?

You may be wondering whether things like kerosene or propane are also considered fossil fuels.

The short answer: yes.

Kerosene and propane are both made by refining petroleum and natural gas. So yes, they are also non-renewable resources.

This means that fuels like gasoline, diesel, and kerosene are also fossil fuels made from oil.

Oil is ubiquitous in modern daily life; Every petroleum-based product is made from crude oil. It’s used in everything from flammable fuels (as in the examples above) to paints, makeup, fabrics, petroleum jelly, and of course, plastic.

And just think of everything we use every day that contains some form of plastic. This includes the obvious products like toys, food packaging and electronics, but also things like heart valves and tires are made from oil.

How long do fossil fuels last?

As we often hear, coal, natural gas and oil are non-renewable resources. Obviously, while living material dies and is spilled all the time, it is not possible to wait millions of years for more fossil fuels to build up.

So the question remains: when will fossil fuels run out? The answer is not an exact number.

In a 2008 article in the peer-reviewed journal Energy policy, It was predicted that coal, oil and gas would run out in 107, 35 and 37 years, respectively. This prediction means that after 2042, coal would be the only remaining fossil fuel until 2117.

A 2019 publication from Stanford University’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere paints a similar picture. According to MAHB, the world’s oil reserves will be depleted by 2052, natural gas by 2060 and coal by 2090.

The US Energy Information Association said in 2019 that the United States has enough natural gas for 84 years. However, this could change depending on how much is actually produced and the estimated amounts of “technically recoverable resources” change. The TRR comprises the estimated amount of natural gas produced as well as estimates of the amount that is “technically recoverable” on the basis of current technology, “regardless of economic or operational conditions”.

Meanwhile, at COP26, world leaders agree to redouble their efforts to slow the effects of climate change. But there is no doubt that innumerable factors play a role that will influence the course of the earth’s climate in the coming decades.


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