Fossil fuels get a bad rap, and in many cases, it’s deserved. They definitely aren’t the worst thing to happen to humanity, however, and their usage has made much of the modern world possible.
While they’re far from perfect, it always pays off to be educated about the pros and cons of the matter, rather than simply turning it into a black and white mess where one is for or against. They have, and will continue to have, their place and will for quite some time.
So, let’s take an in-depth look at fossil fuels and explore some of the possibilities they might have in the future.
The facts: So what is a fossil fuel?
Crude oil is the first thing which comes to mind for many people when the words fossil fuel are used. It’s a good example, but there are quite a few more with their own places in the economy and within different industries.
- Fuel Oils
- Lubricating Oils
- Paraffin wax
All of these are actually different fractions of crude petroleum, which makes it an extremely useful substance… and for more than just energy. It’s vital to many industries.
Included in this classification we also have natural gas and coal, both of which come from underground sources.
All of these materials are the products of ancient lifeforms after they’ve been exposed to massive amounts of pressure and heat over the course of a long time.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the base building blocks of polymers, that is to say, plastics, are derived from oils. Everyone has something made of plastic, and the material is so common that many would think it’s nearly all-consuming.
It’s not, while bio-plastics are beginning to make an appearance on the market a bit of digging will show you that the vast majority of common items made of plastic are still derived from oil in one way or another.
Most hydrocarbons used in the production of various chemicals and other items are also pulled from crude oil via continued refinement and fractional distillation.
Fossil fuels do much more than just power our world, in many ways they also build it.
The advantage of fossil fuels
Frankly, if there wasn’t much of an advantage to using fossil fuels then you wouldn’t see them dominating the world the way they commonly do.
They come with numerous advantages over virtually every other form of fuel, which has pushed them straight to the top for some time although the longevity of using these fossilized materials is coming into question.
- Efficiency-Ounce for ounce fossil fuels provide more energy than virtually anything else. These concentrated hydrocarbons provide a pretty big bang for the buck, when you think about the small volume of fuel it takes to move a car you’re on the right track.
- Low cost per unit-Due to the ubiquity of fossil fuels, the cost remains quite lower per watt of energy produced, even when the price of oil gets fairly high.
- Existing infrastructure-Since fossil fuels have been used for so long, there is a ton of infrastructure in place to keep things moving. Ships, pipelines, refineries, and other systems have all been designed with crude oil and other fossil fuel products in mind and there has been a lot spent in the R&D of these systems.
- Employment-More than any other form of energy, oil keeps people working. This is primarily due to the large amounts of systems already in place to keep the energy flowing throughout the world.
You might notice that about half of those reasons exist simply because fossil fuels have been leading the pack so long when it comes to energy.
While they provide a lot of energy in a fairly low volume, there are some serious disadvantages to fossil fuels which are only becoming more and more apparent as time goes on.
The disadvantages of fossil fuels
Unfortunately, while we keep using fossil fuels at ever increasing rates, there’s simply no way to excuse the horrendous disadvantages which come with our continuing reliance on this form of energy.
- Environmental implications-More than any form of energy, with the possible exception of nuclear fission systems, there are some serious issues with the environmental impact caused by fossil fuels. In addition to the mining and drilling operations, even a freighter having a small spill can be absolutely disastrous.
- Finite resource-The supply of fossil fuels isn’t growing. It’s not renewable. It will eventually run out and all of the systems in place to transport it are going to be defunct and obsolete. If there’s no solution found before this happens, it’s going to cause a serious energy crisis.
- Carbon release-Since fossil fuels are locked deep inside the earth, their carbon has essentially been removed from the cycle… except for when we combust them in order to create energy. They’re the primary cause of the increasing CO2 levels in our atmosphere, in addition to producing other forms of pollution.
So, we essentially have a highly valuable, extremely efficient energy source… which is going to run out at some point in the future or have its costs reach a level where it’s unaffordable.
In addition to being finite, one could also argue that the manufacture of polymers is a better idea for something which is limited and becoming progressively harder to find as time goes on. It’s a good argument, but with so much infrastructure in place for the transportation and use of oil as an energy source, it’s hard to just give it up.
The time for fossil fuels is running out, that much is obvious, but the question remains: where do we go from here?
Fossil fuels in the future
While there have been recent developments showing that fossil fuels have more staying power than many of the naysayers of the past have predicted, the truth is that the carbon emissions which these fuels emit are going to be disastrous if we continue down this path.
Rising CO2 levels will lead to severe climate change, and the consequences may be extremely dire.
There’s a lot which needs to be done in order to preserve our planet for the foreseeable future, and the reliance on fossil fuels is one thing which definitely must be reduced.
Of course, even the most optimistic projections show that it will take a good amount of time in order to switch over to renewable energy sources like solar and wind, or even to work with some of those which get bad press like nuclear.
What is certain is this: fossil fuels will have to begin being replaced in the energy sector.
Chances are this is going to increase the costs of oil as well since demand will drop and it will take more money to recoup the quite costly investments in the infrastructure required to transport coal and crude oil.
It’s also likely that sooner or later governments are going to step in and make it more and more costly to operate coal and natural gas power plants, most of the proposed regulation stands around putting a price on operations with a net carbon output.
This means recycling oil which is used in machining processes and the like are going to only become more important, as well as being able to recycle the oil which is used in vehicles. A focus shift towards recycling oil is going to be a big thing in the near future, and many companies are already paving the way with impressive technology.
Optimism for the future
While the future sometimes looks quite bleak, with governments unwilling or unable to do their part to stand in the way of climate change, there is a wide variety of new technologies which are constantly improving on the horizon.
Many renewable sources of energy seem to work only intermittently, like solar and wind or require extremely precise environmental positioning, such as geothermal operations, but the combination of all of these may be able to meet the vast majority of energy demands in the years to come.
It’s quite certain that no one is going to be able to “cold turkey” fossil fuels overnight.
Our streetlights are powered by them, our cars run on them, they employ millions around the world, and the materials produced from oil are nearly ubiquitous all over the world.
Instead, a multi-pronged transition is going to be required, where the energy needs of the world’s growing population can be met with cleaner and more sustainable source of energy.
It’s not going to happen overnight, but there are definitely some rays of sun in the seemingly gloomy skies. It’s just going to take time and the willingness to begin the transition in order to make it a reality.The pros and cons of fossil fuels are well studied and crystal clear: we’ve had a great time using them to push our civilization to new heights but it’s time for them to take a backseat and allow the competition to take over if we really want to pave our way to a brighter tomorrow.