Alt fossil fuels?

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Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, are high in carbon and hydrocarbon content and release carbon dioxide when burned, contributing to rising surface temperatures. Alternative fossil fuels, like tar sands and liquid coal, offer new sources of energy and reduced fuel costs, but have environmental impacts and require significant investment. Heavy oil and liquid coal release more carbon dioxide during production and can contaminate water supplies and habitats.

Fossil fuels are natural resources that are created by the long-term decay of dead organisms and are burned for energy. This type of fuel is typically characterized by a high carbon and hydrocarbon content. Coal, oil and natural gas account for the majority of fossil fuels used globally. The burning of fossil fuels releases a byproduct of carbon dioxide into the air, known as greenhouse gases, which are suspected to cause surface temperatures on Earth to rise. Fossil fuels are a dwindling commodity and in high demand; for example, more than 85% of the energy used by the United States comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. Alternative fossil fuels are also carbon-based forms of fuel, but they are obtained from different resources, such as tar sands and the conversion of coal to liquid. Alternative fuels have the same ability to produce energy through combustion, but may be more readily available.

The most common alternative fossil fuels can be tar sands, also known as heavy oil, and liquid coal. Heavy oil or tar sands are a mixture of sand, clay and oil. It undergoes a heating process, raising the internal temperature enough to separate the different components of the mixture. The refinery then extracts the oil, commonly known in industry as light crude. Coal-to-liquids is a liquefaction process that transforms coal into a product similar in use to light crude oil. South Africa is home to one of the largest liquid coal refining industries in the world and can fuel up to 30% of its petrol needs using this alternative fossil fuel. Coal liquids have the added benefit of not producing as much carbon dioxide as traditional oil.

One benefit of alternative fossil fuels may be reduced fuel costs. One disadvantage of fossil fuels is that resources are limited and take many thousands of years to regenerate. Global energy costs continue to rise as the existing supply of fossil fuels steadily declines. Alternative fossil fuels can offer new sources for similar types of energy and are available in many countries that may not have domestic sources for light crude oil or coal. In addition, countries with large coal deposits could turn their natural resources into an alternative coal-to-liquid fossil fuel, which could reduce the cost of importing and using energy. Similarly, countries that lack access to light crude but have large deposits of heavy oil could invest in refining technology and turn that heavy oil into usable light crude.

The impact that these fuels have on the environment and the high initial investment costs required may represent the major disadvantages of switching from conventional to alternative fossil fuels. Heavy oil and liquid coal release 20% to 50% more carbon dioxide into the air during production than conventional oil and coal during actual use. Heavy oil extraction and refining can also pose a threat of contamination to local water supplies and can also have the potential for massive disturbance of existing habitats. It also typically requires a major financial investment to establish the equipment to extract and refine heavy oil from natural deposits to make it usable by petroleum- and gasoline-powered machinery. Unlike light crude, heavy oil does not rise above the ground in a form that is immediately usable by producers.

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