Fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas, are energy sources derived from the remains of decomposed ancient plant and animal bodies. It takes millions of years for fossil fuels to form, under conditions of intense pressure and heat.
The same process that stores energy in the living plants that we eat is responsible for the stored energy in fossil fuels. The difference is our bodies derive energy from fresh plants whereas the energy stored in fossil fuels comes from plants that lived a very long time ago. Plants generate energy from sunlight through a process called photosynthesis. That's how the energy in your vegetables is captured and that's how energy originally became stored in fossil fuels.
Photosynthesis involves using the energy contained in sunlight to produce chemical energy. The pigment in plants (which is primarily chlorophyll) promotes the absorption of light (with the exception of green light, which chlorophyll reflects). Light energy is harvested by the part of the chlorophyll referred to as the antennae. Plants use this captured solar energy to drive a chemical reaction that produces ATP molecules. ATP is an energy carrier molecule. In plants it is used to fuel the production of sugar molecules from carbon dioxide and water. Sugar is the energy storage molecule of plants. Energy is stored in the bonds that link the carbon, from carbon dioxide, to water, forming carbohydrates.
The three types of fossil fuels used to fuel modern industry are coal, oil, and natural gas. The energy contained in these fuels comes mainly from the energy reserves produced by phytoplankton and zooplankton, which were the majority life forms in Earth's earlier days. We are essentially using the solar energy captured by the photosynthesis process carried out by these prehistoric plants, millions of years ago, to heat our homes, run our cars, and meet other industrial energy needs today.
The exact process of how these ancient life forms were transformed into the substances we refer to as fossil fuels is not known for certain. All that can be said for sure is that heat and pressure were involved in the process. Over time silt and mud mixed with the organic remains of the early plant and animal life forms. Some time later, mineral sedimentation formed layers on top of this mixture. The increase in temperature and pressure these conditions imposed on the organic compost buried underneath caused the organic material to break down into the simpler formed hydrocarbons we recognize as fossil fuels.
The energy contained in fossil fuels is released by burning them--a process referred to as combustion. When a fossil fuel is burned, it initiates a reaction that breaks apart the hydrocarbon chemical bonds that holds the stored energy. It is comparable to the process our bodies perform to release the energy contained in the foods we eat.
- Photo Credit oil well image by michael langley from Fotolia.com
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