Where Do Fossil Fuels Come from?

  • Life on Earth is based on carbon-based organisms. Plants, animals, human beings, we all share the element in more or less complex hydrocarbon compounds that form the basis of life on our planet. When organisms die, their components break down as they decay. Put enough pressure on the process, and compounds begin to settle in a specific order, caught and shifted about by the movement of the Earth's crust. If this process continues for a long period of time, say, millions of years, the result is tightly compressed hydrocarbon compounds in solid, liquid and gaseous forms, buried beneath a million years of sediment. If enough weight settles on top of the lowest layer and enough heat is applied, pure carbon is compressed into the brilliant stone we call a diamond. The layers above may contain more than 1200 types of coal, various densities of petroleum and methane in great "domes" of rock.

  • The Carboniferous Period was the first great flowering of Earth. From 286 to 300 million years ago, the Earth was covered by swamps and tropical forests. Algae flourished and died as the plant life of the planet diversified, adapting to a changing climate. As the swamps filled in, plants kept growing and dying, covered by sand and clay and periodically being showered by astronomical events or volcanism. The decomposing plants formed layers of peat. The great tectonic plates floated on the contracting molten rock of the planet's center, pushing the layers under as they slid over each other or folded to form mountains. As the planet formed, the oldest layers, buried under tons of debris and rock, sank deeper, toward the planet's molten core. By the time of the dinosaurs, about 200 million years later, the water had been squeezed out, forming the great aquifers; underground reservoirs under shale and limestone. Lignite, the first soft coal was forming under the rock.

  • Today, the layer lies far under the surface in many places of the earth and closer in others. Scientists explore the edges of tectonic plates in the ocean floor, in old mountains and along continental shelves, searching for the remains of those first simple life forms that have been compressed by time, hardened by heat and trapped by sediment. The coal, oil and natural gas that they bring to the surface with drills and pumps are called "fossil fuels" because of the impressions that preserved the plants' features as rock formed around their bodies. The layer took millions of years to form but it is finite in depth. Only during the carboniferous period did enough plant life live and die to form this river of carbon under the earth. Some of it is too deep to reach, and much has been removed to refine into fuel for the energy our world uses. Humans have been withdrawing this resource from the "Bank of Earth" for 6,000 years, and alternative fuel sources will need to be developed to continue to fuel the energy needs of the future.

  • Photo Credit Microsoft Office clip art
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