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We depend too much on fossil fuels, we always hear that, but we really know what are fossil fuels? They are at the center of debates on environmental sustainability and more, including economic and health ones. In contrast to them, we have seen the alternative energies and we are witnessing a struggle for prevalence that seems to be between "good" and "evil". It's not all that simple by observing what are fossil fuels we'll find out why.
What are fossil fuels
Many think this term is a synonym for Petroleum when it comes to a much larger category of energy resources that still keep our lives “burning”.
By definition i fossil fuels they are "energy sources that are formed following the anaerobic decomposition (in the absence of oxygen) of living matter that contains energy as a result of an ancient process of photosynthesis". The organisms referred to existed in most cases hundreds of millions of years ago, even at the time of one of the most important glaciations ever in the history of the Earth, 650 million years ago.
In fossil fuels we always find high percentages of carbon, the energy that is obtained from them is in their chemical bonds. In addition to oil, fossil fuels can come in other forms such as coal and natural gas, but there are many other compound examples of hydrocarbons that could be made, with less high-sounding names.
Fossil fuels: types
There are differences to be made, we can divide oil and natural gas from carbon and methane because they have different origins and therefore also different characteristics. The first, oil and natural gas, are the result of the decomposition process of organisms that have inhabited the Earth. Millions and millions of years ago, large quantities of phytoplankton and zooplankton settled on the bottom of oceans and lakes, mixing with the previously present mud. Over time they remained buried on the seabed and due to the heat of the Earth as well as the pressures from the center of the earth, these substances have undergone alterations to their chemical composition, forming carbon compounds.
With the coal and methane instead we stay with our feet on the ground because they are the result of the decomposition of terrestrial plants. In this case everything originates from dead plants that over time were covered by sediment during the Carboniferous period. Centuries and centuries later they became solid forming large expanses of coal or, alternatively, they were converted into gas, forming methane.
What are fossil fuels for
Humanity has been using fossil fuels for several years, some more than others. Let's start from coal, since ancient times used in furnaces where metal minerals were melted. L'oil for many centuries it has powered lamps for public lighting, tar and other semi-solid fossil fuels have been used for waterproofing also in the naval and port sector as well as for embalming.
There was a turning point during the First Industrial Revolution (18th - 19th century), when we started using oil and coal for steam engines, thus making them more and more essential. With the Second Industrial Revolution (between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), there was a second important step in which fossil fuels became essential for activating electric generators.
With the arrival of the internal combustion engine and its use in cars, i fossil fuels they have become even more important and at the same time tar has become essential for building roads and highways.
Fossil fuels and climate change
It is not new that during the combustion of coal and oil pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals. Today it is widely proven that they are all harmful substances for our health. Despite efforts to convert to alternative energy, fossil fuels remain prevalent among energy sources almost everywhere and are the largest source of CO2 emissions worldwide. CO2 means greenhouse effect and, therefore climate change.
It is necessary to do more and quickly, to change the situation but the turning point is not easy and immediate, also because we can well imagine the economic interests that each single energy choice affects. Today the way forward is clear but it is not easy to pursue it. It is necessary to exploit the potential of others more and more and better natural elements like water, air and the sun to produce energy.
Fortunately, with the continuous technological progress, many devices arrive on the plate to use renewable energy sources without being penalized from an economic point of view, on the contrary, in some cases there are also incentives. The wind turbines, hydroelectric power plants and photovoltaic panels.
In the meantime, research on biological fuels is also giving excellent results and already several applications. The necessary turning point, to get away from the hegemony of fossil fuels, it does not only concern multinationals or governments: today we too are called in our small way and can choose.