Advantages and Uses of Fossil Fuels

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What enabled the fossil fuel industries to attain such a dominant position in the global energy market in such a short time? The main reason is the fact that fossil fuels constitute excellent energy sources with a very high specific energy. One tonne of oil equivalent equals 42.7 gigajoules, one thousand cubic meters of natural gas approximately 37 gigajoules and one tonne of coal 25 gigajoules. One million tonnes of oil produces about 4.5 terawatt-hours of electricity in a modern power plant. The high energy density of fossil fuels is paired with good combustion characteristics which make oil and natural gas products ideal fuels for specialized combustion systems, such as the spark ignition (Otto) engine and the ignition compression (Diesel) engine. Moreover, many fossil fuels are in the liquid state at ambient temperatures and atmospheric pressure, which allows convenient handling, storage and transportation. Their relatively low cost and good availability are further advantages.

Table 3.1 World primary energy consumption 1965-2003 (in million tonnes of oil equivalent, Mtoe).

Year

Nuclear

Hydroelectricity

Coal

Gas

Oil

1965

0

209.8

1485.8

632.1

1528.3

1966

0

224.5

1511.6

686.4

1644.9

1967

0

230.5

1448.8

733.6

1762.2

1968

11.8

241.6

1513.8

797.9

1911.3

1969

0

256.6

1540.2

875.9

2075

1970

0

268.6

1553.3

923.9

2253.1

1971

24.8

280.4

1538

988.1

2375.4

1972

34.1

293.8

1540.7

1013.6

2554.6

1973

45.7

297

1579

1058.6

2753.6

1974

59.5

324

1592.8

1081.6

2708.6

1975

82.5

328.8

1613.7

1077

2676.7

1976

98

331

1681.6

1138.1

2851.2

1977

121.2

338.7

1726.6

1171.7

2945.5

1978

140

365.2

1744.7

1215.6

3056.8

1979

144.7

383.3

1834.8

1293.5

3104.7

1980

161.1

390

1814.9

1307.1

2975.2

1981

189.4

397.7

1826.2

1322.4

2870.7

1982

207.4

414.2

1863.8

1327

2778.3

1983

233.2

433.6

1917

1340.4

2763

1984

281.7

447.4

2010

1458.6

2814.7

1985

335.4

456.9

2105.7

1584.2

2802.6

1986

361.2

462.6

2136

1522.6

2892

1987

393

470.5

2202.8

1599

2949

1988

428.4

482.1

2252.2

1672.7

3039.1

1989

440.5

482.5

2287.4

1753.9

3087.8

1990

453

498.2

2264.4

1794.5

3140.2

1991

474.9

510.7

2217.7

1829.2

3137.6

1992

478.5

509.2

2202.8

1836.2

3170.4

1993

495.3

537.3

2201.4

1867.8

3140.1

1994

504

541.8

2218.8

1875.6

3199.5

1995

526

570.3

2290.3

1936.6

3245

1996

544.9

580

2340.7

2030.1

3321.3

1997

541.2

588.6

2350.6

2023.4

3395.2

1998

550.5

596.1

2268.8

2058.1

3411.7

1999

571.3

601

2136.7

2107.2

3480.4

2000

584.7

616.3

2174.3

2198.7

3517.5

2001

601

584.7

2243.1

2219.5

3571.1

2002

610.6

592.1

2397.9

2282

3522.5

Fossil fuels are extremely versatile energy sources. They serve a wide diversity of purposes, including transportation, heating, electricity, industrial applications and feedstock for the chemical industry. Crude oil in particular can be separated and processed into a wide range of useful products. Its lightest fractions - consisting mainly of propane and butane - are in the gaseous state at ambient pressure and temperature, but may be liquefied at relatively low pressures. This liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is suitable for a variety of applications: as feedstock for the chemical industry, as a convenient portable fuel for heating and cooking purposes and, increasingly, as automotive fuel. The gasoline fraction, comprising volatile hydrocarbons of low molecular weight which are naturally resistant to spontaneous ignition, turned out to be ideal for knock-free operation in spark-ignition engines. Kerosene, the next heavier fraction, consists of relatively involatile components comprising nine to fourteen carbon atoms. Formerly used as "lamp kerosene" for illumination, it has nowadays become the most important aviation fuel.

Gas oils are more complex molecules of 10 to 22 carbon atoms. Their relative ease of spontaneous ignition renders them suitable for operation in high-speed compression-ignition engines. The most important use for gas oils, however, is domestic and industrial heating. The residual components which cannot undergo distillation without thermal damage to the molecules are referred to as fuel oils. Fuel oils are used in industry and marine transportation. Due to their high viscosity, they require warming prior to transportation and combustion. Any heavy inorganic contaminants present in the parent crude are generally accumulated in this residual fraction. Furthermore, crude oil delivers bitumen for road construction and a large number ofproducts serving as important feedstock for the petrochemical industry.

Natural gas is a more uniform product than crude oil. It is the least carbonaceous of all fossil fuels, an ideal transportation fuel and very clean in combustion. The main disadvantages of gaseous fuels are the difficulties associated with storage and transport. Natural gas can be shipped and marketed as compressed natural gas (CNG) or as a cryogenic liquid (liquid natural gas, LNG). Liquefaction is achieved by cooling the gas to produce a low-viscosity liquid with a boiling point of about -160 °C at atmospheric pressure. Expensive infrastructure requirements also represent the main drawbacks for the widespread use of natural gas as an automotive fuel.

The term "coal" is used for a very broad and divergent group of solid fossil fuels. The most important market for coal is power generation. More than 60% of coal production is used for power generation worldwide. With a share of 38%, coal is the most important energy source in power generation by far [6]. Coals have the highest carbon content of all fossil fuels. Consequently, they produce more CO2 upon combustion and have a lower energy content. The solid nature of coal makes it less convenient for transportation and storage. On the other hand, the abundant presence of easily accessible coal reserves in many parts of the world guarantees that coal will remain one of the most important energy f sources worldwide.

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