What Are Fossil Fuels

The term "fossil fuels" encompasses a spectrum of mineral organic compounds extracted from the earth. These are outlined in Table 1.1. They range from solids to liquids and gases. They include coal, petroleum, shale oil, tar sands and natural gas. Each of the generic names describes a group of materials, often with widely differing properties. Coal is always a solid. It can be hard or soft and high or low in ash or sulfur. Many coals contain highly toxic mercury, selenium, arsenic and beryllium. Petroleum is always a liquid. Its appearance ranges from a straw colored fluid similar to motor oil to a black tar-like material that must be heated before it will flow. Oil always contains some sulfur but the concentration range can be very wide. Shale oil and tar sands are liquid petroleum absorbed in rock or sand. Shale oil and tar sand oil usually have low sulfur content. Gas has various amounts of methane, ethane, ethylene, propane, propylene, butane, 1-butene, 2-butene, isobutane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, helium and nitrogen. Some gas contains such a large portion of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and helium it is hardly a fuel. Some gas is useless because it has a high concentration of toxic hydrogen sulfide. The common thread is all fossil fuels contain hydrogen and carbon that react with oxygen from the air to release energy. When a specific type is discussed, the appropriate common name will be used.

All fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide, a green house gas, when burned. When there is insufficient air all fossil fuels produce highly toxic carbon monoxide.

Fuel

Form

Formula

Color

Contaminants

Coal

Anthracite

hard solid

CHo.oi to CHo.2

shiny black

As, Se, Hg, S, Be, Ash

Bituminous

solid

CHo.3 to CHo,6

brownish black

As, Se, Hg, S, Be, Ash

Lignite

soft solid

CHo 7 to CHi 2

dark brown

As, se, Hg, S, Be, Ash

Oil

Petroleum

liquid

CH, 3 to CH, 8

tan to black

S

Oil shale

rock

CH, s to CHl8

tan

Tar sand

sand

CH!, to CH, 8

black

S

Natural gas

Natural gas

gas

CH2 5 to CH4

colorless

S

Bottled gas

Pressurized liquid

C3H8 Propane C4Hio Butane

colorless

Table 1.1 Fossil Fuels

Contaminants: As = arsenic, Se = selenium, Hg = mercury, S = sulfur, Be = beryllium, Ash is similar to powdered rock.

Contaminants: As = arsenic, Se = selenium, Hg = mercury, S = sulfur, Be = beryllium, Ash is similar to powdered rock.

Guide to Alternative Fuels

Guide to Alternative Fuels

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