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4 Types of Fossil Fuels (Plus Interesting Facts)

Fossil fuel power plant during sunset.

The oil and coal that we heavily depend on today took some time to develop. In fact, they started forming in the Carboniferous Period or even before dinosaurs existed. However, should today’s rate of fossil fuels consumption go up in even just 55 percent, we could completely run out of oil and coal in just less than 100 years.

The silver lining in the cloud is that humans have become more efficient in harnessing the energy from fossil fuels. Now we can harness about 60% of the heat from natural gas and get 21 gallons of gasoline from a 42-gallon barrel of crude oil.

Basic Types of Fossil Fuels


Man holding a bunch of coals in different sizes.

When you consider the main types of fossil fuels, you’ll learn that coal is the only one that is still in a solid-state. It comes in chunks of black rock, and it is harvested from the earth by workers in mines. There are five different elements found in coal: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and hydrogen.

The distributions of each of these in a typical piece of coal vary depending on the piece of coal itself. In fact, when you consider all of the components that make up coal, you’ll see that there are actually three different types of coal.

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Anthracite coal is the one that is highest in energy, and it is also harder and has a higher distribution of carbon than the other two varieties. The two remaining types, bituminous and lignite, don’t have quite the same amount of energy as anthracite coal does, but they are still very useful.

One of the two remaining types of coal, lignite, is high in hydrogen and oxygen rather than carbon, while the third type, bituminous, enjoys a happy medium between these two extremes. As far as how it is used, coal is quite dynamic.

Depending on what you’re reading, you can find coal listed under tasks such as “electrical utilities,” “electricity generation,” or even in much smaller, more specific categories. In homes and businesses today, coal is used for producing cement and steel, keeping the lights on in homes and offices, and much more.

Natural Gas

Natural gas of a stove with a blue flame.

Each fossil fuel occurs in a different chemical state, and although coal is a solid and oil is a liquid, natural gas is, naturally, a gas. Natural gas is made up mostly of methane and is incredibly lightweight, as well as very flammable.

In the United States, natural gas is used mainly as a way to heat homes and power air conditioners, fuel stoves, and other cooking appliances. Quite often, when mining operations result in locating a petroleum reserve, a source of natural gas is also located. Petroleum and natural gas tend to be located close to one another, which makes the harvesting and mining of these resources a very efficient process in the end.

Unlike oil, however, which is pumped from the ground using massive oil rigs, natural gas is channeled into a pipeline. The pipelines take the natural gas to storage facilities, where it later makes its way to your home to meet your energy needs.

People using natural gas for cooking purposes often claim that they notice a smell associated with it; however, when mined from beneath the surface of the earth, natural gas is actually odorless, although smells can be added later on in order to alert people to leaks.


Crude oil flowing from a hose.

Oil is also called petroleum and is undoubtedly the form of fossil fuel most often discussed. This is an ancient fossil fuel – although it is unclear how ancient it really is – that has been around, according to many experts, for over 300 million years.

Oil has a history of being a convenient and very efficient type of fuel, and it has been used by numerous societies for a variety of tasks. For example, Native Americans used petroleum to treat wood and waterproof canoes, while the Sumerians used it to invent asphalt.

Although many people think of oil as the fuel that is pumped into their vehicles at gas stations, this is only part of the equation. Refined gasoline is not what is found in oil wells in the ground. In fact, crude oil is a type of petroleum that occurs naturally.

In the United States, crude oil is purchased from many different areas, with most of it coming from the Middle East. Because of this fact, many people are questioning the country’s reliance on fossil fuels because of the various wars that have been waged in that part of the world over concerns about oil.

When crude oil arrives in the United States, it is always taken to refineries, where it is processed into fuel that is actually usable. Each gallon of crude oil can result in many types of oil substances that are then used for various applications.

In fact, less than half of the average barrel of oil is refined into gasoline, which is the type of petroleum used to fuel most vehicles. The rest of the oil is refined and then used for jet fuel, lubricants, asphalt, kerosene, and more. These are just a few examples of how versatile oil is nowadays.


Although unfamiliar to most people, Orimulsion has been called the fourth fossil fuel since the mid-1980s. Derived from the bitumen naturally occurring in huge reserves in the Orinoco oil belt region of Venezuela, some experts have estimated that there are more than 1.2 trillion barrels of bitumen in reserve, which is more than 50 percent of the estimated oil reserves on the planet.

Many experts consider Orimulsion a very viable source of fuel for power generation. In fact, in many countries, Orimulsion is used in power plants as a fuel for commercial boilers. Some of these countries include Denmark, Canada, Italy, Japan, China, and Lithuania. Orimulsion is very efficient as well as cost-effective, especially when compared to other types of fossil fuels now used for the generation of electricity.

Orimulsion is bitumen-based and has been developed mostly for industrial use, and it offers many advantages over other types of fossil fuels. These advantages include the following:

  • There are very large reserves of bitumen available for use.
  • Its price is very competitive, especially with regards to internationally traded coal.
  • It is safe and easy to transport, produce, handle, and store.
  • It can be used in power stations that are designed to run on either coal or heavy fuel oil, provided that it is modified correctly.
  • It is easy to ignite, with very good combustion characteristics.

The Advantages of Using Fossil Fuels

Fossil Fuels Are Readily Available

There are still plenty of fossil fuels available, even though we have used tons of them in the past. Right now, there are plenty of people gathering oil and coal from everywhere in the world that has a large supply of fossil fuels, and they use equipment that is specially designed to extract fossil fuels.

Therefore, since a lot of time, money, and effort has already been invested in using and procuring fossil fuels, it simply makes sense to continue to use them.

Fossil Fuels Are Very Efficient

Contrary to what many people believe, the use of fossil fuels is very efficient. What this means is that fossil fuels can generate large amounts of energy, even if society simply uses a very small amount of oil or coal.

In fact, so far it has been found that petroleum is the most efficient fuel for operating cars. Nothing else on the planet, including all renewable energies, comes close to generating the amount of energy generated by fossil fuels.

Fossil Fuels Generate Tons of Jobs

Factory workers of a fossil fuel power plant in blue uniforms.

There is no doubt in experts’ minds that fossil fuels generate thousands of jobs every single year. If the use of fossil fuels was abandoned, a lot of people would be jobless, and this could seriously affect the economy both in the United States and in the rest of the world.

Fossil Fuels Are Easy to Find

This is another area that many people get wrong, because fossil fuels are, in fact, very easy to find. Fossil fuels can be found in every corner of the world, and they are mostly found deep inside the earth in very rich veins.

This means that once society commits to getting gas or coal out of the ground or out from under the sea, it is guaranteed, and a lot of resources can be found in just one area. Fossil fuels can be found all over the world, and in theory, at least, this means that all countries should be able to share in the use of fossil fuels.

Fossil Fuels Are Easy to Set Up

Renewable energy sources are finite and are dependent on the wind, sun, and water, but fossil fuels are widely available. A fossil fuel plant can be set up virtually anywhere in the world, provided that it has tons of fuel to generate its power. At every location, these plants are capable of generating a large amount of energy from just one plant.

Fossil Fuels Are Easy to Transport

Energy sources such as the sun, wind, and water cannot be transported into different areas, but that is not the case with fossil fuels. All that needs to be done is to have pipes created and laid under the ground, and this is both safe and simple.

In fact, companies can transport gas or oil with ease, and although the set-up can be a little pricey in the beginning, the operating costs decrease drastically once everything is up and running. In addition, using pipes to transport gas and oil is a cheap and efficient way to utilize these fuels.

The Disadvantages of Using Fossil Fuels

Fossil Fuels Cause Public Health Issues

Put simply, fossil fuels are not environmentally friendly in the least. When fossil fuels are burned, intense pollution results and causes very serious concerns for the environment. Each year, millions of children die due to diseases related to pollution, and it is estimated that seven million premature deaths occur annually due to pollution of the air.

Air pollution can cause everything from asthma to lung diseases, and if you live in an area that has a lot of traffic, you are at an especially high risk of contracting these pollution-related illnesses.

Fossil Fuels Can Cause Oil Spills

A terrible oil spill on a sea.

Because they are so damaging to the environment, creating and using fossil fuels can cause oil spills, which wreaks havoc on the environment and puts people in danger. Using large tankers to carry oil from one place to another, which is both risky and expensive, can sometimes result in the trucks crashing and spilling their contents into the sea and even on nearby coasts.

Check our article “8 Different Types of Air Pollution” to learn more about our environment.

This is a true disaster, both for the land and sea and for the animals that live there. Birds get coated in the oil and are unable to fly, fish can choke on the oil, and animals such as penguins and seals can ingest the oil when trying to clean it off of themselves. Oil spills don’t happen every day, but when they do, hundreds or even thousands of animals are killed.

Fossil Fuels Can Damage Workers’ Health

Coal miners spend a lot of time in mines, which can be extremely dangerous. The dust coats everyone who goes into a mine to get coal, and this dust can also be ingested and seriously compromise the health of these workers. Both drilling and mining for oil can cost hundreds of lives every year, which means a safer energy source is many people’s preferences when it comes to finding fuels for the future.

Fossil Fuels Use Tons of Reserves

The power generated from fossil fuels comes from power stations, which is where coal is burned and energy is generated. However, in order for the station to continue working, they need large amounts of coal brought in every single day.

Having trainloads and truckloads of fuel shipped to these power stations every day is the only way for hospitals, houses, and shops to continue using these stations which are fueled by fossil fuels.

What this means is simple: if power stations are built close to large coal deposits or the coal has to be shipped miles away to the nearest power station, it is going to require even more power and will end up destroying the earth even more. Generating electricity this way can also be very expensive, and the prices are likely to continue rising as the fuel shortage gets worse.

Fossil Fuels Wreak Havoc on the Environment

Smoke coming from an oil factory.

This is perhaps the main disadvantage of using fossil fuels, and the detriment comes mainly from the pollution that results as a direct result of the burning of fossil fuels.

Scientists all over the world have documented the negative effects of burning fossil fuels, and the damages start when carbon dioxide is released into the air every time fossil fuels are burned. This has been linked directly to global warming, and it makes the use of fossil fuels extremely dangerous to the health of the planet.

Fossil Fuels Are a Finite Energy Source

Unlike water, sunlight, and wind, fossil fuels are a finite energy source. In other words, they cannot be renewed. This is because the amount of fossil fuels in the earth’s crust is all we are going to get – unless several hundred million years pass by and more organic matter decomposes and decays.

Therefore, once the coal, gas, and petroleum reserves are completely depleted, there will be no more left. Of course, this also means that people won’t be able to use their vehicles anymore since no one has come up with a better way to keep vehicles running. In fact, a lot of things will be impossible once the earth runs out of fossil fuels, and regardless of what many people think, this is absolutely inevitable.

Fossil Fuels Continue to Be Expensive

A few dollars on a fuel container.

Nowadays, a few countries in the Middle East control roughly 40 percent of the oil production for the entire world. The rest of the world depends on these countries to control supply and demand in their own countries.

But things such as trade union strikes, low output, and fear of war, which are all continuously present, cause fuel prices to fluctuate on a daily basis, and since the price of fossil fuels keeps going up, so will the costs associated with driving cars, heating homes, and much more.

Regardless of what happens, one thing is certain – the price of fossil fuels is never going to go down by huge amounts, and in fact, it is all but guaranteed to continue to rise in the future.

Interesting Facts about Fossil Fuels

A petroleum factory releasing smoke.

1. Fossil Fuels Are Extremely Old

No one knows exactly how old oil, natural gas, and coal are, but most experts estimate that they have been around for millions of years. It takes millions of years for organic matter to compress enough to turn into fossil fuels, so the oil and coal being used today are extremely old. This means that the fossil fuels we are using nowadays could possibly have been here when dinosaurs roamed the planet.

2. Fossil Fuels Can Be Used Efficiently

At one time, the processes used to harness energy from fossil fuels was very inefficient, but nowadays that has changed. It is now possible to harness roughly 60 percent of the heat that results from natural gas and convert it into electricity.

In fact, it is even possible to utilize 21 gallons of gasoline from a 42-gallon barrel of crude oil, as compared to only the 11 gallons that were possible not too long ago. Fossil fuels are being used more efficiently than ever before, and it is predicted they will continue to be used even more efficiently in the future.

3. Fossil Fuels Have Many Different Qualities

Depending on how it was formed, coal has differing amounts of carbon levels, and high carbon content is always better than a low one. Longer compression times result in higher amounts of carbon, and anthracite coal is roughly 95 percent carbon because of how long it takes to produce.

By contrast, lignite, another form of coal, is only composed of about 25 percent coal. If more anthracite coal is used, society can enjoy higher carbon levels, which is what most experts agree should be the goal.

4. Oil Shale Is Changing Things

When it comes to fossil fuels, oil shale is one of the most untapped resources available and could be beneficial to the planet in the future. It can be found in every corner of the world, and it is estimated that this shale is a thousand times greater than the crude oil currently being used as a global resource.

Although oil shale has never been heated or burned enough to produce any type of fossil fuel, it is showing a lot of potentials and could conceivably expand the amount of oil that is used and delay the need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

5. Fossil Fuels Are Found in Many Plastics

Yes, fossil fuels are used mostly for the creation of energy, but a variety of products also use fossil fuels when being developed. Anything that has plastic components in it could potentially be made from fossil fuels, including water bottles, which are made with coal or oil extracted from the crust of the earth and then modified to create plastic.

6. Fossil Fuels Are Found in a Variety of Other Products as Well

All fossil fuels can be made into various types of energy; for instance, coal can create electricity, oil can help create products like gasoline for heating and transportation, and natural gas can be used for both combustion energy and heating.

In fact, fossil fuels are so versatile that many people use this resource in their everyday lives in some form or another without even realizing it, and that is not likely to cease any time soon.

7. There Is Still a Lot to Learn about Fossil Fuels

Thanks to what we are learning today, future generations will be able to enjoy a cleaner and more efficient environment. Although there is still a lot to learn about fossil fuels, the future looks promising because their effects on the environment are continuously teaching us things not known about these fuels just a few years ago.

The benefits of more efficient industrial processes are likely to affect the use of fossil fuels and their effect on the environment, and so far what we have learned – that fossil fuels are more efficient than we once thought – gives us a promising glimpse into the future when it comes to fossil fuels.