Renewable and Non-renewable Fuels

An Oil Refinery

All life on earth gets its energy from the sun. Plants and animals can store energy and some of this energy remains with them when they die. It is the remains of these ancient animals and plants that make up fossil fuels.

Energy resources

Fossil fuels are non-renewable energy resources and will one day run out and we can’t replace them. Burning fossil fuels generates polluting  greenhouse gases and we mustn’t continue to rely on them to make the energy we need.

Renewable or infinite energy resources are sources of energy that can be used again and again.

Some resources can be thought of as both renewable and non-renewable.

  • Wood can be used for fuel and is renewable if trees are replanted.
  • Biomass, which is material from living things, can be renewable if plants  – like sugar cane – are replanted.

Over the last 200 years most of our energy has come from non-renewable sources such as oil and coal.

Non-renewable energy resources

Type of fuel Where it is from

Coal (fossil fuel)
  • Formed from fossilised plants.
  • Mined from seams andwiched between layers of rock in the earth.
  • Burnt to provide heat or electricity.
  • Ready-made fuel.
  • It is relatively cheap to mine and to convert into energy.
  • Coal supplies will last longer than oil or gas.
  • When burnt it gives off poisonous gases, including greenhouse gases.
Oil (fossil fuel)
  • A carbon-based liquid formed from fossilised animals.
  • Lakes of oil are sandwiched between seams of rock in the earth.
  • Pipes are sunk down to the reservoirs to pump the oil out.
  • Widely used in industry and transport.
  • Oil is a ready-made fuel.
  • Relatively cheap to extract and to convert into energy.
  • When burnt it gives off poisonous gases, including greenhouse gases.
  • Only a limited supply (ther isn’t very much of it available).
Natural gas (fossil fuel)
  • Methane and some other gases trapped between seams of rock under the earth’s surface.
  • Pipes are sunk into the ground to release the gas.
  • Often used in houses for heating and cooking.
  • Gas is a ready-made fuel.
  • It is a relatively cheap form of energy.
  • It’s a slightly cleaner fuel than coal and oil.
  • When burnt it gives off poisonous gases, including greenhouse gases.
  • Only limited supply of gas.
Nuclear
  • Radioactive minerals such as uranium are mined.
  • Electricity is generated from the energy that is released when the atoms of these minerals are split (fission) or joined together (fusion) in nuclear reactors.
  • A small amount of radioactive material produces a lot of energy.
  • Raw materials are cheap and can last quite a long time.
  • It doesn’t give off atmospheric pollutants.
  • Nuclear reactors are expensive to run.
  • Nuclear waste is very poisonous, and needs to be safely stored for hundereds or thousands of years (storage is extremely expensive).
  • Leakage of nuclear materials is very dangerous. The worst nuclear reactor accident was at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986.
Biomass
  • Biomass energy is generated from decaying plant or animal waste.
  • It can also be an organic material which is burnt to provide energy, e.g heat, or electricity.
  • An example of biomass energy is oilseed rape (yellow flowers you see in the UK in summer), which produces oil.
  • After treatment with chemicals it can be used as a fuel in diesel engines.
  • It is a cheap and readily available source of energy.
  • If the crops are replaced, biomass can be a long-term, sustainable energy source (it can be kept going for a long time).
  • When burnt it gives off poisonous gases, including greenhouse gases.
  • If crops are not replanted, biomass is a non-renewable resource.
Wood
  • Obtained from cutting down trees, burnt to generate heat and light.
  • A cheap and readily available source of energy.
  • If the trees are replaced, wood burning can be a long-term energy source.
  • When burnt it gives off poisonous gases, including greenhouse gases.
  • If trees are not replanted wood is a non-renewable resource.

How long will fossil fuels last?

If we all continue to burn fuels “like there’s no tomorrow”, oil and gas reserves may run out within our lifetimes. Coal is expected to last a little bit  longer.

Estimated length of time left for fossil fuels

Fossil fuel Time left
Oil 50 years
Natural gas 70 years
Coal 250 years
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