This is the story of how the sun turned inanimate materials on Earth into energy for humans, for whom energy is power.
Millions of years ago, the sun emitted particles and waves in the form of radiation. Radiation is “…energy…emitted by one body, transmitted through an intervening medium or space, and absorbed by another body.” (3) The sun transmitted particles and waves through space toward Earth.
The Earth absorbed the sun’s radiation in the form of light energy. This light energy was photosynthesized by the green leaves of plants to make carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are “any of a class of organic compounds…that form the supporting tissues of plants….” and “contain carbon….” (3) Thus through the process of photosynthesis, plants manufactured sugars rich in carbon.
Carbon produced by plants moved from place to place through various natural processes. Among these processes included animals feeding on plants. (1)
When animals and plants died, carbon remained in their tissues. (1) The leaves of dead plants fell to the ground, one atop another. Over time the leaves formed layers of carbon, and some carbon layers were buried in deep sediments of rock. (2)
The remains of dead marine animals and plants fell to the bottoms of seas. Over time these remains also formed layers of carbon. Some of these carbon layers were covered by mud, and “as the mud sediment was buried by more sediment, it started to change into rock as the temperature and pressure increased.” (1)
In both land and sea carbon-layering scenarios, pressure and time chemically altered the plant and animal remains, changing them from carbon rich tissues into fossil fuels. (1) A fossil fuel is “any combustible organic material…derived from the remains of former life.” (3) Thus for hundreds of thousands of years fossil fuels accumulated in impermeable rock. (1)
Nonrenewable Energy Sources
Since the beginning of humankind, most of our energy had been obtained by burning wood. However, we discovered we can drill down through impermeable rock, extract fossil fuels, and transform them into usable products. (1)
Coal, a solid fossil fuel, “formed from dead trees and other plant material.” (1) “While coal had been used as a fuel resource since 1000 B.C [sic], it wasn’t until the arrival of the Industrial Revolution that coal began to replace wood biomass as [a] primary source of energy.” (2)
“Crude oil and gas were formed from dead marine organisms.” (1) While natural gas had been used as a fuel source since at least 2000 B.C., it wasn’t until the early 1800s that natural gas was commercialized for consumers (4); crude oil, the mid 1800s. (5)
Fossil fuels like coal, crude oil, and natural gas are nonrenewable, finite resources. “They took a very long time to form and we are using them up faster than they can be replaced…Fossil fuels are also…no longer being made or are being made extremely slowly.” (1)
Electricity, Heat, and Petroleum
Today, we extract coal, oil, and natural gas to provide energy for a world population that exceeds seven billion people. (2) These fossil fuels are burned “to produce electricity, or [refined]…for use as fuel for heating or transportation.” (6) Most notably, as of April 2020 “coal is the largest domestically produced source of energy in America and is used to generate a significant amount of [the] nation’s electricity.” (6)
Sun radiation provided plants with light energy to grow and feed animals. As plants and animals died over time, the carbon in their remains transformed into fossil fuels. Fossil fuels were extracted as nonrenewable energy sources. Today, we continue burning finite, nonrenewable sources to power our demand for energy.
1 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
2 Carleton College Science Education Resource Center
4 Encyclopedia Britannica
6 United States Department of Energy