Hydrocarbon fuels are used to create and power almost everything we use – from our reading glasses to powering entire buildings, these fuels are at the source! However, attempts are being made to move away from these fuels. Do we still need them? Find out…
The fuel you use to fill up your car was created millions of years ago, before and during the time that dinosaurs roamed the earth. Petroleum, which is oil and natural gas, was formed from plankton in the sea, where they died and sank to the bottom. Debris settled over the plankton matter, and chemical reactions took place between the different materials before finally forming two substances: kerogen and bitumen. Kerogen became hydrocarbons as it sunk deeper and deeper because it was exposed to great heat and pressure. This is what we know to be crude oil.
Coal, also an important hydrocarbon fuel, was formed from plants, usually those in bogs and swamps, which stored solar energy in their leaves using photosynthesis. When the plants died, their matter sunk to the bottom of those wet areas, where they partially decayed and turned into peat. Over time, other materials settled and covered the peat. With more time and lots of heat and pressure, the peat hardened and became the coal we know and use today.
Since its discovery more than four thousand years ago, these fuels have changed the world. Its first uses can be traced back to the time of Herodotus of Greece, and China was using petroleum as fuel as early as the fourth century BCE. By the Middle Ages, coal was used in forges for metalworking, in lime-burners and even in breweries! These fuels played a significant role in the Industrial Revolution as well, spurring on mechanical and technological advancements, and even today continue to hold a key position in social, economic and developmental progress.
Hydrocarbons are the most broadly used organic compounds on the planet and are being used in a variety of different ways – some of which the layman isn’t even aware of! Here are a few…
Hydrocarbon fuels still make up about 86% of the world’s energy supply, which is roughly the same as it was in 1997. 22 Years later, and these fuels are still the primary source of energy, despite the growing use and development of renewables. Why is this so? Because these fuels are good at what they do! Most industries still rely on these fuels to provide power, heat and energy because they are efficient, effective, and readily available.
A major user of hydrocarbon fuels is the transportation industry. This includes everything from the taxis we use to and from work, UBER rides we take home after a night on the town, buses that move crowds of people from place to place, ferries that transport people over short distances of water, and of course our own private vehicles. Advances are being made in this sector to introduce greener modes of transport – Ugandan-based company Kiira Motors introduced a solar-powered electric bus, the first of its kind in East Africa, as well as the first hybrid vehicle to ever roam the plains of Africa, the Kiira Smack; Tesla is also making waves in this area with their renowned Tesla electric, self-driving vehicles. While these inventions are making great green strides, they are far from being practical at this point: high costs, limited availability, and issues with charging the vehicles make these options open to a very select few.
The mining industry doesn’t just obtain the hydrocarbon fuels we use every day – it uses them itself! Mining operations require enormous amounts of power, relying on energy from the grid, where possible, and generators in order to get the job done. Diesel and HFO are often the fuels of choice here, due to their lower costs and the added benefit of lower machine maintenance costs, and for the fact that these fuels are readily available. In countries like South Africa where power generation and distribution can be a cause for concern, some mines have turned to hybrid energy options, making use of renewables like solar and wind power in conjunction with their generators. However, this option is not always possible – solar power, for example, is incredibly costly can be problematic for the mining sector where energy costs already comprise 20-30% of their operating expenses.
Marine transport remains the best and most efficient way to transport goods around the world – 90% of Africa’s imports and exports happen via sea! But those enormous, mobile, island-size vehicles need the power to do it, and hydrocarbon fuels are its primary source of fuel and energy. These tremendous machines use a variety of fuels, including diesel, bunker fuel (HFO) and liquified natural gas (LNG). Renewable energy has infiltrated the shipping industry as well, offering the use of solar energy. At this point in time, solar energy can’t do much more than power basic electrical facilities on ships, leaving hydrocarbon fuels to do the heavy lifting.
Agriculture is arguably the backbone of society, providing us with sustenance, raw materials and other important commodities we need every single day. This is why they need a lot of energy and fuel, with most commercial farms still using hydrocarbon fuels to operate. Every instance of farm life uses these fuels in some format: diesel to power their tractors, ploughs, and other farming machinery; paraffin or kerosene for basic heating; fuel for road vehicles; and for fertilisers and chemicals used on crops. The location of farms often provides the opportunity to make use of renewables like solar or wind power, though often this is to subsidise their primary power source – the national grid or generators.
Electricity – the primary pillar of society! With electricity, almost all things are made possible: we have heated water, we can store our food safely in refrigerators, we can control the immediate climate in our environments through air conditioning, we can work on our computers, laptops, and phones, and we have something to power machinery, doing the jobs humans can’t. And all of this was initially made possible with hydrocarbon fuels! To provide us with the power we have at arms’ reach every day, hydrocarbon fuels and materials like coal are burned in power stations, transforming that heat and stored energy into kinetic energy, which turns huge turbines and generates electricity. Hydrocarbon fuels are even used to make renewable energy sources like solar panels – silica rock must be melted to create the silicon needed for solar panels, which can only be done with coal-fired or HFO-fired power plants!
Apart from all the ways we already use hydrocarbon fuels, there are several reasons why using them continues to benefit us:
With all the ways hydrocarbon fuels power our world, how do you know which is the right one for you? Speak to the experts and find out!