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What are non-renewable resources?

Non-renewable resources are sources of energy that will one day run out. Most non-renewable resources in the world are called fossil fuels. These include coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Fossil fuels were formed millions of years ago and are made from the element Carbon. 

How were fossil fuels formed?

During the Carboniferous period (around 360 million years ago), plants and algae absorbed energy from the sun using photosynthesis, and when they died, they sank to the bottom of oceans and lakes.

As time passed, the plants were crushed underneath the seabed and rocks fell on top of them, creating lots of pressure and heat. Due to the intense pressure and heat, the dead plants and algae formed fossil fuels due to the energy from the sunlight being stored inside them.

These fossil fuels (or non-renewable resources) are now known as coal, petroleum and natural gas. There are many reservoirs which contain these sources of energy all over the Earth today. 

What are non-renewable resources

What are the advantages of using non-renewable resources?

Non-renewable resources are cost-effective to extract and can be easily stored and transported globally to be used as energy sources, which, in modern life where we rely heavily on non-renewable resources, is very valuable. Fossil fuels can be used to power all of the things which make modern living so convenient such as motor vehicles and manufacturing factories. 

What are the disadvantages of using non-renewable resources?

The burning of fossil fuels is very harmful to the environment and is contributing heavily to global climate change. When these fuels are combusted, they pollute the air, water, and lands. Because burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, the greenhouse effect is tampered with.

What is the greenhouse effect?

The greenhouse effect refers to the process of carbon dioxide keeping the heat within Earth’s atmosphere. Because sequestered carbon is burned and released into the atmosphere, this messes with the Earth’s carbon budget (the limit of carbon dioxide which is safe) and causes temperatures to increase at a faster rate than organisms can adapt to. 

What are non-renewable resources

Types of non-renewable resources

There are three main non-renewable energy sources which each have their own types, and their own advantages and disadvantages. Keep reading to find out about the different fossil fuels; coal, petroleum and natural gas.

What is coal?

Coal is a black rock which is burned to create energy. This non-renewable resource is ranked by the extent of “carbonization” it has been through. Carbonization is the process that ancient plants, algae and plankton go through to turn into coal. 

Ranks of coal

Peat is the lowest rank and has gone through less carbonization than anthracite (the highest rank of coal.) Peat is common in areas such as Scotland and Finland. Large amounts of anthracite can be found in areas where there have been huge Earth movements such as places where mountain ranges have formed. 

How is coal extracted?

Miners dig coal out of the ground by underground mining or surface mining. Underground mining is when the coal is mined below the surface of the Earth. Underground mining can be very dangerous to miners’ lungs and due to the risk of accidents and explosions.

Surface mining is  when the coal is mined near to the surface of the earth. Coal can be cut from the ground more easily than underground mining, but large habitats can be destroyed because the area must be cleared of trees and other vegetation. 

What is coal used for?

Burning coal allows us to have electricity, which gives us power for lights and all of the plug-in devices we own. Coal byproducts are used to build roads and make plastics. 

What are the advantages of coal?

Coal is a reliable source of energy and is relatively cheap to extract. It can be stored and shipped easily, and is a versatile fossil fuel, being used to power many of the things we need. 

What are the disadvantages of coal?

Coal is a heavy pollutant and causes damage to the atmosphere. It is also dangerous to extract, with coal miners being exposed to toxic gases frequently and the ongoing risk of explosions and accidents.

What is petroleum?

Petroleum is a liquid non-renewable fossil fuel. It is trapped by rock formations deep underground. 

What are non-renewable resources

How do we extract petroleum?

Petroleum is extracted by drilling deep through the Earth’s surface, either on land or the ocean floor. Oil companies operate rigs which extract oil year-round. Once petroleum has been extracted, it is refined by taking certain chemicals out. 

What do we use petroleum for?

Petroleum is used to make gasoline which we use in motor vehicles, and also for liquids such as nail varnish. Petroleum can also be used to make products such as crayons, vitamin tablets, and many other items.

What are the advantages of petroleum?

Petroleum is cost-effective to extract and is a reliable energy source. It provides many of the products we need today and allows us to operate motor vehicles for transport and to run essential supply chains.

What are the disadvantages of petroleum?

Burning gasoline made from petroleum is very hazardous to the environment. It is also a dangerous air pollutant, which means we are breathing in toxic gases. The potential for oil spills at rigs are also very dangerous to both life and environments. 

What is natural gas?

Natural gas is a non-renewable resource, mainly made up of methane, which is trapped by rock formations underground. There is a huge amount of natural gas underground. It is found in reservoirs a few hundred metres beneath the Earth’s surface and can stretch out for hundreds of metres.

What are non-renewable resources

How do we extract natural gas?

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is one of the main methods used to extract natural gas. Water under high pressure is used to split apart the rocks, which releases the trapped natural gas. 

What do we use natural gas for? 

Natural gas is used to create electricity, which we use for many modern conveniences such as lights and kitchen appliances. We also use natural gas to supply heating and to cook. 

What is liquid natural gas?

Natural gas can be changed into a liquid form which is a lot cleaner than the other fossil fuels. Liquid natural gas takes up less space than its gaseous form and can be stored easily and used for different reasons, including as a replacement for gasoline. 

What are the advantages of natural gas?

Natural gas is cost-effective to extract and is generally seen as cleaner than any of the other fossil fuels, especially when turned into its liquid form. Burning natural gas only releases carbon dioxide and water vapor which is much better than burning coal which releases lots of other toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. 

What are the disadvantages of natural gas?

You may have heard of the term “fracking” by the many protests it draws in. Fracking can cause mini-earthquakes, and can also contaminate water supplies because of the chemicals forced underground by the high pressure of the water which can leak into other water sources. 

Other non-renewable energy sources 

Now we’ve covered the three main non-renewable energy sources, or fossil fuels, used around the world today, there are a couple of other energy sources to mention; nuclear energy and biomass energy. 

What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy is the power from the nucleus of an atom. The process of nuclear fission (where an atom splits) is controlled at a nuclear power plant and allows electricity to be generated. The element Uranium is used during this process, which is found in rocks across the Earth and is known as a non-renewable resource.

What are the advantages of nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy does not cause pollution or emit toxic gases, does not damage the environment and is a great source of electricity. 

What are the disadvantages of nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy is quite complex to extract. Nuclear energy programs require extensive funding with a well-educated team of scientists and engineers, so this type of resource is expensive to use. Nuclear power plants also created radioactive waste, which can be extremely hazardous to the people exposed to it. 

What is biomass energy?

Biomass energy is extracted from the burning of plants to create electricity. This type of resource can be both renewable and non-renewable. If biomass plant stocks are not replenished as fast as they are used, they become non-renewable. 

What are non-renewable resources

What are the advantages of biomass energy?

Biomass energy can help to reduce our dependence on the three main fossil fuels, and if materials are replaced efficiently, can be turned into a renewable energy source.

What are the disadvantages of biomass energy?

While biomass energy reduces our need for other fossil fuels, by burning organic materials we may be adding to the global climate change problems. Also, removing organic materials means there is less available arable land for food production. Biomass energy also requires a significant amount of water. 

Final thoughts

Non-renewable resources may be a significant aspect of our lives, but if we don’t find new ways to create energy, not only will the Earth’s atmosphere and environments become more damaged over time, we will also run out of traditional energy sources.

Lots of work is going into funding alternative energy sources to both reduce the effects of pollution, and to plan for the future, where non-renewable energy sources will be a thing of the past.

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