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Professor Quester Answers
Questions on Fossil Fuels

Dear Professor Quester:
Which energy source, fossil fuel or uranium, will we run out of first? What are some advantages and disadvantages of both? (Sean, 8th grade, Monguagon Middle School, Trenton, Michigan)

The Professor Answers:
We'll probably run out of fossil fuels first.

During the 20th century, energy has become more easily available, especially from fossil fuels. Not only do countries depend on burning fossil fuels to generate electricity but they are used in vehicles. Each year, more oil, coal and natural gas are found. How long will the reserves of fossil fuels last?

In 1960, 40 billion tons of oil and gas were known to exist. At that rate they were being used across the world, the reserve was estimated to last about 40 years. By 1990, more gas and oil had been discovered (estimated about 142 billion tons of known reserves), but the rate at which it was used had also increased. Estimates of reserves are said to last between 40 and 70 years at the rate of current use.

The developed nations of the world use fossil fuels at an incredible rate, mostly for transportation and to generate electricity. Nuclear power is being used in increasing amounts to help satisfy the huge demand for energy. The nuclear fuels could last many hundreds of years, even if demand increases.

There are disadvantages and advantages to both types of fuel.

Fossil fuels are cheap and they are relatively easy to obtain. Once burned, however, fossil fuels cannot be used again, and they release gases such as carbon dioxide into the air. Such gases are not harmful in small amounts but the demand for energy is so great that millions of tons of these gases are released each year. This causes air pollution, which has a worldwide effect.

Nuclear power plants do not release dangerous fumes (like CO2, smoke or other gases) during normal operation, however after fission occurs, the "spent" fuel stays dangerously radioactive for thousands of years and must be buried deep underground or at sea. This nuclear waste is a health risk and problem. It's expensive and it can also be the cause of harmful accidents. (Check out Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.) California's law prohibits construction of any new nuclear power plants until the radioactive wastes are eliminated.

Thanks for asking.

Dear Professor Quester:
My friends at work don't believe that fuel comes from dinosaurs and fossils. Would you please write back and send some info that confirms that it does. Thank you, Ronald Turner

The Professor Answers:
I have a question for your friends, "Where do they think fuels come from?"
Fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal - that's why they're called fossil fuels) were formed from vegetation and yes, dinosaurs, deposited during the Carboniferous through the Permian eras which extended 380 to 245 million years ago. As the plants and animal life died, they were buried under mud which gradually hardened into rock. The rotting plants and decayed animal were squashed between heavy layers of the rock and heated by the earth. Over millions of years they changed into coal, oil and natural gas deposits.
Although this process continues on a smaller scale right now, we are using these fuels at several million times faster than they are being formed. Actually, if you want to be technically correct, all fuels come from the Sun since without its light and heat, nothing would grow. Hope this helps. Thanks for asking.

Dear Professor Quester:
Who was the first person to discover oil?  (Juliana, 5th grade, Lafayette.)

The Professor Answers:
We don't know the name of the first person to discover oil. Crude oil has been collected for centuries from oil seeps or surface "petroleum deposits". This is where oil "seeps" or oozes from rocks at the surface. These oil globs were used by many native Americans to caulk boats or make things water tight. Oil was also used for lighting, however it was never ideal because when it burns it becomes smelly and smoky.

Kerosene, made from paraffin (wax) and coal by a chemist named James Young in 1850, was so great a product that people began to look for sources of natural petroleum (oil). The first oil well was drilled in Titusville, PA by a retired railroad conductor named Edwin Drake in 1859.

For more information on oil check out the Energy Story at:


If YOU have a question about energy, send your question by e-mail to "Professor Quester."
Ask your parents or teacher first before sending an e-mail. Please tell us your grade level, the name of your school and your city. We will usually respond within four or five days.

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Page updated: May 17, 2002
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