Do Fossil Fuels Really Come from Fossils?


© Nikolay Antonov/

Do Fossil Fuels Really Come from Fossils?

Fossil fuels include coal, petroleum (oil), natural gas, oil shales, bitumens, andِ tar sands andِ heavy oils.
For modern life, theseِ energy sources rival food andِ water inِ importance.
Without fossil fuels, mostِ automobiles areِ stranded, mostِ of theِ lights goِ out, andِ our homes becomeِ hotter inِ summer andِ cooler inِ winter.
But whenِ itِ comesِ to fossil fuels’ origin stories, weِ mightِ not knowِ asِ much asِ we should.
Do theyِ reallyِ beginِ with fossils?

All fossil fuels containِ carbon, andِ allِ were formed asِ a result ofِ geologic processes acting onِ the remains ofِ organic matter produced byِ photosynthesis—the process byِ which green plants andِ certain otherِ organisms transform light energy into chemical energy.
Most ofِ the fossil fuel material weِ useِ today comesِ from algae, bacteria, andِ plants—some ofِ which date backِ even beforeِ the Devonian Period, 419.2 million toِ 358.9 million years ago.
Consequently, atِ least mostِ of theِ time, youِ areِ not pouring refined dinosaur parts intoِ the gas tank ofِ your vehicle.

Although theseِ carbon compounds areِ very old, theyِ areِ not fossils.
Although fossils canِ beِ the actual remains andِ traces ofِ ancient plants andِ animals, theyِ alsoِ might beِ mere impressions madeِ inِ the rock.
If theseِ parts areِ buried quickly afterِ the death ofِ their owners, surrounding organic tissues mightِ beِ preserved—yet theseِ soft tissues andِ hard parts alsoِ could becomeِ petrified (that is, converted toِ a stony substance) overِ time.