hello, I am doing a topic on energy from fuels in my science lessons but am very confused about what hydrocarbon fuels are and also how lots of energy can be wasted when burning fossil fuels. Please email back and help me to understand this. Thank you very much. Amy
Dear Amy: Hydrocarbon fuels are basically the same as fossil fuels. I describe what those are in my energy guide. The name ‘hydro’ (short for the chemical element hydrogen) and ‘carbon’ (another chemical element) is really short for ‘hydrogen-carbon’. So hydrocarbons are chemical compounds made up of hydrogen and carbon. The simplest of these is methane, natural gas. Oil is a hydrocarbon fuel because it’s made up of various different compounds rather like methane, but it is liquid rather than gas. Coal is different because it’s made up almost entirely of carbon… so it’s not a hydrocarbon. But it, and all the hydrocarbon fuels like natural gas, propane, petrol and so on are all fossil fuels. OK?
When people burn fossil fuels, they do it to make heat. That heat can be used to make steam to drive electricity turbines (see my Guide), to heat houses and offices, and to power machines like cars, trucks, ships and aeroplanes. Generating electricity wastes almost two thirds of the heat (for complicated reasons). Heating houses can waste a lot of heat if the houses aren’t properly insulated – which most are not. And the heat made in transport which is not converted into ‘push’ (making the car or whatever move) is all wasted. That wouldn’t matter so much if there wasn’t pollution from all this fossil fuel burning. I explain a lot more about all this in my pollution and energy guides.