Fuel is any material that can be used to generate energy to produce mechanical work in a controlled manner. The processes used to convert fuel into energy include chemical reactions, such as combustion, and nuclear reactions, such as nuclear fission or nuclear fusion. Fuels are also used in the cells of organisms in a process known as metabolism. Hydrocarbons are by far the most common source of fuel in current use, but many other substances can be used as well.
Chemical fuels are substances that generate energy by reacting with substances around them, most notably by the process of oxidation.
Biofuel can be broadly defined as solid, liquid, or gas fuel consisting of, or derived from biomass. Biomass can also be used directly for heating or power—known as biomass fuel. Biofuel can be produced from any carbon source that can be replenished rapidly e.g. plants. Many different plants and plant-derived materials are used for biofuel manufacture.
Perhaps the earliest fuel that was employed by humans is wood. Evidence shows controlled fire was used up to 1.5 million years ago at Swartkrans, South Africa. It is unknown which hominid species first used fire, as both Australopithecus and an early species of Homo were present at the sites.(Rincon, BBC News) As a fuel, wood has remained in use up until the present day, although it has been superseded for many purposes by other sources. Wood has an energy density of 10–20 MJ/kg.(Elert, 2007)
Recently biofuels have been developed for use in automotive transport (for example E10 fuel), but there is widespread public debate about how carbon efficient these fuels are.
Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons, primarily coal and petroleum (liquid petroleum or natural gas), formed from the fossilized remains of dead plants and animals (Dr. Novaczek) by exposure to heat and pressure in the Earth's crust over hundreds of millions of years (EPA). In common parlance, the term fossil fuel also includes hydrocarbon-containing natural resources that are not derived entirely from biological sources, such as tar sands. These latter sources are properly known as mineral fuels.
Modern large-scale industrial development is based on fossil fuel use, which has largely supplanted water-driven mills, as well as the combustion of wood or peat for heat. With global modernization in the 20th and 21st centuries, the growth in energy production from fossil fuels, especially gasoline derived from oil, is one of the causes of major regional and global conflicts and environmental issues. The promise of renewable energy in meeting future energy needs is tempered by the fact that the popular renewables — solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal — produce electricy, not fuel, and thus are not direct substitutes for fossil fuels.
The burning of fossil fuels by humans is the largest source of emissions of carbon dioxide, which is one of the greenhouse gases that enhances radiative forcing and contributes to global warming. The atmospheric concentration of CO2, a greenhouse gas, is increasing, raising concerns that solar heat will be trapped and the average surface temperature of the Earth will rise in response.
Nuclear fuel is any material that is consumed to derive nuclear energy. Technically speaking this definition includes all matter because any element will under the right conditions release nuclear energy, the only materials that are commonly referred to as nuclear fuels though are those that will produce energy without being placed under extreme duress.
The most common type of nuclear fuel used by humans is heavy fissile elements that can be made to undergo nuclear fission chain reactions in a nuclear fission reactor; nuclear fuel can refer to the material or to physical objects (for example fuel bundles composed of fuel rods) composed of the fuel material, perhaps mixed with structural, neutron moderating, or neutron reflecting materials. The most common fissile nuclear fuels are 235U and 239Pu, and the actions of mining, refining, purifying, using, and ultimately disposing of these elements together make up the nuclear fuel cycle, which is important for its relevance to nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons.
Fuels that produce energy by the process of nuclear fusion are currently not utilized by man but are the main source of fuel for stars, the most powerful energy sources in nature. Fusion fuels tend to be light elements such as hydrogen which will combine easily.
In stars that undergo nuclear fusion, fuel consists of atomic nuclei that can release energy by the absorption of a proton or neutron. In most stars the fuel is provided by hydrogen, which can combine together to form helium through the proton-proton chain reaction or by the CNO cycle. When the hydrogen fuel is exhausted, nuclear fusion can continue with progressively heavier elements, although the net energy released is lower because of the smaller difference in nuclear binding energy. Once iron-56 or nickel-56 nuclei are produced, no further energy can be obtained by nuclear fusion as these have the highest nuclear binding energies. (Fewell, 1995)
- Rincon, Paul (2004-03-22). "Bones hint at first use of fire". BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3557077.stm. Retrieved 2007-09-11.
- Elert, Glenn (2007). "Chemical Potential Energy". The Physics Hypertextbook. http://hypertextbook.com/physics/matter/energy-chemical/. Retrieved 2007-09-11.
- Dr. Irene Novaczek. "Canada's Fossil Fuel Dependency". Elements. http://www.elements.nb.ca/theme/fuels/irene/novaczek.htm. Retrieved 2007-01-18.
- "Fossil fuel". EPA. http://oaspub.epa.gov/trs/trs_proc_qry.navigate_term?p_term_id=7068&p_term_cd=TERM. Retrieved 2007-01-18.
- Fewell, M. P. (1995). "The atomic nuclide with the highest mean binding energy". American Journal of Physics 63 (7): 653–658. doi:10.1119/1.17828. http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1995AmJPh..63..653F.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel - wikipedia.com
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