Monday, 6 March 2017

Fossil Fuel Footnote

This post is a part of the series An Acre of Sunshine.

The process of biomass growth and harvest that I've described in other posts for other land uses is of course very similar to how fossil fuels were formed, but occurring over thousands to millions of years. Today's oil, natural gas, and coal were originally plant matter that did not immediately decay and became buried. All this organic matter was then subjected to time, heat, and pressure in the earth's crust, and slowly transformed in these conditions to become the fuels that we use today. Of course, only a tiny portion of the energy that was in the original plants actually is still accessible in fossil fuel deposits today, but this energy is exceptionally concentrated and has powered the world for over a century.

I found one calculation of the amount of plant matter needed to create fossil fuels, here. These researchers found that it took 200,000 pounds of original plant matter to create 1 gallon of today's gasoline. If we were to tuck in some of the numbers from my discussion of firewood, we get the following:

(89000 kg biomass needed per gallon of gasoline) * (2.2 pounds/kilo) * (1 cord of maple firewood/4600 lbs) * 7034 kWh/cord = 299,000 kWh of wood to make 1 gallon gasoline (37 kWh).

This energy conversion, from ancient plants to today's oil, preserves only 1 part per 10,000 of the energy found in the original plant growth. To put this into the terms of other posts in this series, this means that a year's growth for an acre of primeval forest led to the formation of about 1/100 of a gallon of gasoline, .4 kWh/acre/year. In a typical car, this would take you less than half a mile down the road.

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