Environmental Effects of Burning Fossil Fuels

Lecture-Discussion #19
NPRE 201: Advanced Energy Systems

Clifford Singer


Burning fossil fuels, especially coal, is a dirty process. Incomplete combustion of coal and oil produces particulate matter. Heavier particulates produce an annoying dirty grit, and lighter particulates can be inhaled deeply and become a health hazard. In addition to the desired combustion of organic molecules, impurities such as sulfur also burn and produce potentially dangerous oxides. Since the air is made of 80% nitrogen, nitrogen is combusted along with the fuel at high temperatures, releasing nitrous oxides. Since fossil fuels are composed mainly of carbon by weight, all fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide when burned. In the atmosphere, the sulfur and nitrous oxides produce sulfuric acid and nitric acid, respectively, which can lead to acid rain. The carbon dioxide helps trap heat in the atmosphere — contributing to the potential warming of the earth. In this lecture-discussion we will examine major local, regional, and global environmental effects of burning fossil fuels. These are respectively particulates, smog and acid rain, and global warming. The importance of particulates has long been acknowledged, and major particlulate emissions control measures have been launched in many countries. Evidence for acid rain is readily available, and the effects from impact on forests and lakes to crumbling ancient Greek structures have confirmed its presence, but its overall environmental/economic importance remains a matter of controversy. It is now widely accepted that human activities have contributed to a noticeable average global warming trend in the twentieth century. However, there are differential impacts of this global trend on regional climate, agriculture, storm damage, and other effects in different parts of the world. This complicates both the assessment of global effects of atmospheric emissions and international negotiations over requisite changes in fossil fuel use.


Read the notes for Lecture #19 to review for the third midterm. This includes two pdf files on climate change.



Acid Rain

Global Warming

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Updated 5 November 2012 by Clifford Singer; for copyright information see NPRE 201 HOME