Living in a Carbon World
Part D: Fossil Fuels, Hydrocarbons and CO2
The oil and gas extracted by the DeepWater Horizon rig had been formed and buried in deep sediments millions of years ago. While coal had been used as a fuel resource since 1000 B.C, it wasn't until the arrival of the Industrial Revolution that coal began to replace wood biomass as the primary source of energy. Today, humans are extracting the three primary fossil fuels - coal, oil, and natural gas - to provide energy for a world population that has exceeded 7 billion. Fossil fuels are made of hydrocarbons energy rich organic carbon compounds made of carbon and hydrogen atoms. . In this section of Lab 1, you will investigate how the combustion of fossil fuel hydrocarbons is changing the chemistry of the atmosphere.
Examine the image above of the Deep Horizon oil rig burning in the Gulf of Mexico. With a partner and/or class, talk about the following:
- What do you already know about fossil fuels?
- How do you think the carbon cycle is related to this image? Share all ideas.
Burning hydrocarbons releases energy, and CO2 as a by-product
The Deep Horizon rig was drilling for crude oil (petroleum) deep within bottom sediments in the Gulf of Mexico. Crude oil is a mixture of several different chemicals which can be refined into hydrocarbon products such as such as motor oil, gasoline, jet fuel, diesel fuel, and heating oil. If you drive a car, heat your home, turn on a light, or enjoy a good backyard barbecue, the energy you are using most likely comes from burning fossil fuel hydrocarbons, a process called combustion the process of burning something; example is when a substance such as wood, coal, or gas reacts with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, water vapor, heat, and energy .
To learn some important facts about combustion and hydrocarbons, watch this 7-minute video on combustion. Before you watch the video, make note of the Checking In questions below. You will need to answer these questions when you finish watching the video.
Hydrocarbon molecules have energy-rich bonds
Consider the combustion reaction of methane below. Combustion produces energy but where does this energy come from?
Methane (CH4) + 2O2 → CO2 + 2H2O (water vapor) + heat energy
Fossil fuels are made of hydrocarbons produced millions of years ago
We use fossil fuels on a daily basis but do we know their origins? Contrary to what many people believe, fossil fuels do not come from the remains of dead dinosaurs. In fact, fossil fuels were formed 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period, before the first dinosaurs evolved. Take a view minutes to examine the image pictured on the right and then watch the video on fossil fuel formation below.
If the video does not play, watch here: Fossil Fuel Formation
Humans are extracting and using large amounts of fossil fuel, but how much?
With a peer or with a group, discuss the following:
- How many barrels of oil, tonnes of coal and cubic meters of gas have been extracted since you were born? What surprises you, if anything?
- Which of your daily activities connect you to these amounts of fossil fuels that have been extracted and burned since you were born?
Are humans changing the chemistry of the atmosphere? How do we know?
Humans have been burning large amounts of fossil fuel hydrocarbons for energy since the Industrial Revolution. Today, approximately 75% of the world's energy needs are fulfilled by burning fossil fuels. We certainly can't get along without fossil fuels at the present, but are we creating a problem when we burn millions of metric tonnes of fossil fuels every year?
Watch this NASA video to find out if we are creating a "Gas Problem" when we burn fossil fuels.
If this video does not play, click here NASA's Earth Minute: Gas Problem - YouTube
Laboratory Investigation: Are humans changing the chemistry of the atmosphere?
The video you just watched makes the claim that when humans burn fossil fuels, we release CO2 to the atmosphere causing the atmosphere to become warmer. However, the video provides no data as evidence to support this claim. As a matter of fact, some people on the Internet have claimed that humans have no role in rising CO2and instead blame the rise on natural events such as volcanic outgassing. Providing evidence for a claim is a critical component of science. To that end, you will analyze data from a series of graphs, a NASA animation of CO2 emissions and a video presentation given by geoscientist Dr. Richard Alley. As you analyze the data, you will decide whether the data provides evidence that strongly supports, partially supports, or strongly refutes the claim that humans are changing the carbon chemistry of the atmosphere and that this change is leading to a warmer atmosphere. With a peer or small group:
- Create a 5-column table with the following headings:
- Column A: Title of graph(s) and video
- Column B: Type of evidence (ex. CO2 data, carbon isotope data, etc. )
- Column C: Evidence strongly supports the claim.
- Column D. Evidence only partially supports the claim (i.e., the evidence is incomplete).
- Column E. Evidence strongly refutes the claim. NOTE: in Columns C-E, make sure you describe the evidence and explain why the evidence strongly supports, partially supports or strongly refutes the claim.
- Graph 1: Illustrates the amount of CO2 emissions moving into the atmosphere from the combustion of the three most important fossil fuels: oil, gas, and coal from 1880-2004. Click to enlarge.
- Graph 2 and Graph 3: Go to NASA's Global Climate Change - Vital Signs of the Planet to investigate changes in atmospheric CO2 data. Once there, analyze the following two graphs:
- Graph 2: Direct Measurements of CO2: 2005 to Present. This data represents the amount of CO2 (parts per million) in the atmosphere directly measured from NASA satellites
- Graph 3: Proxy Measurements of CO2. This data was taken from CO2 bubbles found in ice cores core sample that is typically drilled and removed from an ice sheet, most commonly from the polar ice caps of Antarctica, Greenland or from high mountain glaciers elsewhere. .
- Graph 4: Go to NASA's Vital Signs for Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index. This data represents temperatures that are above or below a 30 year average of temperature measurements taken from 1950-1980.
- Graph 5: 1000 years of Fossil Fuels This video of graph 5 from climatecommunication.org allows you to compare trends in three datasets: fossil fuels, CO2 and temperature.
- Video 1: NASA, a year the life of Earth's CO2 . In this video animation, NASA scientists have compressed a year's worth of CO2 data into one year. Can you identify the three areas of the world producing the most CO2?
If the video does not play, watch here: NASA | A Year in the Life of Earth's CO2 - YouTube or on Vimeo
- Video 2: How do scientists know where the extra CO2 is coming from? Geoscientist Dr. Richard Alley explains the science behind this very important question in the video "Its Us."
NOTE: Pause and rewind portions of the video as needed.
If the video does not play, watch here: How to talk to an OSTRICH: "IT'S US" - YouTube or at Earth: The Operators' Manual: Video Segments
With your class, discuss the evidence you have just analyzed in terms of the following:
- What evidence, if any, strongly supports the claim that humans are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere? Why?
- What evidence, if any, strongly refutes the claim that humans are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere? Why?
- What evidence, if any, partially supports the claim that humans are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere? Why?
Stop and Think1: Describe how combustion can move carbon atoms from being stored deep in the ground to the atmosphere.
2: Identify and explain at least one piece of evidence supporting or refuting the claim that humans are changing the carbon chemistry of the atmosphere.
Want to learn more about fossil fuels and hydrocarbons? Check out these resources!
- Research the latest research! New research on the carbon cycle, climate and the environment is on-going. You can use ScienceDaily and Phys.org to research recent research on the relationship between fossil fuels the carbon cycle, by using combinations of the following tags: carbon cycle, carbon emissions, hydrocarbons, fossil fuels, carbon dioxide. Here is an example: Bacteria in the world's oceans produce millions of tons of hydrocarbons each year
- Watch this video of 300 years of fossil fuels in 300 seconds
- Take this energy quiz and explore the Department of Energy site.
- Watch a video on how scientists measure CO2 from ice cores in Ice Core Secrets Could Reveal Answers to Global Warming - Science Nation
- Investigate the Deep Horizon Oil Spill: An interactive Look at What Happened
- Explore carbon's history, carbon emissions and carbon research in this interactive site from Global Carbon Atlas
- Investigate Carbon Emissions: Past, Present and Future from the World Resources Institute
- Determine the Carbon Footprints of Nations