Unit 4: Fossil Fuel Formation
Students will explore various aspects of fossil fuels by examining the various ranks of coal and the processes by which coal, oil, and natural gas form.
This unit addresses the grand challenges of energy and resource extraction, along with sustainability and climate change.
- Students will distinguish fossil fuels from nuclear and renewable energy sources.
- Students will discuss uses of various fossil fuels.
- Students will describe the sequence of processes by which coal forms.
- Students will describe the sequence of processes by which oil and natural gas form.
- Students will be able to relate the formation and use of traditional and non-traditional fossil fuels to the carbon cycle.
Context for Use
This unit is designed for use in an introductory-level college geoscience or environmental science course. It can be adapted for use in online instruction, individual/independent study courses, and large lecture-hall style classes. The exercises are designed to be completed in a 50-minute course structure, but they can be shortened or lengthened based on the level of detail desired for class discussions. This time estimate does not include any out-of-class extensions to the activities. Students and instructors will need copies of handouts, computer, access to the Internet, and a classroom projector.
Description and Teaching Materials
The overall flow of this unit is as follows:
1. Fossil Fuel Formation Activity 1 – Fossil fuels, renewable and non-renewable energy sources: PowerPoint with a think-pair-share activity. For a description of this teaching method, see this informational page on Think-Pair-Share.
2. Fossil Fuel Formation Activity 2 – Compare and Contrast Oil and Coal Resources: Show a short YouTube video on Coal, Oil, and Natural Gas. Students do an activity using slips of paper near the end of the video, comparing oil and coal.
3. Fossil Fuel Formation Activity 3 – Coal ranks and their heating value: PowerPoint covers coal ranks and their heating value.
An option is provided so that this activity can be done in a laboratory classroom if coal specimens are available. Student worksheets are needed. Students will need to use a calculator to complete Part 2.
Option 1 for lecture courses:
A PowerPoint presentation covers the characteristics of various ranks of coal.
Option 2 for laboratory classes:
A hands-on activity identifying types of coal, followed by the comparison of carbon content and heating value.
4. Fossil Fuel Formation Activity 4 – Petroleum and Natural Gas: PowerPoint covers petroleum and natural gas. Students will do the The Origin of Oil activity. Students work individually or in pairs to organize a series of statements about the origin of oil into the correct order. Paper copies and scissors needed (or pre-cut paper strips).
5. Optional Activities and/or Homework: A PowerPoint presentation and worksheet are provided on CO2 Production from Burning Fossil Fuels. This can be done in classes with additional time, or assigned for homework. An optional homework assignment has three parts: (1) Students use an interactive map to locate energy facilities in your state or area (power plants, refineries, pipelines, coal mines, oil and gas wells, etc.); (2) Students research the countries which export oil to the United States; (3) Students research electricity generation from various sources, and CO2 emissions.
1. Fossil Fuel Formation Activity 1 – Fossil fuels, renewable and non-renewable energy sources. (10 min)
Overview of fossil fuels, renewable and nonrenewable energy resources. A Think-Pair-Share activity (10 min). This PowerPoint presentation covers the basics of fossil fuel formation. There are several short videos and three embedded activities.
Unit 4 PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 3.7MB Aug16 16)
First, the PowerPoint presentation provides an overview of fossil fuels, renewable and nonrenewable energy resources. Students brainstorm to list fossil fuels, then pair up with other students to add to the list. Each group reports back to the class, and the instructor lists the ideas on the board. PowerPoint slide contains a list of fossil fuels. Instructor points out that fossil fuels are non-renewable energy resources. Next, students brainstorm to list renewable energy resources, following a similar format. Finally, nuclear energy is considered. It is not a fossil fuel and is not considered renewable.
Then students consider three pie diagrams with differing percentages of fossil fuels, renewable energy, and nuclear energy, and they are asked to select the diagram that most closely matches the current energy usage in the United States.
No advance preparation needed. Computer, Internet access, and a classroom projector are needed. It will be helpful to have a marker to write student responses on the board.
2. Fossil Fuel Formation Activity 2 – Compare and Contrast Oil and Coal Resources. (15 min)
Show video, Coal, Oil, and Natural Gas (6 min 47 sec).
At 5 minutes and 40 seconds into the video, pause the video and students will do the activity below using slips of paper.
Handout – Students will work in pairs to arrange various statements about oil or coal (or both) and place them on a Venn diagram. You will need to have the slips of paper pre-cut (and held together in sets with paper clips), or provide scissors for students to cut them apart. Students can check their answers with information later in the video.
Compare and contrast oil and coal activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 29kB Aug17 16)
Compare and contrast oil and coal activity - PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 49kB Aug17 16)
3. Fossil Fuel Formation Activity 3 – Coal ranks and their heating value. (5 min)
The PowerPoint presentation provides an overview of coal formation, the various ranks of coal, carbon content and heating value. Additional information is included in the instructor notes accompanying some slides in the presentation, for example, the slide on Types (or Ranks) of Coal. Review questions are provided.
Option for laboratory classes: (30 min)
A hands-on activity identifying hand specimens of the four major ranks of coal, followed by the comparison of carbon content and heating value. (See handouts below.)
4. Fossil Fuel Formation Activity 4 – Petroleum and Natural Gas. (20 min)
The PowerPoint presentation provides an overview of petroleum (oil) and natural gas and their origin.
Unit 4 PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 3.7MB Aug16 16)
Students will do the Origin of Oil Activity. Students work individually, or in groups of two or three, to organize a series of statements about the origin of oil into the correct order, based on clues in the statements. Students will need paper copies of the activity, cut into strips. The instructor can pre-cut them or provide scissors for the students. The origin of oil starts with planktonic algae in the ocean, and ends at the refinery. Clues within each statement help the student select the correct order.
The answers are covered at the end of the PowerPoint presentation and in the Instructor's Guide. The PowerPoint presentation also covers nontraditional fuels such as tar sands, oil shale, and shale gas. Students can determine where these fossil fuels fit into the sequence. Review questions are provided in the PowerPoint presentation.
Fossil Fuel Formation - The Origin of Oil - Student Worksheet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 38kB Aug16 16)
Fossil Fuel Formation - The Origin of Oil - Student Worksheet (Acrobat (PDF) 64kB Aug17 16)
A 3-minute video summarizing what the students learned by doing the activity with arranging the cut paper strips can be shown after the activity has been completed, if sufficient time is available. Oil and Gas Formation video (3:04) from EarthScience Western Australia.
Optional Activities and/or Homework.
1. Coal Specimen Identification Activity (30 min)
A hands-on coal identification activity is provided for laboratory classes where specimens of peat, lignite, bituminous coal and anthracite coal are available. Specimens of these four types of coal are needed for each group of approximately four students. A worksheet guides students through an activity in which they identify the various types of coal, based on coal photos and descriptions in the PowerPoint presentation, and then calculate the weight of coal necessary to produce a standard amount of heat. Students use a calculator to complete this activity.
Coal Ranks and Their Heating Value - Student Worksheet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 121kB Aug17 16)
Coal Ranks and Their Heating Value - Student Worksheet (Acrobat (PDF) 161kB Aug17 16)
2. PowerPoint Presentation: CO2 Production from Burning Fossil Fuels. (10 min)
The PowerPoint presentation provides an overview of CO2 production from burning fossil fuels. Making a connection to economics, a pie diagram shows U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector, including electricity generation, transportation, industry, commercial and residential use, and agriculture. Sources of carbon dioxide are presented, along with other byproducts of coal burning. Students examine a table of various fossil fuels and the weight of CO2 emitted per million BTU of energy produced, and identify the fuels with the highest and lowest CO2 emissions. Students examine U.S. energy consumption by major fuel type and learn that burning of petroleum products is the largest contributor to CO2 emissions. Although coal accounts for only about 19% of energy used, it accounts for 32% of CO2 emissions. Students examine the reasons for the decrease in the use of coal in the United States, and the increase in the use of natural gas. We are shifting away from burning coal because of environmental regulations, and increasing use of natural gas due to decreasing prices and increased production through fracking.
CO2 production from burning fossil fuels (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 484kB Aug16 16)
3. Calculations of CO2 Production from Burning Fossil Fuels. (10 min)
Using authentic data, students calculate the amount of CO2 released when a certain quantity of coal is burned, and compare the amount of CO2 produced by burning different fossil fuels. Students examine data relating the increasing atmospheric concentration of CO2 in ppm to quantity of CO2 added to the atmosphere over a certain period of time, and see the role of carbon sinks.
CO2 Production from Burning Fossil Fuels - Student Worksheet (Microsoft Word 74kB Aug17 16)
CO2 Production from Burning Fossil Fuels - Student Worksheet (Acrobat (PDF) 99kB Aug17 16)
CO2 Production from Burning Fossil Fuels - Instructor's Guide (Microsoft Word 76kB Aug17 16)
Optional Homework. (30 min)
This is a three-part activity using online resources and a worksheet. These activities address economic, social, and environmental issues, and incorporate geography.
Part 1. This activity uses an interactive map to locate energy facilities in your state or area (power plants, refineries, pipelines, coal mines, oil and gas wells, etc.), and to locate fossil fuel resources across the nation. The instructor can project the maps in class, or assign this as classwork or homework.
Part 2. Students read a spreadsheet to research from which countries various oil companies import their petroleum, and through which port cities oil enters the United States.
Part 3. Students research sources of U.S. electricity generation (coal, natural gas, petroleum, nuclear, renewables of various types). Some calculations are required.
Fossil Fuel Formation- online homework - student worksheet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 76kB Aug17 16)
Fossil Fuel Formation- online homework - student worksheet (Acrobat (PDF) 123kB Aug17 16)
Teaching Notes and Tips
Emphasis should be placed on the types and formation of various fossil fuels, and connections to the grand challenges facing society (energy resource issues, and carbon dioxide emissions – a greenhouse gas associated with climate change). Interdisciplinary issues in this unit (and the optional homework) include economic issues (production and consumption of natural resources, generation of electricity, imports and exports), and geographic aspects of fossil fuels, explored through interactive and static maps.
Students will see several videos. The video on Coal, Oil and Natural Gas includes an opportunity to compare and contrast oil and coal resources. The instructor will need to have printouts for each group of students. Students will need paper copies of the activity, cut into strips. The instructor can pre-cut them or provide scissors for the students. The students should perform the activity at the specified slide.
The Petroleum and Natural Gas portion of the PowerPoint includes an opportunity for students to do the "Origin of Oil" activity part way through. The instructor will need to have printouts for each group of students. Students will need paper copies of the activity, cut into strips. The instructor can pre-cut them or provide scissors for the students. The students should perform the activity at the specified slide. Subsequent slides at the end of the presentation, and the Instructor's Guide, provide the answers.
If time permits, in longer classes, some of the optional activities can be done by the instructor in front of the classroom. A PowerPoint presentation covers CO2 Production from Burning Fossil Fuels, and is accompanied by a worksheet on which students do calculations. This can be done in classes with additional time, or assigned for homework. An optional online homework assignment deals with the geographic locations of energy facilities and fossil fuel resources. The geographic component can be used to make the student more aware of energy generation facilities and fossil fuel resources in the immediate area near campus, within the state or region, or in a student's home state. The instructor can assign a different state to each student or group of students, or have all students examine the energy facilities and resources in the same state.
The activities in this unit can be used formatively, so students can develop their understanding, ask questions, and learn by trial in class with their peers. There are several formative assessments in this unit that are ungraded ("Engagement activity – Fossil fuels, renewable and non-renewable energy sources", "Compare and Contrast Oil and Coal Resources," and "The Origin of Oil" activity). There are also optional activities which can be either graded or ungraded, at the instructor's option. These include the "Coal Ranks" activity and Optional Homework).
The summative assessment for Unit 4 consists of 14 multiple-choice questions and 9 short-answer questions that require higher-order thinking skills.
References and Resources
- Video on Coal, Oil and Natural Gas (6:47 minutes) by GeoScience Videos.
- Video on Oil and Gas Formation (3:04 minutes) from EarthScience Western Australia.
- Video on Formation of Reservoir Rock | Oil & Gas Animations (2:15 minutes) from Oil and Gas Videos.
- U.S Energy Information Administration Quarterly Coal Report
- Classification and Rank of Coal from the Kentucky Geological Survey.
- Types of coal from the Energy Library.
- How much carbon dioxide is produced when different fuels are burned? from the U.S Energy Information Administration
- Carbon Dioxide Emission Factors for Coal by B.D. Hong and E. R. Slatick, originally published in Energy Information Administration, Quarterly Coal Report, January-April 1994, DOE/EIA-0121(94/Q1) (Washington, DC, August 1994), pp. 1–8.
- U.S Energy Information Administration data on energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by source and sector for the United States: What are the energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by source and sector for the United States?.
- U.S Energy Information Administration site on What is the role of coal in the United States?
- Public Education and Outreach site of the Fuel Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society page on Natural Gas
- Public Education and Outreach site of the Fuel Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society page on Petroleum
- How oil drilling works, from How Stuff Works: Science.