Energy resources and their uses - a general survey

Doc Brown's Physics Revision Notes

Suitable for GCSE/IGCSE Physics/Science courses or their equivalent


 The concept of energy emerged in the 19th century. The idea was used to explain the work output of steam engines and then generalised to understand other heat engines. It also became a key tool for understanding chemical reactions and biological systems. We now know energy can exist in many forms.

 Limits to the use of fossil fuels and global warming are critical problems for this century. Physicists and engineers are working hard to identify ways to reduce our energy usage. Most energy resources are used to generate electricity and include both renewables like wind/solar power and, at the moment, and historically, mainly fossil fuels like gas, oil and coal.

The second biggest use of energy resources is powering transport systems and heating buildings - domestic or industrial.

The fossil fuel energy resources coal, oil and gas are non-renewable and will all run out one day in the future. Nuclear fuels like uranium and plutonium are also finite resources and uranium ores will all be exploited in the future - assuming nuclear power develops on a large scale. It has taken millions of years of years to form fossil fuels from once living materials but we are consuming them at a vast rate and contributing to global warming. Burning fossil fuels damages the environment but we have become very dependant on them for our energy needs.

Renewable resources, theoretically, will never run out (infinite) because the energy is renewed as it is being used e.g. the wind blows frequently, tides and waves are always on the move. Renewables include solar power (direct sunlight), wind, hydro-electricity, water waves, tidal movement (tides), geothermal energy and biofuels. These have several advantages over non-renewables e.g. infinite - shouldn't run out, less damaging to the environment. However, there are some disadvantages e.g. some are not suitable for large scale power production AND they can be unreliable e.g. wind speed and intensity of sunlight can be very variable.

Energy for Transport

Petrol, diesel or heavy fuel oil are all derived from the fossil fuel oil and are burned directly in internal combustion engines e.g. in cars, lorries, diesel locomotives, ships etc. Coal was once used extensively to fire steam locomotives, but these have been mostly replaced by diesel and electric traction.

BUT much of the electricity used in trains or cars is still generated from burning coal or oil.

However, it is now possible to make biofuels that can be used directly in motor vehicles or using a mixture of biofuel and petrol, though only the biofuel component is renewable.

Energy for heating

Historically most homes and factories would be heated by coal and some domestic heating from wood. Many homes in Europe are heated from natural gas (e.g. the UK uses gas directly from the North Sea gas fields or piped gas from Norway). The gas (mainly methane, CH4) is burned in open fires or boilers to make hot water for pumping round the house, office or factory in central heating system.

Wood stoves are growing in popularity and wood can be considered renewable - but the smoke is quite polluting!

Electric heaters are obviously cleaner for cooking and heating and night storage heaters offer efficiency for the consumer, but, its still a matter of how the electricity is generated, still mainly from non-renewables sources.

Solar water heaters capture sunlight energy (infrared radiation) directly to heat up water that can be pumped to a storage tank or radiators.

A geothermal energy source uses either hot water pumped from deep underground to the surface OR using a heat pump system rather like a refrigerator working in reverse.

Energy for producing electricity is dealt with in other pages listed below

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