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File:Buying fuelwood.jpeg
Wood was one of the first fuels used by humans and is still the primary energy source in much of the world.[citation needed]

Fuel is any material that is burnt or altered in order to obtain energy.[1] Fuel releases its energy either through a chemical reaction means, such as combustion, or nuclear means, such as nuclear fission or nuclear fusion. An important property of a useful fuel is that its energy can be stored to be released only when needed, and that the release is controlled in such a way that the energy can be harnessed to produce work.

All carbon-based life forms—from microorganisms to animals and humans—depend on and use fuels as their source of energy. Their cells engage in an enzyme-mediated chemical process called metabolism that converts energy from food or solar power into a form that can be used to sustain life. [2] Additionally, humans employ a variety of techniques to convert one form of energy into another, producing usable energy for purposes that go far beyond the energy needs of a human body. The application of energy released from fuels ranges from heat to cooking and from powering weapons to combustion and generation of electricity.

Energy sources

All currently-known fuels ultimately derive their energy from a small number of sources. Much of the chemical energy produced by life forms, such as fossil fuels, is derived from the utilization of solar energy through photosynthesis. Solar energy in turn is generated by the thermonuclear fusion process at the core of the Sun. The radioactive isotopes used as fuel to power nuclear plants were formed in supernova explosions.


Chemical fuels are substances that generate energy by reacting with substances around them, most notably by the process of oxidization. These substances were the first fuels to be known and used by humans and are still the primary type of fuel used today.


Biofuel can be broadly defined as solid, liquid, or gas fuel consisting of, or derived from biomass. Biomass can also be used directly for heating or power—known as biomass fuel. Biofuel can be produced from any carbon source that can be replenished rapidly e.g. plants. Many different plants and plant-derived materials are used for biofuel manufacture.

Perhaps the earliest fuel that was employed by humans is wood. Evidence shows controlled fire was used up to 1.5 million years ago at Swartkrans, South Africa. It is unknown which hominid species first used fire, as both Australopithecus and an early species of Homo were present at the sites.[3] As a fuel, wood has remained in use up until the present day, although it has been superseded for many purposes by other sources. Wood has an energy density of 10–20 MJ/kg. [4]

Recently biofuels have been developed for use in automotive transport (for example E10 fuel).

Fossil fuels

Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons, primarily coal and petroleum (liquid petroleum or natural gas), formed from the fossilized remains of dead plants and animals[5] by exposure to heat and pressure in the Earth's crust over hundreds of millions of years[6]. In common parlance, the term fossil fuel also includes hydrocarbon-containing natural resources that are not derived entirely from biological sources, such as tar sands. These latter sources are properly known as mineral fuels.

Modern large-scale industrial development is based on fossil fuel use, which has largely supplanted water-driven mills, as well as the combustion of wood or peat for heat. With global modernization in the 20th and 21st centuries, the growth in energy production from fossil fuels, especially gasoline derived from oil, is one of the causes of major regional and global conflicts and environmental issues. A global movement toward the generation of renewable energy is therefore under way to help meet the increased global energy needs.

The burning of fossil fuels by humans is the largest source of emissions of carbon dioxide, which is one of the greenhouse gases that enhances radiative forcing and contributes to global warming. The atmospheric concentration of CO2, a greenhouse gas, is increasing, raising concerns that solar heat will be trapped and the average surface temperature of the Earth will rise in response.


Nuclear fuel is any material that is consumed to derive nuclear energy. Technically speaking this definition includes all matter because any element will under the right conditions release nuclear energy, the only materials that are commonly referred to as nuclear fuels though are those that will produce energy without being placed under extreme duress.


File:Nuclear fuel pellets.jpeg
Nuclear fuel pellets are used to create nuclear energy.

The most common type of nuclear fuel used by humans is heavy fissile elements that can be made to undergo nuclear fission chain reactions in a nuclear fission reactor; nuclear fuel can refer to the material or to physical objects (for example fuel bundles composed of fuel rods) composed of the fuel material, perhaps mixed with structural, neutron moderating, or neutron reflecting materials. The most common fissile nuclear fuels are 235U and 239Pu, and the actions of mining, refining, purifying, using, and ultimately disposing of these elements together make up the nuclear fuel cycle, which is important for its relevance to nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons.


Fuels that produce energy by the process of nuclear fusion are currently not utilized by man but are the main source of fuel for stars, the most powerful energy sources in nature. Fusion fuels tend to be light elements such as hydrogen which will combine easily.

In stars that undergo nuclear fusion, fuel consists of atomic nuclei that can release energy by the absorption of a proton or neutron. In most stars the fuel is provided by hydrogen, which can combine together to form helium through the proton-proton chain reaction or by the CNO cycle. When the hydrogen fuel is exhausted, nuclear fusion can continue with progressively heavier elements, although the net energy released is lower because of the smaller difference in nuclear binding energy. Once iron-56 or nickel-56 nuclei are produced, no further energy can be obtained by nuclear fusion as these have the highest nuclear binding energies.[7]

World trade

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Fuel imports in 2005

World Bank reported that the USA was the top fuel importer in 2005 followed by the EU and Japan.[citation needed]

Use over time

The first use of fuel was the combustion of wood or sticks by Homo erectus near 2 million years ago.[8]Template:Page number Throughout the majority of human history fuels derived from plants or animal fat were the only ones available for human use. Charcoal, a wood derivative, has been used since at least 6,000 BCE for smelting metals. It was only supplanted by coke, derived from coal, as the forests started to became depleted around the 18th century. Charcoal briquettes are now commonly used as a fuel for barbecue cooking.[9]

Coal was first used as a fuel around 1000 BCE in China. With the development of the steam engine in 1769, coal came into more common use as a power source. Coal was later used to drive ships and locomotives. By the 19th century, gas extracted from coal was being used for street lighting in London. In the 20th century, the primary use of coal is for the generation of electricity, providing 40% of the world's electrical power supply in 2005.[10]

See also



  1. "Fuels". World Encyclopedia. Oxford University Press. 2005. Retrieved 2007-09-12.
  2. "Metabolism," Encyclopaedia Britannica, retrieved August 17, 2006.
  3. Rincon, Paul (March 22, 2004). "Bones hint at first use of fire". BBC News. Retrieved 2007-09-11.
  4. Elert, Glenn (2007). "Chemical Potential Energyabcdefghijklmonp". The Physics Hypertextbook. Retrieved 2007-09-11.
  5. Dr. Irene Novaczek. "Canada's Fossil Fuel Dependency". Elements. Retrieved 2007-01-18.
  6. "Fossil fuel". EPA. Retrieved 2007-01-18.
  7. Fewell, M. P. (1995). "The atomic nuclide with the highest mean binding energy". American Journal of Physics. 63 (7): 653–658.
  8. Leakey, Richard (1994). Origin of Humankind. Basic Books. ISBN 0465031358.
  9. Hall, Loretta (2007). "Charcoal Briquette". How Products Are Made. Retrieved 2007-10-01.
  10. "History of Coal Use". World Coal Institute. Retrieved 2006-08-10.


  • Ratcliff, Brian; et al. (2000). Chemistry 1. Cambridge University press. ISBN 0-521-78778-5.

Further reading

bg:Гориво ca:Combustible cs:Palivo da:Brændstof de:Brennstoff eo:Brulaĵo fa:سوخت gl:Combustible ko:연료 hr:Goriva id:Bahan bakar it:Combustibile he:דלק ka:საწვავი nl:Brandstof no:Drivstoff simple:Fuel sk:Palivo sl:Gorivo su:Suluh fi:Polttoaine sv:Bränsle ta:எரிபொருள் uk:Паливо