What is a Non-Renewable Resource?
A non-renewable resource refers to a natural resource that is found beneath the earth, which when consumed, does not replenish at the same speed at which it is used up. The resources typically take millions of years to develop. The main examples of non-renewable resources are fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas, which humans regularly draw to produce energy.
Apart from non-renewable resources, there also exist renewable resources that are also a source of energy. Renewable resources can be sustained since they replenish naturally. Examples of renewable resources include wind and sunlight, which are used to generate wind power energy and solar power energy, respectively.
Understanding Non-Renewable Resources
The US Energy Information Administration describes non-renewable resources as resources that do not replenish within a short time to keep up with their consumption. These resources are formed from organic material from plant and animal remains that existed millions of years ago. Since the materials took millions of years to form, they also require millions of years to replenish.
Humans extract non-renewable resources in the form of gas, liquid, or solids, and then convert them into convenient forms for easy consumption. Non-renewable resources, such as coal and oil, are the primary source of power in the world, and they are used to power vehicles, factories, and homes. Although affordable, they can be harmful to the environment and are one of the notable contributors to global warming.
Types of Non-Renewable Resources
The two broad categories of non-renewable resources are fossil fuels and nuclear energy (from uranium ore).
1. Fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are formed due to the continuous heating and compressing of organic matter buried beneath the earth’s surface. The organic matter mainly comprises of plant and animal remains that have decomposed, heated, and compressed over millions of years to form fossil deposits.
The deposits are extracted through drilling or mining, and they can be in liquid, gas, or solid form. Fossil fuels are highly combustible, making them a rich source of energy. Examples of fossil fuels include:
Crude oil, also referred to as petroleum oil, is the only non-renewable resource that is extracted in liquid form. It is found between the layers of the earth’s crust, or between the rocks, and it is retrieved by drilling a vertical well into the ground and ocean floor.
The crude oil is then pumped out to the surface, taken through a refinery, and then used to create different products. It used to produce gasoline and diesel to power motor vehicles and manufacture plastics, heating oil, propane, and jet fuel, as well as artificial food flavors.
With oil reserves being used up more quickly than new oil fields are discovered, scientists predict that the current oil reserves may not last beyond the middle of the 21st century.
Natural gas is a gaseous non-renewable resource that is found below the earth’s crust but near crude oil deposits in the subsurface. Natural gas primarily consists of methane, but may also contain other forms of natural gas such as propane, ethane, and butane.
Methane is odorless, and it is mixed with a special additive to give it an odor for easy detection in case there is gas leakage. Once natural gas is extracted, it is sent to processing plants to remove propane and butane, which are used as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Natural gas is used for heating homes, as well as for cooking in gas ovens, stoves, and grills.
Coal is created by compressed organic matter, and it contains carbon and hydrocarbon matter. It is formed from plant-filled swamps that have been covered by sediments for millions of years. Coal is extracted by digging up the ground and taking out the coal solids for processing into energy.
The main types of coal are anthracite, lignite, bituminous coal, and sub-bituminous coal. Bituminous is found in the United States. It contains 45% to 86% of carbon. It has a high heat content and is used in generating energy and in making steel and iron.
Anthracite contains 86% to 97% carbon, and it has the highest heating value. It is much harder to find than the other types of coal and is used in the metal industry.
2. Nuclear energy (Uranium)
Apart from fossil fuels, the other category of non-renewable resources is nuclear fuels. It is primarily obtained through the mining and refining of uranium ore, a naturally occurring radioactive element below the earth’s surface.
Uranium is found in small quantities, and miners often gather the uranium deposits for refining and purification. The mineral generates power through a process known as nuclear fusion, which creates enough pressure to run turbines and generate nuclear power.
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