Renewable Petroleum: A change in human pressures on the environment.

Photo by Fábio Pinheiro |

It's often believed that humanity would cease to function without our ability to extract and refine crude oil.  Hydrocarbon-rich deposits in the surface of the Earth’s crust are explored to withdraw petroleum products that are essential to virtually all material goods and energy sources that we live off of. 

Underground reserves of oil are the result of plant life that has been buried by geological processes under rock beds.  Over thousands of years, this decaying plant life is subjected to extreme temperature and pressure changes in the Earth’s crust that transform it to coal, which is what we pull out of the earth as a source of fuel.

This non-renewable oil naturally takes thousands of years to replenish.  We immediately convert it into fuel and combust it for heat and energy, or process it into products such as chemical reagents (used in plastics and pharmaceuticals), gasoline, asphalt, fertilizers and many more crucial products required in our daily lives.  This rapid conversion of a natural resource is a primary cause of carbon dioxide contribution to the biosphere in which we live.

Imagine if this resource, a driving commodity of the global economy, was made renewable, and could constantly be generated without all the extraction processes.  Although it might seem unrealistic, researchers of the University of Minnesota did exactly that by implementing an approach to using the readily available carbon dioxide in our air to synthesize a hydrocarbon-based fuel source.

This ingenious method involves turning ketone chemical compounds into fuel using catalytic technology to speed up the reaction rate at which hydrocarbons are produced, as opposed to relying on thousands of years of natural decomposition and compaction to form coal. 

Acquiring a source of fuel without the continual extraction of crude oil is groundbreaking in terms of recycling the carbon dioxide of our atmosphere, a dominant greenhouse gas, to renew our source of petroleum.  This eliminates the one-way stream of pulling coal out of the Earth, using it, and inputting more and more carbon dioxide into the air around us.

A notable question mark I noticed overshadowing this phenomenal research is its effectiveness in climate change.  Since the atmospheric carbon dioxide is being converted into a hydrocarbon source, it will ultimately re-enter the atmosphere when we use it once again.  For this reason, it is important to understand that the influence of global warming is not completely alleviated.

In the long run, fossil fuels are expected to be depleted heavily within the next 50 years.  I believe the capacity for us to create our own fuel source should still be pursued, even though it doesn’t diminish our current state of warming climates.  It does, however, stop the overall amount of carbon dioxide from being enhanced in our atmosphere, and most importantly, does not exploit the limited reserves of coal remaining in our planet.