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Renewable & Non-Renewable Resources: Definition & Differences

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  • 0:05 We All Need Resources
  • 0:57 Renewable Resources
  • 4:48 Non-Renewable Resources
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

We use a variety of Earth's resources, but not all of them will be around forever. This lesson explains the difference between resources that can be regenerated for our use and those that are gone after they are used once.

We All Need Resources

You can renew your lease when it runs out at the end of the year. You can renew your driver's license and license plate on your birthday. You can also renew a library book when your allotted time with it has expired. All sorts of things get renewed in our everyday lives when they 'run out' or expire. These are easy to renew because you don't have to create a new one, you just renew the ability to use whatever it is you are using.

You can apply this same principle to natural resources. We use all kinds of natural resources: minerals, wood, coal, natural gas, wind, water, plants, animals and many more. Some of these are renewable and some are non-renewable. The difference is that some renew at faster rates than others, making them more sustainable than those that do not renew very fast.

Renewable Resources

Renewable resources are resources that are replenished by the environment over relatively short periods of time. This type of resource is much more desirable to use because often a resource renews so fast that it will have regenerated by the time you've used it up.

Think of this like the ice cube maker in your refrigerator. As you take some ice out, more ice gets made. If you take a lot of ice out, it takes a little more time to refill the bin but not a very long time at all. Even if you completely emptied the entire ice cube bin, it would probably only take a few hours to 'renew' and refill that ice bin for you. Renewable resources in the natural environment work the same way.

Solar energy is one such resource because the sun shines all the time. Imagine trying to harness all of the sun's energy before it ran out! Wind energy is another renewable resource. You can't stop the wind from blowing any more than you can stop the sun from shining, which makes it easy to 'renew.'

Any plants that are grown for use in food and manufactured products are also renewable resources. Trees used for timber, cotton used for clothes, and food crops, such as corn and wheat, can all be replanted and regrown after the harvest is collected.

Animals are also considered a renewable resource because, like plants, you can breed them to make more. Livestock, like cows, pigs and chickens, all fall into this category. Fish are also considered renewable, but this one is a bit trickier because even though some fish are actually farmed for production, much of what we eat comes from wild stocks in lakes and oceans. These wild populations are in a delicate balance, and if that balance is upset by overfishing, that population may die out.

Water is also sometimes considered a renewable resource. You can't really 'use up' water, but you also can't make more of it. There is a limited supply of water on Earth, and it cycles through the planet in various forms - as a liquid (our oceans), a solid (our polar ice caps and glaciers) and a gas (as clouds and water vapor).

Liquid water can be used to generate hydroelectric power, which we get from water flowing through dams. This is considered a renewable resource because we don't actually take the water out of the system to get electricity. Like sunshine and wind, we simply sit back and let the resource do all the work!

Geothermal energy is a renewable resource that provides heat from the earth - 'geo' means 'earth' and 'thermal' means 'heat.' You know all of those volcanoes on Earth that spew hot lava when they erupt? That lava has got to come from somewhere, right? It's actually sitting underneath the earth's surface as incredibly hot rock and magma.

We find the most heat in places like plate boundaries because these are like large cracks under Earth's surface where the heat can escape as well as places on Earth where the crust is relatively thin. Old Faithful and other natural springs and geysers are the result of geothermal energy and that water can be hotter than 430°F!

Biofuels are renewable resources that are fuels made from living organisms - literally biological fuels. Ethanol is a biofuel because it's derived from corn. Biodiesel is vehicle fuel made from vegetable oil, and I bet you didn't know that people can actually run their cars on used oil from restaurants! Firewood, animal dung and peat burned for heat and cooking purposes are also biofuels because they come from living (or once-living) organisms.

Non-Renewable Resources

In contrast to renewable resources, non-renewable resources are resources that are not easily replenished by the environment. Let's think about this in terms of that ice cube maker again. Imagine that this time you don't have an automatic ice maker at home, you have to wait for someone to bring it to you, and they only do this once a month.

If you used up all your ice quickly, it wouldn't regenerate in your refrigerator, and you would be out of ice until the next delivery comes. The same thing happens with non-renewable resources on Earth, except the wait time is much longer than a month - usually more like thousands or millions of years!

The fuels we use to heat our homes and drive our cars are non-renewable resources because there is just no way that the earth can regenerate them in a usable time frame. Minerals are also considered non-renewable resources because, not only do they take millions of years of heat and pressure to form deep underground, but they're also found in a very limited quantity on Earth. Not all non-renewable resources are usable only once, though.

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