Comparing Cellular Respiration to Burning Fossil Fuels

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  • 0:05 What Is Cellular Respiration?
  • 1:13 Respiration Vs. Fossil…
  • 2:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Humans could not live without cellular respiration. It's how we use the food we eat and the air we breathe to keep our bodies running. Learn about cellular respiration and discover how it has a striking similarity to the process of combustion.

What Is Cellular Respiration?

The human body is made up of around 37 trillion cells. Each of these cells completes a particular function and has many of the processes of a fully-fledged organism on a small scale. Like a full organism, cells need energy in order to work.

Since our cells need energy, so do we. This is why we eat food. The food eventually finds its way to cells in order to power them. But our cells can't simply be fed a plate of mac & cheese. What our cells need to do, is break down larger molecules into a form that is more useful for the cell. This happens through a process called cellular respiration.

Cellular respiration is a set of chemical reactions that happen inside the cells of organisms. The most important reaction and most basic of reactions is where glucose from our food is combined with oxygen that we breathe in to produce carbon dioxide, water, and energy (in the form of ATP) inside the cell. This basically involves breaking down glucose (which is a large molecule) into smaller molecules. The carbon dioxide gets breathed out again through your lungs.

Respiration vs. Fossil Fuel Burning

Sometimes analogies are helpful in understanding processes like cellular respiration. One common analogy is to compare cellular respiration with the burning of fossil fuels. The burning of fossil fuels is a process called combustion.

Combustion is where compounds that contain carbon are burned through a reaction with oxygen to turn the chemical energy stored within them into more useful forms - heat and light. Examples of compounds that contain carbon usually include fuels like coal, wood, and oil. In the process, large molecules found inside the fuel are broken down into smaller ones, releasing energy.

This is similar to cellular respiration in several ways:

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