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How Fuel Becomes Heat Energy

How Fuel Becomes Heat Energy
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  • 0:03 Definition of a Fuel
  • 0:43 How Fuel Is Formed
  • 1:43 How Fuel Becomes Heat Energy
  • 3:04 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.

When we burn wood, coal, or gas, we create heat. But where did that heat come from? Learn how fuel becomes heat energy, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of a Fuel

A fuel is a material like wood, coal, gas, or oil that can be burned to produce heat, light, or power. We put gasoline fuel in our cars, burn natural gas on a gas stove, and burn wood on a campfire. It helps us keep warm, cook our food, and transport ourselves quickly to distant locations. But what is it about these fuels that give them this ability? And how does fuel become heat energy?

Fuels contain chemical energy, and that energy is released when you burn them. But how did they get this energy? It all goes back to how they formed, and that's a little different depending on the exact fuel.

How Fuel Is Formed

Wood got its energy from the sun. Wood comes from trees, and those trees grow by taking light energy from the sun and using it to create sugars like glucose, which power its cells. The wood we burn was created from this energy provided by the sun and then stored in the wood.

Fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil formed when dead plants, animals, and marine life were compressed by layers of sediment and rock over millions of years. The plants and animals got the energy through the food web - some animals ate other animals, some ate plants, but eventually if you go far enough back in the food web all the energy came from plants, which got their energy from the sun. So even fossil fuels like coal and oil got the energy originally from the sun. The only difference is it took them millions of years to be compressed enough to turn into the form that we burn.

So that's why fuels contain energy. But how do we release it? How does the fuel become heat energy?

How Fuel Becomes Heat Energy

When you burn a fuel, you can feel the effects from a distance. If you create a gigantic campfire, it can keep you warm for a long time and provide light in the darkness. This energy was stored inside the fuel and is released when you burn it in a process called combustion.

Combustion is where you burn a fuel in the presence of an oxidant, which is usually just oxygen in the air. Combustion reactions turn fuel and oxygen into water and carbon dioxide. For example, if you were to burn methane you would get the reaction represented in the following formula:

Methane + Oxygen => Carbon Dioxide + Water + Energy (or heat), or:

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