The Global Environmental Crisis

In This Section:
How Do Cars Work
Hydrocarbons
The Global Environmental Crisis


What is the environmental crisis?


It takes “hundreds of millions of years” for fossil fuels to form in the earth’s crust, meaning that the current supply is always dwindling and, in the context of that many millions of years, not being replenished at a sufficient rate to meet our needs.

These are non-renewable fuels. Once they’re used, they’re gone. Since before the advent of the internal combustion engine, humankind has been using fossil fuels to power our world—not just cars, but trains, airplanes, home heaters, and a variety of other sources of energy. The combustion, or burning, of these fossil fuels releases a high amount pollutants into the air, including a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Carbon dioxide is non-toxic to humans—after all, our exhale breath is about composed of about 5% carbon dioxide—and it is also an important compound in our atmosphere; it helps to regulate the climate. Too much of it, however, may be contributing to global warming. And as long as we continue to burn fossil fuels, we’re putting too much of it into the atmosphere.

Therefore, finding an alternative future fuel and energy source is of the utmost importance to securing the future stability of the earth’s climate.


So what’s my car doing to the air around us?


Air pollution is simple enough to measure if you had the proper instruments, but our cars emit most forms of it in a variable manner that isn’t easy to calculate or predict. The only exception on this list is Carbon Dioxide. In fact, there’s a reliably proportional relationship between fuel consumption and the quantity of Carbon Dioxide being emitted into the air, a fact to keep in mind when you’re next car-shopping: as a car’s fuel efficiency rises, it’s penchant for polluting the air goes down.

Because of this proportionate relationship, under the Future Fuels section at this web site the alternative fuels’ emissions are only discussed in terms of CO2. Other pollutants include:

PM - Particulate matter: Fine airborne particles cause lung and cardiovascular problems, obscure visibility and are chiefly responsible for smog
NOX - Nitrogen Oxides: At combustion, nitrogen gas reacts with oxygen to make nitrogen oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). These poisonous compounds create respiratory problems, lead to acid rain, and contribute to the greenhouse effect.
SO2 - Sulfur Dioxide: Under combustion sulfur in the fuel becomes sulfur dioxide, which irritates lungs, causes severe respiratory problems and contributes to acid rain.
Hydrocarbons: Can create respiratory problems, some are considered cancer-causing, contribute to greenhouse effect.
O3 – Ozone: A reactive oxygen form created when nitrogen oxides coming out the tailpipe react with hydrocarbons.
CO - Carbon Monoxide: Poisonous to humans. Restricts oxygen in blood cells. Cold engines emit a lot of CO.

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