We use living things from millions of years ago everyday.  They help us drive cars, heat our houses, and even turn on the lights.  No, this is not like a stone age cartoon where dinosaurs cook food with their fire breath or run on little tracks to keep our cars going.  The parts of these old living things we use look nothing like the animals and plants they came from.

Can somebody please turn off the lights?

Under the earth lie the bodies of things that lived long ago.  Some of them were kept safe in rocks or mud and still look like the animals and plants they once were; we call these fossils.  The rest of them had more and more layers of dirt and rock put on top of them that changed them.  This change came from a lot of heat and pressure that made their bodies break down and change into oil, coal, and gas.  

I'm feeling a little stuck in the mud today.

While they were living, these plants made food from sunlight, and animals ate food that went into their bodies to make them grow.  They may be dead now, but all of the energy from this food stayed around as energy we can use.  Fossil fuels are oils, gases, and rocks made from ancient organisms that we can use for energy.  Without them, we would not have many of the things you use everyday.

Crude oil, today's fossil fuel of choice.

Walk down the sidewalk.  What do you see?  You see buses, cars, and machines.  They all need gas to work and oil to keep running.  Oil is a kind of fossil fuel found deep inside the earth that we can use to make the gasoline we use in our cars.  That's right, the same energy that made a t-rex run helps your car speed down the street.  It comes out of the earth looking like thick black water, but we clean it and change it to do many things that keep our world running.

Wow, look at all the cars!

You will not see a lot of coal these days, unless it's in old movies, in a Christmas stocking, in train cars, or in an old heater.  But it does plays an important part in your everyday life.  Coal is another kind of fossil fuel found under the ground that looks like black chalk.  We can use it for heat and to make electricity.  The energy used to power the lights in the room you are sitting in right now was likely made from coal.  By breaking it up into dust and burning it, we heat water.  The water makes steam which turns gears to make electricity. 

Someone has to fuel the steam generators.

Even though fossil fuels are an easy way to get a lot of energy, using them comes at a price.  When we burn them to use their energy, we let out gases that make our air dirty.  Have you ever seen smoke pouring out of factories or from behind a car?  Do you live in a city where some days the air is brown, gross, and hard to breathe?  Carbon dioxide is a gas released by the burning of fossil fuels.  It makes the air more dangerous to breathe and hurts our world.  It's not easy to stop using them because we need to burn these fuels to drive our cars and keep our cities working.  

And I'm supposed to breathe that?

Lucky for us, the last kind of fossil fuel is not as dirty as the others and works just as well, sometimes even better.  Natural gas is a fossil fuel we get from the ground that can catch fire and is cleaner than other fuels.  We use it to heat our homes.  So why do we not use it all the time instead of coal and oil?  Gas is hard to get and hard to move.  When digging through rock, we have to be careful not to let it escape and not to let it catch fire because it will explode.  If you carry gas in anything that has even the smallest hole, all of the gas will leak out like air from a balloon.  Still, we use natural gas wherever and however we can to keep our air clean and to save the other fuels.

We use fossils everyday.  Without them, we could not drive cars, heat our houses, or use as much electricity as we do.  By burning what's left from things that lived long ago, we are also making our air harder to breathe.  Other kinds of fuels cost a lot more money and do not work as well, so we will not stop using fossil fuels soon.  It's a hard situation with no easy answer.  What would you do?


eHow Mom. "Fossil Fuel Information for Kids." eHow, 2011.

eHow. "How Fossil Fuels Work." eHow, 2010.  

Teach Engineering. "Dinosaur Breath." Teach Engineering, 2010.