What are Nonrenewable Resources?

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Definition:

Nonrenewable resources are resources that humans use up faster than nature can replace them.

🤔 Understanding nonrenewable resources

Fossil fuels, like oil and coal, are nonrenewable. Using renewable energy sources, like wind, is a way to reduce the use of nonrenewable resources. Nature contains limited quantities of nonrenewable resources as they take a very long time to replenish themselves. Nature replenishes renewable resources in a short period of time, so they have a lower risk of being used up. Plants, animals, fresh water, and air are renewable resources. Nonrenewable resources are important because we use them in many things, from heating our homes to powering our cars. Nonrenewable energy resources generally are cheap and easy to use, but they contribute to pollution. You can reduce the use of nonrenewable resources by reducing, reusing, and recycling. Turning to renewable energy sources also helps to preserve nonrenewable resources.

Example

Humans have been using coal to produce heat for a very long time. In the 1880s, coal was used to generate electricity for homes. By 1961, coal was the primary fuel used to produce electricity in the United States. Coal is still used today to generate about half of the electricity used in the United States. Coal is a nonrenewable resource as it takes millions of years to form. Since we are using coal faster than nature can replace it, there is a risk that we could exhaust the earth’s supply.

Takeaway

A nonrenewable resource is like an inheritance...

When you receive your paycheck every two weeks, this is a renewable source of income. You keep receiving your paycheck every two weeks as long as you work. But when you receive an inheritance, it is usually a one-time thing. A lump sum is a nonrenewable source of income — as you only receive it once, and it’s over. Similarly, when you use up a nonrenewable resource, there’s no more left of it.

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What are Nonrenewable Resources?

Nonrenewable resources are natural resources that have a fixed amount available. They generally either can’t be replenished or take many years to do so — That means we risk using them up.

Fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), nuclear fuels, and minerals are nonrenewable resources. They can be solids, liquids, or gases. Fossil fuels are energy resources composed of carbon. They were formed millions of years ago deep within the Earth’s crust from organic material, such as plants and animal remains. We can burn them only once to produce electricity, or refine them to use as fuel for heating or transportation.

Whether or not we run out of a resource depends on two things: how quickly we use it and how fast natural processes replace it — its replacement time. A resource is nonrenewable if it has a long replacement time (generally longer than a human lifetime). Practically speaking, most nonrenewable resources will likely never be replaced. Take iron ore, for example. There is a certain amount of iron ore on the planet. Once we have mined it, there probably isn’t any more coming to take its place as it can take billions of years to form.

What are some examples of nonrenewable resources?

Here is a list of nonrenewable resources:

  • Fossil fuels: includes crude oil/petroleum, natural gas, and coal. All fossil fuels are nonrenewable resources, but not all nonrenewable resources are fossil fuels.
  • Nuclear fuels: refers to uranium and plutonium.
  • Minerals and metals ores: includes diamond, gold, silver, copper, iron, aluminum, and all other minerals.

Nonrenewable resources are generally extracted from the ground. They are then processed and transformed into commercial products.

The oil industry extracts crude oil by drilling in the ground. Oil is then converted into gasoline, which we use to power our cars. Heating oil, diesel fuel, jet fuel, and asphalt also come from crude oil. Petroleum also serves to make plastic, which is used in many products. Petroleum byproducts include fertilizer, perfume, petroleum jelly, and soap.

Natural gas requires drilling (and sometimes fracking) to be extracted. Natural gas contains methane and ethane that are used to make heating and cooking fuel. We can also burn these gases to generate electricity.

Coal is solid like a rock and is extracted through mining. There are four different types of coal: lignite (formed from peat), subbituminous coal, bituminous coal, and anthracite. Lignite has the lowest energy content and is used to produce electricity. Anthracite has the highest heating value, while subbituminous coal has the lowest heating value.

Nuclear fuels, like fossil fuels, are used for energy production, mainly from the mining and refining of uranium ore. Nuclear fission releases a large amount of energy.

Metals and minerals are mined, and extracting them is often expensive. They are used in many products, such as jewelry, cell phones, computers, cars, and beverage cans.

What’s the difference between renewable and nonrenewable resources?

Renewable resources are natural resources that can regrow or be replaced over a relatively short time (typically within a person’s lifespan). Renewable resources are usually not in danger of being used up. We can still run out of them, though, if we use them more quickly than the environment’s capacity to replace them.

Solar energy, wind energy, tidal power, fresh water, crops, geothermal energy, oxygen, biomass, fish stocks, and forests are examples of renewable resources. We can replace trees that have been cut down by planting new trees. Almost all plants and animals are renewable resources because they grow and reproduce relatively fast. The sunlight and the wind replenish themselves.

Unlike renewable resources, nonrenewable resources are found in fixed quantities and are being used faster than nature can replace them — No mechanisms exist at present to replenish them.

What are the advantages and disadvantages or nonrenewable resources?

Nonrenewable resources, while useful, have some pros and cons that people should consider before using them.

Advantages

  • Cheap and easy to use: There are existing structures for nonrenewable resources. So, they usually need less initial capital than renewable energy installations. Plus, they are generally cheap to extract and easy to store.
  • Efficient: People like nonrenewable resources for their energy efficiency and consistency. They are reliable and can produce a lot of energy in a short time. Renewable energy sources generally depend on less reliable sources, such as the wind and the sun.
  • Low maintenance costs: Nonrenewable resources typically have low maintenance costs as compared with renewable energy resources.

Disadvantages

  • Limited quantity: Nonrenewable resources have a finite life and will vanish one day. We can run out of them, as they can take millions of years to form again. The use of nonrenewable resources as we use them now isn’t sustainable in the long-term. We could run out of these resources one day if we don’t use more alternative energy resources such as solar and wind power.
  • Not clean and green: Many nonrenewable resources are threatening to the environment. When fossil fuels burn, they release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Nuclear power produces potentially dangerous nuclear waste. Burning coal releases toxic pollutants into the air.
  • Can cause accidents: Handling nonrenewable resources can be dangerous. Oil spills can cause fires and contaminate bodies of water. Extracting coal can cause landslides, explosions, or fires. Fracturing rocks (fracking) is necessary to extract natural gas, but this can cause mini-earthquakes. The nuclear accident of Fukushima in 2011 caused a great deal of harm to nature and humans.

Why are nonrenewable resources important?

Nonrenewable resources are vital in our modern world because we use them every day in many things. We use oil for just about everything. Many of our day-to-day products are made of plastic. Most people are still using gasoline to power their vehicles. Coal is still used to generate heat.

Most of the power generated in the world still comes from fuels created from nonrenewable energy resources. People tend to prefer them to renewable energy sources for their high quality and low cost, so they probably won’t stop using them anytime soon.

Nonrenewable resources are essential for everyone. That’s why it’s necessary to take care of them and use them wisely. We have to preserve nonrenewable resources, so they don’t run out.

How do we protect nonrenewable resources?

Using nonrenewable resources the way we do now isn’t sustainable because one day we could run out of them. We need to consume them judiciously to make sure there will always be plenty for future generations. One way to protect nonrenewable resources is to use energy more efficiently as well as reduce, reuse, and recycle everything we can.

To consume less energy, you can turn off lights when you leave a room. Try to reduce your heat usage by putting on more clothes. Wash your clothes with cold water. You can ride your bike or walk more to reduce the amount of gasoline you use. If you have to use a car, you can opt for an electric one. Or you could carpool or take a bus. You can reuse and recycle things like plastic, paper, glass, cardboard, aluminum, and steel. You could buy used clothes instead of buying new ones. Instead of throwing away broken products, try to repair them when possible.

Using renewable energy sources is another way to preserve nonrenewable resources. Renewable energy comes from natural processes that repeat themselves. Sun, wind, hydropower, tidal power, geothermal energy, biomass, and biofuel are examples of renewable energy sources. Here is a brief description of how these energy sources work:

  • Solar power panels convert the energy coming from the sun into electricity.
  • Wind power turns turbines to produce electricity.
  • Hydropower involves moving water turning a turbine, which creates electricity.
  • Tidal power generates electricity from the force coming from tides.
  • Geothermal energy consists of capturing the underground stream that flows to a turbine to generate electricity.
  • Biomass relies on the energy coming from organic material (plants, crops, wood, or even feces). We burn this organic material to produce electricity. Biofuel is a fuel produced from biomass.

What’s the future of nonrenewable resources?

Nonrenewable resources’ scarcity (limited supply) is a real problem. As the supply of nonrenewable resources keeps diminishing, their cost will likely rise. If nonrenewable resources become too expensive, users might feel forced to turn to renewable sources of energy.

There is also a growing concern over the negative environmental impacts of fossil fuels. They are unfriendly to the environment as they produce pollutants that can worsen climate change. As the world’s primary source of energy, fossil fuels create the majority of greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans.

Renewable energy is growing as people’s preferences are changing. Many cities are trying to meet ever-increasing energy demands with more respect for the environment. More people are using cleaner, renewable resources to produce electricity, such as wind and solar power. Renewable energy companies could see greater demand as more people turn to renewable energy for their energy needs.

While the shift to renewable energy sources takes time, their use is increasing. In 2019, renewable energy sources made up about 11.4% of total energy consumption and 17% of electricity generation in the United States. Around 72.2 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of solar power were generated in the United States in 2019, compared to only 493 million kWh in 2000. In 2019, wind-generated 7.3% of total U.S. electricity. This is still far from the use of wind in Denmark, which accounted for 47% of total electricity there in 2019. But the numbers are encouraging and, hopefully, will keep increasing as people are more conscious about climate change.

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