What Is a Hydrocarbon?

A hydrocarbon is an organic chemical compound composed exclusively of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Hydrocarbons occur naturally and form the basis of crude oil, natural gas, coal, and other important energy sources.

Hydrocarbons are highly combustible, producing carbon dioxide, water, and heat when burnt. Therefore, they are highly effective and sought after as a source of fuel.

Key Takeaways

  • Hydrocarbons are chemical compounds that form the basis of the vast majority of global energy production.
  • A variety of complex technologies and techniques have been developed for extracting hydrocarbons from deep within the earth.
  • In the years and decades ahead, there likely would be a growing movement away from hydrocarbons and toward alternative energy sources such as solar, nuclear, wind, and geothermal power.

Understanding Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbons occur naturally throughout the world, originating from plant and animal fossils that have been compressed by temperature and pressure over millennia. They are mostly found deep underground, in porous rock formations such as sandstone, limestone, and shale. These types of formations are often found in large bodies of water, with an immense quantity of hydrocarbons trapped deep beneath the oceans. Oil and natural gas exploration companies use advanced engineering techniques to identify these potential reservoirs and to pull their resources to the surface for human use. Examples of such technologies include offshore oil platforms, directional drilling, and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of hydrocarbons in the modern world. Today, hydrocarbons collectively are responsible for roughly 85% of global energy consumption. In fact, this figure actually understates the role of hydrocarbons by a significant margin, because they are used in a wide range of applications aside from their use as a source of energy. For example, refined petroleum has been used to produce myriad derivative materials that play critical roles in the world economy, such as plastics, solvents, and lubricants.

Using hydrocarbons as our only energy source, however, is no longer viable because of its negative effect on the environment. It is wise to move toward renewable forms of energy now if we are to prevent further erosion of the earth and its climate.

Different techniques are used to extract hydrocarbons, depending on the type and location of the reserve. For example, hydraulic fracturing—better known as “fracking”—is used to extract natural gas from shale rock by using pressurized fracking fluid to create fissures through which the gas can escape to the surface. Oil sands, on the other hand, are unconventional deposits of crude oil that are heavily intermixed with sand and sandstone, requiring the deposits to be mined.

The Effect of Hydrocarbons

Unfortunately, there is a serious environmental cost of using hydrocarbons as a primary source of energy. Greenhouse gasses released during the combustion of hydrocarbons are contributing to climate change, while the process of oil and gas extraction can damage the surface environment and surrounding groundwater of the extraction site.

Many economists argue that hydrocarbon energy production involves substantial negative externalities that are not sufficiently represented in the market price of oil and gas. In fact, considering the mounting cost of climate-change-related phenomena, many argue that these externalities significantly outweigh the cost savings associated with hydrocarbons.

To address these concerns, there is a growing movement toward the use of renewable energy sources such as solar, nuclear, wind, and geothermal power. Alongside innovations in battery technology and “smart grid” infrastructure, these new energy alternatives may play a significantly larger role in global energy production in the years and decades ahead.