What Is a Hydrocarbon?

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

Hydrocarbons are highly combustible and produce carbon dioxide, water, and heat when they are burned. Therefore, hydrocarbons are highly effective as a source of fuel.

Key Takeaways

  • Hydrocarbons are chemical compounds that are utilized as 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.
  • Because of the serious environmental cost of using hydrocarbons as a primary source of energy, it is likely that in the years and decades ahead, the movement away from hydrocarbons and toward alternative energy sources such as solar, nuclear, wind, and geothermal power will increase exponentially.

Understanding Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbons occur naturally throughout the world, originating from plant and animal fossils that have been formed by the forces of temperature and weight over millennia. They are mostly found deep underground, in porous rock formations (such as sandstone, limestone, and shale). Porous rock formations are often found in large bodies of water, so there is 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 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.

Hydrocarbons are very important for the modern economy. Globally, hydrocarbons are responsible for roughly 85% of energy consumption. This figure may actually understate the role of hydrocarbons in the economy 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 global economy, such as plastics, solvents, and lubricants.

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. Mining is used to access oil sands, which are unconventional deposits of crude oil that are heavily intermixed with sand and sandstone.

Special Considerations

Unfortunately, it is now understood that there is a serious environmental cost to using hydrocarbons as a primary source of energy. Greenhouse gasses released during the combustion of hydrocarbons are contributing to climate change. 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 any 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.