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Fossil and nuclear fuel extraction

Review your understanding of fossil and nuclear fuel extraction in this free article aligned to AP standards.

Key points

  • There are two main methods for extracting energy fuels from the Earth: mining and drilling. Mining is used to extract solid fuels, such as coal and uranium. Drilling is used to extract gaseous or liquid fuels, such as natural gas and crude oil.
  • Subsurface mining describes the process of extracting resources from deep underground, using tunnels and shafts to reach deposits. Subsurface mining can be dangerous for workers, and can also cause environmental problems such as cave-ins, fires, and contamination of nearby waterways.
  • Surface mining describes the process of accessing and extracting resources by removing overlying soil and rock. This type of mining is often used when resources are located near the surface.
    • Mountaintop removal is a type of surface mining in which explosives are used to blast away the top of a mountain in order to access a buried resource. This type of mining is destructive to the environment, generating large amounts of excess rock and soil which are often dumped into nearby valleys and waterways.
    • Strip mining is a type of surface mining in which a long, relatively shallow strip of overlying soil and rock is removed to access the resource below. This type of mining is also destructive to the environment, leaving behind large scars in the land.
  • Uranium can be extracted through mining, or by another technique called in-situ leaching. In this process, chemicals are pumped underground where they dissolve the uranium found in porous rocks. The uranium-containing liquid is then pumped back to the surface where it can be processed.
  • Conventional extraction of oil and gas resources involves vertical drilling. In this technique, wells are drilled vertically deep into the ground, and then oil and gas resources are brought to the surface.
  • Unconventional methods of oil and gas extraction include drilling horizontal wells and hydraulic fracturing. This technique, also called fracking involves injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground at high pressure, creating fractures in the rock from which oil and natural gas are released. Impacts of fracking include methane being released into the atmosphere and groundwater contamination.
A series of events outline the production of natural gas from a shale deposit. Water is acquired. Chemicals are mixed. Chemicals are injected into a J-shaped well that passes across layers of underground rock and water. The chemicals fracture the shale rock and natural gas flows from fissures into the well. Natural gas flows back up the well along with wastewater. The wastewater undergoes treatment and disposal.
Fracking is used to extract oil and natural gas from rock. Image credit: “Hydraulic Fracturing-Related Activities" by US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, Washington, DC, [Public domain].

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