Hydrocarbons play a key role in human activities. Large sectors like road, air, and ship transit depend on this set of organic compounds, as does heating in much of the world.
What are hydrocarbons?
Hydrocarbons are a group of organic compounds made up of carbon and hydrogen. Though they may be distilled from other compounds, they are generally extracted from the subsoil in the form of petroleum (liquid), condensates and liquids from natural gas (liquid by condensation), natural gas (gaseous), and methane hydrates (solids).
Why are hydrocarbons so important?
Our economy is slowly decarbonizing. It is still primarily dependent on hydrocarbons and other fossil fuels such as coal (which is a mineral). In the form of fuel, hydrocarbons continue to be the main engine of human activities. Unfortunately, extracting and using it pollutes the soil, the atmosphere, and the oceans.
In recent decades, alternatives have been achieved in terms of energy generation, such as renewables, and even in their use as fuel, as is the case with aerothermal heating and batteries in electric cars. However, many systems are still dependent on hydrocarbons, such as the incredibly efficient transportation of large container ships.
Handling hydrocarbons safely
Hydrocarbons can be especially unstable; especially in hot, dry environments, they can spontaneously combust or burn easily. Many of them are also toxic and carry other carcinogens. That’s why handling hydrocarbons requires high safety conditions. The infrastructure needed for its transportation and handling is designed based on these specificities.
When will hydrocarbons stop being used?
The use of hydrocarbons is expected to be phased out as soon as possible. There is a physical barrier that, global warming aside, encourages this shift. It is called EROI, or Energy Return on Investment, and it represents the energy extracted divided by the energy used. At the beginning of the 20th century, say that U.S. oil had an EROI of 100:1; in that case, it was 35:1 in 1990, and today, it is 11: 1. Wind and solar photovoltaic energy have peak EROIs of 80:1 and 20:1.