Burning fossil fuels is the most common way humans have to produce mechanical energy. Despite the health and environmental concerns surrounding the practice, fossil fuels, in the form of coal and oil, remain the most common method of generating energy. The reason for this is simple. Burning fossil fuels is a cheap and reliable method of producing energy, and the vast infrastructure needed to do so is already in place.
Before burning fossil fuels, the fuel must first be collected. This process in itself has drawn some criticism, especially from environmental groups. The coal mining process can strip bare the sides of mountains. Further, drilling for oil also poses environmental risks, especially when it comes to the possibility of spills at sea, which can be massive, and have deadly consequences for many types of wildlife.
Next, after collection is done, the fossil fuels often need to be processed in order to burn properly in the intended equipment. For example, oil often goes to a gasoline refinery, where it can be made into fuel intended to be used in cars. Only after it is refined is it considered suitable for use in vehicles. Diesel fuel requires less refinement, but still must be refined in order to be used in most automobiles or machinery.
Coal is often transported to power plants, where it can be burned in large incinerators, which use the heat to power turbines. These turbines then generate electricity through electromagnets. The electricity can then be put out on the power grid for distribution. As with any energy conversion, some of that energy will be lost, but these losses are deemed acceptable, given the cost advantage found in burning fossil fuels compared to many other types of fuel.
Despite the criticisms, there are some advantages to burning fossil fuels. In addition to the cost advantage, the availability of fossil fuels is still very high. Also, most of the world's machines are designed to burn fossil fuels, whether this is in a personal automobile or a large power plant. While a shift will need to happen eventually, doing it gradually can be much less expensive than trying to do it all at once.
These advantages do not come without some disadvantages as well. Many are very concerned with how these fossil fuels, especially through carbon emissions, affect the environment. Carbon dioxide has increase from less than 280 parts per million (PPM) before the industrial revolution to more than 330 PPM at the beginning of the 21st century. Also, fossil fuels are considered a non-renewable resource and once they are depleted, they will not return quickly. Therefore, alternatives will need to be considered at some point.