Nonrenewable Resources

Nonrenewable Resources

Nonrenewable energy resources include coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear energy. Once these resources are used up, they cannot be replaced, which is a major problem for humanity as we are currently dependent on them to supply most of our energy needs.


5 - 8


Chemistry, Conservation, Earth Science


Coal-fire Plant

An aerial view of a coal-fired power plant in Mount Storm, West Virginia, taken in June 2012.

Photograph by Getty Images.
An aerial view of a coal-fired power plant in Mount Storm, West Virginia, taken in June 2012.

Renewable and nonrenewable resources are energy sources that human society uses to function on a daily basis. The difference between these two types of resources is that renewable resources can naturally replenish themselves while nonrenewable resources cannot. This means that nonrenewable resources are limited in supply and cannot be used sustainably.

There are four major types of nonrenewable resources: oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy. Oil, natural gas, and coal are collectively called fossil fuels. Fossil fuels were formed within the Earth from dead plants and animals over millions of years—hence the name “fossil” fuels. They are found in underground layers of rock and sediment. Pressure and heat worked together to transform the plant and animal remains into crude oil (also known as petroleum), coal, and natural gas.

The plants and animals that became fossil fuels lived in a time called Carboniferous Period, around 300 to 360 million years ago. The energy in the plant and animal remains originally came from the sun; through the process of photosynthesis, solar energy is stored in plant tissues, which animals then consume, adding the energy to their own bodies. When fossil fuels are burned, this trapped energy is released.

Crude oil is a liquid fuel fossil fuel that is used mostly to produce gasoline and diesel fuel for vehicles, and for the manufacturing of plastics. It is found in rocks below Earth’s surface and is pumped out through wells.

Natural gas is widely used for cooking and for heating homes. It consists mostly of methane and is found near oil deposits below Earth’s surface. Natural gas can be pumped out through the same wells used for extracting crude oil.

Coal is a solid fossil fuel that is used for heating homes and generating power plants. It is found in fossilized swamps that have been buried beneath layers of sediment. Since coal is solid, it cannot be extracted in the same manner as crude oil or natural gas; it must be dug up from the ground.

Nuclear energy comes from radioactive elements, mainly uranium, which is extracted from mined ore and then refined into fuel.

Unfortunately, human society is—for the time being—dependent on nonrenewable resources as its primary source of energy. Approximately 80 percent of the total amount of energy used globally each year comes from fossil fuels. We depend on fossil fuels because they are energy-rich and relatively cheap to process. But a major problem with fossil fuels, aside from their being in limited supply, is that burning them releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Rising levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the main cause of global warming.

Alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, are a possible solution to the depletion of nonrenewable sources. Both of these clean energy sources are available in unlimited supply.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
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Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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