Flame Lit – Part I – A limited micro-blog series of energy definitions and quick facts to help improve energy literacy

Lamp – photo by author


Whether we burn candle wax, propane, or coal, the combustion equation is always the same:

Fuel + oxygen = heat + by-products (carbon dioxide and water)

Most fuels we humans use today are organic compounds – wood, natural gas, gasoline, coal. Some grow in our time (wood), some are fossil fuels or are derived from them (crude oil, jet fuel, diesel).

Let’s take natural gas that many of us burn in our home furnaces. Natural gas is primarily methane, or CH4, so:

CH4+2O2 = heat + CO2 + 2H2O

In this simple combustion formula, it is the heat we are after – to warm our homes.

When we burn gasoline, we get a similar reaction:

2C8H18 + 25 O2 = heat + 16 CO2+18 H2O (1)

When we burn gasoline in our cars, we convert the energy released into mechanical energy to drive the vehicle.

When we combust any organic fuel, carbon dioxide (CO2) is a by-product. It is a greenhouse gas, the main greenhouse gas, in fact, we mean when we talk about climate change caused by human activity.

Combustion is an important concept when we start to evaluate how humans can generate energy – as reducing combustion reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

Next: What is natural gas and how does it get to our homes?

(1)Octane – Energy Education (

Alisa Caswell has a degree in chemical engineering. She spent twenty years working in the oil and gas industry, including roles in business development, operations and energy conservation. You can follow her on  Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.