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A fuel is any material that can be made to react with other substances so that it releases chemical or nuclear energy as heat or to be used for work. The concept was originally applied solely to those materials capable of releasing chemical energy but has since also been applied to other sources of heat energy such as nuclear energy (via nuclear fission and nuclear fusion).
The heat energy released by reactions of fuels is converted into mechanical energy via a heat engine. Other times the heat itself is valued for warmth, cooking, or industrial processes, as well as the illumination that comes with combustion. Fuels are also used in the cells of organisms in a process known as cellular respiration, where organic molecules are oxidized to release usable energy. Hydrocarbons and related oxygen-containing molecules are by far the most common source of fuel used by humans, but other substances, including radioactive metals, are also utilized.
Fuels are contrasted with other substances or devices storing potential energy, such as those that directly release electrical energy (such as batteries and capacitors) or mechanical energy (such as flywheels, springs, compressed air, or water in a reservoir).
The first known use of fuel was the combustion of wood or sticks by Homo erectus near 2,000,000 (two million) years ago. Throughout most of human history fuels derived from plants or animal fat were only used by humans . Charcoal, a wood derivative, has been used since at least 6,000 BCE for melting metals. It was only supplanted by coke, derived from coal, as European forests started to become depleted around the 18th century. Charcoal briquettes are now commonly used as a fuel for barbecue cooking.
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