Gummy Fossils: Simulating the Formation of Fossil Fuels

Subject Area: Earth Sciences/Science

Grade Level: 3rd – 8th grade

Prerequisite Knowledge: The understanding that living beings are made out of carbon

Goal: To provide a believable and visual representation of how heat and pressure can modify the structure of organic matter.

Time Required: 2 days (second day 2 days after first)

Materials Needed (per set-up):

  1. 1 large paper towel
  2. 3 slices of bread of at least 2 different colours (white, brown, rye)
  3. Gummy candy fish/animals
  4. 1-2 heavy books
  5. 1 Clear drinking straw

Opening (PDF worksheet attached at the end of page):

Did you know that coal, crude oil (from which gasoline and diesel and even petroleum jelly are made) and natural gas are all fossil fuels?

Can you think of some ways in which we use fossil fuels today? Let’s try to name a few of them together.

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Fossils are old right? Fossil fuels are even older than the fossils you have perhaps seen in museums. Watch the video to see how fossil fuels were formed.

[Fossil Fuel Formation]

Do you remember how many years ago the prehistoric animals and plants that make up the crude oil we use today lived on Earth?

It’s hard to believe that just sand and mud and water and the pressure from the weight of these can turn plants and animals into oil and gas, isn’t it? But they can…only we’re missing one key ingredient – TIME.

Layers of sand and mud and water over lots and lots of time – like more than two hundred million years – is what it takes to turn dead plants and animals into fossil fuels. 100-200 million years ago is a very, very long time ago. Tyrannosaurus Rex lived and killed smaller dinosaurs on Earth just 65-70 million years ago. So most of the fossil fuels we use today are much older than that. Tyrannosaurus Rex

I’d like to show you how to make fossil fuels, but we don’t really have 200 million years to spare. Luckily, we can do what is called a simulation. We can use other stuff to stand in for the plants and animals and microorgansims at the bottom of the ocean and for the layers of sand and mud that got dumped on top. It’s take us a few days, however, but not nearly as long as it would take to get natural gas.

We’re going to use gummy candy as our plants and animals and different coloured bread to be our different layers of mud and soil and sand. Take a look at the picture to get an idea of what the whole thing will look like.

Gummy Fossils

  1. Here’s what we’re going to do:The bottom of the ocean is white, so let’s put a slice of white bread on top on one side of the paper towel. Great, now we have our ocean floor. Remember we are going to fold the paper towel over the last piece of bread in the end.
  2. Place one gummy fish on top of your ocean floor (white bread slice).
  3. Now place the slice of rye bread on top. Your slices of bread should be lined up with each other and your gummy fish should be hidden from sight. The rye bread stands in for the sediments deposited by the ocean. Remember that this actually takes a very long time to happen.
  4. Now scatter your remaining gummy fish over the rye bread followed by the final slice of bread. This represents the natural processes that have taken place over millions of years, as more sand and sediments have been deposited by wind and ocean currents.
  5. Now fold the paper towel over the entire thing to cover your bread fossil.

Are we done? Not quite. What is missing to fossilize your fish? Can you guess?

  • PRESSURE. We need to add pressure. To do that, place 1-2 heavy textbooks or dictionaries on top to simulate the natural process of pressure from sediment deposits and the weight of the ocean.
  • Leave your model for 2 days. Each day represents 100 million years of natural time.
  • After one or two days, observe the bread fossil. Push a clear straw straight down into the bread and “extract” a core sample. Observe the layers through the straw.
  • Try to separate the layers of bread. Why do you think the layers are difficult to separate? Now try to extract the gummy fish. Can you identify the fish’s impression in the bread (fossil)? How about the bread around the fossil? What do you think that will look like after the fossil has completely melted?

The residue left by the gummy fish on the bread layer just above it after the gummy fish has completely melted represents oil deposits left by the dead ocean plants and animals. Over millions of years the pressure from the deposits and water liquefies the remains and turns it into fossil fuels.

Attached Worksheet:

Gummy Bread Fossils