Petroleum, Economic Uses of (World of Earth Science)
From the dawn of time up through the late 1800s, economic development depended largely on the strength of man, animal, and to limited use water, wind, and steam. Economic conditions progressed from clans of primitive gatherers to reasonably advanced agricultural societies. As the industrialized age was in its early stages, the primary sources of energy were wood, coal, and whale oil. The environmental impact of utilizing these energy sources was extreme and growing worse.
Petroleum has been a known commodity through areas of natural seepage to the surface since early man, but was generally inaccessible to the masses. Its full potential had not yet begun to be realized. Population growth placed great economic stress on traditional fuels, and rising prices encouraged the search for alternatives.
In 1854, Canadian Abraham Gesner discovered an alternative to whale oil for use in lighting lamps by distilling kerosene from coal and oil. Edwin Laurentine Drake drilled the first successful oil well in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and created an industry that would go on to make petroleum the most significant single economic factor to date over the entire history of the world. Industries not possible without petroleum and its derivatives now dominate world economy.
Petroleum exists within the substrata of the earth in a number of forms depending on the hydrocarbon source, maturation process, elemental exposure, and the temperature and pressure of the reservoir. Crude oil is the most common form of petroleum and may range in specific gravity from being as light as 0.73 to being as heavy as over 1.07. Under standard surface conditions, the lightest crude oil will be a thin liquid of a brown or brownish-blue/green color, while the heaviest will be a black solid tar-like substance. The corresponding physical properties and chemical compositions also vary widely and determine which products may be derived from each specific crude oil and what refining processes will be most efficient in doing so.
Early refining techniques yielded barely 4.5 gal (17 L) of gasoline per standard barrel of crude oil (42 gal, or 159 L) and much of the remaining raw materials were underutilized. Continuing technical advances in a wide range of chemical processes, however, has significantly improved the efficient conversion of a barrel of crude oil to an ever-widening range of products that contribute to almost every facet of modern life. The typical barrel now yields 21 gal (80 L) of gasoline, 3 gal (11 L) of jet fuel, 9 gal (34 L) of distillates and petrochemical feedstock, 4 gal (15 L) of lubricants, and 3 gal (11 L) of heavy residue.
Gasoline is the primary fuel used to power internal combustion engines widely used in vehicles and machines. Jet fuel is used to power the extremely powerful engines that drive high performance aircraft.
Distillates are used to produce lower grade fuels such as kerosene for use as a heating fuel and diesel fuel for use in powerful vehicles such as trucks, ships and industrial machinery. Other even lower grade fuels are used to provide energy to industrial processes not requiring the same combustion quality required by higher speed engines. Distillates also yield a wide variety of waxes that are turned into products used for lining milk cartons, as water repellant coatings, cosmetics, electrical insulators, sealants, medicinal tablet coatings, crayons, candles, and many other everyday items.
Petrochemical feedstock is processed into supplying an ever growing assortment of products such as anti-freeze, bases for paints, cleaning agents, detergents, dyes, explosives, fertilizers, industrial resins, plastics, synthetic fibers (nylon, polyester, rayon), synthetic rubber, solvents, thinners, and varnishes. Though all of these products have helped improve how people live, the impact of plastics is among the most consequential petroleum products in the civilized world.
Lubricants help overcome friction and are produced in an assortment of greases and oils used to lubricate moving parts in machinery; pull electrical wire through insulating conduit; lubricate sewing needles, sliding doors, heavy loads, and surgical medical equipment; and to reduce drag on surf boards as they pass through water.
Finally, the heavy residue left over is in the form of tar, pitch, and asphalt. Tar and pitch were first discovered by early man laying in surface seeps or pools, having been cooked off from oil deposits deep within Earth's surface and was used to seal boats and preserve wood. Today, more refined forms of these heavy residues are used in much the same way and also to pave roadways.
See also Fuels and fuel chemistry; Geochemistry; Petroleum detection; Petroleum extraction; Petroleum, history of exploration