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The Science of Energy: Crude Oil and Petroleum


Oil is the biggest global commodity today and provides the greatest percentage of our global energy usage. When we think of oil or petroleum, we often think of the gasoline used in our personal vehicles, but petroleum makes up a substantial portion of the manufacturing processes of most things we use every day. From the plastics in water bottles to the petroleum involved in transporting those bottles, oil has become the basis of our global economy.
 

The Science of Energy: Crude Oil and Petroleum
By: Matthew Novak
 
Oil is the biggest global commodity today and provides the greatest percentage of our global energy usage. When we think of oil or petroleum, we often think of the gasoline used in our personal vehicles, but petroleum makes up a substantial portion of the manufacturing processes of most things we use every day. From the plastics in water bottles to the petroleum involved in transporting those bottles, oil has become the basis of our global economy.
 
Crude oil is defined as a nonrenewable energy source. It forms from marine life decomposing over millions and millions of years. As the material decayed it was covered by layers of rock and soil. The carbon and hydrogen atoms in this material were then cooked under intense heat and pressure into long molecular chains. Molecular chains are atoms within a molecule that stick together to form what looks like a long chain. These long chains formed the backbone of crude oil, and as the liquid oil was created over time, it deposited into holes and openings within the sedimentary rock.
 
Before crude oil can be turned into plastic water bottles or gasoline for automobiles, it must first be extracted and transported to a petroleum refinery. Crude oil is a mixture of heavier and lighter components, along with chemicals that could clog up an engine, for example. Oil is created and refined in similar ways using intense heat and pressure to either form or refine its molecular structure. Crude oil needs to be refined before humans can use it, so it must go through a three-step process: separation, conversion, and treatment. During separation, crude oil is pumped through hot furnaces and distilled to isolate heavy components from the lighter ones. Then during conversion, the oil is subjected to more heat and pressure to “crack” or break down the heavier molecules into lighter ones that are used for gasoline, and other light oil products. Finally, the oil is treated with more pressure and other materials to assure the refined oil fits into specific chemical parameters.
 
The end result of the refining process creates a variety of petroleum products. In one 45 gallon barrel of refined petroleum, you get 19 gallons of gasoline, 12 gallons of diesel fuel, four gallons of jet fuel, and 10 gallons of various petroleum byproducts. Some petroleum byproducts are shipped to factories that make plastics or other compounds, while the rest gets shipped to other locations to be used for cars, energy generation, airplanes, ships, and much more.
 
While this process has been close to perfected over a century and a half, it does not come without an environmental cost. Arguably, the two biggest environmental costs of oil come when it spills and when it’s burned. Oil spills are a major disaster that can cause problems for marine life and land animals. When oil is transported on ships, a spill can coat wildlife and get into the food supply; over land, it can damage forests, wetlands, and other terrestrial ecosystems. The good news is that oil spills don’t happen very often. However, the main use of oil involves burning it. This has other environmental dangers, including the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which increases the worldwide greenhouse effect over time. This greenhouse effect helps regulate the global climate. Without the greenhouse effect, Earth’s climate would become like that of Mars, too cold for life with no atmospheric carbon dioxide. With an amplified greenhouse effect, Earth’s atmosphere would transform into that of Venus, too hot for life with nearly the entire atmosphere made up of carbon dioxide. Other environmental costs of oil production include pollution from the production and disposal of petroleum-based plastics and the destruction of sensitive ecosystems around where the oil is being drilled.
 
Recently, the environmental costs and economics of oil production have been taken into consideration by the oil industry to better understand the impacts it has on the natural environment. The top oil-producing countries include Russia, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and the United States, which is also the largest oil-importing country. The amount of oil produced is largely dictated by a country’s geographic region and access to oil, as well as the amount of drilling allowed in that country under certain regulations. One of the most important economic regulations impacting the oil industry is the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The EEZ was established in every country in 1994 by the United Nations to allow and regulate the exploration and extraction of marine resources. The EEZ comprises 200 miles of land and water off the coastline that can be utilized for oil production, commercial fishing, and much more by the country it encompasses. In the United States and many other countries, the EEZ provides them the ability to produce oil through offshore drilling techniques; these techniques helped the U.S. become a world leader in oil production.
 
As you can see, oil is a major player in energy production, but it comes with huge environmental concerns. Moving forward into the future, these concerns will play a vital role in our energy consumption. How the oil industry, and other industries that use oil directly or indirectly, confront these environmental challenges will also factor into our energy future in the United States and around the world.
 
 
References:
“Energy Kids: Oil (Petroleum).” US Energy Information Administration. Accessed July 6, 2016. http://www.eia.gov/KIDS/energy.cfm?page=oil_home-basics#Treatment
“Oil: Crude and Petroleum Products Explained.” US Energy Information Administration. Accessed July 6, 2016. http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=oil_home
“Refining Crude Oil.” US Energy Information Administration. Accessed July 6, 2016. http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=oil_refining
 

 

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