Steve Woods

Petroleum Day

In What Day is it? on August 27, 2009 at 9:59 am
An oil pump

An oil pump

Around 2000 BCE, Herodotus and Siculus wrote that an asphalt-like product was used to hold together the walls and towers of ancient Babylon.  Tablets have been found showing the use of petroleum for lighting and medicine in ancient Persia.

The word “petroleum” was first used in a 1546 treatise called De Natura Fossilium, published by Georg Bauer, a mineralogist.

Based on chemical similarities found between organic biomass and oil, it is understood that petroleum comes from deposits of biomass at the bottom of deep waterways, covered slowly with layers of sediment over millions of years.  Each layer added on created more pressure and frictional heat on the waste areas, until the waste was converted into hydrocarbon materials—namely oil and natural gas.  Depending on the composition of materials to produce it, crude can be a variety of colors, from dark black to even yellow.

When an oil drill’s piping pierces the layer of oil/gas, it provides an empty tube of much lower pressure, allowing the gasses to drive the oil upward. As the reservoir diminishes, a pump and/or gas injection is needed to continue this process.  An uncontrolled stream is called a “gusher.”  Once a gusher is under control, the next problem is transferring the product elsewhere for use. When oil was first pulled from the ground in Pennsylvania in the 1860s, people would grab any kind of container they could to capture the black gold. Barrel-makers began to standardize the size and type of barrel in order to mass-produce them. The chosen size was 42 gallons, based on old English rules to diminish deceitful practices in the fish trade.  The 42-gallon measure stands to this day, although most oil never makes its way into an actual barrel.

All crude oil is typically refined, as the original product is virtually unusable. Originally, contraptions similar to alcohol stills were used to refine oil. Many old-style moonshiners in Texas moved their businesses over to the more lucrative oil industry. More simple refineries remove basic impurities from crude. Today’s advanced behemoth refineries separate crude into its constituent products, by heating the oil in mixers. Different parts of the oil vaporize at different temperatures, releasing them for capture.  Additional processes known as “cracking” and “conversion” actually change the molecular structure of the newly-separated fluids for specialized uses. Basically, the more changes required, the more expensive the output will be.

Today, oil is largely harvested from underground sources; however, new technologies have allowed for retrieving petroleum from other sources, including sand deposits in Canada and Venezuela. It is estimated that trapped in these sands is more than 36 trillion barrels, about twice the known volume of drilled sources.


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