November 17 – Petroleum Day

Posted on November 17, 2016

This is NOT a day to double down on old technologies that pollute the environment. It's not a day to insist that we want big, gas-guzzling cars, and it's not a day to shrug aside alternative energy sources.

Instead, it's a day to learn more about petroleum. Like...did you know that this substance has been used since ancient times? And...did you know that petroleum is an important ingredient in many medicines and materials, makeup and paint, agricultural needs, and more?

A brief history of petroleum

Petroleum is made from vast quantities of dead plankton and algae falling to the bottom of seas and lakes, where the remains mix with dirt and sand. As further layers settle on top, the lower layers heat up. The pressure from above and the heat causes the fossilized remains to change to a waxy material called kerogen and then into liquid / gaseous hydrocarbons.

So the petroleum we have today was made long, long ago from the remains of living things that lived even longer ago! That's why we say that petroleum and other fossil fuels (fuels made of the fossilized remains of once-living things) are not renewable. Once we use up the petroleum we have now, we would have to wait millions upon millions of years for more to form!

Ancient peoples used
natural tars to waterproof
boats and seal roofs.
Forms of petroleum have been used since ancient times. Asphalt (a sticky black form of petroleum) was used to build the ancient city of Babylon. Ancient Persians used petroleum in their medicines and in order to create lights. In the mid 300s A.D. (C.E.), Chinese people began using bamboo to drill for oil. In Myanmar, hundreds of hand-dug wells produced oil – apparently since ancient times. In Europe, petroleum has been explored and used since the late 15th Century.

"Greek fire" couldn't be put out with water.
Historians think it was made using petroleum.

Modern distillation and use of petroleum got its start with Scottish chemist James Young in the mid-1800s.

Petroleum products

Here is a partial list of products made from (at least in part) petroleum:

  • gaseous fuels such as propane
  • liquid fuels such as gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuels, jet fuels, etc.
  • lubricants such as motor oil and greases
  • paraffin wax, which is used in the packaging of frozen foods, etc.
  • slack wax, which is used for candles, matches, and other products
  • sulfur, which is used for some insecticides and fungicides, matches, fertilizers, and so forth
  • tar, which is used for roofing
  • asphalt, which is used to form some forms of concrete and for paving roads
  • petroleum coke, which is used to make some kinds of electrodes
  • petrochemicals, which are used to make synthetic rubber, dyes, detergents, ammonia, and a variety of solvents
  • petroleum by-products, which are used to make linoleum, perfume, petroleum jelly, soap, vitamin capsules, pantyhose, paint, lipstick, shower curtains, safety glasses, shampoo, crayons, aspirin, and on and on and on... 
  • plastic, which is used to make...almost anything!

Oil spills and other forms of water pollution
can result from drilling for petroleum!
The worst thing about petroleum is that burning the various fuels made from it causes pollution and greenhouse gases that increase global warming. We need to be really smart about how we solve these problems, and how we replace our dependence on fossil fuels, as well!

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