Petroleum is classified as a fossil fuel produced from the processing of crude oil. Fossil fuels, like Oil and Coal are formed when sea plants and animals decompose underground. Examples of Petroleum based products are: gasoline, naphtha, benzene, kerosene, paraffin and plastic materials.

Oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea.
Photograph by Rebecca Hale

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What is Petroleum?

an oily, thick, flammable, usually dark-colored liquid that isa form of bitumen or a mixture of various hydrocarbons

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Fossil fuels take millions of years to form and therefore petroleum is also considered to be a non-renewable energy source.

Petroleum is formed by hydrocarbons (a hydrocarbon is a compound made up of carbon and hydrogen) with the addition of certain other substances, primarily sulphur. Petroleum in its natural form when first collected is usually named crude oil, and can be clear, green or black and may be either thin like gasoline or thick like tar.

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What is the difference between crude oil, petroleum products, and petroleum?

Distillation column of crude oil.

Petroleum may exist in gaseous, liquid, or near-solid phases either alone or in combination. The liquid phase is commonly called crude oil, while the more solid phase may be called bitumen, tar, pitch, or asphalt. When these phases occur together, gas usually overlies the liquid, and the liquid overlies the more solid phase. Occasionally, petroleum deposits elevated during the formation of mountain ranges have been exposed by erosion to form tar deposits. Some of these deposits have been known and exploited throughout recorded history. Other near-surface deposits of liquid petroleum seep slowly to the surface through natural fissures in the overlying rock. Accumulations from these seeps, called rock oil, were used commercially in the 19th century to make lamp oil by simple distillation. The vast majority of petroleum deposits, however, lie trapped in the pores of natural rock at depths from 150 to 7,600 metres (500 to 25,000 feet) below the surface of the ground. As a general rule, the deeper deposits have higher internal pressures and contain greater quantities of gaseous hydrocarbons.

History of Petroleum

First oil wells pumping in the United States; owned by the Venango Company, Titusville, Pennsylvania, 1860.

When it was discovered in the 19th century that rock oil would yield a distilled product (kerosene) suitable for lanterns, new sources of this mineral were eagerly sought. It is now generally agreed that the first well drilled specifically to find oil was that of Edwin Laurentine Drake in Titusville, Pa., U.S., in 1859. The success of this well, drilled close to an oil seep, prompted further drilling in the same vicinity and soon led to similar exploration elsewhere. By the end of the century, the growing demand for petroleum products resulted in the drilling of oil wells in other states and countries. In 1900, crude oil production worldwide was nearly 150 million barrels. Half of this total was produced in Russia, and most (80 percent) of the rest was produced in the United States.

First oil well in the United States, Titusville, Pennsylvania, 1859.

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The advent and the growth of automobile usage in the second decade of the 20th century created a great demand for petroleum products. Annual production surpassed one billion barrels in 1925 and two billion barrels in 1940. By the last decade of the 20th century, there were almost one million wells in more than 100 countries producing more than 20 billion barrels per year. Petroleum is produced in every continent except Antarctica.

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Leading Petroleum Consumers
1. United States
2. China
3. Japan
4. India
5. Saudi Arabia
Source: US Energy Information Administration

Leading Petroleum Producers
1. Saudi Arabia
2. Russia
3. United States
4. Iran
5. China
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Proven Reserves
These nations have the world’s largest proven oil reserves.
1. Saudi Arabia
2. Venezuela
3. Canada
4. Iran
5. Iraq
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

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Producing Oil

A semisubmersible oil production platform operating in water 1,800 metres.

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Although research has improved the odds since Edwin Drake’s days, petroleum exploration today is still a risky business. Geologists study underground rock formations to find areas that might yield oil. Even with advanced methods, only about 44 of every 100 exploratory wells find oil. The rest come up dry.

When oil is found, a petroleum company brings in a 50 to 100-foot drilling rig and raises a derrick that houses the tools and pipes that go into the well.

Today’s oil wells average 6,000 feet deep and may sink below 20,000 feet. The average well produces 11.3 barrels of oil a day.

To safeguard the environment, oil drilling and oil production are regulated by state and federal governments. Oil companies must get permission to explore for oil on new lands. Many experts believe that 85 percent of our remaining oil reserves are on land owned by the federal government. Oil companies lease the land from the federal government, which, in return, receives rental payments for the land as well as percentage payments from each barrel of oil.

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Petroleum Products

A petrochemical refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland.

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Petroleum products are materials derived from crude oil (petroleum) as it is processed in oil refineries. Unlike petrochemicals, which are a collection of well-defined usually pure chemical compounds, petroleum products are complex mixtures. The majority of petroleum is converted to petroleum products, which includes several classes of fuels.

According to the composition of the crude oil and depending on the demands of the market, refineries can produce different shares of petroleum products. The largest share of oil products is used as “energy carriers”, i.e. various grades of fuel oil and gasoline. These fuels include or can be blended to give gasoline, jet fuel, diesel fuel, heating oil, and heavier fuel oils. Heavier (less volatile) fractions can also be used to produce asphalt, tar, paraffin wax, lubricating and other heavy oils. Refineries also produce other chemicals, some of which are used in chemical processes to produce plastics and other useful materials. Since petroleum often contains a few percent sulfur-containing molecules, elemental sulfur is also often produced as a petroleum product. Carbon, in the form of petroleum coke, and hydrogen may also be produced as petroleum products. The hydrogen produced is often used as an intermediate product for other oil refinery processes such as hydrocracking and hydrodesulfurization.

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