Crude oil is responsible for around 35% of industrial CO2 emissions and is the most traded commodity in the world. Crude oil is a naturally occurring fossil fuel – an unrefined petroleum product that is composed of hydrocarbon deposits and other organic materials. Crude oil can be refined to produce usable fuel such as diesel, gasoline and various petrochemicals. Like all fossil fuels, crude oil is a limited resource, it is a non-renewable resource and cannot be replaced naturally at the rate in which we use it.
The use of crude oil
In 2016 we consumed 96 million barrels of oil every day! Crude oil has been around for centuries, early uses included making the asphalt used in the construction of the walls of Babylon. Asphalt was also used as a waterproofing agent for baths, pottery and boats. The first large-scale demand for crude oil came after the invention of the kerosene lamp in 1854. Today, crude oil powers a global economy and can be used to make almost anything from fuels to plastics.
Every barrel of crude oil contains a mixture of different hydrocarbons. Different hydrocarbons are used to fuel different things; the shorter the hydrocarbon chain, the easier it burns. Therefore, a molecule such as butane, four-carbons long, is perfect for a cigarette lighter or camping stove, but something like a ship’s engine may use molecules ten times longer.
Refining crude oil
Refineries separate the hydrocarbons in crude oil using distillation, whereby different hydrocarbons vaporize at different temperatures, allowing them to be easily extracted. However, even “light” crude, the short-chain-rich crude oil that is produced through distillation, contains more long chains than needed, so refiners use “fluid catalytic cracking” and brute-force heat (“coking”) to break some of the longer modules into shorter ones.
These processes also produce an abundance of small molecules that contain just two or three carbons. These smaller chains form the basis for the petrochemical industry which uses them for their own properties and as the foundation for a variety of plastics, fibres and pharmaceuticals.
The damaging effects
Burning hydrocarbons releases a lot of energy and some water, but it also creates tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, accounting for 35% of industrial CO2 emissions. Most refineries use between 5% and 10% of the energy in the crude oil that passes through them, but thanks to practitioners of “synthetic biology” who are developing ways to genetically engineer microbes that can synthesise the building blocks of petrochemicals, they may one day become redundant.
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