What do we use oil for?


Early use

People have known crude oil, which comes to the surface of the earth as a viscous black mass, for a long time. Even in the Stone Age, hunters attached their arrowheads with this sticky bitumen (sometimes called pitch or tar). In the area of ​​what is now Iraq, it was used to seal boats more than 5000 years ago.

Later it was also used for warlike purposes. For example, Persian archers dipped their arrows in bitumen and set them on fire.

The ancient Greeks built real flamethrowers with the oil-containing mass. The first oil wells were also long ago: China was drilling for oil more than 2000 years ago.

The first oil boom

Large-scale exploitation of crude oil began in the 19th century. The reason for this was the search for a good and cheap lamp fuel - because whale oil was only affordable for the rich, tallow candles smelled unpleasant and there were only a few modern houses with gas flames.

The Canadian doctor and geologist Abraham Gesner discovered a process with which petroleum (also called kerosene or rock oil) could be obtained from coal, a relatively clean-burning, inexpensive lamp fuel. But petroleum made from petroleum proved to be even more productive and cheaper. It displaced whale oil from lamp fuel and created a huge demand for petroleum.

It has long been known that when drilling for water and salt, oil occasionally seeped into the boreholes. So the idea was to drill for oil straight away. In the mid-1840s, oil was drilled in what is now Azerbaijan, in Baku on the Caspian Sea. The drilling took place between 1844 and 1849, making it the first in the world.

There was also drilling in Germany, for example in 1858 in Wietze in Lower Saxony, west of Celle. However, the well that Edwin L. Drake carried out in August 1859 at Oil Creek in the US state of Pennsylvania became world famous. Drake drilled on behalf of the US industrialist George H. Bissell and came across the first American oil well at a depth of just 21.2 meters. Ten years after the gold rush, the oil boom began in America.

Until the 1920s, its use as a light source remained the most important use of petroleum. But then the automobile began its triumphal march - and with it oil as fuel.

Processing of crude oil

Crude oil is a mixture of more than 500 components. It consists mainly of hydrocarbons with different boiling points. This is used to extract the various petroleum products in a refinery by means of distillation.

First, the crude oil is heated to around 400 degrees Celsius. It evaporates and flows into a distillation tower with different levels (bubble cap trays), a so-called column. The bell bottoms have different temperatures. Each of these levels is cooler than the one below. This is how you can separate the mixture of substances in the crude oil.

The substances in the crude oil condense according to their boiling points. Heating oil and diesel, for example, condense at around 360 degrees Celsius. The middle distillate at around 250 degrees Celsius is the raw material for petroleum and kerosene. Light petrol condenses at 100 degrees Celsius and the gases methane, ethane, propane and butane at 30 to 50 degrees Celsius.

Parts of the light petrol and the gases are further processed in a special distillation process in order to obtain the basic building blocks for plastics and other petroleum products. There is hardly an everyday item that does not contain some of the oil.

What you can do with petroleum

The consumption of petroleum is still increasing. In 2017 it was almost 100 million barrels (159 liters) per day worldwide. Road traffic has had the largest share of consumption for years: worldwide it was 42 percent in 2014, and consumption in the EU is even slightly higher. In addition, more than ten percent are air traffic and shipping.

Crude oil is playing an ever smaller role in heating buildings (8 percent worldwide, almost 6 percent in the EU) and in energy generation (6 percent worldwide). The situation is different in Germany, which is almost entirely dependent on oil imports: in 2014 around 27 percent of all apartments were still supplied with heat by oil heating.

Oil is also found in many everyday products: PVC (polyvinyl chloride) for example in window frames, floor coverings, medical devices and hoses. Polyurethane is suitable for foams in upholstered furniture and mattresses. Polystyrene can be found in every Styrofoam packaging.

Without Polyethlyn there would be no thermoplastics, i.e. no watering cans, buckets, television housings, Tupperware boxes, vacuum cleaners. Polyamide is the material for synthetic fibers, which also includes nylons. Detergents and cleaning agents are based on ethylene oxide. From containers for the food industry to CDs and DVDs to pharmaceutical products and fertilizers - without petroleum there would be a lot of them.

A television set consumes an average of 2.4 liters of crude oil, a pressboard shelf 7.5 liters and half a liter for a nylon tie alone. Around 13 percent of the world's crude oil was used for such everyday products in the petrochemical industry in 2014. According to estimates by the International Energy Agency, oil consumption in this branch of industry will continue to rise; consumption has already doubled since 2000. A further increase is expected for consumption in traffic - the world's thirst for oil is growing.