About this Article
Written by: Anna Wegis
Written on: July 1st, 2001
Tags: chemical engineering, lifestyle
Thumbnail by: Jori/SXC
About the Author
Anna Wegis was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California.
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Volume I Issue III > A World of Petroleum
The enriched lifestyle that many Americans enjoy is largely dependent on petroleum. Oil and natural gas provide 65% of our energy needs and 97% of our transportation fuels. Everyday items such as ink, heart valves, telephones, rubbing alcohol, sports car bodies, shampoo, and cosmetics are all products of petroleum. These products are produced through a method of petroleum refining in which the petroleum is separated into its different components based on their boiling points. The connection between crude oil and these daily-used products becomes apparent once one understands how petroleum is generated and refined.

Petroleum Is Everywhere

Consider the typical morning routine of an average college student. The annoying buzz of an alarm clock blares at nine and if, after much debate, the student actually decides to get up for class, she crawls out of bed, flips on the light, takes a shower, puts in her contact lenses, puts on her new outfit (made primarily of polyester), dries and curls her hair, puts on her make-up and is ready to leave. By the time she is done getting ready, it is about 9:59 a.m. (thanks in part to the fact that Sally and Maury are on the television at this time) and she must speed to campus in her red convertible sports-car. Just as she arrives at the campus and is about to park, a caller to the talk-show on the radio station is complaining about an oil company seeking to drill for oil and gas in his city. This is all the student hears before rushing away to class. She agrees with the man because she believes oil companies destroy the environment and pollute the water and land. However, by reaching such a conclusion the student would only be understanding one side of the story.
Figure 1: Petroleum can be found in many everyday products, including cosmetics.
Thousands of petroleum products are used and taken for granted each day by people all over the world. Consider our student of interest and discover some of the petroleum products used in her hour of preparation. The student is awakened by a petroleum product (her alarm clock), is wearing petroleum (her pajamas), and uses petroleum to turn on the light (the light switch). She has a convenient shower thanks to petroleum (the water pipes and shower curtain), washes her hair with petroleum (shampoo), and then applies petroleum to make her skin soft (lotion). Next, the student inserts soft contact lenses and uses a contact lens case, hair curlers, lipstick, deodorant, perfume, a comb, and toothpaste, all of which are petrochemical products. During the hour, she also watched the television, which is made in part from petroleum. On the way to school, she drove in petroleum (the body of her sports-car) and used petroleum to get there (fuel) (see Fig. 1).
The American economy is strongly tied to the success of the oil industry. In addition to its use in the manufacturing of the products mentioned above, petroleum is collectively the largest source of energy in the United States. Oil and natural gas provide 65% of our energy needs. Natural gas provides 25% of the energy Americans consume and is used for many conveniences, from heating and cooking to making electricity. It is even a source of power for some automobiles. According to the American Petroleum Institute, oil provides 40% of our energy and 97% of our transportation fuels. In December, 1998, American oil consumption was 19.284 million barrels of oil per day, and this number is increasing each year. The United States consumed 18.2 million barrels of oil a day in 1996. Although petroleum has an immense impact on our daily lives, it often goes unnoticed. The average American is not likely to see the connection between crude oil (a smelly, messy, dark-brown, slimy substance) and a red, convertible, sports-car. The connection can more easily be seen if one understands what petroleum is and how it is generated and refined.