For most of us in industrial and post-industrial countries, our lives revolve around oil. Here is some material you likely don t know and should.
Let's clear up some misconceptions about oil first. The fossil fuel whose price has skyrocketed recently and whose utility we cherish to run our cars, our furnaces and a load of other machines does not come from the bones of dinosaurs that were crushed 65 million years ago. Nor does it come from the bodies of all the animals that died in the Biblical Great Flood.
Crude oil doesn't even come from the bodies of billions of crustaceans like crawfish and mollusks like snails that died and whose bodies fell to the floor of the oceans millennia ago. Despite what we may have been taught, even that number of little animals could not have produced the amount of oil that we have used over the past century and that we plan to use over the coming one until the last drop is set aflame.
Nope, petroleum, crude oil, Texas tea, whatever you call it, began with pond scum. Call it zooplankton (that contains some tiny crustaceans and fish larvae) and algae if you like, but when you see it on top of a body of water such as a swamp, it's what we call pond scum. By no small coincidence, and to our great benefit, these little creatures (algae are technically very simple plants without roots or leaves, but that contain chlorophyll) are among the oldest and most abundant life forms on our planet. They have each contributed their tiny droplet of body oil to the pressure-cooker-like crush of rock under earth's surface for billions of years.
Algae may be tapped soon to soak up all the excess carbon dioxide we put into our air - they would turn it into oxygen. Sounds like a good plan. But, back to oil.
Knowing that oil is lighter than water, thus always floats on top of water when it gets the chance, you may wonder why all that oil didn't come to the surface and cover our planet. Actually, most of it did, over time. And, over the same period of time, it was gobbled up by bacteria that thrive on oil. That same bacteria is now used to soak up crude from oil spills.
The oil we pump and burn is but a small fraction of what was below the surface long ago. The oil that's still down there is caught in pools beneath rock so it can't rise to the surface.
Oil companies spend about $150 billion looking for new reserves each year. A large majority of holes they drill are "dry holes" that have nothing to give us but dust.
Penguins preen themselves after being doused with crude from an oil spill. To prevent their killing themselves by ingesting the stuff, thousands of them have been fitted with little sweaters that were knit for each one. (Believe it. As crazy as it sounds, it's true. It may be the only way to save them .)
Many states and provinces have a system on each gas pump whereby the volume is automatically adjusted according to the ambient temperature. Ontario's gas pumps, for example, adjust the volume to what it would be if the temperature were 15C (59F). But adjustments are only made occasionally and usually during the daytime. Buy your gas at night when the temperature is cool and the gas has more substance in the same amount of volume as during the daytime and you will get more gas for your buck.
On hot days, try to keep your car windows up if you are travelling at high speeds because the wind drag causes your car's engine to work harder, thus use more gasoline. At highway speeds, air conditioners use about the same amount of extra gas as having your windows down. But at slower speeds having the windows down is more economical than using the AC.
Every 100 pounds of stuff you remove from your vehicle should improve your fuel consumption by two percent. That may seem like a small amount, but carrying the extra weight all the time is like having a slow leak in your gas tank. There's another reason for not carrying your mother-in-law around in your trunk all the time.
What we call gas, gasoline, petrol and benzene in eastern Europe was once the waste product from the refining of crude oil to produce home heating oil. Refineries used to burn gasoline constantly to get rid of all the waste they had. Then someone decided that burning could be used more efficiently by powering an internal combustion engine.
Now, when will some bright light find a good use for the still-radioactive plutonium waste from nuclear reactors so that we don't have to bury it in old mines and under mountains for centuries?
Keep the gas cap on your vehicle done up tight. A loose or missing cap could cause up to 30 gallons of gas to evaporate into the air every year. In the state of California, the gasoline vapours that rise from filling tanks at gas stations alone would fill two tanker trucks every day. Yes, every day.
Speaking of tanker trucks, you may want to be careful when passing one of them. Not only is any truck carrying liquid cargo harder to drive than a truck with solid cargo due to a unique form of load shift, gasoline tankers could be carrying up to 4,000 gallons of fuel. That's an energy equivalent worth 200 tons of TNT going off should a collision cause it to catch fire.
While the petroleum industry only got started in North America in the 19th century, the Middle East has been using oil since the 8th century. While the west was in its Dark Ages, the streets of Baghdad were paved with tar derived from petroleum.
In the state of Azerbaijan, the folks in the oil-rich area of Baku used to dig a hole in the ground with their hands, drop in a live coal from a nearby fire and have a new fire with an endless supply of fuel to feed it.
While Canada and the USA dispute which country had the first oil well on the continent, neither country had the idea of using the petroleum as a source of energy for a while. In fact, the industry began slowly because no one seemed to have much of an idea of how to use it. A few enterprising American entrepreneurs saw their chance, bottled the stuff, plastered a label on the glass and sold it as a nectar of health tonic. As many as several hundred thousand bottles may have been purchased and consumed. One way or another, the users are long dead now.
American oil companies have laid down 161,000 miles (about 258,000 km) of oil pipeline within the continental US. That's about half the distance to the moon.
Oil pipeline companies use pigs to inspect their tubes. Not real pigs, of course. These robotic devices have been used as well in two James Bond movies, The Living Daylights and The World Is Not Enough. We'll have to wait until November to see if pipelines and the robot pigs that inspect them are used in the next Bond thriller, Quantum of Solace.
The biggest supplier of oil to the world's greatest user of petroleum products, the United States, is Canada. Alberta's oil sands (aka tar sands) has enough to last for another century at the present rate of usage. When the US government refers to it's own oil reserves, it includes the oil in Canada's oil sands because the North American Free Trade Agreement gives the US first dibs on Canadian oil.
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[Primary resource: Discover, July 2008]