The Miracle of Oil – This article contains a series of articles on A History of Fossil Fuel Dominance. Therefore, to understand the whole series of these stories, you should read the previous articles. We have compiled the previous articles to the last article on the following list;
The Miracle of Oil
The brilliance of oil as a fuel is its transportability, due to its liquid form, versus solid coal and gaseous natural gas. It also contains over 50% more chemical energy than coal, at a ‘heating value’ of 46 MJ of energy versus 26–33 MJ for the highest-quality coals. Because of its liquid form, one supertanker of two million barrels provides the same amount of energy as 30 full coal trains with 100 cars carrying 115 metric tons of coal each. While natural gas contains even more energy, its gaseous nature made it difficult to transport in most countries, at least until the 1950s.
Crude oil also contains many different lengths of hydrocarbon chains that allow, after their separation in refineries via distillation and cracking, for a wide variety of products;
- Kerosine, the lightest fuel from crude is used mainly as jet fuel and for lamp oil.
- Gasoline, used for cars as well as aviation gasoline in light airplanes.
- Diesel, used for cars, is slightly heavier than gasoline and can be ignited just by compression, instead of requiring a spark like in a gasoline car.
- Heavy fuel oils, also called bunker fuels, are the heaviest of fuels from crude oil that are used primarily in shipping.
- Naptha, a large group of lighter carbon chain molecules used for the production of tens of thousands of chemicals used in paints, plastics, medicines, furniture and food products, among others.
- Asphalt, which is the heaviest part of crude oil and is used for roads.
- BTX aromatics, a special group of petrochemicals consisting of benzene, toluene, and xylene, used for hundreds of products including polystyrene packaging and polyurethane foams, like those found in synthetic pillows.
- Refinery gas, the light short carbon chain gas that comes out of the refinery distillation column, used to power the refinery itself.
The same products can be obtained from coal and natural gas, but that requires substantially more processing steps at a higher cost. For example, in China, many petrochemicals are currently produced from coal via methanol conversion. Methanol is a key chemical of the alcohol group already used to make various other chemicals used in plastics and products like antifreeze and plywood. The qualities of oil are only half of the success story. Its entrenchment is also a story of entrepreneurship and capitalism intertwined with market distortion and political power plays.
At first, there were few uses for the fuel beyond lamp oil. It could not be used directly in steam engines and offered few advantages as a substitute source of fuel over cheap coal. As mentioned earlier, not long into the twentieth century, however, smart engineers had improved the design of automobiles to initiate the oil age. And oil as a transport fuel for cars was only the beginning, with similar success stories for heavy-fuel oil-based shipping and planes powered by jet fuel since the 1950s.
In parallel, oil companies also found ways to utilize the light short hydrocarbon chains called naphthas. While these had been distilled in small quantities since the late nineteenth century from coal, wood, and oil, they had not found large use beyond lubricants and in rubber production. This all changed with the discovery of the first hard-setting plastic called Bakelite, in 1907, by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland. After commercialization in the 1910s, Bakelite was used for pipe stems, cigarette holders, telephones, and household appliances. Its durability and cheap cost made it the preferred choice for household
Not long after, a surge of chemical research led to the commercialization in the 1920s to 1950s of the plastics we still use today, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC), Plexiglas, polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polyurethane foam, among others. Not to mention the tens of thousands of other chemicals from oil used for paints, detergents, soaps, coatings, colorants, pharmaceuticals, and explosives.
It is said that over 50% of all items in a home or office have oil as their basis in one way or another. A key political reason to substitute oil for coal for electricity generation was related to labor power. The liquid nature of crude oil makes it much easier to extract than coal and far less labor-intensive, especially in the early decades of the oil industry. Moreover, oil is often extracted in other countries with dispersed supply chains instead of concentrated mines and railroads. Both factors mean that much less political power can be exerted by laborers to disrupt supply chains over issues of workers’ rights.
The national coal strike in the UK in 1912 crippled the economy and led to shipping fuel shortages, as one million coal miners laid down their tools and walked off the job. The government in response passed a minimum wage law to appease the strikers. Another general strike in the UK in 1926 was less successful, despite 1.7 million people of various trades laying down their tools to push for an increase in coal mine workers’ pay. The strike broke down after 10 days as the army rushed in to provide emergency supplies, and the trade union congress of non-coal workers backed down. The organized might of workers in the UK was a large influencing factor for politicians to favor oil over coal in shipping from the 1930s and later electricity generation in the 1950s. It allowed politicians to reduce the power of coal workers.