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How Gasoline Is Made From Crude Oil

February 26th, 2008

crude-oil-gasoline.jpgWith the recent rise of both crude oil and gasoline (petrol) prices, there has been an increasing amount of interest in how crude oil is used to make gasoline. In this article, I will explain the basic refining process and point you to other sources where you can find more detailed information on this topic.

Crude oil, otherwise known as petroleum, is a fossil fuel that is extracted from the ground and refined to make a wide variety of products ranging from liquids like cleaning solvents and motor fuels to solids such as asphalt and plastics. The proportion of crude oil that is ultimately converted into gasoline varies according to region and the type of refinery. In the United States, where demand for gasoline is remarkably high, this proportion is around 50 percent while in other areas of the world such as Europe and Asia, this amount is somewhat less. However, refineries in these regions produce proportionately higher percentages of diesel oil, heating oil, and heavy fuel oil. A good estimate of the exact breakdown of petroleum products by percentage of crude oil in the United States can be found at the California Energy Commission.

In order to make gasoline (and all of the other petroleum products), crude oil is sent to a refinery and put through a process called fractional distillation, which is the same basic method that is used to make stronger alcoholic beverages such as vodka, whiskey, and rum. The crude oil is first heated in a boiler by superheated steam, which effectively vaporizes most of it before being transferred to a distillation column. This column is a tall, cylindrical tower that contains many trays and plates on which the vaporized oil is allowed to condense as it rises and cools. The heavier components of oil which contain longer hydrocarbon chains and have higher boiling points will condense first near the bottom of the column, while the lighter components will rise further and condense into liquids near the top.

Most of these separated components are processed further before being made into finished products and shipped to market. For example, some of the heavier hydrocarbons can be “cracked” by intense heat, high pressures, and various chemical catalysts to produce additional gasoline as well as other fuels such as kerosene and diesel. Other oil byproducts serve as precursors to plastics or other solid goods, and some are also made into lubricants such as Vaseline. After the secondary cracking processes are completed, one of the final products that is left over as a residue is called coke (not to be confused with the beverage Coca-Cola), a substance that is almost pure carbon and is used in steel production and for other metallurgical purposes. In the 19th century, coke was also used as a fuel for locomotive engines.

A more detailed explanation of the process of refining crude oil into gasoline can be found in the Nontechnical Guide to Petroleum Geology. Another notable content-rich resource that I ran across is called Oilfield Processing: Crude Oil. Although it is a bit heavy on text and detail, it contains a wealth of information about crude oil and how it is processed into gasoline and many other useful products. A somewhat related article on the benefits of synthetic oil can be found in a later post.



13 Responses to “How Gasoline Is Made From Crude Oil”

  1. comment number 1 by: Coleman Lowe aka the ringleader

    Very interesting and informative article. I knew that alcohol was distilled that way but not that crude oil was also distilled

  2. comment number 2 by: Karlonia

    @ Coleman Lowe:

    Yes, and interestingly enough, when I did an exact search at Google for the title of this article (by putting the phrase in quotes), the only result returned at the time was a page that explained how to set up a simple home distillery for making brandy out of wine. There just happened to be one line of text on that page referencing the fact that the initial process for refining crude oil was essentially the same as alcohol distillation. That is how I was able to make the tie-in and include it in my article.

  3. comment number 3 by: Sameer

    great information, i always think about it how it was made, thanks after reading this article i know about it.

  4. comment number 4 by: Karlonia

    @Sameer:

    Thank you for reading. It is good to know that others are benefiting from my articles and becoming better educated about important topics.

  5. comment number 5 by: patrick bentley

    Although informative the truth about the fuel issue in this country is really simple . while the bulk of the american public is focused on the cost of fuel pushing 4 dollars a gallon most people don’t notice that purchasing laundry detergent,vasoline ,cheep plastic toys and a ton of other products at extrodinarly eleveted prices is where the oil companys are making the big money.No one would think twice about paying $2 for a 8 oz can of zippo fluid but that crap would not do so well in your car engine. no one stops to think that $12 might be a little steep for a large box of laundry detergent and lets go buy some garbage bags , I like the one that look like aligator skin they arent supposed to tear and I like paying $8 a box . just so I can fill them with all the plastic crap I payed too much for just so I can through it all away. The oil companys have got to be killing them selves laughing all the way to the bank . Look at what we put the gas we buy into , our shiny new car that is 50% plastic and where does plastic come from crude oil. I believe gasoline Is nothing but a pain in the neck for the petrolium companys( a nessary evil ) the real money is being made every where else . But the american public is so focused on the gas price that they fail to realize the huge profits for these companys is found else ware . Before I forget what do we drive our shiny new 50% plastic cars on but nice smooth black topped roads,and where does that nice black top come from (CRUDE OIL)and the pretty white lines and the yellow lines and the shiny plastic markers that guide us along our merry way are products of crude oil. Its not about supply and demand. its about greed and ignorance ( I worked in the oil refining and plastic mfg. industry for 4 years I learned a lot from asking to many questions got the door slamed in my face more than once. there are things the oil barons don’t what you to know. that includes George W. bush . I should not say that. Quoting Him( I’m just a little oil man)The american public needs to get educated about crude oil.

  6. comment number 6 by: Howard Eason

    Gasoline could be made by distilling and boiling oil? What a simple way of making gas!! Why didn’t Dr Emmit Brown think of this in “Back to the Future 3″?? Dr Brown could make his own gasoline so that he could go 88 miles/hour and use the “time machine” to go back to the “future from 1885″. He could have gotten oil from the ground and made gasoline but Dr Brown didnt think of this simple idea. Wasn’t he a scientist or something?
    Howard

  7. comment number 7 by: Alton D Wheeler

    It seems to me that crude oil escapes from the Ocean some where in the world constantly due to natural catastrophic events as a part of the chain of life . For instance death is necessary for oil to exist and
    oil plays a part in the existance of life as we know it. Al Wheeler

  8. comment number 8 by: bob

    BP

  9. comment number 9 by: Ginny

    I found this article because I wanted to know what happened to what was left of crude oil after gasoline was made. I’ve known all along that someone had to be profiting from what was left. Now that I know what’s done I have to admit to some anger at being robbed and I will be spreading the word. Thank you for such an easy to understand and well written article.

  10. comment number 10 by: Alton D Wheeler

    Before crude oil was discovered people killed Whales for food and
    oil to light lamps and cooking. A famous quote was “when Whales
    become extinct the world will be cast into darkness” then crude oil
    was discovered. As a result we enjoy Electricity, automobiles,
    television, radio, computers, electronics, Teflon, beauty products,
    airplanes, fiberglass, numerous medical products, Tires, fan belts,
    clothing, Toys, insulation. and the list is too numerous to complete.
    if the environmentalist wackos had their way there would be no drilling
    offshore or any where. It takes energy from crude oil to refine crude oil.
    It is a risky, dangerous business to prospect, refine, deliver, and high taxation.

  11. comment number 11 by: weirdo11

    they aren’t wackos they are trying to help the world prosper

  12. comment number 12 by: Theo

    Mr. Wheeler, please read a book called Patriarch and Prophets by Ellen G. White, chapter 8 After the Flood. It will explain where oil and coal comes from, and how earthquakes are formed. You can read this chapter online.

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