Carbon, Carbon Cycle, Crude Oil, Petroleum, Hydrocarbons, Oil Refinery, Cracking, Sweet Crude, Sour Crude, Gasoline and Diesel Engines

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 25th, 2012

Technology 101

Crude Oil is made from Long Chains of Carbon Atoms Bonded Together with a lot of Hydrogen Atoms Attached Along the Way

Carbon.  It’s everywhere.  And in everything.  Like all matter it cannot be created.  Or destroyed.  It just changes.  As it creates the circle of life.  The carbon cycle.  Plants and trees absorb carbon out of the atmosphere.  And converts it into biomass.  Into wood.  And into animal food.  Where the digestive system converts it into carbon-based living flesh and blood.  That exhales carbon.  Plants absorb carbon and release oxygen.  Plants can’t grow without carbon.  And we can’t breathe without plants growing.  Carbon is constantly changing.  But never created.  Or destroyed.  From diamonds to pencils.  From sugar to carbonated soda.  From plastics to human beings.  It’s everywhere.  And everything.  Why, it’s life itself.

Carbon is a time traveler.  Carbon that once traveled through the atmosphere disappeared millions of years ago.  Buried underneath the surface of the earth.  Under intense heat and pressure.  Plankton and algae and other biomasses decayed until there was almost nothing left but carbon atoms.  Long chains of carbon atoms.  Forming great, restless pools of black goo beneath the surface.   Waiting for the modern world to arrive.  Waiting for the internal combustion engine.  The jet engine.  And plastics.  When they could be reborn.  And see the light of day again.

Crude oil.  Petroleum.  Black gold.  Texas tea.  Hydrocarbons.  Long chains of carbon atoms bonded together with a lot of hydrogen atoms attached along the way.  In the ground they’re mostly long chains.  When we get them above ground we can break those chains into different lengths.  And create many different things.  C16H34 (hexadecane).  C9H20 (nonane).  C8H18 (octane).  C7H16 (heptane).  C5H12 (pentane).  C4H10 (butane).  C6H6 (benzene).  CH4 (methane).  Some of these you may be familiar with.  Some you may not.  Methane is a flammable gas.  Hydrocarbon chains from pentane to octane make gasoline.  Hydrocarbon chains from nonane to hexadecane make diesel fuel, kerosene and jet fuel.  Chains with more carbon atoms make lubricants.  Chains with even more carbon atoms make asphalt.  While chains with 4 carbon atoms or less make gases.  All these things made from the same black goo.  A true marvel of Mother Nature.  Or God.  Depending on your inclination.

Older Coastal Refineries make more Expensive Gasoline than the Newer Refineries due to the Availability of Sweet versus Sour Crude

Another great carbon-based product it bourbon.  Made from a corn sour mash.  We heat this and the alcohol in it boils off.  That is, we distill it.  We run this gas through a coiling coil and it condenses back into a liquid.  And after a few more steps we get delicious bourbon whiskey.  Distilleries give tours.  If you get a chance you should take one.  You won’t get to sample any of the distilled spirits (insurance reasons).  But you will get a feel for what an oil refinery is.

An oil refinery works on the same principles.  Boil and condense.  And cracking.  Cracking those long hydrocarbon chains apart into all those different chains.  Long and small.  Into liquids and gases.  Even solid lubricants and asphalt.  All made possible because of their different boiling points.  The gases having lower boiling points.  The solids having higher boiling points.  And the liquids having boiling points somewhere in between.

Refineries are complex processing plants.  Not only because of all those different hydrocarbon chains.  But because of the crude oil introduced to these plants.  For there is light sweet crude.  And heavier sour crude.  The difference being the additional stuff that we need to remove.  Such as sulfur.  An environmental problem.  So we have to remove as much of it as possible during the refining process to meet EPA standards.  The sweet crudes are lower in sulfur.  Making them the crude of choice.  But this has also been the most popular crude through the years.  So its resources are dwindling.  Making it more expensive.  As are all the products refined from it.  Especially gasoline.  The more sour crudes have higher sulfur content.  And require more refining steps to remove that sulfur.  Which means additional refinery equipment.  So the older refineries that were refining the light sweet crude can’t refine the heavier sour crudes.  Which is why the refineries along the coasts make more expensive gasoline than the newer ones in the interior refining the heavier sour crudes.  Due to the availability of sweet crude versus sour crude.

The Modern World is brought to us by a Complex Economy which is brought to us by Petroleum

One of the main uses of refined crude oil is fuel for internal combustion engines.  In particular, gasoline engines and diesel engines.  Which are very similar.  The difference being the mode of ignition.  And, of course, the fuel.  Gasoline engines compress an air-fuel mixture in the cylinder.  At the top of the compression stroke a spark plug ignites this highly compressed and heated mixture.  Sending the piston down.  If the combustion occurs too early it could place undo stresses on the piston connecting rods and the crank shaft.  By trying to send the piston down when it was coming up.  Causing a knocking sound.  Which is a bad sound to hear.  And if you hear it you should probably make sure you’re using the right gasoline.  If you are you need to have you car serviced.  Because continued knocking may break something.  And if it does your engine will work no more.  So this is where octane comes in the blending of gasoline.  It’s expensive.  But the more of it in gasoline the higher the compression you can have.  And the less knocking.  Which is its only purpose.  It doesn’t give you any more power.  The higher compression does.  Which the higher octane allows.  Using the higher octane gas in a standard compression engine won’t do anything but waste your hard earned money.

And speaking of higher compression engines, that brings us to diesel engines.  Which are similar to gasoline engines only they operate under a higher compression.  And don’t use spark plugs.  These engines compress air only.  Which allows the higher compression without pre-ignition.  At the top of their compression stroke a fuel injector squirts diesel fuel into the hot compressed air where it combusts on contact.  Diesel fuel has a higher energy content than gasoline.  Meaning for the same volume of fuel diesel can take you further than gasoline.  Which is why trucks, locomotives and ships use diesel.  But diesel tends to pollute more.  The smell and the soot kept diesel out of our cars for a long time.  As well as the difficulty of starting in cold climates.  Advanced computer controlled systems have helped, though, and we’re seeing more diesel used in cars now.

The modern world is brought to us by a complex economy.  Where goods and raw materials traverse the globe.  To feed our industries.  And to ship our finished goods.  Which we put on trucks, trains, ships and airplanes.  None of which would be possible without a portable, stable, energy-dense fuel.  That only refined petroleum can give us.  It’s better than animal power.  Water power.  Wind power.  Or steam power.  For there is nothing that we can use in our trucks, trains, ships and airplanes other than refined petroleum products today that wouldn’t be a step backwards in our modern world.  Nothing.  Making petroleum truly a marvel of Mother Nature.  Or God.  Depending on your inclination.

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Flint Tools, Levers, Wheels, Animal Power, Water Power, Wind Power, Steam Power, Electrical Power, Nuclear Power and Solar Power

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 22nd, 2012

Technology 101

Man harnessed the Energy in Moving Water with a Water Wheel

When prehistoric man first chipped a piece of flint to make a sharp edge he learned something.  It made work easier.  And his life better.  This tool concentrated his energy into that sharp edge.  Increasing the amount of energy he could put to work.  Allowing him to skin an animal quickly and efficiently like never before.  Making better hides to protect him from the elements.  Yes, he said, this tool is good.  But in a somewhat less sophisticated manner of speech.

From that moment forward it has been man’s singular desire to improve on this first tool.  To find ways to concentrate energy and put it to work.  Levers allowed him to move heavier things.  Wheels allowed him to move heavier loads.  The block and tackle allowed him to lift or pull heavier weights.  Harnessing animals allowed him to do all of these things even better.  And we would use animal power for millennia.  Even today they still provide the primary source of power for some less developed countries.

But animals have their limitations.  They’re big, they eat, drink, pee and poop.  Which doesn’t make them an ideal source of power to turn a mill wheel.  A big wheel that grinds grain into flour.  It’s heavy.  But it doesn’t have to spin fast.  Just for long periods of time.  Then man had another moment like he did when he chipped a piece of flint.  He noticed in his environment that things moved.  The wind.  And the water in a river.  The wind could blow fast or slow.  Or not at all.  But the water flow was steady.  And reliable.  So man harnessed the energy in the moving water with a water wheel.  And connected it to his mill wheel via some belts and pulleys.  And where there was no water available he harnessed the less reliable wind.

The Steam Engine eliminated the Major Drawbacks of Water Power and Wind Power 

The water flowed day and night.  You didn’t have to feed it or clean up after it.  And a strong current had a lot of concentrated energy.  Which could do a lot of work.  Far more than a sharpened piece of flint.  Which was ideal for our first factories.  The water wheel shaft became a main drive shaft that drove other machines via belts and pulleys.  The main drive shaft ran the length of the factory.  Workers could operate machinery underneath it by engaging it to the main drive shaft through a belt and pulley.  Take a trip to the past and visit a working apple mill powered by a water wheel.  It’s fascinating.  And you’ll be able to enjoy some fresh donuts and hot cider.  During the harvest, of course.

While we built factories along rivers we used that other less reliable source of energy to cross oceans.  Wind power.  It wasn’t very reliable.  And it wasn’t very concentrated.  But it was the only way you could cross an ocean.  Which made it the best way to cross an ocean.  Sailors used everything on a sailing ship from the deck up to catch the wind and put it to work.  Masts, rigging and sails.  Which were costly.  Required a large crew.  And took up a lot of space and added a lot of weight.  Space and weight that displaced revenue-earning cargo.

The steam engine eliminated the major drawbacks of water power and wind power.  By replacing the water wheel with a steam engine we could build factories anywhere.  Not just on rivers.  And the steam engine let ships cross the oceans whenever they wanted to.  Even when the wind didn’t blow.  And more space was available for revenue-earning cargo.  When these ships reached land we transferred their cargoes to trains.  Pulled by steam locomotives.  That could carry this revenue-earning cargo across continents.   This was a huge step forward.  Boiling water by burning coal to make steam.  A highly concentrated energy source.  A little of it went a long way.  And did more work for us than ever.  Far more than a water wheel.  It increased the amount of work we could do so much that it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

With Nuclear Power our Quest to find more Concentrated Forms of Energy came to an End 

We replaced coal with oil in our ships and locomotives.  Because it was easier to transport.  Store.  And didn’t need people to shovel it into a boiler.  Oil burners were more efficient.  We even used it to generate a new source of power.  Electrical power.  We used it to boil water at electrical generating plants to spin turbines that turned electrical generators.  We could run pipelines to feed these plants.  Making the electricity they generated even more efficient.  And reliable.  Soon diesel engines replaced the oil burners in ships and trains.  Allowed trucks and buses to run where the trains didn’t.  And gasoline allowed people to go anywhere the trains and buses didn’t go.

The modern economy ran on petroleum.  And electricity.  We even returned to the water wheel to generate electricity.  By building dams to build huge reservoirs of water at elevations.  Creating huge headwater forces.  Concentrating more energy in water.  Which we funneled down to the lower elevation.  Making it flow through high-speed water turbines connected to electrical generators.  That spun far faster than their water wheel ancestors.  Producing huge amounts of reliable electrical power.  We even came up with a more reliable means to create electrical power.  With an even more concentrated fuel.  Fissile material gave us nuclear power.  During the oil shocks of the Seventies the Japanese made a policy change to expand their use of nuclear power.  To insulate them from future oil supply shocks.  Which it did.  While in America the movie The China Syndrome came out around the time of the incident at Three Mile Island.  And killed nuclear power in America.  (But as a consolation prize we disproved the idea of Keynesian stimulus.  When the government created massive inflation with Keynesian policy.  Printing money.  Which raised prices without providing any new economic activity.  Causing instead high inflation and high unemployment.  What we call stagflation.  The Japanese got a big Keynesian lesson about a decade later.  When their massive asset bubble began to deflate giving them their Lost Decade.)

And with nuclear power that quest to find more ways to make better and more efficient use of concentrated energy from that first day we used a flint tool came to an end.  Global warming alarmists are killing sensible sources of energy that have given us the modern world.  Even animal rights activists are fighting against one of the cleanest sources of power we’ve ever used.  Water power.  Because damming rivers harms ecosystems in the rivers we dam.  Instead political pressures have turned the hands of time backwards by using less concentrated and less efficient sources of energy.  Wind power.  And solar power.  Requiring far greater infrastructure installations to capture far less amounts of energy from these sources.  Power plants using wind power and solar power will require acres of land for windmills and solar panels.  And it will take many of these power plants to produce what a single power plant using coal, oil, natural gas or fissile material can generate.  Making power more costly than it ever has been.  Despite wind and sunshine being free.  And when the great civilizations become bankrupt chasing bankrupt energy policies we will return to a simpler world.  A world where we don’t make and use power.  Or machinery.  Much like our flint-tool using ancestors.  Albeit with a more sophisticated way of expressing ourselves.

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